Wednesday, July 15, 2020

An Absence of Yard Sales

A bicycle race peleton in 'yard sale' mode
A bicycle race peloton in 'yard sale' mode

COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, including a dearth of yard sales. The evidence is an absence of signage stapled to telephone poles. Even if held outside, the thought of people gathering, people touching stuff, people touching money, and then the sellers having to handle everything that did not sell, is a strong disinclination. Maybe next year.

In the U.S., the origins of yard sales and garage sales date to the 1950s and 1960s, when American movement from cities to newly built suburbs meant that people had yards and garages, while their prosperity meant that they had a surplus of material possessions. Rather than just discard all that stuff, a Saturday morning with laden tables in the driveway and larger items displayed on the grass cleared clutter from the house and made pocket money for the family.  However, the term ‘yard sale’ has a much, much older history.

Back in the 16th century, “romage” (French) meant to arrange cargo in a ship so that it was stowed closely and securely. Romage came to apply to ships’ goods that were damaged in voyage and thus no longer wanted by the owners, or just unclaimed at the end of the voyage, unloaded, and sold at a shipyard sale. Romage in time took on a near-opposite definition of searching a ship’s cargo carefully and thoroughly, as in a search for smuggled goods. Romage also became “rummage”: “To hastily search for something in a confined space and among many items by carelessly turning things over or pushing things aside.” As in rummaging in a purse to find a ringing cell phone. By the late 1800s, a church or charitable organization would accept donated goods to pile on tables, so that buyer could rummage through to find what they wanted. And voila! – we have both (ship)yard sale and rummage sale.

Traditionally, here in Massachusetts, yard sale season was Memorial Day to Labor Day, but there has been some stretch at both ends. And while typically a solo venture, there have been innovations. Garage Sale Day, created in 2001, occurs on the second Saturday in August. “The World’s Longest Yard Sale” takes place every August along 630 miles of Highway 127, spanning five states. A yard sale as plot device has anchored several movies: “The Yardsale, Yard Sale” and “Everything Must Go.” And who can forget the scene in “Waiting to Exhale” when Bernadine (Angela Bassett) has just learned that her husband of 11 years is leaving her for another woman, and she first burns all his clothes, and then sells all of his worldly possessions for one dollar each at a vindictive yard sale.

Snow skier in mid-tumble. Internet down-
load. Click on image to enlarge.
‘Yard sale’ has an entirely different, although distantly visually related, definition for skiers and bicyclists. For both sports, gravity is your friend until it is your enemy. For skiers, a classic yard sale leaves you and your equipment scattered across the snow – you here, poles there, hat gone astray, and always the possibility that one of your skis will decide continue the descent without you.

Bicyclists have the option of a solo or group yard sale. Alone, you are swooping down a steep road into a banked right-hand turn at a PAY ATTENTION forty mile per hour. Under the shade of an oak tree, not seen until too late, is a scattering of acorns, some whole, some car-flattened. Given that your tire is only one inch wide, not much is needed to turn your line of descent into jittery panic. With luck (skill?) you lay the bike down to the right and accept a shredding of bike shorts and significant road rash, knee to hip. Alternatively, you and the bike part company, you in a bloody heap, the bike in pieces scattered roadside. Yard sale!

“Peloton” is a French word for a pack of riders in a bicycle race. Riders take turns at the front of the pack, where the air resistance is highest, allowing their teammates a rest. In famous, multi-day races such as the Tour de France, teams of nine riders compete. The team leaders are coddled along in the peloton until it is time to break out to the front. Zipping along at 25 miles per hour, scant inches from surrounding riders takes skill, and even with skill, there are multi-bike crack-ups, leaving riders and bikes scattered roadside. Yard sale!!

“Free” is often the weekends’ finale to yard sales: Saturday for selling, Sunday for adding a “FREE” sign to what is left, Monday for seeing if what’s left will fit in the trash can. “Freeboxing” refers to a community-established location – say, for example, boxes on a table at a senior center – where people can leave things for others to take. For the electronically inclined, Craigslist Free is another way find takers of what you no longer need. Or you can pay the “GOT JUNK” people to haul it away.  

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