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In Perspective: Marcos Villatoro on the changing American garage sale

You know times are bad when a garage sale can’t make it. Ours was a neighborhood event. Four families got together and spread our wares down a block in Van Nuys, a community in Los Angeles, where the average yearly income is $45,000. People here know how to hunt down a good deal. We thought we’d rake in the cash. But we sold absolutely nothing.

I blamed it on the competition. Garage sales have popped up like daisies all around our neighborhood. You can’t pass by a telephone pole without seeing cardboard stapled into the wood, directing you to three different houses. But I walked around the barrio and took a look at the other sales. No customers at any of them.

A garage sale is a family flea market. Folks walk around looking for the gems embedded in your junk. Families sit behind pointing out the deals and dropping the prices throughout the day. It’s that bootstrap American work ethic: if we have to sell off parts of our lives in order to break even, by God, we’ll do it.

But there’s nothing as lonely as a yard covered in books and faded dresses and an old Buzz Lightyear with no one walking between the piles. It seems that, as unemployment rises, more and more cooking pans and couches get arranged in front yards. But no one shells out two bucks for an old iPod. They wait until the family hauls the stuff to the Goodwill parking lot, where they can snatch up an old computer for free before the stock boys put it on the floor.

Between now and next year’s presidential election, I don’t doubt we’ll hear more and more catfights in Washington about jobs and the national debt and which guy or gal knows the best way to save our financial souls. But the more they bicker, the more my barrio gets desperate.

From here, Washington and the candidates sound like a shouting match on a playground far far away. My parents — who had a number of garage sales when I was a kid — taught me to see this country as a land of opportunity. But now it seems as sad as a garage sale turned cemetery.

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.