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Garage Sales: The Battle For Barbie And Humanity

June 2016
Form Nathan Sawaya's touring exhibition "The Art of the Brick." Courtesy of Nathan Sawaya.

Form Nathan Sawaya’s touring exhibition “The Art of the Brick.” Courtesy of Nathan Sawaya.

The title of this story is misleading because Barbie has been losing popularity for years, and you no longer see hair-pulling over a 1969 Velvet Venture coat anymore. But if you want a battle on a Saturday morning in Ottawa, look for Lego.

The garage sale is the opposite of a missile testing ground. You send stuff into your driveway and very little explodes. But when it does the emotions flow like hormones at a teen mingle. Selling Lego is like spiking the punch.

After a bad period about 15 years ago, the building-block company regained its place as the world’s most popular toy. In 2015 it sold US$5.2 billion globally, which accounted for about six percent of the entire world’s toy revenues. That doesn’t even include resales, which could easily double that figure because second-hand sets get snapped up in a heartbeat.

Lego is a burning fuse, igniting both the best and worst in bargain hunters. Ottawa’s version of the home-based flea market has shown me both ends of the spectrum. One produced embarrassment; the other tears.

Just up the street last weekend, I watched a short, old man eying two bins of Lego pieces. Just as he was asking the price, a woman arrived brusquely, grabbed the Lego bins, demanded to know the price and then thrust a few bills at the seller before marching off.

I went over to the man and tried to explain that “garage-sale rules” say that if you don’t have your hands on an item, you don’t have dibs. He smiled and said he didn’t care. His wife was down at the end of the driveway “spending all my money.”

I didn’t ask him his name, but found out he was 72 years old, from southern Lebanon and had come to Canada three years ago to live with his son. He was charming and very passionate about how Lebanon and its people are the most tolerant of all Islamic cultures. He did admit that he had never been able to understand how geo-politics had ripped his country apart.

He didn’t seem angry, and he didn’t want to blame anyone. It was a confusion that very few could even begin to understand.

I was embarrassed that he had been shunted aside by the Lego buyer without so much as a nod. I wish the harpy had heard what he had to say, to see how gentle he was. She didn’t. Maybe she wouldn’t have grabbed the boxes so rudely if she had.

It brought back another emotional experience from a sale last summer that no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget. Again, Lego was the fuse.

I was a buyer, standing in front of a table with boxes of the stuff, all new, all unopened. This was going to be a score.

I looked at the boxes and caught the eye of the seller, a woman in her mid-to-late 30s. While I tried to understand the expression on the her face, another woman who had been standing beside me asked the price. The entire world narrowed down to the three of us. I could feel the competitive bile rising.

I looked at the seller to see what choice she would make. But she couldn’t get any words out. There was something wrong as her face went slack and stare-y.

The other woman looked at the seller, didn’t miss a breath, and said “I am so sorry for your loss. I would like to buy these for my son. I won’t tell him any details, but I will make sure he understands how lucky he is to play with toys that another child can no longer play with.”

What did she know, how, when?

The two women had never met, so the buyer couldn’t possibly have known the circumstances. Except she did. The Lego must have been bought for a child who never had a chance to play with them. The exchange became completely non-verbal, and time slowed way down.

It was a moment of visceral rawness because you step out of your own body and watch as if at a distance, completely apart and completely connected. It’s called “involuntary empathy,” and I imagine it’s similar to the yawn response, where someone yawns and you do too whether you need to or not.

The rules of the garage sale and my place in it couldn’t have drifted further away. I became these two women, strangers yet never closer to anyone else than at that moment. And then there were tears.

Only the luxury of hindsight has allowed me to understand what a gift of complete selflessness those few moments had been. It was an experience where my sense of control and competition couldn’t have been less important. I doubt it can ever be replicated.

I told this story to the Lebanese senior, perhaps to make him feel better about losing the Lego he had wanted. He just nodded his head and said “We used to be like that.”

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