One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure (StoryADay 2014)

Tommy was just a little guy, about ten. He accompanied his mom to every estate or rummage sale she went to—and that was a bunch. His mother was trying to supplement the family’s lower-middle-class income by selling antiques or curiosities at local metropolitan flea markets, so Tommy’s weekend world whirled around scavenging through others’ unwanted items looking for discarded treasures.

He was a hit with the estate/rummage sale crowd for many reasons. Most didn’t expect such a young kid to be so interested in old items. He could carry on an intelligent conversation with anyone about their favorite collector’s item. And that face of his! Curly auburn hair, large hazel eyes surrounding by long curly eyelashes, freckles dotting his nose and cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed smile. He could have been a member of The Little Rascals reborn.

With the money he had earned doing odd jobs around the house and neighborhood tucked away in his old, brown leather coin purse that he had discovered once at a sale in the “Free” bin, he set out with Mom every Saturday with a child’s hopeful heart that that day would be the day that he’d stumble on the lucky find. Most of the time the items he loved were too expensive for his coin purse, and even though he tried to bargain down the price, he didn’t succeed too often.

Yep, he was outnumbered there, so he relied on what most adults didn’t want to do—go through the trash that the people holding the sale didn’t even think would have any takers in the “Free” bin. He’d walk up to the people running the show, usually at the table where “salers” paid for their finds and ask if he could maybe look through the discards, usually overflowing in trash cans or multiple garbage bags. Few could resist the charm of that polite, hazel-eyed, gap-toothed,freckle-faced urchin, and only once had anybody said, “No.”

One Saturday, he and his mom had hit about ten sales and Tommy’s take was pretty paltry—a couple old pictures of people he didn’t know and some raggedy postcards. Mom hadn’t had a very good day either, so even though their limit for a Saturday was usually ten stops, Mom suggested they try one more. It wasn’t that far out of their way. They could afford a few more minutes. By the time they reached the rummage sale in Northeast Minneapolis, he and his Mom could tell that items had already been quite picked over just by driving up to the place. The garage was pretty empty and only a few items of particle-board furniture remained in the driveway. “Should we stop, Tommy, or just drive on?” his mother asked him with a look that told him she was disappointed and tired.

“Yeah, Mom. Let’s just try,” he said, giving her his most sincere expression. “Their trash bin is overloaded.

“Okay, Tommy. We’ll go in, but we only have about ten . . . fifteen minutes.

Tommy looked at the trash bins at the side of the garage. He’d have to work fast if he was going to comb through all that junk—that is if the owners even let him near it. But he wanted to try. Something was calling to him in those trash bins, like they were giving out vibrations that only he could decode.

The owners gave him the go ahead but not much reassurance when he asked if he could look through the trash they threw away. “Go ahead,” said the rotund man behind the cash table, as he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. “I don’t expect you’ll find much. It’s been gone through already. But you’re welcome to give ‘er a try, son.”

Tommy thanked the man and went to work, that vibration calling to him. However, about twelve minutes later, he was near the bottom of the trash and almost out of time. So far, he had zilch, nada, nothing even close. Yet there was that vibration he had that something was there for him. He stretched as far as he could into the last trash can and removed a crumpled piece of brown packaging paper when he uncovered a small cardboard box. As Tommy peered closer he could see that it was decorated with embossed colors of orange, pink and gold. Interesting. He reached to grab it, but the side of the can kept blocking him, even when he bent in as far as he could go, he couldn’t quite grasp the box. Finally, he tipped the can to its side and the box and the rest of the rubbage at the bottom slid down the side until he could claim his prize. The box had seen better days. It was smashed down in corner a bit and the gold leafing was worn on the edges. Tom opened the box and found a round ball of white, homemade soap inside. Like the box it was pretty rustic. To Tommy it looked like some kid had rolled up some Play Doh and left it. Still something about the weirdness of it intrigued him.

He took what he had found to the check-out table and asked if he could have it. The man behind the table took the box and examined it. “Doesn’t look like this is worth anything.” Then he opened it as Tommy had done and found the ball of soap inside. He scoffed as he turned it around in his hand. “I can see why someone hid this!” he said and laughed. “I wouldn’t want anyone to see this if I’d made it either. If you want it, it’s yours,” he said to Tommy as he offered him the box.

“Thanks, sir,” Tommy said as he took the box from the man.

When Tommy got home, he placed the box on one of his many bookshelves in his bedroom and it lay there, untouched for five years where it was totally hidden from view by other oodles of curiosities Tommy had picked up during that time. Finally, one day his mother said, “Tommy, you have to clear off those shelves. There just too crowded. Do you even know what you have on them anymore? Just do one a day. In a week, you’ll be done.”

Tommy had to agree he did not, so reluctantly, he began sorting through the free finds on his book shelves. Two days later, Tommy came to the bookshelf that held the soap box. Tommy shook his head as he grabbed it and remembered the vibration that called him to that box years ago. He opened it and the soap ball landed in his hand like a heavy stone. With a smile, he tossed it a few times into the air and caught the thing. Once it fell and big chunks of soaps smashed into his bedroom carpeting.

He still can’t tell you to this day what made him take the ball to his desk and begin chopping away at it with his letter opener, but he did. Little by little he chopped away until he came to the center. Something was wrapped in what looked like a blue jewelry-cleaning cloth. Carefully, Tommy unwrapped the parcel. Out dropped a ring—quite a gaudy thing, really. Tommy was pretty sure it was some old costume piece, but maybe it would get him ten dollars at a flea market. Actually, it reminded him of an engagement ring—gold band, one round diamond-like stone in the center with four smaller diamond-like stones on either side. He laid the ring on his desk and continued his task of cleaning the shelf.

At dinner time he brought the ring to the table showed it to his family during dessert as they enjoyed there pudding cake. (He’d washed off all the residue “gunk” on the ring so the stoned glistened more brightly.) The family reactions ranged from, “Where’d you get that fake piece of junk?” to “Wow, it hurts the eyes!”

His mother gave the best advice, “You should go have that checked out by a jeweler. It could be real. You never know.”

He did. It was! He and his mother tried to recall where he had picked up the treasure, but they had been to so many estate sales and rummage sales by then that hey couldn’t remember which house it came from. He put an ad in the “Lost and Found” section of the paper. No response.

Tommy learned a valuable lesson from this experience: Pay attention to those “good vibrations.” His next big find—a photo album filled with original pictures of Jimi Hendrix. He tried to give the album back to the owners. Their response to him was quite clear, if brief, “We know what it is. We threw it away. You can keep it.” Obviously, they weren’t sharing in Tommy’s “good vibrations.”

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