Yard Sale Tale

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I’ll never know why didn’t he snap up the vintage photo of Public School 238’s eighth-grade graduating class. He had a really good reason to do so — but maybe an even better one to leave it be.


Who can doubt that flea markets are museums?


Yard and garage sales are those museums’ feeder galleries, and all of them provide a surprise immersion into the lives that neighbors past and present have led. Those of us who are hypnotized by these object lessons in popular culture also understand that the rich discards displayed for sale have soaked up buckets of emotional juice — some actually vibrate with survival after years of use and handling.


You may be stopped cold by one of these items, petrified by its story.


Faithful yard-salers, even the most blithe or cynical, will recognize each particular madeleine, be it the ceramic ashtray identical to the one your dead father filled or the old postcard of a pastel hotel you happened to have stayed in when, as a tan young man, you discovered the salty taste of a stranger’s kiss.


I can’t remember at which parking lot or upon what lawn I found the sepia graduation photo of the “Class of June 1949, P.S. 238, Brooklyn,” showing rows of boys in suits and ties and coy girls in cliche-prim white blouses. I do know that I bought it because it was my very own school, the one I attended from the first to the seventh grade — at which time we moved abruptly from the tulip-lined plots of East 8th Street to a raw, swampy development in Howard Beach, Queens, directly under the path of flights to and from Idlewild Airport. We learned to lip-read at our new apartment, because no episode of Gunsmoke or Alfred Hitchcock Presents could be watched without the deafening interruption every few minutes from the roar of a plane. Funny how you become accustomed to regular holes in a plot and learn to fill in the blanks. I was well-prepared for postmodernism.


That photo, though of a much earlier class, still pushed me to recall the names of my teachers: third grade’s plump, encouraging Mrs. Horween; the disgusting Mr. Barash, who clipped his nails at his desk and never answered questions; the wondrous Miss (Jane) Costello, whose clearheaded kindness and direct intelligence I will never forget. You probably don’t care to read about how she passed around Halloween apples with hidden coins stuck in them, pennies in the large ones, nickels in the littlest, to make her modest moral point. I can still hear her calm voice, see her generous gray-blue eyes. That’s my treasure, not for sale.



schnabel2.jpgJustice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to P.S. 238, and so, I read, did artist-director Julian Schnabel. It must have been a “good” school.







Selling Day


So, the photograph under glass in its ridged wooden frame is propped against a box on a lawn, part of our yard sale, along with more than a hundred material friends.


The day, hot as blazes, goes by quickly as folks stroll among the stuff. Some shoppers are grim, even offended. “That ’10’ is dollars? Should be cents!” one shouts, referring to a Mexican tourist-ware candelabrum of inlaid brass. Others are genial and happy to finger whatever’s in front of them.


An older man and woman come by. They are somewhat sloppily dressed for their age, though their car is hybrid and expensive. She picks up a single dish with an ugly floral rim and turns it over. “I know who designed this. Now what was his name?” she asks aloud. I had a dollar on it, a steal.


Her companion lifts the school photo.


“That’s from Midwood, Brooklyn,” I say from my aluminum chair.


“I know.”


How does he know?


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“I went there,” I add.


A pause.


“So did I.”


No, that can’t be. I get up and walk over, wondering how old I look, at least compared to him. “What class were you in?” I ask.


He doesn’t acknowledge me, so I move away, not wishing to disturb or pressure him.


“This one. This is my class.”


With that, his companion and I rush over to watch him examine what he’s holding.


“That’s me,” he says, matter-of-fact, as he places his finger on a dark-haired boy in the back row, third from the left. I steal a glance at this man beside me, at his tired eyes, his dull hair, and then down at 1949. Yes, a resemblance is easy to imagine.


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                         “That’s me” (top row, center) 


He then points to three or four different faces, boys only, and names them — Jewish- and Italian-sounding, I think, but it’s a shame I can’t remember exactly.

Talking mostly to himself, he explains that the school didn’t want to let the fellow on the end of his row be photographed because he had arrived with a casual jacket on, not a proper suit or sportcoat. Yet for some reason they relented, as we can see — which seems to amuse him. Then his expression sours, and he puts the photo on the ground.


“It was Frederick Rhead,” she cries, suddenly remembering who designed the small ivory plate that she identified from the backstamp. “He taught at Pratt. I went to Pratt.”


Rhead is an English-born potter and designer who came to the U.S. and worked in Ohio, California, and West Virginia. A circa 1915 vase of his was sold in 2007 for more than half a million dollars (at the auction house of David Rago, whom you may recall from Antiques Roadshow and who once had long brown hippie-hair). But Rhead is best known for Fiesta ware, those stolid, solid-color, mix-and-match dishes that came to signify “collectible,” adjective and noun, to pre-eBay vintage shoppers. I happen to collect dishes and detest Fiesta’s sledgehammer colors and leaden forms (below, left). Rhead’s frivolous Harlequin line, sold at Woolworth’s, is another story (creamer in maroon, below right).


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harlequin creamer in maroon.jpgI had no idea Rhead was at Pratt; he died in New York, in 1942, so it’s possible. You learn many things at yard sales. Earlier in the day, a stern visitor had told me that a dangerous-looking tool in un-Bakelite colored plastic that I’d labeled with a question mark and “50¢” was a lemon juicer and seeder — she grabbed it up, too, looking at me as if I were an idiot. I’ve since done a bit of Rhead research, but found nothing about where he taught.


The Pratt student buys the plate, at full price, and both begin to walk to their car. I’m confused.


“You don’t want the picture?” I call out. What are the odds of such a perfect meeting between subject and object? It’s only $15, but I’d give it to him free, with my blessing. Objects have natural homes, and they should go where they belong.


He turns to me, and on his face is a look I still cannot fathom: a disturbing blend of disinterest and discomfort. He says nothing, and they leave.



School Days


Later, after the lawn is cleared and orphans boxed for donation, I try to understand what happened. Logically, my visitor was probably telling the truth, but if not, what a creative liar he was: spotting that errant boy in the gabardine top and riffing on his plight, swiftly inventing names, and best of all, pointing at a random young man he claimed to be himself. Which of all those smiling faces would you choose to be you?


No, that must have been him, almost 60 years ago. So why didn’t he carry it home?


He already had one. He didn’t like “things,” and his magpie wife kept loading their nest with uselessness. He avoided photos — some do, for a variety of reasons, especially photos of themselves. He was bullied in school and hated that part of his life. He was in love with a girl in the class photo who rejected him meanly, to his everlasting anger and regret. He was in love with the gentle boy beside him, the one with the glasses to his right, but soon after graduation he found out that this adored buddy preferred that guy in the wrong jacket who shouldn’t have been in the picture at all.




Names are rarely exchanged at yard sales. Reader, do you know anyone in the P.S. 238 photo, or is it possible that you may compound an already impossible coincidence by identifying yourself?



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