The sign, which I forgot to get a picture of, reads:
Friday – Sunday
9AM – 4PM
To the left of the neat Helvetica is a somewhat clumsier Magic Marker arrow, pointing left, right, around the corner. This is convenient, I think. I need a weedeater, could use some inexpensive tools. How great to get them for a couple bucks.
Friday night I walk around the corner to the weatherbeaten but upright little Craftsman house, surrounded by a peeling white picket fence. A sign on the gate declares there are no early birds and not to open the gate, thank you. I keep walking.
The little house is yellow with brown trim, the windows single pane, the casements a little off level. It has the look of a poor person’s house, which is often synonymous with an old person’s. The plants and yard are well-maintained, and the house is not dirty so much as sagging, entropy nibbling further in than the edges. An unattached garage is to the south, a stack of lumber on the north wall, the doors looking as if they haven’t been opened in years. A 1950s era car is parked out front, clean and relatively shiny, though I have never seen it driving around. I have never seen anyone taking care of it or the yard, but I haven’t been looking.
My neighborhood is not full of these places, but they are not a rarity. You can sense them from a distance, the ones where someone old lives alone different from the doper rentals or the immigrants with all their beater but well-running cars. These houses are smaller, almost prim, or perhaps just gathered and closed up. All are an older style, rough here and there but still together, holding on to the ground more than to time. Some of them have giant American cruiser cars parked in the little slot driveways: big Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs with chrome shifters on the steering column and hoods the size of islands. Their existence and proper functioning is a ridiculous statement of defiance: we will keep going. That is the noble way to read it.
Saturday morning is bright and cloudless, cool with the sky high, like in the desert. The light is still long when I get to the flaking gate, now open.
Business is light. A man looks over a pair of lawn machines while I look at the tools: all the rakes I wanted to buy two months ago are here, but the shovel I would like to buy now is not. Handwritten signs on white posterboard demarcate no-go areas, doors not to open, that the garage is closed. No signage is connected to the car. I give a lawnmower a pull for a guy looking at it–no gas, but compression is good.
A walk descends to a door cut in the house’s back edge. The basement is the kind of space that would be a prize in a new house, but in a house of this age is cluttered and dirty with old-house scrofula: bubbling paint, cobwebs, the little piles of unknowable debris in windows and cracks. I pay a dollar for a rusted but sharp handsaw, the woman writing me a receipt from a carbon-paper book. The basement is like traveling back to childhood, to my grandfather’s basement: punchboard walls with nails and hooks holding random hardware in faded packaging, like a plastic handle and cord for a lawnmower starting pull. There are toolboxes full of tools, an oversized portable stereo from the 90s, vinyl furniture, tables, boxes full of LPs. The closest thing to a prize is an old cabinet radio, make undetermined, with a single large round dial like a clock face. I am sure it would rattle with a firm hum, the sound fading on as it warmed up–if it worked.
Around and up, the main floor is all old person. There is a nice couch, the covering almost a fine red fur. A Russian couple feels it like a tame animal, very interested with hushed voices. A wood kitchen table and four chairs is $250 for the set. It is in perfect condition, no scuffs or scratches, no fading or wear, but it seems used up somehow. The ceilings are far above me, the windows open, but the place feels dark and cavernous. It doesn’t feel like it understands electricity.
The whole house is small things about the size of a cat: glass bottles, jars full of unidentifiable jumbles of objects, little plastic this, faded that. Nothing is dirty or broken, but it isn’t clean, and it isn’t valuable. I realize every old person’s house is like this: full of debris valuable to no one, cherished “collectibles” of interest only to the fading generation that already hordes them. The only exceptions are those like my grandfather, in terms of the part of the house where he lived: everything clean, with few objects of any kind, and nothing unnecessary. The uncategorized stacks of Kodachrome and Polaroid pictures, the cancelled checks from forty years ago, the endless paper piles of little slips of grocery lists or receipts or tax bills or pay stubs: all these in drawers, with rubber bands around them. Both houses are tired, worn out, keeping these things because the simple weight keeps them from blowing away.
One of the children walks by, asks if I need anything. I have my eye on a pair of enameled pots. I don’t really need any pots, but could use some for boiling things, I suppose, or dinners I will never put on. I ask her how much. She dallies and I think she’ll come back with something ridiculous, but she says a couple bucks. Without looking them over I give her the money.
It is a relief to walk out into the sun, down the steps, past the gate, down the block, across the street, the relief growing with distance. I don’t wonder who the man was or what he did or what happened in his house, whether he died satisfied or some bitterness clawed at him as he mowed the lawn or watched his big TV on the red fur couch. I am back in my brand-new house which is clean and holds no clutter, all the books in shelves. I take the lids off the pots and notice the metal where the enamel has chipped away, and the vague, soiled smell. I put them in the new dishwasher and let it take care of them.