Several years ago, when we sold for other people, we got a call on the night before Thanksgiving to go to the house of a friend of a friend. Mary Ellen lived in an apartment in an old Italian section of town. Her landlady of many years, Vera, had passed away. Vera had no local relatives to manage her estate. She had a grand niece several states away who hadn’t visited her in many years, but was the heir to Vera’s two flat apartment building.
Many years ago, it was a thriving neighborhood with Italian American kids running up and down the block. Everybody knew everybody and they all went to the same church every Sunday. Slowly the old people died off, their children moved out to the suburbs and the old neighborhood got run down. But Vera stayed. It was tough to find a renter in those conditions, so Vera was glad to get a young artist like Mary Ellen to move in. Mary Ellen eventually lived there 20 years and Vera never raised the rent.
She became like a grandmother to Mary Ellen who would help her around the house as she grew older. Mary Ellen was her caregiver when she finally succumbed to old age.
Meanwhile, the formerly run down neighborhood suddenly became in demand. Young professionals were moving in all around and the property values skyrocketed. The grand niece sold the building to a developer who would tear it down and put up a mini mansion. With the demolition crew set to begin the day after Thanksgiving, Mary Ellen put out a call to friends to come take what they wanted to keep it from the landfill.
Vera had been a hoarder. There was a thin walkway through the apartment from front to back. Everything else was covered in three to four feet of garbage bags containing clothes, old newspapers and stuff from Vera’s life. It wasn’t garbage, it was all very clean and, mostly folded, but it was everywhere. You felt like you were mountain climbing if you wandered off the path.
There was really not much of value in the house. The clothes were nice enough, but not the name brands that would sell online. A couple of old quilts had some value. But the sleeper was the toy tractor in the photos. Vera had let the neighborhood kids play with it. It had a red ribbon they used to pull it around. We almost let it go to the dump.
But it had an unusual design. The engine was offset. It was on the left side of its frame, not centered like most tractors are. We took a chance and listed it in auction on eBay. We were surprised when it got a bid almost immediately. It sold a week later for over $600.
It wasn’t a toy at all. It was a salesman’s sample promoting the unusual design. The offset engine was arranged to counter the torque that is generated by the turning of the engine as it plowed the fields. The concept didn’t succeed in the marketplace, but it had a small, but intense following among people who know about such things.
Our buyer was from Texas. Way, way out in the hinterlands of Texas. The farmhouse looked to be at least 10 miles from the nearest neighbor. It seemed hard to believe that someone would pay so much for our paint chipped model. But he paid and gave us positive feedback.
We took our commission and gave the remainder to Mary Ellen. She hadn’t expected any money from us, she was just trying to be ecological. At first, she didn’t want to take the money. She didn’t think it was right for her to profit from Vera’s death.
But when word came that the grand niece wouldn’t come to Chicago for Vera’s funeral, Mary Ellen had an idea. She used the money to hire a singer to perform “Ave Maria” at the funeral. The few older ladies from the neighborhood that attended were thrilled that Vera got such a nice send off.
Mary Ellen was happy Vera got a little attention at the end. Our customer in Texas was happy with his rare Farmall Tractor model. We made a little money. But mostly, something of value was saved from the landfill.
As promised, the wrecking crew arrived that Friday. They tore down the house without even looking in it. A big shovel scooped up the destroyed house and its remaining contents into about a half dozen dump trucks. Who knows what else of value was left in that house?
Today, a million dollar mini mansion stands on the site of Vera’s old two flat. I’m sure the new owners are very nice people. But they have no concept of Vera’s life or how she came to acquire a rare and valuable object of agricultural history.