Saturday was the one-year anniversary of our move to Grosse Pointe. I marked it by visiting an estate sale.
Now, the rules of estate sales are these: There are few bargains. The prices are too high, and because you’re dealing with an agent and not the owner him- or herself, the prices are firm until the very last hours, when they fall by a predetermined margin, usually half. Which strikes me as ridiculous. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of dickering, but when you’re inviting the world into your home to paw through your old bed linens, clothing and LPs, the least you can do is make the price a little more flexible.
But that’s OK. I’ve come to think of these as cultural spelunking, a license to snoop around in places I’d likely never see otherwise. The sale Saturday was in the Farms, on one of the Good Streets, in an unmistakably Good House, the kind that’s big without being ostentatious, full of long hallways with many doors to slam or hide behind. (I share Joan Didion’s rather sneering dismissal of houses with too much “open space” — doesn’t anyone value a good book and a closed door anymore?) In other words, a WASP house.
Grosse Pointe is a famously WASPy community, or preppy, if you’d like to include the Catholics. The country went through its preppy-love period, but that was a long time ago. The 1980s and everything after reset the standard for wealth in this country, and now when we think of the upper classes we think not of madras and duck prints but Mercedes-Benzes and boob jobs and too much jewelry and private planes and all the rest of it. It’s possible, today, to look at these folks — preppies — and feel sort of sorry for them. I’m sure they were as horrified by what happened to the Republican party as I was.
But they still exist here. Last summer I spotted a woman wearing a grosgrain-ribbon watchband and a necklace of plain silver links, the one closest to the clasp a solid silver oval engraved “T&Co. 1837.” It’s not a neon sign, but it’ll do.
The house I saw Saturday struck me as pretty typical of lots of estate sales — Livia Soprano model stairway lift, general air of dustiness, hadn’t been painted in a generation, you know the drill. The house had great bones, closet space to make one weep with joy. It was the sort of fixer-upper taken on by a young couple with a huge professional income and a drill sergeant of a wife to stay home and oversee it all. When it’s done, they’ll either get divorced, put it on the market or start all over redecorating.
(Note that knowing nothing about the people involved doesn’t stop me from making sweeping pronouncements about them. See how useful stereotypes can be!)
Anyway, estate sales always make me a little sad. At one, in a room so high-ceilinged that the bookshelves that climbed up there had to be serviced by a rolling library ladder, one of the things left to paw through were boxes of family pictures. “Where are the kids?” said one shopper, angrily, flinging a handful back into the box. “This is their history; why don’t they take care of it?” I didn’t point out that every picture seemed to have several duplicates, and it’s entirely possible they each had their own set. Or, it could be that this was a family the children wanted to forget. That’s the thing about estate sales — you can invent your own narrative.
This sale contained only one picture, and it was unlabeled, suggesting it may have been simply forgotten in the move, a picture of a teenage girl and her long-haired date dancing at a prom, unmistakably in the mid-’70s — if “The Virgin Suicides” had been a happier story, it could have been a still from the movie.
Anyway, I wandered around the rooms a few times, picking up and rejecting many cracked plates and chipped glassware, marveling at the copious Christmas decorations (there are always copious Christmas decorations), watching the last shoppers dicker over the dregs. Finally, I made my selection — this silver pitcher. It’s a tennis trophy. Someone was runner-up in the doubles competition in 1966. This was one of half a dozen similar trophies, all engraved silverplate, useful for something other than memory and ego. I rejected two trays and some sort of vegetable dish before finding this, which will look nice holding a few sunflowers or some margaritas this summer. For ten bucks, it’s pretty but useful, the quintessence of prep. I think it’s the closest thing to a Grosse Pointe sacred object you can find.
And speaking of anniversaries, I just remembered: Sometime earlier this month I passed the five-year anniversary of NN.C. I knew I had an excuse to buy something wood this month.