For middle-class Canadians perceived injustices outnumber the real ones. In no month of the year is that more apparent than in June. June, as any urban dweller awake on Saturday morning knows, is the time of garage sales. When the garage sales follow on the heels of a federal budget widely criticized as an attack on the middle class, the contrast between real and perceived injustice is dramatic.
A relatively recent phenomenon, the garage sale is the mechanism by which the middle class rids itself of its junk. This is not to say that the middle class did not get rid of its junk before there were garage sales. There was always a way to get rid of junk using one of two methods: they either threw the junk out or donated the junk to an agency that could find people who needed it.
Much of it was perceived junk, not real junk. Clothes that no longer fit. Household appliances that needed fixing or were simply old. Sports equipment that had been replaced by newer sports equipment. Once-stylish knickknacks gone out of style. Costume jewelry. Outgrown toys. Overcoats, bricks, garden tools, books, plates and glasses.
People too poor to care whether their possessions were the latest thing could find a use for stuff like that, and did, after it had been distributed by the appropriate agencies. But now the supply is drying up. Junk still reaches the appropriate agencies. But less of it is usable. The quality is down. The good stuff never leaves the neighborhood. The folks who used to give the stuff away now sell it in their driveways on Saturday mornings. They move the two cars out of the way to make room for it and they sell it to people who don’t need it either but buy it because it’s cheap. Needy or not, everybody likes a bargain; everybody likes to make an extra buck and they all have a good time getting together on Saturday morning in the driveway.
While they, in a civilized way, haggle over the price of a slightly outdated pair of ski boots, they also talk about the budget, how the middle class is getting it in the neck again. Cigarettes and wine are up. Candy bars for the kids cost more. Then there’s that surtax. Face it: there isn’t enough money to go around these days, they say. The garage sale will make a couple of hundred bucks, perhaps more. Only enough to buy a new gas barbecue and maybe a few lawn
chairs, with prices the way they are.
The poor are always with us the saying goes. But the poor aren’t with us on the driveway these Saturday mornings in June. The poor have become invisible. Many Canadian cities lack a genuine slum area in which poverty can be plainly viewed. Progressive thinking governments and profit-minded developers have changed the face of urban poverty, with the effect that urban poverty now has almost no face at all. Low-cost housing has moved into the suburbs, pushed in that direction by well-meaning governments and agencies that see a benefit in scattering the poor around the community rather than congregating them in one area.
The average voter cannot see the poor, and it is therefore no surprise that the average government does not see them either. As the poor move out of the inner city, the developers move in, renovating the old, falling down houses, giving
them a trendy face and selling them, at considerable profit, to people on the rise.
The people at the garage sales are aware that poor people exist. They see them in the statistics: the percentage of Canadians below the poverty line; the percentage of Canadians unemployed; the number of Canadians on welfare. Yet better-off Canadians see only the statistics, not the people. Canadians as a whole will admit, as they did when polled just before the budget by the CBC, that unemployment is Canada’s most serious economic problem. They can read the statistics. But they will also say, as they did to the same pollster, that unemployment insurance and welfare payments are too easy to obtain. And they will sell their surplus possessions, rather than give them away to people who need them.
The garage sale mentality produces its own peculiar aberrations. There is the true Ottawa story of the Gentleman in the Mercedes, who arrives at the garage sale and makes an enquiry concerning the price of a certain worthless knick-knack. Informed that it is 25 cents, he thanks the proprietor, who
turns his attention to other customers. Moments later the proprietor notices that both the worthless knick-knack and the Mercedes are gone, no transaction having been completed.
There are the countless tales of people in the process of moving, whose pile of possessions in the driveway triggers a Garage Sale Alert, attracting a swarm of excited bargain hunters who are angered that the items they see are in transit rather than for sale.
The Saturday morning bargain hunter is a person obsessed. He will stop at nothing and park on anything. Wary neighbors, seeing the garage sale signs the day before and the station wagons circling at dawn, hide their pets, lawn ornaments and smaller shrubs lest they be seized by a crazed shopper.
We learned to dish out assistance painlessly, just as we learned to do the dishes without getting our hands wet
Lest the impression be conveyed that better-off Canadians lack a social conscience, let the record show that they will respond quickly when an emergency is displayed. When they see Ethiopia on their television screen, they dig quickly and deep, as they should. But in doing so, they do not get much of a feeling for the problem. Our society is geared to making things as easy as possible for everyone, whether the task be barbecuing'in the backyard or helping the starving people of the world. We have learned how to dish out assistance painlessly, just as we have learned how to do the dishes without getting our hands wet. Hence, the growth of a handy-dandy invention for helping the needy at a minimum of inconvenience to ourselves: the Top 40 record for charity.
It is a new mechanism for helping the poor, when they can be seen, as in Ethiopia. Rock stars are mobilized, pile into a recording studio and sing a song about feeding the starving. The privileged citizens of Canada immediately see where their responsibility lies. They drop whatever they are doing and buy the record.
Buying the record does wonders for the conscience and usually the songs are pretty good too. Undoubtedly, if a song were to be recorded about Canada’s poor people, better-off Canadians would buy it too. First, it would be necessary for Canadians to notice that poor people exist. Canadians don’t buy records without good reason. Once Canadian poverty had been brought to people’s attention, the record could be a big seller. After a few years it might still be a popular item at the garage sale.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.
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