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America the Beautiful Bargain

June 29th, 2004 · 5 Comments

Saturday morning I was watering my plants, kneeling over nasturtiums, can in hand, when I heard Ray Charles’ voice. I was sleep-deprived and feeling slightly dehydrated in the heat but I don’t believe I was delusional or dreaming. It wasn’t a song coming to me in a vision from the world beyond this one, but rather a recording blared over the loudspeakers at a school not far from our home.

Saturday was an Island Event. It was the day of the annual Rotary Auction. A day of rummage and exchange. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands. (the last one grossed over $200K, I think) And I imagine that thousands of people show up and take thousands of items from the school parking lot to another home. Like some kind of animal migration, as if they are lemmings or geese perhaps, the trucks and cars are easily spotted that morning as they drive away from the event, rope tied over large pieces of furniture, poles and pipes projecting from corners, windows blocked with new belongings.

As soon as the school year ends, the drop-offs begin. I think every year we have donated items from our own personal collection to join the Rotary’s party. This year I carted over in the van a few books, some clothes, baby gate and a Diaper Genie we used once. The Auction is famous for accepting nearly anything. Anything and everything. From baby clothes to windows to sleeper sofas to skis. Although they decline some larger items and broken ones or require a recycling deposit for others, such as computers. We took our old Mac there one year.

It’s a strange affair. A bizarre bazaar on Bainbridge. It would be a sociologist’s holiday to examine all the treasures and trash on parade. It’s an impermanent museum giving testimony to our material abundance.

I stopped by Saturday morning and tried to get a couple pictures of the display.

this must have been the outdoor furniture/pet section

terrarium anyone? or maybe a cat scratching post?

Although the ropes aren’t dropped until 8 am, crowds begin to gather as soon as the sun rises. Here are pictures of who was waiting in line at 7:15 am, 45 minutes before opening.

at the main entrance

at a side entrance

This is the first year that I haven’t been pregnant or nursing, so at previous auctions I haven’t been able to get up and wait in line at 5 am for a particular item. I could have gone this year, but I didn’t. We decided we have what we need right now.

I’ve had mixed emotions about this Rotary Auction. At first, it disgusted me. It seemed to be to be a festival of greed. I couldn’t believe how people pursued potential possessions with passion, going to the Preview the night before, getting up early and getting in line, setting a strategy, running and racing when 8 am arrived and the auction opened. It seemed like a celebration of stuff. Another way to acquire more belongings. Despite the reality of my existence, I’ve dreamed of minimal living – owning only enough to fit inside a car or perhaps a backpack (!) – so the Rotary Auction repulsed me.

But we have benefitted as a family from the deals we’ve bought there. One year we got an Exersaucer for $5. We’ve bought a bag of clothes for $10. Last year I stopped by the children’s section and bought a doll stroller, a little table and chair set, and a desk, for a combined total of $7 or so.

This year though I decided to stay home. Standing outside watering I listened to Ray Charles. I thought about how he is gone but the Rotary Auction is going on. I thought about how we can leave this life, leave this world, become immaterial, yet our material possesions remain, sometimes long after our death.

I thought about how different life can be from year to year. Last year Ray Charles was alive. Last year, when I heard patriotic songs, I had different thoughts and feelings about America. Last year our family was headed in a different direction. For example, in June 2003, Ted was self-employed and writing a book. Many things change in time. Many things stay the same.

When Ray Charles’ rendition of America the Beautiful ended, then I heard The Star-Spangled Banner begin. This time it was sung live by the Rotary Auction participants. The announcer at the microphone was bold, harmonizing with a note even higher than the high note in the score of our national anthem.

Others were singing too but I wondered if the crowd was truly thinking about the broad stripes and bright stars Frances Scott Key could see by the dawn’s early light. Weren’t most thinking about what they could see in the Rotary Auction lot by the dawn’s early light? Weren’t many people wishing that they could finish the song and get on with the shopping? Didn’t the perilous fight of the lyrics refer to the pushing and shoving that was about to take place in the parking lot as people jostled for position on their way to secure the polka-dot sofa?

All these American songs seemed strange to me. Is this a purely patriotic event, a celebration of our nation, this Rotary Auction? Next I imagined they’d ask people to pledge allegiance to the flag.

But isn’t this festival of materialism about pledging allegiance to stuff? Okay, maybe not stuff, since the Rotary Auction is based on the premise that people are willing to be disloyal to their belongings and donate them. But perhaps pledging allegiance to purchasing? Second-hand consumerism? The amassing of possessions? The inability to be satisfied with our own stuff?

What does it say about America that our island has 23 lawn mowers and ten terrariums and countless office chairs as excess? What does it say about our society that people are willing to stand in line and sacrifice sleep to get that perfect deal they desire? That a Saturday morning is spent filling up pickup trucks with sagging sleeper sofas, multicolored plastic playgrounds and assorted plumbing pipes? What does it say that we seem to seek a sale or think that a bargain automatically makes something a good buy?

Then again, I remembered that the Rotary’s proceeds benefit the schools and library on the island. The pool where we swim has benefitted from the sales. Extra clothes and books are sent to Uganda. Profits from the Auction have gone to aid other countries around the world, through Rotary. For local residents, it is a wonderful way to recycle. Our family has saved money from the sale. We got our $5 out of that Exersaucer, using it for two children. For some, it may be the only time they can find items within their budget, during these tight economic times.

Perhaps the fact that the Rotary can have an Auction like this is part of what it means to be an American. The fact that people want to donate time and materials and do something good for others in the community and the world. That people have the freedom to have an auction and sale. The fact that in this country, people have time and possessions to donate. That, despite my occasional disgust, we have an abundance of goods whether it is deck chairs or bicycles, and that we can buy them or give them away. After a certain hour, the remaining stuff is given away for free – good stuff! It’s a good event. Perhaps this rummage sale might even be an American event. And to think that I became an American for free, by my birth, without having to hassle or fight for it, without exchanging any money, is a bargain.

I began to see the beauty in it all…and started singing along with Ray in the shower…that I was giving the flowers…on a hot and sunny Saturday on an island in America.

P.S. For another perspective (and some island news/rumors!), read how Chip Gibbons enjoyed the Auction.

P.P.S. If you’re interested in finding some great bargains…come to Bainbridge Island next year on the last Saturday in June….

Tags: island

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob V // Jun 29, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    I think it is telling that you had this revelation at the Rotary auction and not somewhere else. After all, you could say that any business transaction is a lesson in greed–both parties feel that they benefit from the exchange. The logic applies whether you are in line at Walmart or at Nordstroms.

    What about those who stay home though? Are they not greedy? Aren’t they simply amassing their wealth? You could argue that they are greedily clinging to their dollars rather than purchase something they might get some use out of.

    I think you hit an important point when you critiqued those who were singing the national anthem. Patriotism happens in the heart, not in the tongue. Similarly, if you have a greedy heart, it will remain greedy regardless of whether you hoard your money, spend it frugally, or spend it lavishly. Thoughts are often uncorrelated with actions.

  • 2 Kris Hasson-Jones // Jun 29, 2004 at 3:51 pm

    Hrrrrmmmm, how negative. When I sing the National Anthem, I’m suffused with patriotism. I think about the history of the song, and of other conflicts within and without our borders and the varied responses we’ve had to them as a nation.

    I also don’t understand the demonization of things. Things help make life better. Things make room for me to be mindful of other, more important things (concepts, people, philosphy, religion). Things make it possible for some people to live full lives, people who might otherwise be stuck in a bed somewhere waiting to be cared for.

    Finding a bargain is a valuable skill. Conserving your resources this way is good, not bad. I’m a Jew, not a Christian, but isn’t there a parable in the New Testament about the servant who increases the money his master gave him being the best?

  • 3 The Binary Circumstance // Jun 30, 2004 at 12:15 am

    It’s About Values

    Julie Leung has a lot to say about the Bainbridge Island Rotary Auction. I’ve had mixed emotions about this Rotary Auction. At first, it disgusted me. It seemed to be to be a festival of greed. I couldn’t believe how

  • 4 Julie // Jun 30, 2004 at 1:50 am

    Thanks for the comments, Bob and Kris.

    Bob, to me there is something different about seeing 53 lawnmowers on display at the store compared to seeing 53 lawnmowers that people bought and have as excess. It’s a bigger visual picture. It speaks to me about consumers rather than companies. And it speaks to me about stuff that we buy that we don’t really need or use.

    What struck me this year, as I was standing outside hearing the announcer, was the patriotic introduction to the Auction. Is this rummage sale of sorts truly an American event? What does the Star Spangled Banner have to do with recycled stuff? What’s the connection between America and material posesessions? Those were the questions going around in my mind.

    And I suspect that others might have felt a disconnect too. I suspect most people were just biding the time so that they could buy what they wanted. It’s easier to say the words than to mean them, I agree, Bob. But I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. I hope that others were thinking about what Kris described, the history, glory and battles of our nation.

    Kris, I’m sorry this post was negative. I had some experiences growing up that have affected how I view belongings and possessions. I guess at times I am still wrestling with the impact it had on me, especially when I see such a huge display like the Auction.

    Bob, I appreciate your point about greed. It is true that a greedy heart cannot be hidden by either hoarding or spending.

    My own heart has its problems. Thinking about the Auction and writing about it has revealed to me that I struggle with patriotism and possessions.

    What I also realized that morning and should have emphasized more in my post, was how grateful I am to be an American. My birth in this country was a beautiful bargain.

  • 5 Kris Hasson-Jones // Jul 12, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for your response. I have my own issues about things and possessions: at least twice during my childhood we left where we were with only the clothing on our backs, and started over somewhere with nothing. So I have nothing from my childhood: no doll, no favorite books or clothes I wore and loved, no pictures I drew.