Garage sale shuffle

'Tis the season of garage sales, as millions of Americans try to unload their accumulated stuff on the unsuspecting public.

It's the Great Black Market of summer, the annual redistribution of wealth. People out in their yards in lawn chairs, marking down their worldly possessions.

We've all got too much stuff, piling up everywhere and thwarting every attempt to park in our own garages. So we sell off some of it, thin the herd, streamline things around the house.
And, before you know it, the house is jam-packed again, and it's time for another garage sale.

Why does this keep happening? Because we're buying stuff from our neighbors' garage sales, stuff they in turn got from garage sales years ago. The stuff goes round and round, and you end up buying a Salad Shooter that's just like the one you used to have . . .

There's a whole food chain of kitchen gizmos and baby furniture and bowling trophies circulating untaxed through the economy. Some items -- and I'm thinking here of ceramic panthers -- have moved from house to house for generations.

Next time you have a garage sale, do a quick inventory. Half the stuff you're selling probably came from flea markets and other people's garage sales. Stuff you never should've bought in the first place. Stuff people were GETTING RID OF.

(Thirty percent of the stuff you're selling will be things you bought "on sale," even though you didn't need them. The rest will be wedding gifts that you'll never unload.)

Getting rid of it all becomes more complicated once you have children. Kids never want to get rid of anything, ever. Broken toys, commemorative T-shirts, filthy sneakers, rocks, bones, lumps of dirt -- all these things have great sentimental value to children.

This detritus accumulates around the house, filling our lives with sentimentality and whimsy and punctured bare feet. We parents can never throw any of it away because of Murphy's Law of Parenting: The item you throw out will be the one the child really, really needs to finish the big school project on deadline.

This law applies to all homework papers. No matter how much the parent may try to parse out a date or a grade or some other signal that each stray rumpled page is no longer current, he or she will make the occasional mistake and throw out the child's important homework. Or, worse, some other child's important homework. And the parent will never hear the end of it. So school papers amass around the house like bales of cotton on a riverboat dock.

Same goes for any plastic "action figure" or balsa-wood airplane. Throw it out, and it's the one the child was using to prove Important Facts About Gravity in the science fair.

Any teddy bear or toy the parent tries to discard will immediately become the child's favorite one. How could you possibly get rid of that broken Shrek we got for free at some burger joint? The child LOVES that toy and is now emotionally bereft and will require expensive therapy.

When spring cleaning comes around, parents are forced to engage in stealth operations to get rid of their children's stuff. We ship bales of old homework off to the dump when the kids aren't looking. We creep around in the middle of the night, stuffing toys into black trash bags, hiding the evidence. On the day of the garage sale, we ship the kids off to Grandma's to keep them from scaring off customers with crying fits in the driveway.

We roll out the bazaar of baby clothes and broken burger toys and ceramic panthers and important homework, and a few customers trickle by and haul off some of the stuff. American commerce carries on.

Unfortunately, most of the inventory doesn't move. All the unsold stuff must return to the "warehouse," otherwise known as the space in the garage where the car should live.

So what if we must park on the street? At least we've thinned the inventory. We've cleaned out closets and raked toys out from under beds. Our lives are organized and ready for summer.

Just in time for the flea markets.

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