The man speaks slooow and LOUD, as if to a person who doesn't know her hearing aids have failed.
"It's just stuff I have," he says. "And now I'm getting rid of it. We're moving."
"But how do you happen to have three glass jewelry display cases?" I ask.
"At one time I sold jewelry."
"But that doesn't explain the Kleen-rite wet/dry drapery cleaner."
"Well, I also used to clean draperies," he says. "Look, are you interested in buying it?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Lemme ask you -- how do you happen to have 'hundreds of Playboys from 60s to 90s?'"
"It's just a thing some guys have," he says, now truly exasperated.
"So why don't you want them anymore? They must be worth a fortune."
"Yup. And that's why I'm selling them, okay?"
"I still don't get it," I say. "What do all these things have in common?"
"You have to ask? They're miscellaneous."
Right, right. Miscellaneous is the only category that could possibly bring together a drapery-cleaning machine, a basement-load of lite porn, a jewelry display case and, oh, yeah, a 300-watt Pioneer stereo amp. Miscellaneous is also where you will find a collectible doll, a wheelchair and a pet carrier, all looking to be liberated from their owner...a paraplegic doll collector whose dog can't walk, either?
I love the miscellaneous section of the daily newspapers' classifieds. It gets me thinking. Whenever I get sick of the inside of my own head -- and much of the outside world, at least as depicted in news stories -- I spend a restful twenty minutes reading miscellaneous. And in the process, I glean little lessons about life. Really. Here are some of my gleanings in recent years.
1. Home exercise is a pointless venture at which everyone fails. There is not a single lot of miscellaneous that doesn't include at least one "exercise bike, never used," "weight bench with one dumbbell" -- what happened to the other one? -- or, most typically, a Nordic Track. As far as I can tell, no Nordic Track machine has ever delivered on its promise of sleek Nordic fitness, and the machines take up a lot of room. This is space in which you could otherwise store a pile of old Playboys or a Snake Prudhomme funny car -- but I'm getting ahead of myself. And so the Nordic Track is eventually sold, at a loss.
2. No one owns one of anything anymore, except a dumbbell. If someone is selling one solid cast-iron Kohler sink, he is inevitably selling four or five of them, and almond-colored refrigerators always come in sets of three or more. Of toilets there is an incredible bounty. Miscellaneous is where you can find a BIG toilet, too -- one with EPA-flouting gallons of stored water, a relic from the good old single-flush days.
3. Marriage often forces a man to change his ways. Otherwise, why would he be selling off his Jet Ski, three guitar amps, two non-running Chevy Novas (in boxes, but priceless) and all of his model rockets? Marriage is the culprit, without question, since he offers to trade all of this for a sewing machine, a motor home or a late-model car that gets good gas mileage.
4. Divorce makes a woman bitter and pressed for cash. Divorce is what causes her to put "beautiful size 8 wedding gown with pearl stitchery, only worn once, $125" on the miscellaneous market.
5. The word "goat" has several layers of meaning. If it's a genuine goat you seek, you need only go straight to Livestock in the classifieds, a category clogged with African Pygmies and other small species. (Or check out www.cybergoat.com for a glimpse into one of the most compelling animal-husbandry obsessions of all time.) In miscellaneous, however, a goat is never just a goat. Last week I called on two goat-related ads.
Call One -- in which the goat-related item is offered along with "guns, lathe, welder and more":
Me: "I'm calling about the goat wagon."
Them: "No, honey, we ain't sold it yet."
Me: "Well, what is it?"
Them: "Why, it's an ornamental, with twelve-inch wheels, about 36 inches long, and it sets out on the lawn, and that's all it's meant to do. It's made of wood."
Call Two -- in which the goat-related item appears alongside "tractor/mower, PT8, CR-125, and Schwinn bike":
Me: "Have you sold the Tote-Goat yet?"
Them: "Nope. It's $400, firm."
Me: "What's it for?"
Me (wildly guessing): "Like for dragging dead animals out of the woods with?"
Me: "Does the dead animal have to be a goat?"
6. There may or may not be a fascinating mystery behind every offloading of miscellaneous stuff. Perhaps some stories are better left untold. Whenever I see an advertisement for everything a small child owned, from changing table to first communion dress to two-wheeler, I get nervous: Is that little person still among us? And it's hard to face the obvious heartbreak inherent when someone is selling "nice wedding dress" and "scuba tank, nearly new." Why would the woman who placed the ad sell these two items if she hadn't been jilted at the altar, shattering all of her dreams and ruining a perfectly good Caribbean diving honeymoon?
"No, it's not that complicated," says Claire, not her real name, when I call to commiserate. "I got married in the dress, but I've been divorced for thirteen years and I don't need it anymore. The scuba tank belongs to my second husband, and he figures there's not much he can do with it in Colorado."
Every once in a while, Claire adds, she and her current husband sell a bunch of stuff, and it always seems to fit the miscellaneous niche. Among the items they've jettisoned are "a whole boxing gym. You know, the whole thing, the gloves, the bag the ring..."
"Why did your husband have a whole boxing gym in the first place?" I ask.
"I don't remember," Claire answers helpfully.
7. Not all miscellaneous stuff is created equal. Some of it almost qualifies for the more impressive classified category of collectible. I'll bet you can't guess what. Take Kim, for example. Her husband, Ernie, is into automotive collectibles, most particularly the Hot Wheels cars I used to trip over when I was a teenage babysitter and which probably came free with Happy Meals at some point in time. Kim makes it sound as if a tide of these tiny cars washes through her house each week. And then Ernie upped the ante by being unable to resist the "Snake Prudhomme Funny Car," which he bought last week and is selling this week. You can have it for $1,000, or best offer, or trade for it.
But it helps if you know what it is.
"It's a go-cart," Kim explains. "You know, a funny car. It goes about 35 miles per hour."
"Who's Snake Prudhomme?" I ask.
Kim is too polite to say "Duh," but it's the thought that counts. "Snake Prudhomme is a pretty well-known dragster," she sighs.
I decide to change tacks. "Have you ever known a piece of home-fitness equipment to become collectible?" I ask.
"No way," she answers. "Never."
8. I know where you can find a thirty-gallon rodent-proof barrel, but you'd better hurry. Only five are left. Rodent-proof barrels are all the rage on the eve of the millennium, apparently, as people prepare emergency stores of grain, or dog food, or freeze-dried stroganoff, or whatever.
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"They try buying the big plastic garbage cans, and the squirrels eat right through them," says Pete, the man who is selling the barrels. "One woman called me and said she had tried ten different plastic containers and the squirrels ate through each one. I'm exceedingly surprised that she wasn't able think this through before purchasing ten inadequate containers. But people are like that. They have, for example, no concept of chemistry. I have people telling me they will store water in these steel containers. I have to explain to them about rust."
Pete is as surprised as anyone that by advertising in miscellaneous, he consigned himself to spending so much of his day talking with and advising survivalists. A retired geochemist, he found himself with fifty steel barrels on his hands when he started selling off his oil- and gas-business equipment a few months ago. "Originally, they were used to transport oil-shale core samples," he says. "My first ads didn't mention rodents. I figured people could use them for whatever they wanted. But then I began hearing from these kooks, and I thought, hmm, maybe 'rodent-proof' will sell these barrels."
He was right. The week the rodent-proof ad came out, Pete sold 45 barrels, at $18 per, "clamp lid" included. "I think these people are all pretty crazy," he admits. "I don't think there's going to be any sort of eruption on New Year's Eve, other than if everyone gets on their phones and computers all at the same time, just to see if they work. But that's just what I think. I was on the phone with this one man about the barrels, and he goes, 'What's that clicking? Are you being surveilled by the FBI?' and I said, 'I don't know. How about you? Are they surveilling you?' He said, 'Yeah,' and hung up fast."
9. I also know where you can buy beautiful, Oriental-style green-and-white light fixtures from McNichols Arena. But I'm not telling.