I recently uncovered something about myself that I hadn’t realized before; I have no patience when dealing with the general public. In fact, I’m not even sure I like being around most people. Perhaps, for the safety of others, I should avoid ever having a job where I come in direct contact with humans. I could never be a Wal-Mart greeter, a smiling Gap clerk or a medical professional. In fact, it would be best if I just stayed away from people all together. While some may see this trait in me off-putting, I like to chalk it up to one of my many quirks. As quirky as my impatience with people may be, the stark realization that I am ill-equipped to be unleashed on the public came to me a couple of weeks ago when I agreed to help out some friends who own an estate sale business.
My friends were facing a daunting task of selling the entire contents of a huge mansion and had asked for extra help. Since I’d only had one experience with selling personal items, and it didn’t go well, I was reluctant to volunteer. However, after agreeing to help out and spending three weekends dealing with the general public, I realized that the knowledge and insight I gained about people and myself far outweighed my initial trepidation. Trust me, this sale was nothing like the run-of-the-mill neighborhood garage sale I once participated in.
As I mentioned, my only foray into estate sales was a few years ago when I got together with some of my neighbors to hold a garage sale. We took over an empty house on the street and displayed all of the items we wanted to sell. My contribution to the sale consisted of some lovely framed artwork, a few flower vases, a couple of jewelry boxes, some paperback novels and assorted knickknacks. Looking back on it, I probably spent more time modeling all of the old clothes and posing for photos than I did trying to sell my goods. Somewhere there is a photo of me in a bridal gown standing next to my neighbor, Todd, who is wearing a large pair of fishing waders and holding a sword. Apparently, I should have paid more attention to selling because by the end of the weekend I had amassed a grand total of $14 and then spent $16 when someone went on a food run. I ended up two dollars in the hole and had to drag most of my crap back home. Needless to say, I did not share this story with my friends when I agreed to help out.
One of the reasons I’m volunteering is because this estate sale is taking place in a 1928 historic home that is really more of a castle. It boasts seven bedrooms, ten bathrooms, a carriage house, a pool house, and it is over 12,000 square feet. I have a feeling that the items inside will sell for more than $14. As I drive up to the castle, I see there are already a large number of peasants – I mean customers lined up waiting to get in. As the groundskeeper swings open the large black iron gate for me to enter, I feel a little like Queen Elizabeth without the ugly hat. Unlike the people waiting in line, I am granted entrance into the private parking area. I nod at the groundskeeper and with a smug smile and a small courtly wave I drive past him. Today, he works for me. I park my car behind the garage, which sits next to the carriage house that is in front of the greenhouse positioned across from the built-in swimming pool and pool house. I have a feeling I should drop breadcrumbs on my way inside so at the end of the day I can find my car. As impressive as the grounds are, they don’t prepare me for what awaits me inside.
I walk through an iron and glass door into one of the kitchens. To my right is the servant’s staircase leading upstairs and another staircase leading down. I head straight in through the small kitchen, past the butler’s pantry, three doors with signs that say, “DO NOT ENTER” and into a large foyer. The black and white marble floor reflects the sunlight streaming through the double doors on the first landing of the massive red-carpeted sweeping spiral staircase. I feel like I’ve just walked into Buckingham Palace. The first person who greets me is my friend, Michael. He is standing in the center of the staircase wearing a red, knee-length, military style jacket complete with gold shoulder braids and brass buttons. He is posing like he is the king of the castle, but in reality he looks more like a doorman at a pretentious hotel. Obviously, he has been digging through the closets and I’m sure he will be wearing this all day.
Everywhere I look there are massive pieces of furniture in rooms with murals on the ceilings and a fireplace I can dance in. Price tags swing from everything that is not a human being. In the center of the dining room sits a table that seats 17 and the room is filled with glass curio cabinets displaying various sculptures. I wander through room after room filled with oriental rugs, hand made furniture, china dishes, crystal vases and gilt edged paintings. Something tells me I won’t find any old Monkees albums here.
After all of the workers gather in the foyer, we are given instructions for the day, a receipt book, nametag, pen and a stern warning to watch out for shoplifters. My assignment is to help people in the clothing room upstairs. I am informed that the clothing is mostly couture and designer items and that they are not priced. If anyone is interested in an item they are to bring it downstairs and have it priced at the front desk. I’m actually pretty happy about this. Since my mathematical skills leave much to be desired, I am a bit concerned about adding up merchandise and having my friends find out that they lost hundreds of dollars in the clothing room.
As for the clothing room itself, it is actually one of the bedrooms where racks and racks of clothes have been brought in. Before the sale starts I am given a quick lesson from my friend, Lori, on how to distinguish the designer from the couture from the simply expensive. To me, it just looks like a lot of stuff Cher would have worn in the 70s, mixed in with some Blanche Devereaux from the Golden Girls of the 80s. And for some reason there is a full-length, beaded, deerskin dress more fitting for an extra in Gunsmoke. “And watch out for shoplifters,” Lori warns. “People will try to stick clothes down their pants or roll them up and put them in purses or under jackets. Just be aware. Oh, and one final thing. The owners don’t want anyone to use the bathrooms. They are all off limits.” Right now, I don’t realize that the no bathroom rule is going to haunt me for three weekends.
Once the sale starts I stand by the door and nod to people as they file in. I make myself busy by rearranging the clothes and trying to put some order to the chaotic collection of cashmere, silk, knits and deerskin. One thing I notice is that the previous owner of these clothes is very tiny. The majority of the items are sized four to six in both the American and European clothing. As I survey the women now filing into the room, I can see that this will be a problem.
“How much is this leather jacket?” one woman wearing sweatpants and Crocs asks me. “All items will be priced downstairs at the desk. Just be aware that these items are designer and that’s a Gucci bomber jacket,” I tell her. “I’ll give you $7,” she says. And this exchange begins my endless speech about costs, designer goods and the fact that I have no authority to price anything. Not to mention I have to find a million different ways to tactfully let women know that the clothes are sized small and very fitted. At first I try to be discreet when I see a clearly, not-size-four woman trying to stuff herself into a quilted blazer. Her giant linebacker shoulders are stretching the expensive Italian fabric to within an inch of its life and just before the material gives away completely, I make an announcement to the entire room that the woman who owned these clothes is a very petite size four. With that announcement one-third of the room clears out and the remaining women are still convincing themselves that they are a size four. I lean up against the door surveying the various women as they struggle with blouses and pants and the benign smile on my face belies my actual thoughts that are, “Put down the stretch pants. They don’t stretch THAT much.” I am afraid that the woman with the 38DD chest who is trying on a tiny Givenchy silk blouse will fire a missile-like button my way and put out an eye. And, I desperately want to tell the wide-hipped woman who is holding up a small gold skirt that the fact there are eight inches of her hips showing on either side of the skirt means it WILL….NOT…..FIT! But, instead I smile and try to direct these women over to the accessories table where there are some nice handbags and scarves.
Besides trying to be friendly to the women in the clothing room, I also field at least 10 requests per minute from women who want to use the restroom. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but the owners have requested that no one use the restrooms.” Of course, that doesn’t stop me from finding the best bathroom in the house to use myself. I marvel at the imported tile and gilt fixtures while feeling no guilt at all about the crossed-legged, bladder exploding women looking for empty cups to pee in. Which brings me to my other pet peeve, doors bearing signs that say, “DO NOT ENTER.” I have come to the conclusion that a closed door with a Do Not Enter sign on it is more tempting to the general public than an unaccompanied bag of money lying in the middle of the street. What do they think is behind these doors? Is there a hidden hallway to a magical world? Is there a mystic waiting to tell them the secret meaning of life? The Beatles? I have no answer. All I know is that every time it gets quiet in the hallway and I hear a small, elongated squeak, I know someone is opening a Do Not Enter door. I like to sneak up behind them and just stand there until they feel my breath on the back of their necks and then I say, “Looking for something?” I suppose I could be nicer about it, but then that would be going against my natural inclination.
I think my father was the first one who noticed that I was not what one might call, “A people person.” I distinctly remember overhearing a conversation he had on the phone with a neighbor once who called to ask if I ever babysit. “You don’t want her watching your kids,” my father said. I did kind of smirk to myself that my father who had less of a filter on his thoughts than I do was so honest about my love for children. My dad was also concerned when I got a new job as a server at Red Lobster. “You will be dealing with people all day,” he warned me. “These people will be tipping you on your service and how friendly you are.” He paused for a moment, shook his head and said, “I’m afraid you’ll be broke.” I am happy to report that my father was wrong. I was a wonderful server at Red Lobster. I made a lot of friends and a lot of tips and aside from the occasional platter of raw oysters slipping into a particularly nasty customer’s lap, and one empty coffee pot hurling across the dining room, I was a pro. In fact, I was named “Server of the Month” many times and when I left, the manager retired my server number. I like to think that my people-pleasing days at Red Lobster must have been a brief opening into a parallel universe.
As my time at the estate sale comes to a close, I am relieved to say that I enjoyed the experience. I ended up talking with some very nice people, I actually escorted one woman (and her dog) to an off limits bathroom, and I helped another woman happily walk away with a full-length, beaded, deerskin dress. I didn’t encounter any shoplifters, although I did keep an eye on one shifty-eyed man who kept coming in and looking at the knit Christmas sweaters. My friend, Debi, always tells me that she meets the most interesting people just by simply speaking to strangers. I’m not there yet. None of the strangers I met at the estate sale impressed me enough to want to further a connection.
At the end of the final weekend, when my gig was over, I straightened up the clothing room, grabbed a lovely Ralph Lauren cashmere sweater that I had purchased and took one last look around my lovely private bathroom. As I headed down the sweeping staircase I saw Michael, now wearing a too large, loudly striped Versace sports coat and schmoozing with some customers. They were all laughing and thoroughly enjoying themselves as Michael wrote up a ticket for an expensive grand piano. As their laughter reached me, I smiled to myself and shook my head at Michael’s easy way with people. Clearly, he has a gift. Perhaps I should see if Red Lobster is hiring.