The Smuggler's Blues
My father wears blue jeans every single day. It could be a million degrees outside (like this morning) and he’ll still rock denim. He doesn’t own shorts of any kind – not even jorts. He doesn’t do khakis unless it’s black tie. The only other exception to his blue jean policy is a consequence of a bizarre mixture of apathy, intimidation, and simplicity. Any time my friends and I got together for a late night, he would inevitably appear at some point to tell us to quiet down. He would ALWAYS be wearing nothing but an extremely colourful beach towel. His barrelled chest covered only by folded arms.  His hushed tone soaked with an “I’ll kill each of you bare-handed” vibe. These toweled intrusions became the stuff of legends. Everyone was afraid of him, especially me.
Blue jeans and beach towels. That’s his entire wardrobe.
 Think of the trust he placed in the wrap and tuck! The towel never once fell. It was the real MVP.
He paired the jeans with a soft-spun grey t-shirt that read “NASA” and navy-blue Adidas NMD’s. The shirt was once mine. I recently bought him the shoes. He has subsidized thirty-six of my years on this planet and I buy him the odd pair of sneakers. It’s an unspoken arrangement we have and it works for both of us. My father has never gone shopping for himself. The reason for this is a bit more complicated than you might think. It’s not that he doesn’t care about what his clothing looks like. He does. In fact, he appreciates quality garments (though he would never use the word garment). It’s not because he doesn’t know how shopping works or what he likes. He’s very particular and has a surprising eye for fashion. I used to think that it was because he didn’t want to spend money on himself (which is still partly true), but he goes to the movies and nice restaurants at an alarming rate. I think the reason he never shops is because his love language is acts of service. And since love is the central motivating force of his being, shopping never quite makes the to-do list. The notion that he might take his truck to Yorkdale and putt around stores for the afternoon – just trying this or that on – is something he could never rationalize doing. He’s got moves to make – all of which are based on making sure that his wife and kids are moving forward – doing better. I’m sure there are many fathers (and mothers) like this – but, it isn’t just shopping. The same logic applies to hunting, reading, sports, hobbies, travel, video games – anything that isn't work. These things never seem to figure into his equations.
My father hurried past me to open the bank door with his latex gloved hands. He pulled a small pair of black framed glasses from his pocket, then took a step back to adjust his focus before punching in his pin code. The glasses aren’t prescription. They’re the five dollar ones you find in variety stores. My father once boasted that his eye sight was better than twenty-twenty. When I was a kid, he would show off his eagle-like vision, reading articles from newspapers in vending machines from the cab of his truck. We would have competitions to see who could read what, though I don’t remember ever participating (it’s more likely that he pronounced the competition was on and then people ignored him and he declared himself the winner). I’ve asked him to get his eyesight re-tested, but he refuses. Remember, he’s got moves to make (and he doesn’t want an optometrist to re-evaluate his better than twenty-twenty peepers).
I sat shotgun, feet perched on opposing edges of a cardboard box filled with about fifty pounds’ worth of pennies. We had driven for almost an hour without finding a thing. The only yard sale sign we had found read: LEMONADE and Yard Sale. The hosts had failed to include vital details, like their home address. Things seemed bleak.
Unofficial rule to profitable yard-saling: The Saturday of long weekends are (usually) the busiest yard sale days of the year. The pandemic has changed this (and understandably so). We needed some good fortune.
I reached into my draw-string gym bag and pulled out Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. If you haven’t read my earlier posts, Mr. Collins was the winning candidate of a recent “good luck charm” poll. The idea was simple: play No Jacket Required while we yard-sale. If we make a lot of money, keep playing Phil, because he’s lucky. Obviously.
He saw the cd from the corner of his eye. “NO.”
I laughed. “Dad! Why not? He could be good luck.”
“I don’t want your version of good luck. I’ve read your book. Your good luck is my nightmare.”
Wow. Bit harsh.
“Plus, I’ve got this.” My father grinned and shifted his weight, blindly searching his left pocket for a moment before producing a rock. A common, shapeless, grey rock.
“One of your babies had it in the house and I took it from them. I forgot it was in my pocket and I ended up making a ton of money at a call that day.”
“How long have you been carrying it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. A few weeks?”
Phil Collins had been usurped by a driveway rock. Ouch. My father immediately began whistling the tune of Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City”, which was equal parts irksome and, by my estimation, deeply hypocritical.
Fact: My father whistles a lot.
Another Fact: My father only whistle songs that he likes.
He’s not like the rest of us. He doesn’t allow songs that annoy him to bounce around his brain and then sneak out in the form of a whistle. He’s never accidentally sung the first verse of “Uptown Girl” and then exclaimed “Ahh I hate Billy Joel. I can’t get that song outta my head.”
If you like “You Belong to the City”, then you should like “In the Air Tonight”. They aren’t distant cousins. They’re blood brothers. Sonically. Thematically. Lyrically. Mood-ily. They’re alike.
Acclaimed director, Michael Mann, chose Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” for a memorable scene in the first episode of Miami Vice.
He used “You Belong to the City” for the premiere of the second season. This scene had a similar vibe, with a bit less tension (no one was slowly loading a double-barreled shotgun). Over the course of the show, Phil contributed six songs to Glenn’s four. They both appeared on screen for brief acting roles. I’d give the edge to Phil here, too. Phil “The Shill” Mayhew was a more memorable character than the cocaine cowboy, “Smuggler Boy”.
I understand why my father has labelled Phil as lame (even though I disagree). But, I can’t reconcile the fact that he (on some level) appreciates Frey. It’s not fair. If Phil’s uncool, then Frey is, too.
We passed the time telling stories. Some better than others. My father was excited by a sale he had made recently.
“I found this marble thing. You know – ehhhh, I can put my dope in this... and I can smoke my dope.” He did an impression vaguely reminiscent of Chong, for the italicized bit.
“Pardon?” I was going to need more to translate.
“You know,” he said, taking one hand from the wheel and rotating it, palm up, back and forth.
“An ashtray?” I asked.
“Yes! They never sell. I got a bunch for this one, though.”
I’m not sure what was more impressive, the fact that I could get ashtray on the first guess with that “clue” and his bewildering attempt at charades, OR my father’s complete lack of understanding with how smoking works. The man doesn’t drink or do drugs, however, he has been on the planet for fifty-seven years. Surely, he’s seen examples of smoking weed in cinema. That's not how ashtrays work.
The side-road we followed had narrowed to a single lane. A woman walked ahead of us. She was being dragged in different directions by four dogs. An elderly man was walking towards us. My father hugged the edge of the road. The man must have appreciated the gesture. He smiled wide and waved.
“I get a lot of waves,” my father said.
That’s a pretty cute humble-brag, I thought.
Adjusting for the man to pass had brought us closer to the dog-walker, who wrenched her neck back to shoot us a dirty look.
“Not gonna get a wave from her,” I said.
“What does that sign say?” my father asked, ignoring my jab. “Oh, never mind. That’s a pile of garbage.” 
 That optometrist appointment might be a legal matter one day.
The first few sales we found were terrible. My father asked someone if they had any jewelry they wanted to sell. “It can be broken. Maybe you’ve lost one earring, but still have the other,” he added. Condition doesn’t matter if you’re buying gold to melt and people are more likely to sell jewelry that is flawed. Asking for specific items is also a part of the strategy. If you tell people that you collect antiques or you list off dozens of items, it can be overwhelming. It’s sometimes easier to just say no. If you ask for one or two items – common stuff – then the odds of you being invited into someone’s home to inspect their personal collection are much higher. Once you’re inside, you can remark on other pieces and potentially make offers.
“I have a ring,” she said, after thinking for a moment.
“Can I have a look at it?”
“Oh no, I would never sell it.”
Right on. So, you’re just telling us that you own a ring for our personal records? Neat. I’ll be sure to make a note of it. Thank you for your contribution.
We followed a series of signs to the next sale, finding the house with relative ease. Another sign was affixed to the mailbox. It had a small (but damning) difference.
It read: 60% off.
That’s not good.
Unofficial rule to profitable yard-saling: Any time someone is having a sale on their yard sale items, it’s bad news. That yard sale is really a yard store. Prices have been slashed for a reason. All Christmas decorations must go.
We found a sale with a bunch of Popular Mechanics magazines from the fifties. Old magazines can be collectible, depending on the subject matter and condition.
We found two hats.
They seemed like a total shrug, save for the tags.
These aren’t the traditional Mountie hats you associate with the RCMP, but they might hold some value. The sale ended halfway up the driveway. My father wandered off to peak in the open garage. He saw these two items sitting in a box.
An old fire extinguisher and a steam whistle. He asked how much they wanted for both pieces (even though they weren’t actually for sale). He heard the couple’s failed attempt to whisper: “Ask for fifteen, but take ten.”
And just like that, the day was a success. One item (the steam whistle) was all it took. The grey rock had done its job. Phil would have to wait another week.
“Is this Blue Mountain Pottery?”
“No. No, it isn’t. If it was Blue Mountain Pottery, it would have a sticker on it or it would be signed.”
The host paused here, trying to make sense of this last bit.
The aggressor continued. “I have Blue Mountain Pottery and you want me to think it’s real. It’s not.”
These are the kind of maniacal conversations you can find at your local yard sale. I watched on. The host scanned with panicked eyes, left then right, searching desperately for a reason to abandon this unexpected inquisition.
“Is this Blue Mountain Pottery?” she repeated, spacing each word deliberately with extra condescension.
“No,” said the host, almost like she was asking a question (as in: Is this the answer you’re looking for?)
“I thought so. Now, would you take five?”
Unbelievable. The interrogation was nothing more than a negotiating tactic. What’s more, it was done for a five-dollar discount. What? Why? Seriously? How could anyone convince themselves that this was a) necessary and b) socially acceptable. This could’ve been so much easier.
“Would you take five for the Blue Mountain Pottery?”
The rest of the sale was cluttered with things that I recognized to be vaguely antique. These were not personal possessions, but relics of a former hobby or side-hustle. This kind of sale is quite common. The hosts had once collected, probably from yard sales and auctions, and they were now purging. The prices were a dead give-away. Everything was priced close to (or beyond) current market values. These kinds of sales are no fun for me. I don’t enjoy haggling and that’s the only way to make money in a place like this. My father doesn’t mind it a bit. I stood watching, thankful he employed a slightly less insane approach than ol’ Blue Mountain Pottery’s. He lumped four items together and offered fifty dollars. This is a common strategy and most sellers are inclined to offer discounts if a person is willing to take multiple items.
He stopped to study the figurine, pointing out a flea bite (a tiny chip).
“Sixty then,” she said.
“I can do fifty.”
"Sixty." She narrowed her eyes. They paused their negotiations for a quick staring contest. 
Alright, that’s enough of this, I thought. I was getting anxious just listening. I crossed the lawn to a second sale, safely out of earshot. Phew. That was rough.
I noticed a strange package on a nearby table. I moved in for a closer look.
What exactly is a pyjama case? Why does this pussycat look like it has a meth habit? These had to have been a product of the eighties; a time when most things made for children unintentionally scared the hell out of them.  The rest of the table was covered in Thanksgiving decorations and this:
That’s right. This family was selling experimental pharmaceuticals. Morning-after pills meant to bypass hangovers. Only at a yard sale can you find expired medication beside a pussycat pyjama case and a plastic pumpkin-filled cornucopia. I was taking covert photos when a man wearing a shirt with a huge bass on it sidled up beside me. “You look like you could use a flag,” he said, laughing. He pointed at a box of flags near his porch. His laugh sputtered a bit and he choked. He started coughing – lightly at first – then he did that thing where you gasp and hold your breath, then expel a massive blow-horn type blast. He was wearing a mask around his neck. Perfect. I speed-walked down the driveway. He was still gasping when I left.
 He got the four items for fifty dollars. Yikes.
 Labyrinth and The Secret of NIMH say hello.
The last place we visited was a scheduled call. My father gets house calls through advertisements in newspapers and word of mouth. He gathered a few things, lowered the windows, and told me he’d be back in no time.
I didn’t care. I knew he was working. Plus, this was my life from age five to fifteen. I don’t mind saying, I’m an extraordinary waiter. I’ve always had a knack for sitting and doing absolutely nothing.
He emerged alongside a smiling elderly woman with a gentle voice.
“I told him to invite you in,” she said.
“This is my son, Aaron,” he said. I smiled. First at her, because that’s about all you can do now that handshakes are off-limits. Then, at the whole situation. He’s introduced me the same way to a thousand gentle elderly women. It made me feel like a kid again.
“You must come in,” she insisted. “Can I offer you a…”
I held my breath and said a short prayer. Please don’t say butter tart.
“Yes please,” I said, exhaling in relief.
I looked at the table where my father had piled everything he intended to buy. There were dishes, coins, a dagger, a prostethic leg, and something I mistook for a gun. I took a closer look and chuckled. More places for people to “put their dope.”