A MODEST PROPOSAL

People who think manufacturing or high technology drives Vermont’s economy are way off base. As anyone knows who has driven down Route 12 on Labor Day weekend, it’s yard sales. One runs a veritable gauntlet of them on every major roadway from the first nice weekend in April to the last one in early November—not just yards, but garages and barns and fire halls and churches too.

In addition to being a basic industry, the sale of unwanted junk is a major component of Vermont’s tourist economy: witness the annual Chelsea Flea Market, when the entire population of that shire town, along with associated out-of-town and flatland hustlers, lines Route 110 and both Town Greens with aluminum folding tables with wonky legs, and sets out to extract maximum revenue from whatever they are eager to be rid of: one-armed dolls, canning jars without lids, polyester doubleknit pants in lime green and burnt orange, those thick cheap vases in which you get arrangements from the florist when you’re in the hospital, crockpots, espresso makers missing a key valve, salad spinners in various stages of grunge, dolls in garish crochet dresses that fit over rolls of toilet-paper, Brady Bunch lunchboxes, and dot-matrix computer printers.

They’re getting more and more prevalent, and more desperate. Witness the pathetic and ubiquitous little piles at the corners of lawns all over the state, topped with a piece of corrugated cardboard sporting a big “Free” in Magic Marker capitals, without which they would be mistaken for items left out for the Casella pickup, which is where most of it will end up eventually.

A number of key demographic trends are driving this phenomenon and, by inference, the rise of eBay and the decline in America’s traditional retail economy over the last decade or so. Simply put: the majority of the population has reached an age at which we have too much stuff. Baby boomers have peaked in their “wealth-building” years (also known as their stuff-accumulating years). Many are looking to de-clutter and simplify their lives in a quest for spiritual purity. In this they are hampered by the determination and cunning of their aged relatives who are downsizing into assisted-living facilities and senior housing.

My mother, for example, routinely presents me when I visit with cardboard boxes, tied up with string and package-taped to withstand earthquakes, whose contents she refuses to divulge. “They’re just a few wee things I thought you’d like to have,” she says, all Scottish-American innocence. “I could always throw them away, but they belonged to your grandmother…” These I will open at home to find such heirlooms as a holey pair of my grandfather’s socks and a few of my grandmother’s Kleenexes, mostly unused. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.

I’d better confess right here that I have a hard time passing a yard sale by. Every now and then, there’s something amazing that you feel sick just to think of having missed—the ultimate score. A sleek black leather jacket that I wear on my forays to Brooklyn comes to mind. A barely-worn full-length mink which I presented to my mother on her 80th birthday, thereby fulfilling one of her life-long fantasies. A Balans chair knockoff that’s kept me from repeat back surgery. Worth every nickel, all of them.

Multiply my situation by a few score of millions, and you have the great American stuff surplus. It doesn’t help that dollar stores are now blighting the landscape with an unending supply of cheap Chinese-produced tchotchkes and enough plasticware to have solved the energy crisis had the oil from which they were made been used for fuel instead of feedstocks. The seductiveness of “look what you can get for only a buck!” has done its part to clutter the basements and garages of Vermont.

Apropos of which, I think I’ve got an answer to the problem of rising energy costs, diminishing fossil fuel supplies, and the imminent demise of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I need to preface this by noting that I yield to no man in my bibliomania—my house is at structural risk from the groaning contents of its bookcases— and I was far more creeped out by the Nazi book-burning scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” than even the infamous “Why did it have to be snakes?” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

That said, I think the solution to Vermont’s energy shortages lies in the combustion of possessions which people have tried in vain to offload at yard sales. Chief among them: Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Honestly, have you ever seen even the most fanatical yard-sale vulture buy one of these? Yet there they are, on the lawns of every participant in Montpelier’s annual Liberty Street Yard Sale—piles of them in cardboard boxes with the flaps torn off, or stacked on the shelf of a scratched and dangerously tipsy wooden bookcase with “$5.00” scrawled in Flair pen on a piece of masking tape. “I’ll throw in the books for free,” the owner says half-heartedly, knowing the attempt to delegate his trash-disposal dilemma will be in vain.

Could even the most devoted literacy crusader mourn the fiery demise of the condensed works of Frances Parkinson Keyes and Louis Bromfield, or even the archetypally Victorian poetical works of Felicia Hemans (she of “The boy stood on the burning deck”),  particularly if the binding is mildewed to blackness from years in a damp corner of the cow-barn? Come on—I’m waiting. I’m not hearing any shrieks of protest. There—I thought not.

Near-infinite as the supply of these blights on the literary landscape seems, they’d need supplementation to constitute a reliable energy supply, which brings me to National Geographics. As eerily well-preserved as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Picture of Dorian Gray, or George Hamilton, they blind you with their taxicab-yellow glossiness in piles on a dusty old school-desk, glow in the web-thickened dark of barn shelves, and sit solid as brick walls in the aforementioned flapless cardboard boxes. No one wants them, but no one can bear to throw them out. There’s no question they have cool pictures, especially those that date from more innocent times when the only acceptable way to depict the naked human breast photographically was jiggling amid the beads and cowrie shells of African tribal dancers. This is also how most of us learned about the aesthetic and medical peril of Cooper’s Droop.

But if you really want them, you can get all the back issues of National Geographic on DVD—my husband has them, so I know this is true—so why not put all that slick biomass to some socially useful purpose? Burn ‘em, I say, along with the Reader’s Digest Condenseds and the cat-clawed cottage-square afghans in colors no one can stand to be around (purple, brown and mustard yellow—what was she thinking?) and the one, battered brown lace-up shoe, and whatever other combustibles are left over from yard sales and failed attempts at edge-of-the-lawn giveaways.

The economic development folks and the utilities should go for this too. There are jobs to be had, for roving fuel-gatherers with trucks and scales who’d pay the hapless yard-salers by the pound for such leftovers from their retailing efforts as can be made to yield up heat and motive power. Their trucks could carry a logo like “Shoes for Industry,” as the old Firesign Theater routine once proclaimed. And the state’s inventors could get busy developing chippers, shredders and pelletizers that can handle multiple materials, from mildewed book stock to polyester doubleknit.

Well, shoes might take a little gasoline for starter, but there’s heat and the promise of energy independence for our brave little state in them thar items, along with the afghans and the National Geographics and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and the back issues of U.S. News and World Report and AgriView and the stained polyester napkin-and-tablecloth set that’s seen one too many Thanksgivings and the bottomless cane-seated chairs so rickety and dried out there isn’t a hope they’ll ever again support a human tush.

And with all due respect to Central Vermont Public Service, they all smell a lot better than cow-poop.

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