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How my straitlaced parents found joy in becoming ‘pickers’

DREW SHANNON/The Globe and Mail

It wasn't until I went for a walk with my parents one sunny afternoon that I realized the peculiarity of my living situation. I was helping my mom inconspicuously swipe an old chair from a neighbour's garbage pile that she planned to dust off and sell on Kijiji for $15. My fiftysomething dad pedalled furiously beside us on a child's bicycle, bragging about how the wheels were in top shape.

"Now, why would anyone throw this out? Just, why?" he asked us. I couldn't answer his question sufficiently and the injustice of the bike's near fate was too much for him to handle. He humorously cycled back toward our well-manicured Mississauga lawn, huffing and puffing (presumably half from the sheer exhaustion of pedalling a kid's bicycle and half from his mild distaste that its previous owner didn't see its value). He later sold the bike to his trusted "bike dealer" for $50.

This anecdote is just one of many. While some parents take up golf after retirement, mine identify as "pickers" – an occupation that combines dumpster diving, auction hunting and antique selling all at once. In fact, my dad was directly inspired to take up the hobby after he retired from the post office and binged through the first season of the A&E show Storage Wars, in his man cave.

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In the show, auction hunters bid on abandoned storage units and sell the contents for cash. It's always a gamble because you never know if you'll find trash or treasure. Fascinated, my dad initially attended auctions in secret and hid his stash in the garage to prevent my uber-organized mom from going ape. But after she recovered from the initial shock of finding worthless furniture from an industrial office in our garage, she became addicted too.

Sometimes, the units they bid on are winners (like the one that contained thousands of dollars' worth of sommelier-approved wine) and sometimes they're losers (like the one that was literally just bags of garbage).

Now, other peoples' belongings are invading our family home. Furniture is piled in every spare corner. Knick-knacks are scattered over the pool table and good luck trying to eat at the dinner table. One time I came home from work to find a small plastic horse springing up and down on our lawn and didn't even bat an eye, although our neighbours sure did. It's not uncommon for me to stub a toe multiple times in our spacious hallway or discover that my most prized possessions were sold on Kijiji because my dad was convinced he bought them at an auction. "Don't leave your things outside your room if you don't want them to be sold," he once warned.

Eventually, the risk of living at home was too much and I moved to downtown Toronto although you can never really escape the biz. Recently, when I visited for a weekend, I opened a linen closet and was horrified to discover the cold, possessed eyes of an intruder with frizzy blond hair staring back at me. Turns out, it was just a plastic mannequin wearing a wig. Two days later, when I returned to the closet, I forgot about the creepy mannequin altogether and relived the horror.

There was also that time my parents were scandalized to discover marijuana in a unit that they mistook as oregano. Either way, they promptly threw the drugs in the garbage, along with the "how-to" books on starting a grow-op. Mere months later, my sister called and revealed that my mom's new-found ability to appraise antique jewellery was so yesterday. Apparently, mom could now identify crack pipes, too. "Ohhhh, it's not just Rob Ford," mom told my sister knowingly. "Everybody in Toronto smokes crack! Just look at all the crack pipes we found in the abandoned units!"

My sister and I chuckled over the absurdity of the situation. My straitlaced parents were being thrown into the life stories of strangers. Shuffling through the units, we learn so much about a person, not just from their belongings, but from pay stubs, old leases, prescriptions, letters to lost loves, photos, children's craft projects and, commonly, legal paperwork for divorce. My parents carefully box these items and return them to the storage facility on the off chance that the owner will return.

While my parents are learning a lot about other people, they're also learning a lot about each other in the process. I constantly joke to my friends about "the mess in our house" and the crazy things they find but I'm happy they've found something they're passionate about after retiring. They've been married for more than 25 years, and they still willingly and lovingly choose to work together every day, even if their constant bickering sounds like fighting to bystanders.

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Living among other people's lost possessions is interesting to say the least. And while having to navigate a safe path from the living room to the kitchen isn't ideal, I'm happy my parents have found a lucrative hobby that funds their vacations. They sell upcycled goods to thrifters who appreciate a good find and don't want to be wasteful. Most importantly, they spend time in each other's company every day. And what more can you ask for?

Brittany Mahaney lives in Toronto.

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