Another Person’s Treasure

Everyday—weather permitting—for the seven years I have lived in the Hudson/Park neighborhood of Albany, NY, John and Lisa have been outside, at the southwest corner of Dove and Jefferson, hosting a permanent garage sale.

At first, I bought items from them—a spice rack, a candle holder, too many kitten knick knacks.

John and Lisa in front of their wares. Photo by Jason Spiro

Then, when I hit my “space clearing” stage, I started bringing them wares to sell: a bamboo bird cage, empty picture frames, too many kitten knick knacks.

In my mind, John and Lisa  presided kindly over a tchotchke purgatory, where my stuff did time and grew sun-bleached as I became more comfortable with the habit of letting go. It was a limbo-land where I could still visit my items, until one day they were gone, or I finally forgot to look, whichever came first.

These exchanges began to feel, well, intimate —in part, because of the regularity and proximity—about once a week for a while and just one block away.  I became very grateful for the service they provided and quite curious about John and Lisa, and wanted to know more.  So I asked.

Dove and Jefferson

“Lisa is in charge of knick knacks.  We can’t take furniture because there is no room.  As you can see, I can’t do anything in here now, because she, well, she kinda took over “ John explains, pointing to the cluttered garage.

They tease that this is a big point of tension.  In reality, John and Lisa have been a couple for more than twenty years, and share a playful banter and warm rapport.  (And yes, their’s is a “Winter-Spring” romance; he’s got about twenty years on her!)

When the building that housed his TV repair shop was sold,  John re-located to this nearby garage.  They started selling odds and ends to keep Lisa busy while John continues to buy, repair and sell TVs and other appliances.

Lisa, who, suffers from anxiety, finds being outside with people soothing.  Visiting them recently, her face lights up as she high-fives a neighborhood baby passing in a stroller. Lisa comments, “I know a lot of people by name in the neighborhood.  We’re constantly getting the same people back buying things.”

While we chat, a neighborhood man checks on the “expensive” chair he donated earlier.  John calls him “the lawyer” and says “he’s a badass!”   A bit later, John shoos away someone who wants to buy a vacuum: “I’m not selling that: that’s my own!”

John and Lisa are rarely—if ever—surprised by the items people buy from and/or donate to them. “The uglier the better, ” he quips. The strangest items they’ve received, on more than one occasion?  VCRs with porn still in them!

They sell most items for a few dollars each, with TVs ranging from $30 to $120.  A good day for them on the corner yields about twenty to thirty dollars. The money they earn is “pocket change” or more specifically for Lisa, bingo fare.  She plays bingo regularly in Albany, and has won as much as $1,000 a game on more than one occasion!

John knows some of the items could go for more on Ebay, but that’s not why they do it. “We are people persons. Every single day we are out” says John. Lisa adds that she just likes “being with a bunch of people” and “being able to help people.”  In the past, she has volunteered at Albany Med and the Center for the Disabled. On weekends, she visits with a neighbor whose grandson has Down syndrome.

“I am not making a profit” John mock complains.  I joke that Lisa seems to be earning some money from Bingo.  John says no, she has a problem, she needs to go to Gambler’s Anonymous!

The House-Call

John remembers the exact date and place that they met: it was June 15, 1990, at the site of his former TV repair shop, which was located catty corner to the garage they now rent.

Then, he made a house call.

“She lived on Hamilton. Her live-in boyfriend [at the time] asked me to fix a television.  First thing I said [when I got to their place] was ‘Who do all these oldie records belong to, your father?’ and she said ‘Oh no, they are mine.‘”

Excited to meet someone who shared his passion for music, John brought Lisa to her first concert, Connie Francis at the [now defunct] Starlite Theater. Lisa remembers the invitation, “I had never been to a concert!”  Now they attend concerts whenever they can, frequenting free Albany events like the Alive at Five series in Corning Preserve.

John lived in Rensselaer until age 12, when he moved to North Albany and was a self-professed “instigator” in high school, describing himself as a “sweat hog” a la Welcome Back Kotter. Lisa was born in Berne.  She has spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair her whole life.  John also has spina bifida, but can walk and drive.

Lisa attended Albany City Schools, and left home by the time she was 18. First she lived in housing for the disabled in Schenectady, then, after moving around to several facilities, ended up in the apartment on Robinson Square, where John visited to fix a television  more than 20 years ago.

On Albany

“We live in East Greenbush, but its basically dead over there.  Everything is over here.  We come here for the diversity and the entertainment.  People like you.  People like him (refers to a guy with whom he was just bartering); I’ve known him since he was a kid.”

Occasionally  Albany presents a challenge, though.  For example, recently, John and Lisa went to Quintessence, a local diner and music venue, to see long-time favorite musician Ernie Williams.  But in the end, they could not attend the show: Quintessence is not handicap accessible.  This happens every once and a while when they go to a venue for the first time. A few times, burly men have offered to carry Lisa up stairs, an offer she has declined!

They also explain that it can be tricky just to visit friends’ houses: most have several steps leading up to the door. But overall, Lisa finds Albany a fairly easy city to navigate in a wheel chair, and it helps that John has a car and that she can move herself into and out of the front seat. Even so, the busses, including the STAR, are generally accommodating, and, along with plentiful curb cuts for wheel chairs, the streets of Albany are fairly easy to traverse.

An Albany resident at heart, John professes a love for William Kennedy’s books (and says he knows him from the neighborhood!), reads his Times Union everyday (a print version, and it must be accompanied by coffee); and has spent quality time in Washington Park, often times flying home-made kites.  And, like other true Albany folk, when asked what they could do without in Albany, John and Lisa reply completely in synch: “The snow!”



3 thoughts on “Another Person’s Treasure

  1. Despite the physical hurdles that present itself here I do admire very much the spirit they both share. A reminder once again how we can find real joy in the simplest of things, a rarity in this day and age often overlooked. Thank you for sharing, Tara!

  2. Thanks for uncovering the story of a couple I see so often but knew so little about. Reading stories like this makes life here that bit richer. I hope you write more about other people, other corners—you tell a good tale!

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