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.

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Ann Zimmerman