Friday, June 8, 2001
At the swap shed, everything is free, even the people-watching
A slow but steady stream of vehicles passes through the transfer station on a sunny Tuesday in June. Spring cleaning and yard decorating passion is at its height now and it's high season at the swap shed, or as nine-year-old Danielle Pedra charmingly refers to it, the Carlisle Gift Shop. Today's inventory of the tossed out items waiting to be seen in a more flattering light by a generous eye includes: a dot-matrix printer, a collection of macramé baskets, one hanging bird feeder, several half-full bags of ice melt pellets, a round banquet table (three-feet diameter), a vintage toaster, a few board games and cookbooks, a twig wreath and copious garland of plastic ivy, a white porcelain lamb with pink cheeks and ears which seems to eye the plastic ivy, some sort of weaving contraption, a roll of tar paper (six-inches diameter), a tape recorder with microphone, a water mattress, a dirt devil and a bag of yarn.
It is really the inventory (partial) of a half an hour, in fact, since business is so brisk it's impossible to keep track of the comings and goings of the merchandise. Dangerous metal ski poles of 1970s vintage have taken their place beside the dirt devil. An antique electric amplifier spends about 30 seconds on the shelf before being lifted by a professional looking young man who takes it confidently, barely stopping to inspect it. A practically new television set and microwave oven swell the outdoor section, giving the area, complete with beige toilet and venetian blinds, a cozy feel. Ah! Don't speak too soon the television set is wheeled away before it even gets a chance to say hello to its neighbors, lengths of rusty pipe, a three-legged lawn chair and a somewhat stand-offish old water heater who is presumably shy about his great peeling flakes of white paint.
The names of certain well-known swap shed regulars had been forwarded to me in advance, and, sure enough, after about ten minutes of perusing "The New Basics Cookbook" and wondering about the loom contraption, a diminutive older woman in large spectacles steps in, picks up a children's book, barely glances at the ski poles, and gives careful inspection to the macramé baskets. Bea Shneider comes to the swap shed every Tuesday and Thursday, tries to avoid Saturdays if possible, "It's just a madhouse," but often finds she cannot, in fact, avoid it. In her 15 or so years of dedicated swapping, Bea has found plenty. Baskets, books, doodads of every shape and size, not to mention drapes, comforters and a beautiful bentwood chair that alas, "Hal didn't like, so I gave it to a friend. Actually, I've given my friends a lot of things," says Bea, but then hastens to correct herself, "I mean the swap shed, via me, has given a lot of things." She's got a nice collection of drapes, she says, and after having them cleaned, husband Hal makes the necessary repairs on his sewing machine. Shneider means tailor in German and his mother was a seamstress, Bea explains.
Back outside, a hurried-looking man pulls up and tosses a wire lawn chair and the rusty lid to a garbage barrel into the pile. One muses on the whereabouts of the garbage barrel itself, a lid being of no use whatsoever without its rusty companion. A mysterious black briefcase has been carefully placed against the wall. A man gets out of a long black car and glancing neither right nor left advances on the black case. He carries it carefully and speeds away without a backward glance . . . Just kidding. But seriously, a mom in a minivan has just the spot for the strands of ivy, a man in a ponytail and a grandmotherly woman both find a suitable board game. Three fashionably dressed women load the two remaining cookbooks and the banquet table into their SUV, and the tar paper and curtain rods disappear into the trunk of a white Lincoln continental, which really does speed off as if from the scene of a crime. A man in a pickup truck eyes the water mattress, checks for damage, mulls and broods for a few moments, decides no.
We watch a silver minivan pull up and stop importantly. Father and teenaged son hop out and start opening hatches and doors. Delivery! They smartly unload a wicker loveseat in perfect condition, two pretty breakfast chairs, armloads of woven baskets (can't get enough of them), and various pieces of lawn furniture.
Bea Shneider breaks into song, "There's an old spinning wheel in the parlor," she sings in her mellifluous voice as she pumps the pedal of a new spinning wheel and solves the mystery of the loom contraption. Skeins of colorful wool spill out of a bag on the floor beside it. Someone will see the spinning wheel, the bag of yarn, and her heart will leap at her own good fortune. Visions of warm woolen blankets and homemade heirlooms will swim in her eyes. An instant hobby, for free, easily discarded with no regrets during the next weekly run to the transfer station. The spinning wheel, however, holds no attraction for Bea. She's not here for practical purposes. She decides on a book for her grandson, which she subsequently gives to me for my daughter, and a few baskets for a friend who collects them. She helps me load the wicker loveseat into the back of my car. I worry at first, since Bea stands tall at just under five feet and probably weighs less than nothing, but she's quicker and stronger than she looks and is not afraid to take charge of a situation.
I conclude that the swap shed changes the nature of giving. If money were no object, how much of it would you actually spend on gifts and tokens of affection for friends and family? A gardening book you're sure your neighbor will appreciate, curtains for a daughter's new home, a porcelain chicken for your friend's collection. At the swap shed, money really is no object, and so generosity ceases to be measurable in terms of dollars spent. If Bea Shneider comes back from the swap shed and gives you a hand-hooked rug for your wood stove or a book of Gaelic poetry because you have an Irish name, you know that for no particular reason at all, she really was thinking of you.
© +YEAR+ The Carlisle Mosquito