On the Block

There once lived a very rich man in Hudson, Wisconsin, who suffered from manic-depressive disorder. A couple of years ago, during an upswing, he drove to Seattle and bought five cars at an auction. Among them were a purple mid-eighties Jaguar with gold trim and rims, and a 1972 red Mercedes convertible. I first saw the cars during an auction preview at the Red Barn in Spring Valley, Wisconsin. Even with her delicate bloom of Tropical Nights air freshener, the old Jaguar attracted only snickers from the Carhartt-and-coveralls crowd. The Mercedes had many more suitors. One by one, they sunk into the driver’s seat—the car had black leather upholstery as soft as Roy Rogers’ saddle—and turned the key, to no avail. They pulled up her hood and poked around. Even their fluency with engines of every kind could not arouse the low-slung beauty.

Inside the Red Barn’s auction hall, Jack Hines stepped up to the podium and intoned the invocation he uses for some two hundred auctions a year: “Folks … ” With sons Jeff at his side and John in front of the portable computer cart recording transactions, Hines spent the next four hours selling hundreds of things left behind by the deceased, divorced, broke, or retired. Over the past forty years, countless pieces of Pierce County history have passed through his hands. Every object—from grandfather clock to writing desk to bagel cutter to Twins pennant—was once new and valued. Hines’ job is to connect these things with the folks who can put a dollar amount on that value.

“We’re going to start ’er off at ten dollars, who’ll give me ten dollars? How about five, who’ll give me five, no one? One. One dollar. Who’ll give me one? One? And one! We’ve got one, now who’ll go two, two dollars, we’re at two, do I hear three? OK, we’ll sell this the hard way, $2.50, do I hear $2.50? $2.50! Now three dollars?”

At the previews, antiques dealers and serious collectors can be identified by the big Rubbermaid tubs they carry and the stacks of newspaper (for breakable items) under their seats. Gun and coin auctions bring masses of people who sit with thick price guides like hymnals in their laps. Everyone’s searching for treasures, or at least something of use, but some country-auction offerings are particularly sad. They usually come in lots jumbled together in cardboard box lids. Too many copies of National Geographic, Sean Cassidy records, and rusty old colanders can make an auction feel like a garage sale. Other auctions open doors into private lives, like the small stacks of vintage nudie photographs sold in the driveway outside a dead man’s storage facility one very cold day in Ellsworth a couple of years ago. A mysterious man in a dark cloak paid more than five hundred dollars for the bunch, an obscene amount.

“Folks,” Hines said, “Bob, a very well-known and past highway commissioner for years, was taken from us by the dear Lord and so to settle the estate, the following personal property will be sold at auction.” Among the listings were houseplants. The houseplants were fresh because the auction was held quickly; the same week as the obit.

Hines led us outside to the lineup of cars, lawn mowers, jet skis, go-karts, and unidentifiable farm implements. The Jaguar went for the price of a K car. The snickering stopped abruptly as the clump of thirty or forty guys put on their poker faces for the Mercedes. After I won it, my mechanic husband reached under the hood, reconnected the vacuum hose he’d seen hanging loose and started the car.

I’ve hit a few other jackpots, like a first edition of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (paid four dollars, sold it for four hundred dollars) and the four Red Wing plates (bought for less than ten dollars, sold for seventy dollars apiece on eBay). Hines knows when he’s holding hot stuff, but he never shows it. He gives knives with swastikas the same “Gosh, what have we got here?” demeanor as he does with two-thousand-dollar John Deere signs or broken mantle clocks.

“Folks, this clock looks like it’s missing one hand, but”—he turns to Jeff—“you know what they could do with that?”

“What’s that?” says Jeff, without missing a beat.

“They could buy the next clock, take the hand off that one, and put it on this one!”

Before I drove off in the Mercedes, trailed by the glares of the losing bidders, a woman approached me. “I hope you enjoy that car, it’s a beauty.” She had once been married to the man who’d bought the car. She, like the cars, was another casualty of his illness. His name turned out to be a familiar one in western Wisconsin. He’d shipped four of the cars from Seattle and driven the Mercedes back home in a manic storm of snow and sleeplessness. Apparently he got hungry somewhere in the middle of North Dakota, pulled over, and without getting out of the car, got out a rifle and started shooting at some elk. He was arrested and spent a night in jail; then he returned to Hudson and hung himself from the light fixture in his living room. His ex-wife and daughters turned to Hines to sell off the estate.

Later I would find condoms and piles of burned-out disposable lighters under the seat of my graceful and classic—and amazingly fast—car. I drove it for a couple of summers, then put it up on eBay. I made a slim profit and, after an astonishingly easy procedure, shipped the Mercedes to her happy new owner in the United Arab Emirates.