Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pickers Can Be Choosers

Some of you know I grew up in my mother’s antique shop. It turned out to be one of the most interesting after-school programs ever. For one thing, the people I met who wanted to sell or buy antiques were fascinating. “Where does your mom get her antiques?” people would ask. Just about everywhere.

The auctioneers were colorful fellows, usually in possession of a large barn and a lot of parking. Dallas, the auctioneer nearest my mother’s shop, was seldom without his personal bottle of Orange Crush soda that was, we speculated, enhanced with something akin to clear rocket fuel. He had a swagger when he walked, regardless of the level of Orange Crush in the bottle, sandy hair and the promise of a heroic “dunlap” over his belt. He seemed neutral about kids, so my brother and I determined we would try to sustain that opinion so we could continue to watch the drama of bidding and the often fascinating things up for bid. It was a great place to learn body language and other colorful things. There were those who felt they hid their thoughts well who did not and those who did. Often the people with the most money looked the least like it. Another favorite auctioneer was Tommy. Nearly opposite to Dallas, Tommy was dark, wiry, lean and stayed toward the background of things until the auction itself started. His barn was in the country on a small farm. He had kids we played with, a mulberry tree we climbed and animals we viewed with respectful interest. We only got into trouble with our mother there after dyeing our shoelaces with mulberry juice. In those auctions, though, we learned a little history, learned a little bunk and learned a little human nature.

Mom didn’t just buy at auctions. There were itinerant sellers called “pickers” who stopped by on their circuit. They often lived in their cars or trucks and made a constant round of their sources and buyers, picking the best from yard and estate sales and getting to know the tastes of their buyers. One picker we got to know was named Orville. The first thing you noticed about Orville was the smell. Antiques, especially in Florida, have a sort of musty smell, one I’ve come to love as much as fresh baked bread. In the 1960’s nearly all adults I knew smoked cigarettes, cigars or a pipe. Even a few chewed tobacco or used snuff. That added to the odor collage. But Orville’s waft transcended all of that.

Orville just plain did not get enough baths. He kept his hair close cropped to his head, likely self-administered to save money. He drove a station-wagon which always seemed to be on its last mile and yet he traveled from Pennsylvania to Florida in a fairly regular transit. The trip included stops along the way to find treasures and sell them. Orville had a pretty good eye for quality and a bargain.

It was this combination of quality merchandise at an affordable price that allowed my mother to basically hold her nose for Orville’s entire visit. You would have to know how straight-laced and hygienic my mother was to understand what a sacrifice to her own values this was. However, I recall that she did often position him at the doorway to the shop so that plenty of fresh air was available to carry off Orville’s other “wares” down the highway. Orville could get an amazing amount of quality furniture, china and glassware stuffed into that car. Often it was just easier on all of us to go to his car. It of course smelled a lot like Orville and was often weighed down beyond recommended limits, adding to the last gasp atmosphere.

To top it all off, Orville was just as nice as could be. He was friendly, kind and generous. He liked kids and liked the fact that we viewed him as a sort of “Stinky Claus” with a greasy sleigh and tattered bag of wonders, although we would have swallowed our socks before ever mentioning his particular characteristic. One day, Orville arrived at the shop announcing that he had brought me a present.

I was always a little afraid of the “friends” of my mother who offered me presents during the sales process. It wasn’t just the “don’t take candy from strangers” thing, but I knew, even when I was little, that the present was just a bribe to get Mom to buy more of their stuff. After a while, I resigned myself to thinking that the joke was on them and became wary only of their tastes in presents for me.

With Orville, it was different though. I was terrified of hurting his feelings, this charity held at bay only by the aura of his personal atmosphere. I learned to be articulate in my gratitude from a distance as part of self-preservation. This time, Orville was really excited at the present he had brought for me, a surprise covered in packaging. It was a dal.

And, no, I didn’t understand what he said. I made him repeat it over and over and over again, the way only an 8 year old can with a tired, well-meaning adult who has spent too much time behind the wheel of a tightly packed car. I didn’t get it. I blinked at Mom. Orville blinked at Mom. We were stuck. “Dal,” he kept saying, rhyming with pal or gal.

I envisioned the word from my phonics classes in school, far pre-dating the Hooked on Phonics programs. There it was emblazoned on my imaginary blackboard in yellow chalk: D – A with that short-vowel loop over it – L. What on earth was he saying?

Finally Orville gave up in defeat, unable to understand why I, an otherwise normal-seeming child with at least reasonable skills, did not know such a common word. He opened the box for me and showed me the “dal.” I prepared myself for the magic to be revealed, like the 6 of Cups.

“A doll,” I said softly, my eyes popping out at the realization of the language variation much more profound than the present itself. “You mean a doll!” I took said doll with reverence into my possession, not wanting Orville to know that, for the most part, I detested dolls. I was overcome with the emotion of his generosity. The baths he had passed up to bring this to me. The presents he might have brought to his own children instead, the children somewhere in southern Pennsylvania he saw so seldom. “Thank you, Orville.”

“You say it funny,” he said. We all laughed. “You say it like you’re swallowing. It’s far back in your throat,” Orville marveled.

“You say it right behind your teeth,” I countered. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of spoken language variations, one that led me to a love of American regional dialects, evolution of language and the structure of human thought translated into meaningful symbols and sounds. I ended up getting a BA in English, focusing on literature. But my first love was the language itself.

And, Orville, you’re right. I do say doll funny.

Best wishes.

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