Common Ground

Miami garage sales are much more than shopping sprees for bargain hunters. They're also racial and ethnic safety zones where people can freely mix and mingle.

No one has ever done a study, but it's a safe bet that kids who go to garage sales on a regular basis are more likely to become writers than tax lawyers.

Locally, as in the Northeast, garage sales remain largely middle- and upper-middle-class enterprises. They are found disproportionately, though not exclusively, in suburban enclaves such as Miami Shores, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and Miami Beach. The people who attend them, though, come from almost every socioeconomic corner of Miami-Dade: from those same communities, as well as from immigrant and working-class neighborhoods and towns such as Little Haiti, Little Havana, Hialeah, and North Miami.

On Saturday mornings the signs usually point to places like Belle Meade
Steve Satterwhite
On Saturday mornings the signs usually point to places like Belle Meade
A pan in the hand: Buyers often are just looking to pick up basics for the home
Steve Satterwhite
A pan in the hand: Buyers often are just looking to pick up basics for the home

The contrast between buyers and the typical garage-sale setting often is striking. In the Gables and Shores, a buyer might pull up to the driveway in a rusted-out Buick and park next to the host's gleaming Mercedes. The black children running around on the lawn, playing with some just-acquired toy, might be the first anyone can remember seeing on the block. And, while the sound of Kreyol or Spanish being spoken anywhere in Miami-Dade is not unusual, the two rarely are heard in concert as frequently as they are at these gatherings.

The result is that garage sales often function as a kind of carnival, a temporary -- and, for participants, welcome -- suspension of the rigid rules and social circumstances that govern our lives.

This is especially true because most sales take place in communities that otherwise are inaccessible to the public at large. On the Upper Eastside of Miami alone, the neighborhoods of Morningside and Belle Meade, both popular destinations for garage sale regulars, are located behind guard gates. Miami Shores, as frustrated local motorists know, is a city defined as much by its numerous barriers and strategically placed dead ends as by its collection of historic homes. The message is clear: If people don't live there, they don't belong.

Which is why the weekly Saturday-morning invasion of garage sale aficionados that usually begins under cover of night constitutes a disruption of the normal order. Not only are strangers invited into these neighborhoods, they are implicitly encouraged to make themselves at home, temporarily park on the grass or on landscaped medians, camp out on the lawn, and, in many cases, make their way through the house in search of bargains.

Of course not everyone likes a carnival. At least not in their back yard. The Shores, like the City Beautiful, carefully monitors garage sales within its limits. In both municipalities residents are required to purchase permits and are restricted in the number of garage sales they can hold each year. In the Gables residents are allowed two sales every year, as long as they are held at least 30 days apart. Shores homeowners are issued only one permit every twelve months.

The response from the neighbors and the local authorities is predictable. Stuffy neighbors walk over to check out the scene, with a level of concern that would suggest they've smelled smoke coming from the host's house. Rarely interested in buying, they almost never partake in the ritual handling of the merchandise. Likewise police cruisers are not an unfamiliar sight at these sales. Ostensibly there to make sure cars don't block the right of way, they are, nevertheless, a not so subtle reminder that the sale is a grudging concession from local authorities.

The sense of being watched is not lost on the participants. "Are you with the city?" inquires one Coral Gables homeowner, when she sees a photographer snapping pictures of her homemade sign. "I have a permit!" At another sale a departing buyer, again confusing a couple of bystanders for Gables code-enforcement officers, rolls down her car window as she drives off. "Busted!" she crows, with a mixture of contempt and delight, leaving her garage sale coconspirators behind to take the rap.

If anything, though, these real and imagined encounters with the local authorities seem to cement the bond between those who attend the sales. Participants, many of whom have been meeting for years at these things, are uncommonly polite toward one another. Half of all the "Good mornings" and "Excuse me's" uttered in Miami-Dade probably are spoken at garage sales.

8:35 a.m.

"You see that one," says Henry, sitting in his white Chevy van, waiting for the owner of this particular Miami Shores home to start the sale. He gestures with his chin to a solidly built black woman wearing shorts and combat boots and sporting a clean, shaved head. "That one's been all over. Three places this morning."

He means three other garage sales. He knows because he was at every one of those with her. Henry is Haitian. He wears a two-day-old beard, a gold chain around his neck, a gold bracelet, and a wristwatch with a gold finish. His rearview mirror rests on the van's dashboard. Two Mexican sombreros, one inside the other, sit on the passenger seat next to him, an impulse buy from an earlier sale. Henry's core interest is electronics.

"I go to six, seven, eight of these every week," he explains. He looks for cheap radios, televisions, and VCRs he can repair and then ship for resale to a store he owns in Port-au-Prince. Profits are minimal. "A twenty-inch TV set? I can sell it for about $400 Haitian, but the exchange rate's a killer," he notes. "I pay customs fees. I'm lucky if I make $15 or $20 [U.S.] on it." Has he considered getting into more lucrative merchandise? "I don't buy antiques," he says flatly. "They cost too much money." He smiles, and a gold tooth catches the early morning sun.

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