The sky is the blue of a welding torch’s flame, and clouds are streaking across it, swirling and dissipating like tear gas. It’s not yet midday, but it’s already hot as fuck.
Ken’s not here yet. I know Ken from playing poker (which I’ve gotten maybe a little too into since writing a story about poker tournaments). He said he was into this storage auction thing; I asked if I could tag along and he said yeah. But, like I said, Ken’s not here yet.
So I’m out in front of Chico Mini Storage, leaned up on a car under a shade tree with a couple of early arrivals, older guys. One—his name is Dean—has slicked-back silver hair, a fleshy hairless face, and a gut that’s more of an appendage than a torso. Dean travels today with a boy of perhaps 11, who I never see speak. Some sort of family relation.
“He’s full-blooded Indian!” Dean announces in his country accent. The boy sits under the tree, twiddling some grass, staring.
Dean, who’s been doing these auctions for two and a half years, explains the demographics. “We get our newcomers. They come once, maybe twice. Some of ‘em, they’ll stay ‘til they’ve lost all their marijuana money. See, if you’re a ‘tomato farmer’ [big air quotes], it’s a good way to hide yer income. A lot’v ‘em open up a shop and run their money that way. [Dean pauses briefly, as if actually considering what the hell he’s talking about] Now…I don’t know that fer shure.”
Dean goes momentarily quiet. A couple guys begin relating a story in which a unit was filled wall to wall with nice looking wine boxes. Stacked up real nice. Real nice looking boxes, they were. The bidding went pretty high on account of the possibility the boxes were filled with valuable wine. But that’s all they were: boxes. Just empty boxes.
Dean explains that it wouldn’t’ve made no difference, nohow. “See, wine: it’s like women,” he says. “When they get old they turn to vinegar. They get reeeal bitter. Before 30 they’re just scatterbrained.”
Twenty or so people have arrived at this point (there will eventually be close to 50). They’re mostly older men, but there are some couples, too, even a few toddlers (accompanied). They wear different sorts of hats, shades. A few heavyset guys carry personal folding chairs. Pros have a couple padlocks locked to their belt loops, ready.
Ken finally shows up. We nod what’s up to each other. Ken is cool as cool can be. In his late forties, I’d guess. He’s kind of on the smaller side, with thin, red-orange hair that levitates like it was rubbed with a balloon and flutters around like flames, and he’s got on purple Chucks with red laces, deteriorating shorts and an ancient de-sleeved white T, which shows off his tats: an Ace and Deuce of spades on his left forearm (the names of his now deceased dogs), and a Queen of Hearts on his right forearm, with flames around it and the words “Love Burns.” On each calf, he’s got Red Sox emblems, and he speaks with a heavy Boston accent.
The auctioneer—a goateed guy name Jack, who’s walking with the aid of a crutch—has arrived, too. Jack’s been calling auctions since he was 14. His dad—who was a “wheeling and dealing, buying and selling kinda guy”—got him into it. “It’s the one thing I know how to do, only job I ever had,” Jack tells me. Jack, motioning with his crutch, gathers the assembled, then describes the terms and conditions, though pretty much everyone there besides me has heard them a million times.
If you buy a unit, Jack explains, you’ve got to take everything—every last thing—and have it swept out by tomorrow. Baby pictures, court documents, Grandma’s ashes, etc, ought to be returned so as not to be a total dick (Jack doesn’t use those words, but it’s implied). Visible firearms are not included, per the law. And there are “no checks, no credit cards, no ATM. Strictly green paper.”
Across the baking blacktop, through the wavy air bringing up those hot oily smells, through the rat’s maze of dough-colored stucco and blue, ribbed, roll-up doors, Jack leads us to the first unit. There are 25 up for auction today (spread between two locations).
On the way over, Dean helpfully explains to anyone within earshot that Aztecs were cannibals who killed for food (“Whaddaya think those human sacrifices were about?!?!”) while the Indian boy trails mutely at his side.
The accordion doors go loudly up. There, before us, are some sad sack’s/sackess’s/inter-sack’s personal belongings; baby toys, a few boxes, a dresser. The Seekers take turns contorting themselves into various side-bends, or periscoping up on tippy-toes, trying to see as much as they can, trying to find some secret clue as to what’s inside. Because you can’t cross into the unit, see. You can’t touch. You just have to get all Sherlock and shit; use your powers of induction or deduction or whichever one it is.
What sort of person did these things belong to? What could be back in those tightly packed cardboard boxes, the ones in the back?
“OK, kids!” Jack announces to the crowd, who have now mostly retreated back into the thin slices of pre-noon shade alongside the opposing units. “E41 is the unit! Give it a bid!” And then he starts up that fast auctioneering thing: “ten, ten, ten, do I hear fifteen?”
According to the Self Storage Association’s latest numbers, there are some 78 square miles of self-storage currently for rent in the United States. (For reference, the entirety of Chico is about 33 square miles). That’s 21 square feet for every household in America. In 1995, one out of 17 households had a unit. Now it’s more like one in ten. Commercial self-storage wasn’t even a thing back in the early 1960s. But for the past 35 years it’s been one of commercial real estate’s fastest growing segments.
Things done changed. There’s, like, sociological shifts at play. We move more, that’s for sure. We move on up (infrequently). We move back in with mom (more often). We move in together —feel inexplicably stifled; something moves within us to move on. We divorce more; move out. We go to jail more. We live out of our cars more, just moving them enough to avoid tickets.
We keep buying shit and we keep moving. Maybe we keep buying shit partly because we keep moving, actually. There seems to be some sort of connection between our a-historical landlessness, our groundlessness, our lack of a big unifying story that ties us all together and that restless, not-ok-ness, that insatiable hole of sadness inside us that drives us to—among other things—keep shopping. Don’t you think?
On one edge, the storage facility abuts a trailer park, separated by a high fence topped with razor wire. A cloudy-eyed terrier in a little trailer “yard” is barking at us with metronomic regularity. A bidder’s baby wails, singing out in pre-linguistic despair at the human condition, or else maybe because it has gas. The Indian boy is leaned up against a stucco wall, in a world of his own.
People disparage each other’s bids, jokingly and not-so-jokingly, shaking their heads. They tease about “gold bars in there” or “maybe it’s a Picasso.” There’s a jovial and commiserative but subtly passive-aggressive atmosphere amongst the bidders that I really like.
We come to a unit containing a glass bong, a snowboard, and a surfboard with black skulls spray-painted all over it, plus other sundry bro-things. It’s fun/sad (mostly sad) imagining the people these things belong(ed) to; working backwards from the stuff to the human.
The bong gets people talking. “Yep,” Dean says. “You find illicit drugs. I found seven pounds of marijuana shake.” Someone recommends to Dean that he put the shake in his socks and walk around to make hash. I can’t tell if this someone is serious. Ken talks about all the cool pipes he’s found, including “this really cool one carved outta wood of this couple fucking.”
This dude who drives a white Hummer and wears mirrored Oakleys with air vents built into them and a Rockstar Energy Drink Shirt and bracelets on each wrist made of bullets and a gelled-up faux-hawk—who I once wrote about because he was selling assault weapons and bulletproof vests and masks at a gun show—tells me that, in a unit he paid $1700 for, he found countless thousands of dollars (he didn’t want to specify just how much) in “original women’s rights documents from 1856” and gold and silver all inside of an actual treasure chest dated to 1876. He talks at length about 19th Century Feminism, which he studied in order understand his cache.
A big guy in a straw hat poses for a picture in front of the unit he just bought for $1. It’s basically just a pile of dirt and old plastic hangers. I would have paid $1 not to have this unit. Maybe even $5. A lot of the units are this way. They look ransacked. The renters clearly already came through and took anything of real value before the facility slapped their own lock on.
But it’s the other kind of unit that really makes you think. Like the one with the street-legal, three-wheeled racing golf-cart-thing and the rows and rows of carefully organized expensive-looking tools, ceiling high in some places. No one would just leave this stuff over a few hundred dollars. Something happened. What?
Of course, from the buyers’ perspective, these Someone-Else’s-Personal-Tragedy Units are the most promising.
“I look for that,” Ken tells me, when a unit’s door is rolled up to reveal boxes and bags covered in spider webs and a thick, velvety layer of grey-brown dust. “Means no one’s been in here for a long time.”
Sometimes, Ken says, bidders know precisely what’s inside the units they’re bidding on. Because it’s their shit. “Maybe they owe $500,” he explains. “But they figure they can get their stuff back for $300.”
I mention to Ken that this Storage Auctioning seems to have a lot of similarities to poker, actually. You’ve got limited information, you’re trying to get an informational edge over your competitors, and you’re trying to win as many big scores as possible while risking as little as possible of your own capital. Plus there’s the thrill of big wins.
Ken nods. “Yeah. When I’m bidding, sometimes I’ll go way above my threshold just to run [other bidders] up,” he says. “Then they’ll have less firepower for the next one. It’s all a game.”
It’s fun watching Ken play. When a unit full of nice toys and clean, stacked plastic bins is revealed, he starts pacing back and forth like Mike Tyson before a fight—like a small, pale, redheaded, muscle-less Mike Tyson fighting over boxes of used dolls and blankies. He bids with these cool subtle nods, eyes feral and intense. Sometimes he waits until things are “going twice, going three times” before putting in a bid, last-second. Ken takes the unit for $120, and we go through it, and it’s filled with several hundred dollars in really nice toys, a microscope/telescope, a bike, a little kid guitar. It’s one of the best scores of the day, for sure.
“Pride of ownership,” Ken says, in that Bostonian accent, satisfied. “I saw pride of ownership in there.”
I help Ken move his new toys into his beat-up, windowless, psycho-killer van. The van has hand-drawn pictures of a dragon and mushrooms on it and says “CALM YOUR INNER DRAGON WITH A MASSAGE FROM STRESS LESS SMILE MORE MASSAGE CHICO’s MOST AFFORDABLE MASSAGE.”
Ken tells me that last night he and his woman gave a client a “mirror massage,” wherein the client stood stripped down in her backyard under the infinite stars and Ken and his woman massaged her simultaneously, one massaging her front while the other massaged her back, mirroring each other’s movements. Fuck, Ken is cool. Dude doesn’t live by anybody’s rules but his own, and he’s winning; winning.
Soon after, I say bye to Ken, leave. Past Dean and his wonderful wrong-about-everything stories, past Jack: be-crutched Lord of Loss and Gain, past the cute old couple down from Oregon who do cute old-couple-bickering over what to bid and walk arm in arm, leaning in on each other, past the obese man missing the teeth from the right side of his mouth who once came up on 14K in Oriental antiques from a $275 unit, past all the STUFF, past the Indian boy squatting in the sun.
Dear Indian Boy: What do you make of all this madness?
Dear World: Is there no end to the treasures we can find if only we’ll go peering into neglected places, asking, looking for clues, risking a little bit of ourselves, taking a chance?