When I went to bed Saturday night, I’d almost forgot that my girlfriend had posted a Sunday morning yard sale on Craigslist earlier that week. She wrote that it would start at 9am, which meant scavengers might show up anytime after sunrise. So I rolled out of bed long before I really wanted to, and began to take some sale items outside. Seconds after I opened our front door, I noticed an Asian man smoking a cigarette enter the courtyard of our apartment.
“Good morning,” I said in an effort to sound awake and welcoming to our first potential customer.
The man didn’t respond.
“Hello,” I said.
“Electronics?” he asked.
I guessed early yard sale customers were beyond simple greetings. They got straight to the point.
“Hi. How are you?” I said. I wasn’t going to give up on politeness that easily, and part of me hoped my repetition might help him realize that he’d skipped a crucial part of human communication.
“You’re interested in electronics, huh?” I asked him.
“Lap-top,” he said.
“Laptop?” he asked.
“No, we have no laptops for sale,” I said.
“Yes.” I said.
“No, but we have a non-broken DVD player... I mean, it works,” I said.
He asked a few more terse questions. Actually, I don’t even know if they'd be considered questions. He spit out only one word at a time, with the question mark not intoned but implied. For the next two minutes he didn’t say another word. He thumbed through the DVDs and eyed a few books before taking another puff of his cigarette, turning his back to me and walking away.
And this guy was only the first one—just a hint of the characters Itoro, Matt and I met that day-- all of whom I asked their names in an effort to keep track of the cast that flocked to our yard sale.
Next there was Jim. He was a forty-something white guy who was way too awake and inquisitive for me to handle. The sign my girlfriend had hurriedly made that morning said “Moving Sale,” so Jim asked about why we were moving. I told him I got a teaching job in Bulgaria.
“Why Bulgaria?” he asked—the answer to which I explained in so many words.
“Yeah, but why there?” he asked again.
As I explained my long time desire to teach abroad, and the perks of this particular international school in Sofia, I wondered why the hell I was compelled to lay out an argument justifying my move to Eastern Europe to a complete stranger at 8:30 in the morning.
I needed a coffee.
He interrupted me with: “Do you have a bike lock?”
“Yes. I do, ” I said.
I grabbed it and handed the lock to Jim.
“Ugh. Why’s this U-lock so slimy?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I was beginning to miss the Asian guy who didn’t speak much.
“I can’t buy this,” Jim said, sounding a bit outraged, as if I owned a bike shop and had failed to meet the quality assurance guarantee posted next to the cash register.
Jim asked me a few more questions to which I either answered ‘No’, ‘I don’t know’, or said nothing at all. He made more comments on the low quality of our merchandise, to which I only shrugged.
But Jim couldn’t resist returning to the subject of our move to Bulgaria and the question: ‘Why?’
I was starting to understand those signs in businesses that said, ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.’ Jim never ended up buying anything, but left me with what sounded like an insincere, almost sarcastic comment: “Good luck in Bull-garia.”
Then there was Miriam. She had a golden retriever that she asked me to watch while my girlfriend, Itoro, led her inside the apartment. Miriam asked to see our highest priced items: the mattress, bedframe, couch, and TV. She not only asked about them all, but negotiated and hemmed and hawed over each one. She searched on her iPhone for information about each item while she rambled about her dog, her ex-husband, and the compatibility of our stuff with her own furniture. All the while, I stood by the door with her dog’s leash in one hand and my freshly brewed coffee in the other. Twenty minutes later, Miriam had talked herself out of all the items she’d negotiated for, and talked herself into buying only one thing: a small ornamental brass dove.
That’s when she dug into her wallet to pay for it, and we found out she had all of two dollars!
So I was shocked when Miriam turned back to the TV with renewed interest and asked my girlfriend how many inches it was.
Itoro told her “25.”
Miriam leaned over to look at the measurement on the original box Itoro had brought out to remind potential customers of its newness.
“Hey, this TV’s not quite 25 inches, hon,” Miriam said, as if she’d outed my girlfriend as a dishonest swindler.
“It says right here: 24.6,” Miriam said.
Indeed, Miriam was correct.
Itoro rolled her eyes, indicating she was done with this woman who—despite her big talking—had no intentions, or means, of buying anything.
But as Miriam walked away, we both admitted that she seemed to be a lonely woman who just wanted someone to talk to.
Our first big-spending customer was a twenty-something guy named Gabe who wasn’t gay. I only mention his sexuality because of the interest and impulses of my good friend Matt—who provided a romantic subplot to our yard sale.
Matt had kindly offered and helped Gabe transport his newly purchased kitchen table set to the back of his jeep. Maybe it was because Gabe was wearing a tight V-neck T-Shirt; maybe it was that Gabe had a gentle and familiar way about him. Whatever it was, Matt thought Gabe might be gay, so he went for it.
Of course, I didn’t know what was going on until Matt returned to the yard sale on my girlfriend’s mountain bike as I was closing another two-dollar sale.
“There was definitely a connection there,” Matt told me.
“What? Where were you?” I asked.
“Well, after Gabe left, I took a little ride on this bike because I noticed he lived a few blocks away. I didn’t see exactly where he lived—just saw his car parked on the street,” Matt explained, as if his stalking approach were perfectly normal. “So I yelled ‘Gabe!’ a few times and he came out of his house —What are the odds? He grabbed his skateboard and we cruised around the neighborhood for ten minutes, talking and really connecting. It was great.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then I went in his house with him and thought, ‘F--k it.’ I told him, ‘Hey man, life’s too short and I just want you to know I think you’re hot.”
“And?” I said, regretting it as the word left my mouth; not sure if I wanted to hear the rest.
“—And he said he had a girlfriend, but he was cool with me and totally unthreatened by what I said.”
“So...?” I said.
“I think he’s open to it—to me—whatever,” Matt said. “I don’t know, I just got a vibe... Anyway, he had to go, but I think I’m gonna’ write him a note and go back to his house later. See what happens.”
I wasn’t sure what part of “I have a girlfriend” led Matt to believe this guy Gabe was “open” to homosexuality, but I didn’t want to rain on his parade.
Within seconds, Matt was lounging in the merchandise on the front lawn and writing his private note to Gabe.
It was around that time that the Cheapskate strolled up. I admit, I didn't catch her name, but I’ll never forget her outrage at being out-bided after trying to pay $20 for a $200 coffee and end table set. In her defense, she had managed to bargain my girlfriend down to $20 against her better judgment, then left to get her car after verbally sealing the deal.
That’s when a college co-ed showed up, fell in love with the coffee table set, but was disappointed to hear there had just been an offer and commitment.
Itoro seized the opportunity: “But if you outbid her...”
“I’ll give you $80 for all three,” the college girl said.
“Deal,” Itoro told her.
A few minutes later I heard a shrieking voice coming through the window of an old pick up truck in the middle of the street.
“They’re taking my tables!!!”
It was the Cheapskate.
“They’re taking my goddamn tables! What’s going on here?!”
The Cheapskate stormed out of her car and toward Itoro.
I knew Itoro could handle the disgruntled lady while I assisted the college-aged girl and her boyfriend load their car with the last coffee table.
Itoro calmed the Cheapskate down, but not before the woman said this loud enough for the new buyer to hear: “But that does suck! We made a deal for 20.”
The college girl turned to her with a confused expression, but it seemed to be more about the Cheapskate’s betrayed appearance than the news about the original bargain price.
Still, even if she’d heard, the college girl was convinced she got a good deal.
“This table set is like, literally worth 200 dollars.” She said to me.
“I feel kind of bad for that lady though,” she said, “...but she was literally freaking out.”
I nodded my head as I thought about the modern misuse of the word “literally.” It seems to be used so much now that it’s almost as if I should assume that all things unspecified as “literal” must be figurative.
An hour before the yard sale was over, Matt dropped off the note for Gabe on his doorstep. I have no idea what the private note said, but I imagine it included some of the most heartfelt words of a hopeless romantic that ever fell on deaf, non-gay ears.
Maybe I mention all these characters and savor their impressions because I will soon be in a place where I observe personalities mainly through visual expression and gestures, not through language. I don’t speak Bulgarian nor do I have the naive belief that I’ll be able to speak Bulgarian any time soon. Maybe I simply appreciated my ability to understand and communicate with these strangers. Maybe I realized that these yard sale scavengers were my last true taste of an odd, yet interesting American subculture. And maybe I’m just one bad Bulgarian goulash or vodka hangover away from asking myself the same questions Jim was bombarding me with way too early this morning: