Sunday, May 15, 2011 | Washington
YESTERDAY, ON MY way home from running a bunch of errands, I saw a sign that advertised an estate sale nearby. I had never been to an estate sale and, as I recalled tales of amazing finds aired on the Antique Roadshow and stories from friends about great discoveries at such sales, I decided to stop.
The sale was in the Kalorama area of Washington, not exactly a slum. The house itself didn’t seem that enticing, but I went in nonetheless. Big mistake.
Not only did I find no valuable treasures, I left there feeling depressed as shit at what I saw. Room after room packed – really, truly packed – with nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. A better word would be crap. What was sad was that this crap was what was left of the lives of two unknown people who, it appeared, had occupied this house for decades.
I suppose that a kinder reviewer would assign a less benign word to this crap. Tchotchkes, perhaps. Doo-dads. Collections. I’m not saying that what I saw was worthless. There was some silver, for instance, that some guy with a Middle-Eastern accent was trying to bargain for. There were lots of books and record albums, some of which I’m sure would be of value to someone, maybe even to me if I’d taken the time to look through them.
But mostly it was just crap. Shit. A collection of cowbells, for instance. Cowbells. I’m sure at one point in the lives of this couple it seemed like a good idea to start a collection of cowbells. Or maybe, they bought one or two cowbells and then friends started noticing that they liked cowbells and started giving them cowbells for Christmas, or for birthdays. Or picking up cowbells on their travels to other places. I know that happens because it’s happened to me.
And I’m sure that somewhere in this vast universe there are thousands of people who would be very interested in acquiring that collection of cowbells, but on that dreary, rainy day, I found a shelf filled with cowbells terribly, terribly depressing. As I did the hundreds of ties hanging from a tie rack in one of the bedroom closets, and the collection of old and mostly damaged music instruments in what appeared to be the den.
I didn’t buy anything, obviously, but I left the house with an overwhelming cloud of doom and depression hovering over me.
I wasn’t depressed about the two people who lived in that house. They appeared to have lived a full life, to have traveled all over the world and to have enjoyed an eclectic array of music and literature. I kind of wish I had known them.
No, I realized later, it wasn’t these dearly departed who were the cause of my blues. It was the realization that when my life is over and those charged with taking care of my “estate” (ha!) will likely stage a similar sale and people like me will wander through and wander out and wonder what the fuck I could have been thinking collecting all that wonderfully worthless junk.
What could he have possibly been thinking, they will ask themselves, collecting those bowls and vases, buying those ugly paintings and prints? What moved him to collect all those corkscrew wine bottle openers? Did he really spend money to buy that stupid book? Why did he want so many …, well … THINGS?!
That’s what’s depressing. We spend most of our lives collecting things because, sooner or later, we come to believe that things define who we are. Without things we are nothing, we believe. We’re all that way. We can look down our noses at the Imelda Marcoses and Lynne Wyatts and other collectors of seemingly frivolous things such as shoes gowns and earrings and boots and cars and yachts and fame and recognition and — yes – people, but we are all, to some degree or another, guilty of letting things define who we are.
Please understand, I am not being critical. I am as guilty as anyone, if not guiltier. An even harsher reality is that I don’t know what the alternative is. I don’t think there is one.
And maybe that’s what brought on that depression. If, indeed, our lives are defined by the things we accumulate, will we, in the end, be judged by the quality and worth of the things we accumulated? Dominique de Menil collected art. So do I. She had millions to spend on all kinds of great art in every corner of the world. When she died, people looked at her collection of Picassos and other great works of art and declared, here we had a genius. When I die, people will look at my modest art collection and … laugh?
I know that. I’ve known that for a long time. Yet I can’t help myself. I accumulate more laughable art all the time. Why am I – why are we? – so attached to things?