The Untouchables

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Early in the morning on the day of the sale a middle-aged man arrived at 4 Beach109th Street. This was his first stop. He arrived on bike, as would be the case with most of the arrivers. He wore thick rimmed glasses, which, along with his beady eyes, made him look like a government inspector. He had done his research as usual, studied the signs around the neighborhood. He knew which blocks were having sales, and who was having them. Maggie Sullivan’s sale at Beach 109th Street seemed the most promising this particular Saturday in New York, seeing as her husband had recently passed away.

There were only a few tables out with items ready, the rest of the stuff was spilling out of the open garage. He browsed for a few minutes before Maggie even noticed him.

“How much for the machine?” He questioned.

“The Nordic Track?” Maggie was surprised that that was the first thing to garner interest among all the stuff she had brought outside.

“Let’s say fifty.”

“That’s far too much. I’ll give you twenty for it,” He scowled.

“No, I can’t do that. Fifty is the best I can do.”

“We’ll see,” the man snarled, mounted his bike and pedaled away to the next sale.

Maggie had posted signs around the neighborhood a week in advance. A week seemed like enough time. The signs were simple, not flashy. Name, address, date, the essentials.She even posted the information in the local newspaper with the same motto as every bankrupt rug warehouse she had ever passed: everything must go. She wanted to make that clear. She was hoping for a big turnout. For her name she put Maggie Sullivan, of the County Kerry Sullivan’s, so as not to be confused with the County Cork Sullivan’s or heaven forbid, with the Belfast Sullivan’s in Northern Ireland. She wanted to get rid of all the stuff in herRockaway Beach bungalow, the one she had bought with her late husband, Timothy, in ’72 and had lived in ever since. She was leaving “Irish-Town” in similar fashion to the way she had left Ireland itself, which was on her own.

For years, Maggie and Timothy had talked about having a garage sale. The Sullivans (the County Kerry ones) left themselves, at least while the kids were still growing up, minimal living space.They were hoarders of the non-extreme variety, keeping old newspapers in disarray, and numerous boxes of paperwork that Timothy thought were essential to hold on to forever.

The problem with living in a bungalow was that thirty years of accumulated “stuff” took up an irresponsible amount of room in New York City. Although it was true that this semi-secluded area was dissimilar to most of the city’s other neighborhoods. Rockaway never fit into any of its possible categories. It was not Long Island, it was not Brooklyn, and it was not even really Queens. It just was. And to its inhabitants it was everything. It was Ireland for the immigrants who came a century too late to live with the BIC’s (Bronx Irish Catholics), it was Israel for the ultra-orthodox Jews who didn’t put down roots in Williamsburgor Brighton Beach, and it was the South Bronx circa ’75 for those in government housing. Maggie didn’t know much about the parts of Rockaway that weren’t around “the Irish Riviera” though. All of the groups had an unspoken agreement that they would keep to themselves and their respective areas on the beach. Rockaway was comfortable, partly because of the hassle (and the literal toll) that went along with leaving and partly because, well nothing much had changed over the years.

The Sullivan’s often spent time in their neighbors’ homes, drinking and reminiscing of Ireland and how different it would be for their kids. “They have so much here,” Maggie said one evening at the Slattery’s, “I mean we didn’t even have cars. They have no idea how much they have.” “It’s true about the kids, but it’s really something,” ElaineSlattery reckoned, “We all went from bungalows on farms with no electricity to having bungalows on the beach in the middle of New York City.” They all felt connected in a sort of way. Their houses were all the same so it was easy to notice how much messier one family’s house was from another’s. Maggie would nag Timothy whenever they got back from the Slattery’s tidy home about the clutter in their own house. That’s when he started filling the garage, first with boxes of papers, then with more of their unused belongings and furniture until there was no room for the car anymore.

Maggie was glad to have the stuff out of their living space at least and when it came time to get rid of all of it, it seemed appropriate that it was in the garage. It made the whole idea of the sale seem necessary and proper. After Timothy’s death, the kids permanently out of New York, there didn’t seem much point in keeping everything or staying anymore. Everything in the garage felt entirely like Timothy and she wanted to remember him, not his stuff. This was her time to live as simply as possible, she thought. Maggie didn’t know how she was going to organize it all, but she did know that certain items would be harder to part with than others.

“Yeah Ma, it should be in one of the cabinet drawers in there, or the dresser Erin had in her room? I think it might be in there. Look around for it. I know, I know, can you mail it to me? Then you won’t have to worry about it.” Maggie’s son Aidan didn’t want any strangers getting their hands on the Atari joystick he hadn’t looked at, let alone used, in years.

Timothy had fought her on the Atari that Christmas. He didn’t think video games were a useful way for his future attorney or doctor to spend his time. Then, on that Christmas Eve, Timothy found Maggie wrapping the presents and gave her the box with Atari. He didn’t say anything; he just gave it to her, winked and went to bed. It made it easier to cope with his death when she found herself remembering moments with him. Every day she read the obituaries, to see if she recognized anyone, she would tell her children when they told her it was a morbid act, but she kept Timothy’s death notice on display in the kitchen. She had written it herself after all, picked out the picture for it too.

Maggie had had trouble putting the stuff in the garage into some kind of order. She didn’t know if she should separate the things by value or category. Of course, when separating by value, there wasn’t much distinction. One of Maggie’s issues with selling what were to Timothy, priceless heirlooms, was that she would have to sell them for basically nothing.

“That’s how these things go Ma,” her daughter Erin told her. “You have to sell everything dirt cheap.”

Erin and Aidan had tried to help her get organized the last time they were both in town, but they always got sidetracked. They would open a drawer or a box and find old toys or, in one case, Erin’s childhood doll. “Look at this Erin,” Maggie said, “Remember? I have pictures somewhere inside of the two of you. Let’s see.” Once inside the house the three of them would consume pictures for hours. Hardly any of them were in albums. All of them were scattered in boxes in the living room, kept inside a cabinet. There would be a wedding picture of Timothy and Maggie followed by Aidan’s graduation from high school. It was this kind of disorganization of memories that left the inhabitants of the house in chaos.

The man with thick glasses came back in the middle of the day. He pulled up in a car this time. He stopped by the Nordic Track, which no one had seemed to notice among the piles of books and clothes, and the tables of vintage toys, and brought it to Maggie’s attention again.

“No one has bought the damn thing. I’ll give you twenty dollars for it.”

“That machine cost almost a thousand dollars. I’m not selling it for fewer than fifty dollars,” Maggie repeated.

“I’ll be back,” the man said as he left again.

Elaine Slattery and Grace Maloney tried to help Maggie distinguish what everything was worth. When Timothy died, everyone in the neighborhood rallied around Maggie. Timothy had always been popular. He was somewhat of a leader with the old Irish guys in the neighborhood, was always the first to open a tab at McCarthy’s bar after work, and he always took all the kids down to the beach in the summers to teach them to swim.

“We should put stuff how it would be in a store,” Grace concluded. “But why do you have so much exercise equipment?”

Timothy had bought the Nordic Track on a whim. He thought it might be the key to finally losing the weight he had been steadily gaining for years. Unfortunately for Maggie and the kids, Timothy’s expensive whims were directly related to his bad gambling. He had a system for picking horses that he stuck by no matter how much money he lost at the races. And he stuck by the Nordic Track. The Nordic Track, with its wooden skis and furniture-like base would have been better suited for an aristocrat in Aspen, Maggie thought.

“But if we’re going to be spending all of this money, shouldn’t we get a treadmill?” Maggie had asked.

“No nono, this is much better than that. Can’t you see? No nono, the treadmill, anyone can have that. This is special.” Maggie imagined that someone at the store had pointed out the Nordic Track while Timothy was browsing. He was so easily persuaded by people, specifically those in advertising and his flair for picking up exotic things was the reason the garage was so filled with the impractical. Timothy had used the machine for about a week before it began to gather dust in a corner, like the other strange equipment he acquired. It stayed in the living room until Timothy and Aidan finally dragged it out into what would become the dumping ground for the stuff they couldn’t seem to discard.

People started to come little by little. Most people stopped with their beach bags and umbrellas. A little girl who walked around barefoot bought Erin’s old easy-bake oven for two dollars. Maggie was impressed when she saw the girl dragging it in her beach wagon. A black family, assumedly from the Far Rockaway projects because of their tattered shirts, browsed for over an hour before purchasing an ancient bicycle with flat tires and mangled handle-bars.

“You can have that for four dollars,” Maggie determined.

“Mine!” said the excited boy who would presumably get to ride it.

Maggie was pleased with the way the sale had gone so far. The piles were lessening it seemed, and that meant less stuff to worry about. She felt better about moving when it seemed like an accomplishable task.

She thought she had noticed a couple of kids steal pieces of costume jewelry here and there, but she was too busy to stop them or care. Her neighbors had come out to browse and help Maggie, just as she would have done for any of them. They were all of Irish descent on Beach 109th Street, which to Maggie, made them all practically family. She thought of the last time she had been to Ireland. It was for her sister’s funeral. There would be no reason to go back, she thought. “No one is left and it’s changed so much anyway,” she would tell Grace and Elaine. “It’s not the place we know.” There didn’t seem much left for her in Irish-town anymore either. If Aidan and Elaine had stayed in Rockaway like the Maloney’s kids then it would have been more practical.

“Isn’t this terrible? Maggie asked them. Giving away all of his stuff, all of our stuff like this?”

There was a collective no from the group.

“It’s just stuff after all,” the women mutually agreed.

But there was a little terror in the men’s eyes as they drank their beers, just as they had done on the day of Timothy’s funeral. There was terror for their own demises, and for all of their stuff that would probably just get thrown in the trash, because their wives wouldn’t bother trying to sell it all like Maggie. I wouldn’t want anyone else to use my stuff anyway, they all thought. They looked at some of the stuff for sale like Timmy’s old irons and drivers and couldn’t help but think he would have been turning in his grave.

The DFD’s (down for the day) had lifted much of the stuff off of Maggie’s hands. They came in their flip-flops in droves and scoured the items until there was not much left. She was in a state of bliss when it was over, until she noticed the Nordic Track had remained untouched. She was about to have the men put it on the street, defeated, when the man in the thick glasses pulled up victoriously.

He came bearing a twenty-dollar bill and before he could even offer it to her, Maggie Sullivan, of the County Kerry Sullivan’s, shouted, “Sold!”