Days of the dead
46TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL Everyone sees the neon signs on street posts over the weekend, but only a few types of people actually stop at estate sales. Early on Friday come the re-sellers—professionals intent on securing cheap, high quality goods that can be resold at pricey consignment shops and on eBay. On Saturdays come the casual shoppers, drawn by the novelty of IKEA prices on antique store treasures. And on Sundays, the hard-core hagglers and bargain hunters arrive, ready to seize upon whatever's left for a few small bills.
My husband and I have gone "estate saling" all over the city for the past five years. While we've found plenty of cheap treasures, our real attraction to these final close-outs is their view into a hidden and historic San Francisco.
Walking into these properties, we marvel at the lush backyard gardens never visible from the street, and the secret views never seen from hilltop public parks. As in any scenic city, San Francisco builders smartly sited properties to maximize views, adding up to tens of thousands of private vistas that each offer a unique glimpse of the lambent sunsets, the columns of fog, or the itinerant Telegraph Hill parrots on parade.
We note how interior design styles have changed through the decades, and wonder how the elderly residents of these homes were able to put up with railroad hallways, stairways both too steep and too narrow, and the classic Doelger home's miniature bathrooms.
There are always hordes of tchotchkes, outdated kitchenware, and piles of VHS tapes. But curious, bizarre objects also abound, mostly in mildewed basements where World War II veterans kept elaborate workbenches and harbored unconventional passions. An orthopedist in Forest Hill spent his free time jerry-rigging prosthetic devices in his basement, which, by the time of his sale, resembled a museum for medical patents. One dusty workbench was covered with scale models of world-famous buildings; the architect-collector had traveled to each of the sites and brought home a replica. Now his Hagia Sophia and Taj Mahal perch above our bathroom sink. My favorite find from one of these sub-floor collections was a drink stirrer with a pink, cheeky plastic butt affixed to the top. "Bottom's Up!" the caption read.
Frequenting these sales allows visitors to paint a cultural map of the city that's more nuanced than what you might learn on a City Guides walking tour. Headed out to the Sunset? You'll likely find lacquered furniture, multiple tea sets and jade buddhas — but these might be surrounded by Guatemalan embroidery, Irish beer towels or French literature.
Who knew that Cow Hollow's Union Street used to be a bohemian enclave? Amidst the posh wine bars and jewelry stores, we visited the apartment of a Life photographer and his oil painter wife who collected esoteric religious books, set their table with African textiles and, we imagined, spent evenings seated on the floor listening to sitar ragas. (We now use their Japanese gong to call our family to dinner.)
Stopping in at a sale in Noe Valley with other baby-clad parents, we're delighted to discover a closet full of Carmen Miranda costumes, sequined carnival masks, fishnet tights and feather boas. A gay couple had lived there together since the '50s, each year outdoing one another at Halloween. Thanks to them, our New Year's party last year was extra sparkly.
At a sale just down the street from our house, at the foot of Grandview Heights in the inner Sunset, we inquired about an upright piano. We learned that its owner — a surgeon and well-known jazz photographer — had shot Duke Ellington and other jazz greats playing that very instrument. We never would have imagined that in our quiet hood of dog walkers and weekend gardeners, music history was made.
When we see these homes and prized collections being dismantled and dispersed, we become the last witnesses to episodes in San Francisco history. We get an intimate glimpse of the personalities that used to fill pockets of San Francisco real estate, before many of these neighborhoods became too costly for more than one privileged demographic.
Ultimately, though, we reckon with loss. Someone has died. Their family heirlooms are deracinated; a resale company makes some dough. A family grieves, and is compensated. The perpetual question that these sales seem to ask is: can we, should we, know a life by the objects left behind? When we bring an item home, we feel enriched, as if some facet of our inner world has been represented in solid substance. Yet we can't help seeing these objects as memento mori. As my husband wistfully observed: when we're gone, and after our kids have rifled through our dusty, obsolete books and tchotchkes, we'll likely have one hell of an estate sale ourselves.
Jessica C. Kraft is a San Francisco writer.