Such a Deal!

On a sweltering hot day in early September, a red-haired woman with manicured fingernails is scrounging around the dirty floor of my two-car garage. She thinks she has spotted pocket change.

"O-o-o-o, this is good," Helene Glazer coos, picking up some coins and slipping them into her pocket. "When I find money, it means we're going to have a good sale."

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a zebra losing his stripes and the words "I think I'm having stress," the 61-year-old grandmother is in the process of transforming the dusty contents of my overstuffed closets and bulging cabinets into a mini-store in my garage. She calls it "merchandising."

Swinging a hammer, Helene drives nails into the wall to display old purses and hats. Odd, never used wedding gifts--Do real people drink out of demitasse cups?--and assorted housewares--a Venetian blind and ceiling fan cleaner given to us by the original Heloise, my mother--are carefully placed on a table Helene has brought and neatly covered with a tablecloth. She arranges the half dozen or so pieces of our old furniture into cozy groupings resembling real life tableaux--a conversation pit here, a faux kitchen there, a study complete with book-laden rattan bookshelves.

Helene Glazer has made our discarded belongings look downright inviting--even, I realize with a twinge, to us.

It's 8 a.m. on a Thursday, a half-hour before the beginning of our three-day rummage sale; looking out the window, I see that people have formed a line that snakes from the closed garage door down the driveway. Most of the early arrivals are garage sale regulars who have seen Helene's fluorescent orange signs on road medians bragging "Fabulous Sale."

An aggressive Vietnamese woman who comes to almost all of Helene's sales--Helene once threw her out of a North Dallas sale because she grabbed a bracelet out of another customer's hand--is first in line. She had showed up at our house the night before the sale and tried to talk us into letting her get a jump on the competition--a dedicated garage saler dodge.

Although Helene has been a garage sale guru for five years now, she still gets the jitters right before each one. To calm her stage fright, she turns the battered radio she totes to each sale to WRR, and strains of classical music waft through the hot, clogged garage.

Helene takes long, slow, deep breaths, then exhales. At precisely 8:30 a.m. she opens the garage door and the morning light streams in.

When she was younger, Helene Glazer and her stockbroker husband ran with a lively crowd. They were regulars at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room, where they had front row tables at performances by '70s stars like Lou Rawls, Rita Moreno and Phyllis Diller. When the show was over, Helene's entourage--celebrities in tow--frequently headed to the Glazers' North Dallas ranch house, where they partied and kibitzed into the night.

The Glazers were also part of a glitzy, if graying, social constellation that had formed around KVIL radio stars Ron Chapman and his former sidekick, traffic reporter Suzie Humphreys. Helene and her husband participated in the inaugural KVIL listeners' trip to Hawaii, where the gang hung out with Sammy Davis Jr. and attended many other equally rollicking KVIL excursions that followed.

It was on one of these trips that Humphreys gave Helene the affectionate sobriquet "Madame Push," in honor of the way the fun-loving North Dallas housewife pushed her way into the center of all the action.

Back then, in the late '70s and early '80s, Helene's life seemed just what she was groomed for--a happy-ever-after fairy tale of privilege and protection: a wealthy husband, two beautiful children in private school, horses, jewelry, first-class trips to Europe. On one such European holiday, she purchased a slate gray Mercedes sedan and accompanied it back to the States aboard the QE2 cruise liner.

But nine years ago, the image of Helene's seemingly ideal life shattered. She discovered that her daughter, Stephanie, barely graduated from high school, was hooked on cocaine. As Stephanie fought her way to sobriety, Helene's marriage of 29 years crumbled. She says she wanted out because she felt the marriage was emotionally bankrupt. What she didn't know, until the divorce was finalized three years later, was that the Glazer finances were almost bankrupt as well.

At age 57, Helene Glazer, the homemaker and executive's helpmate, found herself single, penniless and scared to death. She had never had a real job in her life, and was utterly unprepared to get one. She pawned her jewelry and took in boarders at her four-bedroom house near the Galleria. After a series of temporary receptionist jobs, the woman who always wanted to be an entertainer found she had a talent that put her at center stage in the city's longest-running traveling show.  

Five years ago, Helene Glazer discovered the untapped potential of garage sales. By organizing and running garage and estate sales--in return for 30 percent of the proceeds--Glazer has created a substantial business. Her rummage sales are so highly regarded that she has never had to advertise; through word of mouth she stays booked months in advance.

Though the work is often backbreaking, and the ambiance somewhat less than the Venetian Room, running garage sales has its fringe benefits. Besides a solid income--the exact amount is a secret she jealously guards, except to say she put money into savings for the first time last year--Helene has joined a fascinating subculture of fortune hunters and the simply unfortunate. Her sales have made her lifelong friends among antiquers, garage sale addicts and lonely souls. This cast of characters has provided her with so many zany stories over the years that she enrolled in The Improv comedy school at the urging of some friends, who found her tales hysterically funny. Stand-up comedy didn't work out as a career, but Helene's comic outlook and timing comes in handy--in closing deals and hanging on to her sanity.

Just as Helene's roles of mother and wife were drawing to a close, her garage sales career provided new ones; for the people whose sales she conducts, she has become a cross between psychiatrist and friend. She frequently enters their lives when they are most vulnerable--after a divorce or death of a loved one. For a brief moment, she becomes part of the family. As she paws through their most intimate belongings, she hears about their pain.

Helene often finds herself consoling people of two minds about selling off their loved ones' cherished items. In reassuring the grief-stricken, she tells them "garage sales are the ultimate in recycling."

Through those same sales, Helene Glazer has managed to recycle herself, scrounging valuable talents she didn't know she had, and rebuilding a life that in many ways is richer than her former one.

Five minutes into my sale, Helene is aggravated. The Vietnamese woman demands to know where the camcorder is. Apparently she buttonholed my husband the night before, and he told her some of the sale's contents. But no camcorder lies on the table.

Unbeknownst to Helene, I committed a garage sale faux pas. I allowed a painter working in my home to buy the broken video camera. He paid $10 for it. I don't dare confess to Helene.

The Vietnamese woman offers a crisp, new $100 bill for it and I feel very stupid--how could I have ever doubted Helene's wisdom? I tell the woman who has the camera, but she is undeterred. She sits on my front porch for a half hour waiting for the painter. She confronts him as he pulls up, but he refuses to give up the camera, even after I promise him some of my profit. Interestingly, the woman doesn't make the painter the $100 offer.

The camcorder calamity eats at Helene throughout the day, but she manages to keep her mind on business. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony resounds off the garage walls as strangers rifle my once-cherished belongings. One woman takes a fancy to a pair of orange and purple crystal earrings a dear friend once gave me. For some inexplicable reason, the friend and I no longer speak, and the earrings trigger a reverie, reminding me how much I miss her. If Marcel Proust were writing today, it would not be a La Madeleine pastry that would trigger a Remembrance of Things Past, but a gew-gaw he had put on a garage sale table.

By the end of the first day, Helene is worried that we don't have enough stuff to sustain the sale over three days. I feel guilty, as if I'm letting her down. That night, I madly rummage through closets looking for things to sell. I have the fever. My kids stay clear, fearing they'll wind up marked down on a table in the garage.

Sitting in dank, hot, musty garages week after week, Helene Glazer is a long way from her once-affluent North Dallas lifestyle, or from the suburbs of Philadelphia, for that matter, where she grew up, the youngest of three children born to an insurance salesman who made a comfortable living. She met her future husband through friends, then moved with him to his hometown, Dallas, to join his wealthy Jewish family.

Looking back, Glazer says, she was simply a product of the times, playing the parts others had created for her--somebody's daughter, wife, mother.

"I never knew who I was," she says. "I became who I was supposed to be. Then I woke up at 58 and realized I was living with a stranger--me!"  

She had been living with another stranger, a man who was fun, but emotionally withdrawn, she says--a trait that became increasingly harder for her to live with as their children grew up and prepared to leave home. Her adopted daughter Stephanie's drug addiction was a seminal event in the family. At first it brought the parents closer, but in the end, created an irreparable rift between them.

Helene attributes her first suspicions about her daughter's drug habit to maternal intuition. The summer before Stephanie Glazer left for college in Arizona, she grew increasingly distant from her family. She was unusually secretive and went through large sums of money.

Helene confronted her one day as she lounged in the family pool. Stephanie admitted she used cocaine occasionally, but that it was no big deal. Helene was not convinced, and called a local psychiatrist, who told her not to worry. Telling a mother, especially a Jewish mother, not to worry about her child is tantamount to telling a Dallas woman not to wear makeup.

Stephanie left for college and Helene had a premonition that she might die. She frantically phoned drug experts around the country and asked what to do. "One man I reached in California told me, 'If you do something and it turns out you're wrong about her drug use, your daughter will be angry with you for a while. If you're right and do nothing, you'll lose your daughter forever,'" Helene recalls.

She decided to take the risk. "The parents who make the most noise, take the biggest risks," Helene says.

Jan Belland, a drug counselor brought here by Trammell Crow from the famous Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota to head Dallas Challenge, helped the Glazers get their daughter admitted to the Minnesota clinic. Even then, Helene's husband thought she was overreacting. He nonetheless accompanied her to Arizona; they arrived at midnight to find Stephanie's apartment in utter disarray. "The comforter, the furniture, her clothing--everything was trashed," says Helene.

Stephanie returned a few hours later, shocked and angry to find her parents there. "'We're here to get you some help,'" Helene recalls telling her.

"She broke down and cried. 'Please help me. I'm going to die,' she said."
With the clinic's help, Stephanie eventually found a way out, and so did her mother.

"My birth mother gave me life, but it was my mother Helene who gave me the chance to live my life," says Stephanie, who works in finance. "I was so lost."

"I don't thank God for Stephanie's disease, but for her recovery, what it gave me and her," Helene says.

At first, the crisis brought Helene and her husband closer, but then when he refused to accompany her for family therapy, they drifted apart.

"The more I got into this, and worked on myself and showed my own strength, the more he pulled away," she says. "Eventually he stopped talking to me altogether."

Still, her husband didn't want a divorce, and when she left him, her children resented her for it.

"I tried to explain to them that it was like for years I had a toothache," says Helene. "It would come and go, sometimes it hurt more than other times. But toward the end, the pain was so bad and so constant, the only way to begin healing was to get the tooth out."

Helene had no idea that her husband was in dire financial straits at the time. In the middle of the divorce proceedings, he filed for personal bankruptcy.

In the divorce, which resulted in a six-day jury trial, Helene got only her house and 10-year-old car. "Practically overnight, I went from the QE2 to almost being a bag lady," Helene says. "I was like raw meat. I was scared to death."

To make ends meet, Helene rented rooms in her house; her first boarder was her divorce lawyer's secretary. She sold most of her jewelry, and took temp jobs answering phones.

A friend she had made through a support group for families of recovering drug addicts was also going through a bitter divorce, after 15 years of marriage. She lived in Greenway Parks and her house was sold as part of the settlement. She didn't have room to take much with her, and besides, she needed the money. She asked Helene to help her organize a garage sale, because it was too emotional for her to do it alone.

Then another friend divorcing after 25 years asked Helene to do her sale the following week. Though she didn't know it yet, a business was born.  

Each sale is different; each usually has some funny or bizarre moment. A few years back, she looked up from the cashier's table to see an athletic-looking man in a short tennis skirt, pink tank top, pearls, shoulder bag, sun visor, and way too much makeup. He was looking for makeup, in fact, and Helene found herself giving him a makeover. In the process, she learned about his agonizing coming out to his wife and children, and that he was an executive at a well-known Dallas corporation.

A few months later, a familiar-looking man in a ponytail came to one of her sales. It took a few moments before she realized it was her makeover friend.

"I nodded and he nodded back in recognition," Helene says. "He asked me if I had any ladies' size 10 shoes."

What makes her successful, she says, is that she is not emotionally tied to the objects she's selling. And she cannot be intimidated. She hates to be "had," and can't stand it when people haggle over prices. The worst is when someone sends a child to her to buy an item with less money than the asking price. But she will not be moved. "I figure I'm giving them a deal to begin with," says Helene. "If someone is fighting me over 25 cents, I'd rather donate it. I'd rather see someone who can't afford it at all get it."

At an estate sale last week, a man brought four Jewish religious books to the cashier's table and asked the price. Helene told him they were $1 apiece.

"I only pay 25 cents for books," he replied.
Helene held firm.
"You must be a Jew," he said.

Enraged, Helene demanded he leave the sale--without the books. No one pushes Helene Glazer around. But for all the instances of impudence she encounters, Helene also receives her share of kindness. One man brings her frozen yogurt every time he spots one of her orange signs announcing a sale. A young couple she met at a sale several years back stop by every now and then to show her their children.

Rudeness is not as big a problem in garage sales as theft. Helene positions herself at the garage opening, and inspects every item to guard against stealing. At one sale, an elderly woman was trying to distract her as her daughter and young child fled down the alley with some items. Helene ran after them and caught them.

"It's not about the things you're stealing," she yelled at the woman. "But you're teaching this kid to steal." The shocked shoppers in the garage erupted into applause.

Helene might not be emotionally attached to the things she is selling, but she does find herself often getting emotionally involved in her clients' lives. Sometimes they become friends and extended family, a nice benefit since her own children both live out of town.

But sometimes things are too emotional for even Helene to handle. She once arrived to organize a woman's sale, and found her in tears. A compulsive shopper, with rooms cluttered with clothes that still had the tags on them, the woman hysterically told Helene she had arrived just in time to save her life: she had just written a suicide note.

"I asked her if she had children and she said 'yes,'" Helene says. "'How dare you,' I said. 'I'm alone and have no money, but I wouldn't commit suicide. God gave you a gift of life, so live it.'"

The woman didn't kill herself, but Helene decided not to do her sale, after all. "She was nuts. I didn't want to get involved."

Helene is often surprised to find that people don't know the value of the things they have. She feels an obligation to try to talk people out of selling special items. She could have practically retired after one sale, had she kept quiet. A middle-aged man was unloading the estate of his deceased father, who had a penchant for buying the best of everything, and lots of it. Throughout the weekend, the son kept finding more boxes of items to sell, including one with crystal glasses he instructed Helene to get rid of at $1 a glass. Looking at them closely, she discovered they were a complete set of 70-year-old Baccarat crystal, probably worth $175 apiece. She convinced the young man to keep them.

The most successful sale Helene ever did was also the most tragic. She took in more than $17,000 over four days at an estate sale in Oak Cliff. A family lived in a 6,000-square-foot house until the couple divorced. Now the woman of the house was selling everything, including the family portrait, photo albums, and the two children's clothes. "People thought the family had died in a plane crash or something," Helene says. "It was weird."  

The children, upset that their mother was selling all their belongings, confided to Helene that their father had been abusive to them and their mother. He also had a mistress who lived for a while in the house with them. Ironically, the man also had a passion for religious tapes; he had 10,000 of them, says Helene. [Which sidetracks her to another great garage sale anecdote: a shopper, claiming to be a preacher, tried to cajole her into donating the tapes to him, in the name of God. As the man continued to beseech an unyielding Glazer, a woman impatiently waiting in line behind him yelled: "If you're really a man of the Lord, then you know that the Lord doesn't bargain." Everyone applauded.]

Helene was working a sale two years later when a friend of the Oak Cliff woman came in. Helene inquired about her, and her friend said that the woman had killed herself. The children were in a foster home because no one wanted them.

"That was a shocker," says Helene.

In five years, Helene has had only one really terrible experience. She was hired by a wealthy, well-known real estate developer. He had recently married for the second time and started a new family. They were selling off the new wife's furniture.

"She was the kind of woman who dressed up and posed all day long," says Helene.

The first day of the sale went well. Helene figures she probably took in close to $1,500. She left her purse in the kitchen for a few minutes while she straightened things up in the garage for the next day. When she returned to the kitchen, the sale money was gone. "They had two maids in the house, one of whom had just started that week, but the couple accused me of stealing the money."

Still, they allowed Helene to return for the next three days to finish the sale. When it was over, she went to count the money. The man took it out of her hands and counted it in front of her. The proceeds came to about $4,500. When he was finished, the man turned to Helene and said, "'You don't get a dime.' He started yelling at me. It was raining and I drove around picking up the signs crying. I felt like I was used and abused."

Helene took him to small claims court. He sent his wife and corporate attorney. Helene lost. But she says she is glad she at least fought for herself.

Through her business Helene has learned an important lesson: that material things, which once defined her life, are not important. "They're just things," she says. "Frankly, I do not see that many happy families. Often, the ones with the most are often the most unhappy. I wouldn't trade places with any of them."

This latest chapter in Helene's life, in which she has written her own version of a happy ending, has won her the deep admiration of her friends and children.

"It's pretty amazing, seeing what she's gone through," says her son, Steven, a gemologist who lives in Oklahoma City with his wife and two children. "She has a lot of guts." Last year, Steven presented his mother with a fitting gift, a sweatshirt that said "Garage Sale Goddess."

Stephanie, too, is proud of what her mother has accomplished. But she worries about her working in the heat and freezing cold. She worries about her chasing petty thieves down alleys, and tongue-lashing anti-Semites. "I'm so proud of her, but she makes me crazy," says Stephanie. "I'm afraid one of these days she's going to get shot. It's the '90s."

Helene worries too, about the day she is too old to schlep people's belongings around a garage or too frail to wake up at dawn and pound signs into roadway medians. But she doesn't dwell much on the "what ifs."

"You don't know what you have inside of you until you're put to the test," she says. "This part of my life is about me, getting to know me and what I can accomplish."

As my garage sale winds down late Saturday afternoon, a charming man with an Israeli accent, a manager for El Al airlines, comes in looking for stamps. Within seconds, he tells Helene his life story, how just two months before, he had an aneurysm while in a supermarket and was hospitalized for a month. For a brief moment, two unlikely lives have intersected.

Dirty and tired, her money apron bulging with cash, Helene prepares to leave. The day's tally is about $2,000 in all--not bad for four days' work. She'll get another $100 for us in coming weeks, selling at another sale some of our items she couldn't unload this week.  

She climbs into her dull gray, 15-year-old Mercedes--the same gleaming one she brought home on the QE2. Now, its engine grinds and grumbles like a garbage disposal. She sticks her head out of the window and offers a parting joke: "I told my daughter if we went into business together, we could be Sanford and Daughter."

She cackles at her own joke, and drives off.

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