Grandma and The Schmattes, or How To Sell At A Flea Market - Part I

by Judith Katz-Schwartz


My brother Arnie and I, despite the fact that he lives on the West Coast and I live on the East, are close. The other evening we were discussing Grandma, with whom you are by now familiar. Arnie (not to be confused with Artie, who is the husband. When Ian, our nephew, was a little boy, and anyone thought he meant his West Coast Uncle when he had just referred to his East Coast Uncle, he'd shout at the top of his lungs, "No! Not my Uncle Ar-NEE, my Uncle Ar-DEE!") reminded me of one wild Saturday the two of us spent with Grandma at the Englishtown Auction in Englishtown, New Jersey. Not an auction at all, but an enormous flea market, Englishtown is the granddaddy of them all. It's a flea market in the truest sense of the word. This is a place where you can find anything, probably even fleas. Not that you'd want to, of course.

Arnie and I have always shared a love of rooting around in a pile of junk, looking for great "stuff". We both had, as youthful beginners in life, furnished our first apartments with found objects scavenged from every source, from relatives to the street. Arnie had taken over our Great Uncle Joe's apartment when Uncle Joe had moved to a retirement home. He'd quickly made the place his own, with overstuffed furniture, an antique hand-cranked phonograph, great knicknacks and neat displays. He had an eye for what would look terrific, especially if it could be had really cheap or, better yet, free. Even today, although Arnie is a highly successful businessman with a palatial home in California, he still checks out the local garage sales. On his wedding day, Arnie and I actually had an early morning date to go "saling" and, whenever I visit the West Coast branch of the family, Saturday mornings belong to The Hunt. I've no doubt that my niece Miranda, now all of one year old, will soon be riding rally on Saturday mornings, reading the newspaper and the local maps simultaneously, and shouting, "Turn here, Daddy!", while Oliver, Arnie's Great Dane (actually, I think he might be a barking horse) ensures, at the top of his lungs, that all objects with wheels (and I mean all objects, including bicycles, skateboards and baby strollers) do not dare to trespass on the same street as Arnie's car.

So, when he called me one day years ago, when both of us were first living on our own, and suggested we go to the Englishtown Auction on Saturday morning, because he wanted to sell some old type trays he had, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, so did Grandma. I can't remember which one of us mentioned it to her, but her immediate reaction was, "Good. Ve go. I vant ve should sell some tings. I have vaht to sell".

There was no point in arguing. We tried telling her how early you have to get there to set up a booth. "Grandma", we said, "we have to be there at four o' clock in the morning!". "So?", she said, "didn't I open the store at four o'clock every morning?"

No arguing with that. We said, "But Grandma, Arnie has some things to sell that are very big. There won't be room for much". Grandma retorted, "Okay, I vouldn't bring everything."

Phew! If Grandma brought "everything", we'd need a thirty foot container truck. Grandma was the Queen Of Never Throwing Anything Away.

I want to say that Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful, except we were on the road in the pitch blackness of 3AM. That is, Arnie and I were on the road. He picked me up in his VW minibus. In the back I could see stacks of type drawers, some cast iron pots, some miscellaneous saleable "stuff". To this I added my own meager inventory, some beads, some old books, a few pieces of pottery and some carved wooden boxes. Then we drove to Grandma's place.

We rang Grandma's bell and the intercom crackled to life immediately. "Who?", Grandma's voice shouted, loud enough to wake up not just everyone who lived in her apartment building, but all the residents on her block as well.

"It's us, Grandma!", I screeched back.

"Who????", she asked, apparently puzzled. I looked up at the ceiling for help. I mean, who else could Grandma possibly be expecting at 3AM on a Saturday? "Hey", I said to Arnie, "Maybe Grandma has a more exciting life than we thought!"

Grandma must have been weighing her penchant for stringent security practices against her frustration at not being able to hear what we were saying about her, for suddenly the intercom blared, "WHOOOOO??????!!!!!!!".

I immediately stuck my fingers in my ears and crouched down on the floor, expecting flying glass and falling plaster to rain down on me, but Arnie stepped up to the intercom and yelled, "It's Arnie and Judi, Grandma!"

"Comm opp!", Grandma's voice blasted out of the little speaker on the wall. We looked at each other and sighed. This could only mean that (a) Grandma wasn't ready, or (b) she was making breakfast, or (c) she had a ton of stuff to sell and needed help getting it downstairs, or, worst of all, (d) all of the above. Whichever it turned out to be, it would translate into a substantial delay. Grandma never had a high regard for punctuality -- just try getting her to leave a party in under an hour. And when Grandma made a meal, she really made a meal. Add that to the fact that, no matter how many dozen eggs she prepared, how many hundreds of pancakes, how many gallons of cereal, every mouthful was expected to be consumed before the day could progress, and it's easy to see why we were feeling discouraged.

So, since we knew there was no point in arguing with Grandma, we pushed the lobby door open to the tune of Grandma's finger leaning as hard and as long as she could on the buzzer (just in case it could possibly take us more than a full three minutes to actually get the door open. Now that I think about it, she must have thought we were the village idiots, and that we'd need time to confer about whether to "Push" or to "Pull"), and into the elevator we went, up the six floors to Grandma's door. Even though it was 3 AM, and we'd just been buzzed into the lobby about two minutes before, when we rang the bell we could hear Grandma yell, "Who?". She never eased up on the old security procedures.

Grandma opened the door and we stood there, in speechless shock. It looked as if she had been packing to move out. Every available surface in the living room and dining room, including the floor, was covered with bundles of clothing. A quick glance into the bedroom revealed even more. At this point, I went a little mad. I began running from pile to pile, picking them up, scowling (yes, I'm ashamed to say it, I scowled.) and shouting, "Grandma! We can't take all this! Where are we supposed to put it all? Leave this one here, and this one, and these!". Grandma fixed me with that "Child, do you want to live to see another day?" look and growled, "Luzzem!".

Oh no, not "luzzem"! When Grandma told you to "leave it", you'd better put the item back down if you knew what was good for you! I dropped the bundle I was holding and stood there, mute (but scowling and growling on the inside!)

Arnie, ever the peacemaker, said, "Grandma, we'll do the best we can to get everything into my car. But I think we should hurry, 'cause we have to get there."

"After we eat", she responded.

An hour later, having consumed more than anyone would ever want to eat at 3AM, we loaded up Arnie's minibus, and were on our way. Arnie and Grandma sat in the front and I sat behind them, smooshed up and held motionless against the side of the car, pinioned by two garment bags full of my late grandfather's suits. The car was stuffed like a sausage, and we were like little flecks of seasoning encased in the mix. We had an uneventful ride to Englishtown. Not that I would have known the difference. The only thing I could see was the back of Arnie's head. It was the first time I'd ever realized that my brother has nice hair.

When we arrived at the flea market, Arnie pulled up to the office and paid the rent for the day--I knew this because I could hear him talking to the owner--and we drove to our space. Arnie and I unpacked while Grandma passed the time by fighting with us as we tried to prevent her from lifting the heavy bundles. When at last the car was empty, we had a mountain of old clothes at our feet. Spread out on our tables, the display encompassed a survey of everyday attire that spanned at least sixty years, maybe more. Most of it was pretty ugly stuff.

There were my grandfather's suits. They were out of style when he wore them, and he had been gone for more than twelve years. There were all our baby clothes, the ones that had been handed down from me to our sister, Evelyn, from Arnie to our cousins, and from the cousins back to Grandma, who not only would never, ever throw anything away, she also wouldn't let anyone else throw anything away. There were our prom dresses and the gown Grandma wore to Uncle Aaron's wedding, along with the gown my Mom wore, and the flower girl's gown I wore. There were our camp shorts and our baby bibs. There was our entire family history, spread out on a table at dawn, for all the world to see--if they had any interest, that is. To Arnie and me, it was all just a large pile of schmattes. Rags. We were both hoping that some people with bad taste and a lot of money would happen by and decide they couldn't live without Grandma's things. The alternative was too awful to contemplate.

We resolved to smile, to let Grandma have her way, to try to relax and to enjoy the day. That's when the trouble started.



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Copyright 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.