On Friday mornings, I look up the local estate sales on a website, scratch down some addresses for my GPS, and put on some grubby clothes. Estate sales are dirty business.
I go to these estate sales to search for old books. It’s a little weekend hobby. I like vintage hardcovers with nostalgia value or in pretty colors for home decorators. It’s a nice nitch, because there’s little competition with other estate sale buyers. There are really three types of people who go to these sales — people who really need stuff, people who want to resell stuff on eBay, and people who are compulsive collectors. The “really need stuff” people take the boxes of salt and cereal from the kitchen. The resellers and the collectors tend to specialize in tools or costume jewelry or fine silver. The pros bring their own flashlights and venture down to scary basements. Nobody looks at the books, which is fine by me. I got a mid-1800′s Dickens book last week.
Last week, I went into an old Victorian home on a street with other Victorians that had been divided up for rentals. Multiple mailboxes up and down the block.
The house was in bad shape. The front porch had missing boards. The ceiling was buckled around the cheap brass lamp in the entrance way. Tiles had popped out of the bathroom. There was a disturbing sag to the steps on the staircase. Because I watch too many HGTV shows, I tried to estimate much it would cost to fix up this house for resale or rental. Maybe $100,000. It needed a new roof, new kitchen, new bathroom, new floors, new plumbing. Walls needed to be taken down. I looked up the cost on Zillow. They were trying to sell the house for $325K for months. They really needed to lower that price by a lot.
When you go to these estate sales, you can get absorbed in the hunt for treasure. You can calculate the resale potential. And I do that. But I’m not enough of a pro to really distract myself from the fact that someone lived in this house for decades. And someone died in this house. Their story is in those boxes. There are photographs of children from the 1970s still on their living room walls. Why didn’t anybody take that picture? Where are those children now? These people’s proudest moments — a WWII photograph, a commendation from a mayor, a baseball trophy — are being carelessly handled by distracted strangers looking for treasure.
These things tell the story of these people during their prime years. But they also tell the story of the people in their final years. The estate sale people put the old medical equipment into the bathrooms to be later tossed into a dumpster, along with all the unpurchased baseball trophies and framed 70s family photographs. Bed pans, walkers, and rubber gloves are piled in the tub.
And then there’s the dirt. It’s everywhere. The moldy air wafting from the basement. That old Victorian last week had nothing of value. I don’t think I actually touched anything in the house. But the air quality was so bad that I had to gulp down water after I left. Sometimes, I need to shower after I go on these visits, because the moldy, dusty smell sticks to my hair.
Somebody lived in that dirt, in that house with rotting porch, with the moldy smell of the basement. Nobody helped her sweep out the living room or clean out her recyclables. I felt sick after my ten minute stay in that house. How did someone live in that dirt for so long? Who’s fault is it?
I guess the woman could have sold the house ten years earlier, before she got really sick. She might have gotten $300K for the house and found a nice, clean apartment in a senior home. Maybe she was too attached to her stuff and her neighbors and her church to move. Or maybe she didn’t have help. Or maybe there aren’t enough nice, clean apartments in senior homes. I’m not sure.
We’ve got to figure out a way to care for old people in this country. If they want to die in their homes, then we have to help them live in tolerable conditions.