Common Ground

8:20 a.m.

A woman, outfitted from head to toe in T-shirt, jeans, sneakers, fanny pack, floppy denim hat, and sunglasses stands on a manicured front lawn in Miami Shores. Balancing unsteadily on the balls of her feet, she cranes her neck and tries to steal a peek into the house -- a pretty yellow Fifties ranch -- through the picture window. She looks as if she might have stepped out of one of John Cheever's tales of suburban dysfunction. "I don't think anyone's in there," she worries aloud. But she's not concerned about the safety of the home's residents. She just wants in. And she's not alone.

Behind her, also standing on the lawn, or sitting in cars and vans out front, is an eclectic assortment of people: young and middle-age white couples, a group of Haitian women speaking Kreyol, an elderly Hispanic woman, a biracial lesbian couple, a black mother with her five-year-old son. The child wears a pair of oversize pink sunglasses, the kind they used to sell in corner drugstores all over the Beach. To pass the time, he plays with them, flipping them up and down over his eyes.

What could have dragged so many people out of bed so early on a Saturday morning? A ritual that unfolds every weekend in neighborhoods across Miami-Dade County and, for that matter, across the nation. We're here for a garage sale.

These sales may not be a local phenomenon but they take on special significance in a community that remains largely divided along cultural, racial, and political lines. Indeed one would be hard-pressed to name another event -- especially post-Elian -- where so many different segments of the local population are brought into casual contact.

Weekend home-repair warriors, looking for power tools or just keeping an eye out for a good set of wrenches, mingle with gay couples in search of furniture or something for that corner of the Florida room. Antique dealers, desperate to score some good Deco (or maybe just a nice little lamp they can resell for quick money) encounter retirees desperate to get out of the house.

Many of these people also might frequent the Hialeah-Opa-locka Flea Market or the Lincoln Road Antique and Collectibles Market, but few would visit both. Hialeah-Opa-locka is a swap-meet paradise, featuring everything from rusty lawnmowers to brand-new knockoff Levi's. Lincoln Road, on the other hand, mostly features antiques and collectibles and caters to dealers, collectors, and foreign and domestic tourists. Only at garage sales are the Hialeah-Opa-locka and Lincoln Road crowds thrown together.

Garage sales are more than just a way to meet your immediate neighbors. They constitute a form of suburban subversion, a thriving underground economy, and an unappreciated source of cultural exchange. It may very well be these aspects that make the act of going through other people's junk so damn attractive.

Garage sales are a relatively new invention, a byproduct of Fifties abundance. Essentially they're something our parents and grandparents dreamed up for getting rid of things they didn't want or could replace with something better.

The occasion for the earliest garage sales often would be a family's move from one house to another. The purchase of a new and, in many cases, larger home -- babies were booming -- provided an incentive to go out and buy more, newer stuff. Rather than lug the old stuff to the new house, families held sales. (This was long before recycling became fashionable.)

It was only after the recession of the late Sixties that garage sales came to be seen as a way for people to make a little extra cash off stuff they didn't want. And it wasn't until the early Seventies that the term entered everyday use and started appearing in magazines, newspapers, and, not coincidentally, municipal codes.

I began attending these sales around the time they were becoming popular, when I was about age eight or nine. My older brother was an antique dealer living in upstate New York. I'd visit him in the summers, and he would drag me around to garage sales, as well as to tag and estate sales. The last two are rarefied versions of the first, featuring pricier stuff.

Tag sales require a sniper's eye and a boxer's reflexes, as they involve making your way through a house and being the first to snatch the identifying ticket, or tag, off a given piece of merchandise. Estate sales, like tag sales, are professionally run, usually by an antique dealer, and just as competitive, but not nearly as exciting. At an estate sale, you just have to be the first to inquire about a piece. If you know your business, you can do that from across the room.

Most of the fun for me -- a kid growing up in a working-class home in Miami -- was walking through these different houses: large Victorians in little towns along the Hudson River, farmhouses in the Pennsylvania countryside, and cozy Connecticut cottages. These places had creaky stairs, wood-burning stoves, basements, and attics. And they were filled with things that suggested brave new worlds, and old ones, too: Victrolas, Flash Gordon comic books, Tiffany lamps, Civil War guns.

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.

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.

Besides, he's making ends meet with the electronics. "I used to be a cab driver, but I had surgery about six months ago, so now I just do this." His experience as a taxi driver gives him an edge on the competition. "The best sales are on Miami Beach and in the Gables," he volunteers. "The streets in those places have names. No numbers. Makes them harder to find." For everybody else, that is.

Garage sale entrepreneurs who, like Henry, specialize in reselling reconditioned equipment, usually are reluctant to discuss the particulars of their trade with the press. I know because at another sale, a sixtysomething Hispanic man with whom I struck up a casual conversation began telling me how he made the trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami every week, looking for lawnmowers and weed eaters. When I told him I was writing a feature on garage sales and asked him his name -- just his first name -- he jumped into his battered blue Toyota pickup and started to drive away. How about calling me at the office? "I don't own a phone," he told me. And he was gone. Just a guess, but his sudden reticence may have had something to do with the fact that few, if any, of these resellers report this supplemental income to the government.

Of course this doesn't distinguish them much from the people who sell to them every week. Stephen Soiffer, a dean at New York City Technical College who has studied the phenomenon, estimates that approximately four billion dollars changes hands every year at garage sales. But because tax laws allow individuals to make several hundred dollars from these sales before they are required to report the money as income, Uncle Sam ultimately sees very little. Hell, the old boy doesn't even hear about most of it.

Still not everyone who refuses to talk to a reporter at one of these events is hiding from the tax man. Some are just trying to cut down on the competition. One antique dealer -- the woman who just a little while ago had been peering into the house -- asks me what I'm doing with a pad and pencil. I tell her. "Oh, I don't think I can talk about what I see." She's joking. I think. She decides she's waited out here too long, that there are buys elsewhere, and retreats to her car.

On her way to better pickings, she stops in front of the house and rolls down the window on her silver minivan. Are you writing down what I said? she wants to know. "Please don't write down what I say. I don't want any more people coming to these." Just then she recognizes a couple of other dealers arriving on the scene. "He's writing a story for New Times," she warns them, before speeding away. "He wrote down what I said."

"I'm sorry about yesterday," she'll tell me the next morning, when I spot her at the Lincoln Road antique market. "But you know, I'm out of my house every Saturday at six in the morning, and still I come back with nothing."

The complaint is a common one among antique dealers who used to score big at weekly garage sales. Now, they say, everyone's a dealer. Everybody goes to garage sales, watches The Antiques Roadshow on PBS, and sells directly to collectors on eBay.

They're not just paranoid. "I see eBay as a virtual garage sale," says Mary Rodriguez, a Key Biscayne housewife who buys and sells antique jewelry on the Web. "Before I started going to garage sales, I would go to antique stores. Then I started seeing the dealers I was buying from at the garage sales."

The proliferation of self-styled experts has done more than just increase competition in the antique business. It's eliminated a major source of merchandise.

People at garage sales used to put out boxes filled with everything from Fiesta ware and Depression glass to old comic books and tin wind-up toys -- things that had been purchased cheaply years before, and that sellers were just looking to get rid of for a couple of bucks. Now most people operate from the premise that almost everything they have, if it's old enough, is worth money. Or, better yet, is a collectible. There's very little that qualifies as junk anymore. The result? Even when good pieces find their way into a garage sale, the profit margin on the resale has been whittled down to almost nothing by the asking price.

The antique dealers, though, still make their rounds. Every Saturday morning they linger on lawns across town, optimists to the end.

There are half a dozen of them in front of the yellow house in the Shores. Almost all know one another. They chat or go over their carefully annotated list of garage sale listings from that day's Miami Herald. A few, thinking of the other 9:00 a.m. sales they'd like to check out, stand with their arms crossed, in the universal sign for Let's get this show on the road.

8:50 a.m.

Pedro, the owner of the house, pulls up in a black jeep. Back from an early breakfast, he walks past the assembled throng, now pushing toward the door. An elderly Hispanic woman grabs for his arm and, strenuously rolling her r's, asks him if he's "rrrrready to open." It's less a question than an order.

Pedro opens the front door at exactly 8:59. His demeanor and punctuality suggest this moving sale is going to be a very coordinated affair. Indeed he appears to have split the difference between the informality of a garage sale and the studied structure of an estate sale.

Standing in the middle of the living room, Pedro simultaneously directs people throughout the house and takes questions, the most frequent, of course, being, "How much?" He is a large man, tall and muscled. It doesn't surprise anyone to see a workout bench and a set of free weights in the corner.

Actually the workout equipment is for sale, as is a beautiful antique dining room set, a collection of books, board games, a television and stereo, as well a variety of souvenirs and collectibles from Pedro's travels: an alligator bag and pottery and paintings from South America. An extensive assortment of polished minerals -- large, smooth, colorful sections of rock -- lines the shelves along the living room's far wall. The minerals also are for sale.

The buyers fan out. A young black woman asks Pedro how much he wants for a large green metal wall sconce/candle holder in the shape of a palm frond. He shouts out a price. Too much money, she decides, and puts the piece back on the floor.

Across the room Henry is trying to get Pedro's attention. He holds up a long orange extension cord and a surge protector. He gets his answer and puts the items down on a chair. "Twenty bucks," he grumbles, joining the growing consensus in the room. Prices are a bit high.

Throughout the house others are engaged in serious foraging. A short elderly man, wearing a uniform of comfortable white sneakers, blue polyester pants, and a striped polo shirt squeezes past another man in the hallway. They know each other from the garage sale circuit. "Friend, what you buy? Nothing?" asks the first man, giving his once-a-week acquaintance a friendly slap on the back. He advances to the bedroom, which contains only a bed and a dresser, both for sale.

The old man's gaze instantly is drawn to a small shiny pile of coins on top of the dresser. He pushes the visor of his dark-blue adjustable Navy SEALS cap up on his head, away from his eyes. Leaning over the pile, he begins to finger the coins, examining them with the hard stare of an expert collector. In truth he more closely resembles a guy who wouldn't be caught dead on a beach without his metal detector.

"Sir, those aren't for sale," says Glenn, a friend of Pedro on hand to help out with the crowd. Glenn explains the money is just loose change collected from the bottom of the dresser drawers. The man nods, looks around the bedroom, and heads back toward the living room. "What was the guy gonna do?" Glenn wonders aloud, shaking his head. "Say, “Hey, how much you want for your money?'"

Out front prospective buyers continue to arrive. The most conspicuous of the new shoppers are a striking young couple, dressed more for South Beach than for sleepy Miami Shores. The woman, even in flip-flops, is statuesque. A tall, fit brunette, she wears a too-tight tank top and too-tight, too-short jean shorts. A fluorescent pink Playboy bunny head applied to her right rear pocket winks slyly. She carries a small basket of knickknacks around the house.

Her boyfriend, his sunglasses propped on top of a head of chestnut hair, is dressed in a khaki-color linen shirt with matching parachute-style puddle jumpers. His shirt hangs open, exposing a smooth hairless chest and six-pack abdomen. He holds an earth-color pot up to the light.

As if to provide musical accompaniment to the dance of the roaming rummagers, a bossa nova starts playing in the background. Pedro is showing off the tabletop stereo he wants to sell. Henry walks over to the stereo and does some quiet calculating. He decides not to inquire about the price. Too bad it's not broken, he seems to say with a philosophical shake of his head. On the stereo a Brazilian songstress sings a soft lament.

9:25 a.m.

If the scene on the lawn a little more than an hour ago recalled a Cheever short story, Pedro's living room -- strewn with personal mementos and family artifacts -- suggests the climactic finale of Citizen Kane. In that film classic a reporter is assigned the task of deciphering the significance of publisher Kane's obscure dying word: Rosebud.

In the final scene, the reporter walks through Kane's mansion, overflowing with a lifetime's worth of conspicuous accumulation: statues, paintings, furniture. He confesses to a group of colleagues that he couldn't unravel the meaning of "Rosebud." As he speaks the camera cuts to the churning furnace where worthless items from the estate are being deposited for destruction. We discover "Rosebud" was the name stenciled on Kane's boyhood sled, a revelation meant to intimate the great man's persistent longing for the uncomplicated virtues of his impoverished childhood.

Is there a Rosebud among these objects? Some touchstone that might reveal the hidden social value in this business of sorting through other people's belongings?

And then it appears: the head of Fidel Castro. Really a small alabaster bust, about the size of a football. Signed by the artist and dated, incredibly, 1958, it is a stunning facsimile. It might have been modeled on a newspaper photograph of the young rebel leader, the work of some Havana sculptor inspired by the rising fever of popular sentiment. Or maybe, like Fidel himself, it came out of the mountains.

No matter. For the past twenty minutes or so, it has sat inconspicuously on a table filled with larger and more elegant pieces. Finally someone picks it up.

The man -- a fiftysomething Cuban, who until now has been more interested in the fishing rods and reels propped against the near wall than in any of the objets d'art for sale -- examines the bust, turning it over, studying it from every perspective. He is impressed by the workmanship and, perhaps, lost in a memory.

The bust now draws a small crowd around the table: an antique dealer who had been looking at glassware, a housewife who had just asked about the microwave in the kitchen, and Pedro.

The likelihood of a confrontation, or, at the very least, a tense moment, -- seems high. The head of Fidel Castro, rendered lovingly in plaster and displayed anywhere in South Florida, is bound to rate a strong response.

"Isn't that something?" notes the man, still holding Fidel. "Is it really from 1958?"

It's been in the family for years, says Pedro. Pregnant pause.

"How much you want for it?" The man, though, isn't particularly interested in the purchase. The inquiry is more a kind of polite overture, a not uncommon reflex at garage sales.

Still, the fact such an interaction could occur under the frozen stare of the most hated man in Miami suggests the ultimate allure of these sales: their capacity to provide, within this otherwise fractured community, a collective and surprisingly safe space for cultural exchange.

Near the end of the day, another man offers Pedro $200 for Fidel. That's actually $50 more than Pedro has been looking to get for the statue. The man says he wants the bust as a gift for a friend who would get a kick out of smashing the head of the Cuban dictator.

"I don't care what anyone thinks of Fidel," Pedro replies, cradling the bust in his hands. "This statue has historic significance."

The two men agree to disagree.

As for the bust? Pedro says he'll keep it. At least until he holds another garage sale.


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