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American tchotchke: A tour of Vegas Valley yard sales

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Steve Henderson with a black powder muzzleloader gun and his wife, Nellie, with a buckskin vest for sale at their driveway in Henderson on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011.
Photo: Leila Navidi

I’m touring yard sales, and I’m searching for the saddest item I can find. Of course there’s a certain sadness to all yard sale items—they’ve been rejected, ostracized, their value just a fraction of what they were when new. The seller has come to loathe the item, or be so apathetic as to cast it aside, throw it on the lawn and hope to get a dollar or two for it. Still, there are surely degrees of sadness, and I’m pretty sure I’ve hit the mark right as the day begins.

We’re at the Green Hills Homeowners Association yard sale day in Henderson, which they hold every spring and fall. There it sits, in Tony Mateus’ front yard: Friends Trivia Game, “1,000 Questions About Your Favorite Friends!”

I can’t explain exactly why I find this item to be so sad, but I know there’s an aura of sadness here. The TV show Friends, with its bad ’90s jeans and haircuts and laugh track, is old enough to feel dated, but not old enough for nostalgia. Plus, the show grew to be pretty grating, with its hip, good-looking characters who somehow managed to have fabulous New York City apartments even though several of them never had jobs. And what kind of person is such a fan of Friends a decade after the show mercifully ended that he or she would engage in competitive trivia on the subject?

Quick: How many times did Rachel and Ross break up? What’s the name of the child Ross had with his lesbian first wife? Wrong! Take another drink of espresso!

(I mean no disrespect to Mateus here. In fact, props to him; he’s the one unloading it.)

Yard Sales

The Mateus yard sale has a poignancy to it that I imagine suffuses yard sales all over our Valley these days. Mateus and his wife split, and his remaining time in Vegas might be short. He came here about a decade ago for work in the construction industry, but once his project at Nellis Air Force base wraps up, his company will probably transfer him. He bought the house for $285,000 and recently sold it for $240,000.

He’s had several yard sales already and made hundreds of dollars, though he still has choice items: A propane torch kit, a water bath foot massager. His favorite item, and one he’s clearly still attached to, is a Bombay table with a marble top he’s selling for $200. It sat just inside the front door, greeting visitors who will no longer be visiting this house.

Despite his recent struggles, Mateus seems upbeat. He’s still employed, and he and his children and grandchildren are healthy. “The good Lord has looked down on us and blessed us,” he says.

Up a hill, we arrive at the home of Nellie and Steve Henderson. I hear a tinny electronic jingle and become obsessed with finding the source amidst the jetsam of their driveway. It’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a song that reminds me of my dad and living in Chicago and going to Wrigley Field. But this electronic version is maddening. Steve notices me ambling around like a madman and immediately gets my crazed look. He points out a plastic cup that plays the song by way of solar power. Green energy revolution!

Who came up with this idea? What was the meeting like? “Hey, a solar-powered jingle cup that plays ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game.’ Yes, this is the next Beanie Baby!”

Sitting in the sun, it’s been playing all morning. Steve’s been trying to dump it on people, but no sane human would want it.

A successful yard sale mirrors the buzz you get when you come home from the store with a Sopranos box set or a stylish new suit. But in this case, the buzz isn’t from gathering; rather, it’s from unloading your personal flotsam. (Recall the classic scene in White Noise when the protagonist goes on a binge dumping his vile possessions.) The yard sale also gives you the warm knowledge that with the dough you can buy some shiny new flotsam.

For a society so obsessed with things, this must be hard to take. Especially if you’re a solar-powered cup, a fake ear of corn or a set of three plates—your fourth brother plate having fallen victim to a whiskey-soaked meal and unsure hands. But it’s even worse if you’re a set of golf clubs, an electric Barbie car or a finely made shotgun. I am a nice thing, you say. I was once the apple of someone’s eye, something shown off to friends and neighbors. And now, here I am, in the yard. How much longer until I’m out at Apex, the landfill, thrown in with food scraps and used condoms?

My favorite object at the Henderson family house: Make Your Life Prime Time: How to Have It all Without Losing Your Soul by Maria Celeste. A self-help book at a yard sale is, by definition, a failure.

The family’s best object, besides a nice futon sold for $100, is a black powder muzzleloader with a $300 price tag.

Nellie and Steve Henderson, who go four-wheeling and rappelling and hunting and hiking, have some sage advice: Don’t come to Las Vegas for Las Vegas. Come for the Valley.

On a nearby driveway, just one item: NordicTrack Pro. Free.

Next door, at the home of James and Julia Shintaku, we find what’s easily the classiest yard sale of all. They’re even selling an Alfa Romeo. They have nice leather furniture from the Lake Las Vegas home they sold and a neighbor’s campy but cool glass-topped table. But most impressive is James’ sneaker collection. He’s a true junky. He has at least half a dozen limited-edition Nike skater shoes, lightly worn or not at all.

James Shintaku with Nike Avengers for sale at his home in Henderson on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011.

And it’s pretty clear they’re not really for sale. I ask about a nice gold and green pair, and he acts like he’s giving me a deal at $75, even though that’s the price on the box. Silly me. These things are like Oxy at a methadone clinic—the skaters will pay. His favorite pair are Nike Avengers: $225 would be a good price.

Rain falls. We help them move everything into the garage. (“As long as my shoes don’t get wet!” James says.)

Over near Sahara and Valley View, we hit a yard sale that is, by the proprietors’ reckoning, a failure. They sold a few toys, some nail polish and a board game before the rain arrived, then moved everything into a heap in the garage. Oh well. The kids—Zephyr, 4, Riley, 8, and Lennon, 10—are having fun, jumping on a skateboard and into a little basket with wheels and racing down the driveway. Kristina Harris just moved here from Texas. She was able to find a job but is baffled that she can’t get her kid into pre-kindergarten, which she says was readily available in Texas. “People here just don’t care about school.” Welcome to Nevada!

Just a few blocks away on the north side of Sahara, Dave Muzerolle has a decent-looking refrigerator and an unused professional video camera, the same model they used on Girls Gone Wild, offered for $2,000.

But Muzerolle displays the most interesting collection of anything we’ll see all day—dozens of pairs of scissors, mostly the little kind women use for their nails. It’s downright creepy. He’s also got corkscrews and steak knives, all of it by way of the Transportation Security Administration. They’ve been seized at airports and now they’re here. Once bound for Europe or Hawaii or Boise, now they live in Las Vegas, under a display case in a driveway.

This has me thinking: Am I yard sale material? A lamp with a clock radio embedded in it? A serving dish shaped like a turkey?

I realize later that this is the second time an editor has given me a yard sale assignment. The first time was a decade ago, when I’d been a reporter for only a month or two. The little town of Charlestown, New Hampshire, was having its own yard sale day. It rained then, too.

My mom, who saved all my early stories, sent me a copy. Of a statue of the Virgin Mary up for sale, I wrote, “All yard sale items are God’s yard sale items, even the least among them.”

I wonder if my first yard sale feature might have been better than this one—more exuberant, more insightful, fresher … I’d consider trading this one for it, if I saw it at a yard sale.

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