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May 03, 2009

Of piety, and professors past and present

May 3. Day 307.

"Let me guess. You're the church going type. You came right from church."

This is was instead of hello, from the old man manning the CD table at an estate sale I visited this morning.

"Oh, really. What makes you think I'm the pious type?" I replied, mock snarky. "The CDs I chose, or just a general hunch?"

"The skirt. Obviously you came from church, in that skirt."

"Actually, nope."

(I'd say the picture above aptly summarizes my attitude towards good ol' church worshippin' piety. Not faith or spirituality per se, just the fixings and trimmings. Maybe I should carry around that image, as my own personal prayer card. Wave it at the next person who asks about my church habits.)

He smiled and shrugged, then rang me up: 8 CDs for $12. Some were brand new. I didn't even try to bargain. It was a great price.

The ad had stated: "SOUTH PARK. Estate sale. A mini museum of a renowned professor's life in Russia, Central/ South America, and the Mideast. Over 30 Persian rugs, Kilims, etc. Paintings, furniture, pottery, folk art, thousands of books- Russian, English. Thousands of classical CD's, LP's, computers, ethnic weavings, textiles, antiques, and more. 9am-3pm. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. XXXX XXX Street, west of 30th." (Word for word, minus the privacy edit.)

Come to mama. I have been looking for a rug to put in the bedroom since I moved to the new house, in January. The CDs were an extra perk.

As I wandered around the rest of the house, I wondered: who was the man who lived here? Did he move away or die? How does he feel about selling his clothes and books to strangers? Was the CD seller the owner of the house, or just a middleman?

I asked one of the other employees if they organize sales for dead people, or people who moved away.


I wandered into the office and saw the large desk, also for sale. What had he written there? It faced a window. I looked out: eucalyptus trees and a canyon. Peaceful.

I wandered into what seemed like a bedroom. Clothes still hanging in the closets. For sale. Had someone burrowed her nose into his clothes just days before, crying? Was he missed? It seemed like he must be. A professor? Traveling the world, studying people and cultures? Had to be a character.

Seeing the traces of this life, I asked myself if I could spend my own as a professor, traveling, collecting books and art. Sounds nice, but am I cut out for that? Is that cut out for me?

Upstairs, there were dozens of kilims in all sorts of colors. I had spotted one I liked, with burgundy and cream colors, in a very tight weave. Just gorgeous. The price tag said $150.

It was a reasonable price, given its size and apparent age.

Just, more expensive than I wanted it to be.

I called in one of the women upstairs managing the sale.

"I was curious about this rug. Given that it's the last day of the sale, can you give me a better price?"

"How's half off!?" Her eyes glimmered with joy. I could tell she was happy to make someone happy. And the discount certainly was generous.

One problem: $75 was a fine price, but it was not something I could walk away with, without feeling guilty I had spent too much. And with the fellowship expiring in two months, I really need to watch my bottom line these days...

"Wow, thank you! That's a great price!" I paused... "The thing is, and I know I'm crazy to suggest this, but I am looking to buy a rug for... $50. Is there any way you can do that?"

She said she'd check. Disappeared for a few seconds. And came back smiling.

"It's yours!"

"WOW! Thanks!!"

When I got home, I did an obituary search and found out whose house I'd visited. His name was Timothy McDaniel, and he died of cancer in March at age 61. Younger than my dad. The article begins:

A citizen of the world, Timothy “Tim” McDaniel lived in Chile during the 1973 coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende, headed a university study-abroad program in Russia and spent time in the slums of Brazil.

A sociology professor who believed in seeing firsthand how other cultures live, he shared his knowledge and passion with students and faculty at the University of California San Diego, where he played a major role in the foundation of Eleanor Roosevelt College. (More here.)

I printed out his obituary and filed it. I will care for his rug as if it were my own family heirloom.

Gained: The small piece of a stranger's life. And $100.

Then, this afternoon, I went shopping for a present for one of Mr. A's former professors. He was having a milestone party, and I'm the default present shopper. A title I am happy to claim.

I figured a pen would be a cliche, and I had too short notice to do something personalized (which would require snooping a bit, talking to his wife, to find out a little more about his interests). I wandered into Nativa, a store with blah furniture but very cute accent pieces, and noticed a silver picture frame. It was for an 8 by 10 photo, manly, distinguished, with a vaguely Native American thing going on.

It was $85, but actually, on sale for half off -- bringing it to around $45 including taxes.

The salesman came up, made lots of small talk, explained that it's from Argentina, a special kind of silver from there. Sounded good, but I wasn't totally sure I should get it. I liked the shape and sheen of the metal, but I also figured I could take a look first at the other stores in the neighborhood. It's full of bookstores and nifty, gifty places.

"Ok, I'll keep it in mind," I said. "I like it, but I'm not convinced it's exactly what I'm looking for."

I turned around and was about to step out the door when he stopped me.

"How much would you like it for?"

Hmm? Interesting!

"I really don't know." This was completely noncomittal. Completely bored.

"I'll give it to you for $30 even. No taxes, nothing. I'll gift wrap it right now."

"You know what? Deal." I figured I could show it to Mr. A. If he thought it was a good match for his prof, we'd give it to him. If it wasn't, then we'd keep it or give it to someone else later. Either way, a silver frame for $30 is a find.

Gained II: $15.
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