This weekend I had one of the most frightening thoughts that I have ever had. I was relaxing with a few of my friends after a day spent cruising estate sales, when all of the sudden Michael Jackson popped up on the television and threw me a really ugly mental right hook. Now Memphis, from what Ive seen, is a city with a fairly thriving estate sale business. Its also a city, obviously, with one of the most famous and well-visited estates in the world of music culture.
Ah, the city of the King, where for about $15 you can lay your eyes on the actual jungle room (and Ill admit that tacky as it might be I want to steal every piece of furniture from that ridiculously ornate room.) But whats going to happen to Memphis when that other king hangs them up? How will Graceland compete with the Neverland Valley Ranch petting zoo?
Disturbed yet? When I raised the question of the pilgrimage possibilities for Jacksons future estate, the aforementioned friends told me that their stomachs were turning. And I have to agree. The day they convert that place into a full-blown Mecca for pop culture memory, I fear that the apocalypse will be peddling on its bicycle just a little bit faster, good songs and music history aside.
To be serious for just a moment, though, I find it really interesting that people are so fascinated by the homes of deceased cultural and historical figures, but often overlook the goldmine of history and inanity that can be gleaned from a couple of good estate sales.
I once knew an aging hippy in Orlando who was an estate sale aficionado. At one particular sale, he found a dusty box of old science fiction comics from the 1940s in a garage. As the box was unmarked, he offered $40 for them, paid them and went on his merry way. On a whim, he then decided to bring them to an appraiser. The estimated value of the box was $10,000! I sat there and wondered. Could I, a mere novice in the world of post-mortem resale, find a gem like that too?
I havent. Not even close, unless Im grossly underestimating some random knick-knack half-buried in my apartment. But thats OK. I did find a series of paintings of alien-eyed 1950s looking girls playing guitar, which I later noticed on the wall in an episode of Third Rock From the Sun
. Besides, the real reason I like going to these sales is that Im just plain nosy. Little facts like where some random person kept their underwear appeal to me more than the Antiques Roadshow
possibilities. I would cash in, though, given the chance.
The estate sale culture of Memphis is pretty serious. Most weekends there are at least four or five sales, all spanning various socio-economic brackets and corners of town. This, to me, is where the intrigue lies. How do people in Memphis live? Where do they live? What kinds of things do they fill their lives with? We can all pretty easily find out what Elvis had. What about the rest of the city?
A year or so ago, I went to a sale somewhere near the Memphis Botanic Garden in one of the coolest houses I have ever seen. I wandered through a series of angled walls and sloped ceilings, spiral staircases and rainbow-colored art until I found myself in a dark paneled basement. Amidst the clutter that basements are made for there was a box of letters. Suddenly I found myself sprawled out on the floor, much to the dismay of the company holding the sale it seemed, and engrossed in a huge romance story. The letters were dated around the time of World War II, if I remember correctly, and were post-marked from all over Europe. They were from a woman who had been involved with the estates owner for what seemed to be many years.
Apparently a freer spirit than the archetypal cookie-cutter housewife we normally associate with that era, she beckoned the man to tell her if they could be together without the relationship consuming the identity she had struggled to create for herself. Move over Fabio! This was the real thing, and though I poured over the letters, I never found out whether this woman had ultimately become the mistress of the house, or if this was just a box of treasured memories that the man had carried with him until he died.
Maybe its morbid in a way, but I love pouring through the stacks of possessions that are in a home to try to figure out who was there. To find out how real people live is to see a side of culture that often gets overlooked in a citys tour guide descriptions and summaries. Why is it that certain people collect figurines of mice? What is the significance of a large collection of Japanese vases? You can tell so much about people by looking at the landscapes inside their homes.
Its also fun to watch the people that go to estate sales. From the get-go, you can always spot the professionals. These people have absolutely no time for you to get in their way, and will physically block your passage if they think theyve spotted something of value. These people kind of scare me. They conjure an image in my mind of the Good Samaritan lying face down on a Memphis street, picked clean of any and all valuables. The hardcore estate sale set will barrel through room after room practically foaming at the mouth. Sometimes I like to get in their way just for fun. Youll also see the artists who wander about, rich and less than rich people looking for a bargain or a centerpiece, and everybody in between.
At one point, my friends and I talked about staging an estate sale in our apartment and hiding video cameras around the rooms to capture the strange aura created by so many different walks of life shopping side-by-side. How many people would stop to ask about the person behind the shirts in the drawers, the story behind the choice of art on the walls? What would people decide to make their own? I think it would make a fascinating documentary, and Memphis would be the perfect filming ground for such an endeavor.
Oh, and to get back to the Michael Jackson issue for just a moment, I think Ive devised a plan. Theres a safe possibility, I think, that when the time comes for the King if Pop to pass, the rest of his family will be so caught up in the ever-intriguing Jackson family slew of personal melodrama, that maybe they just wont notice. Maybe theyll sell off the place and be done with it. And if I can find enough boxes of old sci-fi mags lying around, Ill buy the place, shut it down, and make sure the world will be safe from the frightening Neverland petting zoo for as long as I possibly can.