What Happens To Your Stuff When You Die? I Take Care Of That.
Inside the poignant, bizarre, and necessary world of tending to the belongings of the deceased.
We park the box truck in the dead man’s yard like a six-ton hearse and knock on the front door. A disheveled middle-aged woman answers, still in her pajamas.
“I forgot you were coming,” she says, leaning out the door to see the truck. Emblazoned on the side: William J. Jenack: Estate Appraisers & Auctioneers.
“I’m a mess,” she says. “My mother’s dying.”
We ask if she wants us to come back another time.
“No, please come in.”
She’s been living in the dead man’s house for the last two years, a white Victorian-style home with blue shutters and ivy reaching up the side. She’d known the dead man, Stanley, her whole life. He was on Broadway and she used to sit in the garden as a little girl and watch him sing show tunes. Before he passed, she promised to take care of his home, which is decorated like Stanley’s still around. His photos hang on the wall; open songbooks are displayed on the piano.
You learn a lot about a dead man rifling through his house – lifting his furniture, clearing his walls, going through his closets, finding out which psalms are dog-eared in his Bible – searching for anything that might be worth selling at auction. It feels like trespassing.
Sometimes the most genuine reflection of a person’s identity is found in the inscriptions they’ve written in books. Inside one of Stanley’s he wrote a note to himself titled Self Esteem:
I’m a handsome, wonderful human being who deserves a good life. I grabbed a mirror, gave it a big smooch and said, “I love you. You are the man, Yessur.”
Stanley’s neighbor drops by. He’s 85, bent over a cane, and speaks with a thick Ukrainian accent. He came over because he saw our truck. Now he’s asking for Stanley’s address book. But the lady tells him she threw it out years ago.
“You put him in a cemetery or you cremate him?” he asks.
“Cremation,” she says. “His ashes went to North Carolina with his wife.” She died fourteen years ago on Independence Day. She and Stanley never had kids.
In the garden we’re shown the four-foot-tall cast-stone fountain. Stanley’s house sitter says it stopped spitting water just before he died. We yank it out of the ground. Fat bugs crawl out from underneath.
“Stanley was gonna leave me a fortune,” she claims. “He said I’d never have to work again.”
“It was never in writing…The lawyer was gonna come to the house on a Tuesday…to put it in writing. Stanley died that Monday. Of course, right? So I mourned the loss of my friend…and the loss of my fortune.”
Before we leave we even take Stanley’s mailbox, almost erasing him from the block’s history. The woman says she’ll call us when her mother dies so we can come get her stuff too.
As auction gallery furniture movers, we do pickups year-round. My partner, Ryan Wagner, is 29, six-foot-two and 250 pounds. His size is crucial whenever we have to move things like 900-pound hand-carved marble Foo Dogs. Once, on a dare, he pushed the box truck across a parking lot with his bare hands. People tend to watch us move stuff like we’re in a sideshow. See the two men lift, sling, tip, slide, drag, tilt, duck, pivot and coffin things into a truck!
We start in the basement and work our way up through the house. We lift up mattresses, kick aside small tumbleweeds of hair and carry bedframes down the hall. We pack Halloween costumes and wedding dresses into banana boxes. We climb out bedroom windows onto roofs to see if weathervanes are worth anything. We step into decayed barns and collapsed sheds and pull tackle boxes, snow blowers, and tractor parts from the wreckage.
In March we traveled to the home of ninety-year-old Barbara Harris, who lived alone, save for her nurse, in Rock Tavern, New York. She was dying of Parkinson’s and couldn’t afford her farmhouse anymore.
Barbara was still in bed and the nurse led us around telling us what to take – portraits of horses, the dining room table, her rugs, her safe, and the crystal lamps on her mantle.
We heard Barbara struggling to lift herself out of bed and into her wheelchair. The nurse ignored the moans coming from Barbara’s room. “Take the stuff and go, go, go,” the nurse said. This was odd, so we stopped and waited for Barbara. “You’re not going fast enough!” the nurse yelled.
Barbara rolled herself into the living room.
“How are you, Barbara?” Ryan asked.
“Horrible,” she said. “I have an aide here who is so bossy. She’s taking everything off the walls.”
“We don’t want you to feel that we’re taking things out from beneath you,” Ryan said, even though we were there to do just that.
“I’m not comfortable with anything with her here,” Barbara said, trying to point at her nurse – her hand just trembled a little above the armrest.
“You can’t pay to heat your house,” the nurse scolded in response. “You’re going to freeze to death in here.”
Barbara wept. Ryan knelt down and put his arm around her.
Maybe the nurse was right, but we didn’t like the way she was talking to Barbara. Ryan asked the nurse to leave until we were done.
I wanted to leave something behind for Barbara, anything she could hide so she could at least have one piece of her old life to hold onto. But there was nothing. All her things, furniture and paintings, were squeezed like Tetris pieces into the back of the truck. We didn’t know it at the time, but a few months later, Barbara would be moved into a senior citizen home.
We left the house empty. Just Barbara and her nurse.
The William J. Jenack Auction Gallery is an aluminum-covered steel frame that looks like a green airplane hangar flanked by mountains in Chester, New York, fifty miles north of Manhattan. It is divided into three large spaces: the Fine Art showroom, the Town & Country showroom, and the sale room set between the two.
William Jenack, 70, and his wife Andrea, a certified gemologist, own the place along with Kevin Decker, who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artifacts. They appraise and inventory everything Ryan and I bring back to the gallery. Everything is siphoned through to the back and stored away. Large items like grandfather clocks, sofas, armoires, and credenzas stay in one of the four trailers behind the gallery. Works of art are stacked by the hundreds on shelves in the back room. Smaller pieces – angelfish skeletons, vintage dental molds, African masks – are lined up along their own special shelves. Items that aren’t worth much are divvied up into boxes and stored upstairs in what is like a morgue of personal belongings. Single items in the world of auctioneering are called “lots.” They can sell on their own, but the things upstairs are called “box lots” – many bidders love the thrill of sifting through a box lot as if they’re a kind of cardboard treasure chest.
It’s a strange feeling having to tell someone that the things they thought were worth a lot aren’t worth much at all. William, after nearly thirty years in the business, says to this day, “It’s difficult to tell someone that her prized possessions are worth a hill of beans.”
William and Andrea were antique collectors for a decade before William began auctioneering in 1988. In those days, they stored their antiques in a garage, and when they’d amassed enough stuff for a big sale, they’d rent a firehouse or church and hold an auction.
William has walked through thousands of homes in the region, appraising people’s things, while coming to know old-timers who collect esoteric mechanical pencils or Edison light bulbs or vintage silhouettes. These types of collectors tend to drive to the gallery with a trunk full of their prized collections in a fit of downsizing. Inevitably, the same people will then preview the upcoming sales, looking for anything to add back to their collection.
On auction day, after everything is catalogued, numbered, and put on display, both in the showroom and on our website, we open the showroom for “preview” – when clients observe the upcoming sale the way one would walk through a museum.
At preview I learn about strange world history from clients. We once had an ancient Roman tear catcher for sale. A client taught me that Roman mourners would cry into bottles and place them in the tombs of those they loved. One ninety-year-old Englishman, always in a suit and cap, has told me the same story at every preview for the last four years – how he worked in a coalmine in England during World War II, how he remembers the sounds of the British warplanes flying overhead filled with bombs. “They sounded heavy,” he’ll say. He remembers the engines flying home later with less drag.
Military-themed sales draw good crowds in any economic climate. We lay out carpets, hang chandeliers, line up rows of shotguns and rifles on the gun racks, and arrange swords and daggers in showcases. William shows up with his grey manicured mustache and the charm of a yacht captain about to take his clients for a three-hour tour through Russian icons, high-end cowboy boots, and Nazi paraphernalia. On pickups we come across more Nazi coins and medals and Mein Kampf copies with personal inscriptions than I ever imagined we would – even in Jewish households. My partner Ryan says he knows of Jewish people who buy Nazi memorabilia just to destroy it. I’ve also heard of Jewish people who buy it as proof to refute Holocaust deniers.
A Filipino woman comes in looking to inspect the Indonesian dagger before the sale starts. She must’ve seen it on our online catalogue and couldn’t wait to hold it. There are two in the sale, but she’s interested in the longer blade that’s shaped like a snake. She unsheathes it, holds it up to the light and counts the curves of the blade.
“Seven,” she says and smiles. She stabs the air with the dagger and twists it into an invisible victim. “Seven curves are good. When you twist it in you, all of your belly comes out.”
Another young woman hovers over the showcase. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, nose-pierced, and she is shy around the swords. Some guy jokes, “You don’t seem like the military dagger type.” An older man in a sleeveless shirt with long white hair and a long white beard, inspecting a Nazi air force officer’s dagger, intervenes. “You never know,” he says. “I have a neighbor and she can put an axe through the center of that picture over there.” His name is Mark Bodnarczuk, and another gentleman at the sale tells me that he is “the sword expert.”
Bodnarczuk laughs. He says he doesn’t need any more swords, yet here he is. His collection started piling up five years ago with a Union Civil War sword. He says it’s a disease. He picks up the three-foot sword of a German Imperial officer – a highly regarded status symbol for pure Aryan members of the Third Reich’s armed forces. Now it’s being passed back and forth between me – I was raised Jewish – and Bodnarczuk, a pleasant man with faded crescent moon tattoos on his arm, who looks like he’d pal around the Renaissance Faire. It’s important for Bodnarczuk to come to the sale in person to feel the blades, see if the scabbards fit, and “look in the nice little red eyes of the lion” on the handle of the Imperial sword.
However, Bodnarczuk came today specifically for the Civil War artillery sword. It is heavy and made of brass with a wide blade that’s just over two feet long. “The idea with these swords,” he says, holding the handle against his chest so the sword points out, “was when you were on your back on the ground, and the cavalry’s coming at you, you’d hold the sword up and hit the horse in the chest.”
A crowd begins to form around the Nazi memorabilia. Some people turn away quickly, like they see someone urinating in public. But there are plenty who’ve come strictly to hold – and bid on – the Nazi swords. Tom Coulter, 72, is an avid collector of German World War II memorabilia. He’s here for the German paratrooper gravity knife, which looks like a small, plain wood handle that’s missing a blade. But the hand guard doubles as a secret button. Earlier, other men asked to see the gravity knife and none could figure out how to open it. Coulter turns it upside-down, clicks the hidden button, and out slides the ten-inch blade. “Gravity,” he says to anyone listening.
William says the appeal of Nazi memorabilia is in the craftsmanship, and collectors are excited by “the whole heraldry of owning something that was involved in that time.” It’s legal to sell Nazi paraphernalia in some military shows and auctions in the United States, but it’s illegal to sell certain Nazi items on eBay. It’s also banned in France, Israel, Austria and Germany.
Coulter tells me to grab the American trench knife – basically a pair of brass knuckles welded to a twelve-inch blade – and the German gravity knife.
“Which one would you want to fight with?” he asks.
My fingers are slipped through the brass knuckles of the trench knife. It’s heavier than the gravity knife.
“The trench knife,” I say.
He points to the gravity knife. “This is practical,” he says. You can cut yourself from your parachute tangled in a tree with it. However, he says pointing to the trench knife, “This is to kill somebody. The back end is for cracking skull. The knuckles are for punching face and this is for stabbing.”
Coulter, who was a marine in Vietnam and had one-third of his lungs removed thanks to Agent Orange – you can hear the damage in his voice – says his house is stuffed with Gestapo rings, German helmets, swords, Luger pistols, and a small painting of a church steeple by Adolf Hitler. He’s traveled the country, and even to Europe, to purchase many of these items. He only visits our gallery when we have a good deal of Nazi pieces in a sale.
“No American stuff?” I ask him.
“Well, they’re just not unique,” he responds. “I have American stuff. I have my Marine bayonets. They’re nice, sure, but the Germans carved eagles into everything.”
“What would you say if someone came over to your house and saw all the swastikas and felt uncomfortable?” I ask.
“I’d say, ‘every weapon is a hate item. They’re all hate items.’” He says it’s for the love of history.
The Nazi daggers are beautifully crafted, but it is hard for me to divorce them from the black and white photos of the Holocaust that are also in this sale – naked prisoners with theirs hands over their genitals standing like skeletons behind barbed wire, and men shoveling human bones into a brick crematorium.
The sale begins and most people follow William into the middle room where he takes his place at his podium. It looks like church. The weapon collectors loiter behind in the showroom, inspecting the weapons one more time, squinting down the barrels of rifles like telescopes. The guns and swords are the headliners of the sale, though it will be a few hours before they’re up for bidding. Weapon-lovers never seem eager to sit through the bidding on pottery, costume jewelry or vintage seltzer bottles.
William auctions off a mechanical baby in a crate. It’s a two-foot glass-eyed doll that was an advertisement for a soap company in the 1940s. All of its limbs used to move, like a baby stuck on its back, but now only one arm and one leg work. “I hope somebody plugged it in for ya,” William says. “He lights up…and he turns his head.”
It goes for $450.
Another item for sale is a vintage Ku Klux Klan panoramic photograph, dated 1925. Hundreds of men and women and children in white robes and pointed hoods stand in front of the nation’s capitol. Not too far in the background, sitting on window ledges, are black children watching the scene. When the photo sells for $225, William looks at it and says, “I haven’t seen that many dunces in one place in a long time.”
William auctions off two hundred lots in two hours before reaching the portion of the sale where certain people are leaning forward, white-knuckled on their bidder number paddles, hoping to win their guns and swords of choice.
Mark Bodnarczuk stands. Tom Coulter pulls his Vietnam vet hat down low. As the auction goes on, others side-glance, trying to see who they’re bidding against. Then there are people like Sal Vargetto who rushes in near the end of the sale, bids on two shotguns, wins, runs into the preview room, takes them off the rack, aims them at the ceiling and pretends to shoot with a long, unlit cigar hanging from his mouth.
Bodnarczuk doesn’t get the brass Civil War artillery sword. It goes for higher than he is willing to spend. But he does buy a Japanese sword. Coulter wins the gravity knife, and I see the Filipino woman leave smiling with the Indonesian dagger in her hand.
The next day we clean up and begin to organize a new sale. There are now antique Russian menorahs in place of the Nazi swords.
What doesn’t sell after a few tries is either donated or brought to the dump – the great American intestine. Everything that winds up here at the Orange County Transfer Station is flattened, cubed and shipped out on trucks heading for the landfill behind it. I’ve seen Darwin’s On The Origins of Species and Suzanne Somers’ Fast & Easy cookbooks destroyed in unison here.
The filled box truck is driven into an enormous shed with a cement floor. There are beat-up American flags on the wall and gnarled teddy bears tied to the grills of dump trucks – things employees have pulled from the trash. The shed has its own atmospheric pressure and smells of thick, hot rotting. A mist falls from the ceiling so the place doesn’t spontaneously combust. There are smashed pianos and old refrigerators and dead televisions and shattered glass and old dirty mattresses, which the man operating the excavator grabs with the claw of his machine and uses as a broom to make way for our new pile of trash.
The dump weighs the box truck on our way in, and subtracts the weight we lose on our way out. Our last trip here was with Barbara Harris’ unwanted stuff. By now we had gone back one last time to clear out her old barns in the backyard. Most of it was in such bad condition it went right to the dump. In five minutes we threw out 3,500 pounds of her life.
There’s a sign at the weigh station when you leave that reads, Thank you for your garbage.
We sweep out the box truck before a new pickup. A trumpet player is dead. His family rented a giant dumpster for everything that won’t be going to auction. His place must be emptied, no evidence left of him whatsoever, to stage the house for sale.
I find his résumé in his office desk. He played with the band on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He played with Sinatra and Buddy Rich. I find studio recordings of him on cassette. I put them in his stereo and let his trumpet echo through the empty house and out the open doors into the street where his neighbors walk by. They do a double take as if their old neighbor is back from the dead to perform one last time.
Once we’ve packed all his sellable stuff in the box truck, we climb into the big dumpster. We jump up and down on his trash to make sure it doesn’t overflow.
It’s a 55-and-up gated community. The neighbors aren’t amused. Chances are we’ll be back soon for them too.
Shane Cashman’s stories have appeared in Vice, Salon, The New York Observer, PEN Center USA, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College.