In a room the color green of a dated 70s classroom, a group of men and women sit on worn church pews every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday night. They pay rapt attention to a man who shoots out words like fire through a Kustom PA amp, beckoning them with calculated persistence.
Fans, ranging from antique to industrial, whirl the air through the windowless room, but do not drown out the shouts of yup, or the staccato voice of the man with the billed hat at the podium up front. Murmurs and shifting bodies create a rhythm of their own in the room.
But this is no service--no revival.
This is Gene Elders Auction, located at 3449 Summer, right by the Salvation Army thrift store at the intersection with Highland.
At 6 PM, three nights per week, this room fills with an eclectic assortment of bodies who fight for possession of an even more eclectic assortment of items with numbered paper signs .
To walk into the room, which is an experience in and of itself, is like walking into the filter of a cigarette.
Everybody, I mean everybody, is smoking. The Truth campaign for a smoke-free America, perhaps, could do a commercial here. In some perverse way, though, the haze only adds to what is already a surreal gathering.
Upon my visit, I found a seat on one of the elevated pews that line the sides and rear of the room, and stuck my face directly in the path of a giant industrial fan, which helped a little.
I remember watching a documentary once on the art and process of becoming an auctioneer. It showed how a seemingly normal person, meaning one who speaks at a comprehensible speed, can work crowds into a bidding frenzy with the simple power of accelerated speech. They even have schools for it.
The application of an auctioneers skill works in two ways. First off, there is the adrenaline factor. When items are going at mach speeds, accompanied by the aural compliment of a mach speed emcee, people are psychologically affected. A good auctioneer injects his attendees with the fear that haste may take them out of the running for whatever miscellaneous treasure is on the block.
Then there is the element of submerged persuasion. Fearful of my own susceptibility, as this was my first experience at an auction, I decided it might be best to hang in the back and watch. Meaning my checkbook was safely hidden at home.
Because I was not involved in the bidding war, I found myself meditating on the man running the show.
His voice seemed less human and more like a banjo dueling with itself. Fast. Rising and falling. And occasionally, slipping in some persuasive comments that might be missed were one focused more on the other bidders and less on his voice.
At one point, the motley bidders were fighting over a pair of barber shop bottles, or maybe it was an old dusty churn. Anyhow, after the chorus of yup, yup, yo from the floor crew had placed the price at $7.50, Mr. Elder, lighting fast and barely audible, slipped in a speedy worth $40.
I guess thats why auctioneers talk the way they do. Its like the small print at the bottom of a commercial, or the similarly accelerated disclaimers on a radio commercial. You can get a lot by a person, and thus influence their behavior, if you can communicate information without their complete awareness.
But its all an awful lot of fun.
Forget stodgy estate sales. Forget the cookie-cutter shopping plazas.
This, my friends, is economy in action.
And the trigger, of course, is the human instinct to win, transforming otherwise ordinary objects into trophies.
The most fascinating element of the auction experience is witnessing first-hand the fluidity of value.
What makes a Mickey Mouse telephone worth $40? Why do a pair of wooden ducks sell for $3.50, while a single glass duck sells for $10. Why did the man next to my have to buy the rifle-styled BB gun? (That went for $45.)
The answer of course is that value is determined by desire, at least here, where ones own perception completely determines pricing. Wouldnt it be nice if everything works this way.
Gene Elders Auction is bizarre, especially in terms of atmosphere. Its also a hell of a lot of fun.
Go check it out if youve got a night to spare. If nothing else, itll be an experience.