Saturday, February 12, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Storage-Locker

Despite (or, perhaps because of) a global recession everyone still loves a treasure hunt

Preface: The following is an essay I wrote for a recent (awesome) class on cultural exegesis. -ec

If you haven’t inherited grandma’s love of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” in the past decade, maybe you’ll like a wily gang of burly, tattooed, middle-aged men raiding auctioned-off storage units in California. Proof positive that you don’t need to be a sissy to enjoy a good treasure hunt. The past few months have seen a flurry of new reality shows hoping to appease the pirate and prospector in us all.

A&E’s “Storage Wars” pits four men (The Collector, the Gambler, the Mogul, and the Young Gun) against one another in a battle for the highest bid. We follow auctioneer Dan Dotson through the wild west of Californian self-storage facilities as he auctions off the contents of lockers whose owners neglect to pay their rental fees. After 90 days, the lock of the unlucky units are cut off as a crowd of potential bidders peers in hoping to get lucky.

What’s the strategy? It’s not too far afield from the poker tables in Vegas. You bid on what you can see in hopes of what you can’t. What’s in that box marked “crystal?” Is it a collection of Waterford Crystal, or a just a box of Crystal’s unwanted dormitory d├ęcor? Does the Sony Plasma TV box contain a plasma TV, or a tangled mass of discarded Christmas tree lights?

Each competitor appears to have a unique strategy on what treasure can turn the most profit. But they’re all agreed that in this town Profit is king. A storage-locker is only valuable as a “money-making unit.” Once the locks are cut and the buyers take a peek inside, the bidding begins. $100, 125, 150, do I have $200? Often the competition is not so much out of interest in owning the unit, but of bidding up the price to see who you can sucker into buying a less-than-promising locker.

The sights and sounds of the Old West come alive (even the soundtracks of spaghetti-Westerns!) as the shootout between four alpha males escalates into the discovery of the contents of each locker. It’s either a comic book collection worth 100 grand, or (more likely) a trash bag full of old, musty sweaters worth 50 cents.

Spike’s “Auction Hunters” follows Ton Jones and Allen Haff as they dig through storage units in search of buried treasure. The hundreds of auctioned storage units provide these two business partners with an opportunity to score big on the (unmentioned) misfortune of those unable to pay their rent. Along the way, Ton and Allen let you in on their insider auction secrets and strategies so that you can do it too. But be warned, you only survive by sticking to their prescribed game plan.

The rise of the self-storage unit is a fascinating phenomenon in itself. Our 3000 square foot homes can’t contain all our stuff, so we have built 2.35 billion square feet of self-storage to do the trick. Apparently laying up treasures for yourself in self-storage doesn’t stop the thieves. Interestingly enough, the same network that brings you “Storage Wars” also airs “Hoarders,” a show about people whose only salvation seems tied to renting about 30 self-storage units, and then some. The advent of the self-storage-locker-auction, however, is even more remarkable. At the heart of these scavenger hunts seems to be an innate desire in all of us to find that one treasure, the victory of unearthing that Picasso or 1st edition Superman comic.

But it’s not merely about the discovery of the hidden gem that excites us, right? It’s the journey along the way. It’s winning the bid, digging through the spoils, anticipating the score, and (if you’re lucky) striking it rich. If you’re not a fan of storage-lockers, than Discovery’s “Gold Rush Alaska” embodies the same idea. A group of men on an expedition into the remote wilderness of Porcupine Creek Alaska in search of buried gold. As one of the gold-diggers says, what kind of man wouldn’t want to be right there with them? Ready to risk it all and throw everything they have into it, Jack Hoffman exclaims, “I’m ready to die for it.”

Whatever we might say about the moral values of auctioning off the belongings of people who have hit hard economic times, there still exists some impulse that draws us into the hunt. We’re ready, like the bidders in “Storage Wars,” like the amateur miners in “Gold Rush Alaska,” to risk it all for the chance of securing fortune and glory. Buried treasure is the stuff of legends and fantastical stories—yet, this new wave of treasure-finding reality TV really begs the question: what is the one treasure that outweighs all other valuation? What are we ready to risk it all for? What are we willing, like Jack Hoffman, to die for?

Now turn the tables. What if one of these storage raiders had an insider (maybe someone more reliable than Ton Jones?); someone to clue them in that inside those boxes behind the corrugated metal doors awaited something of inestimable value? Not just old t-shirts and dusty furniture, but a treasure worth bidding all you had. It might not make for good reality TV, but it’d be a far safer investment.

The truth is that there is an Insider who has clued us into a treasure that surpasses our wildest imagination, certainly something far grander than anything a self-storage locker could contain. And He’s not only clued us in to the secret, but also told us exactly where to look. He called it “the pearl of great value” and said that when you find it, it’s best to make sure you bid it all and buy it. The great irony is that elsewhere this Insider says that that this greatly priced pearl belongs to those who come to the auction without money. Imagine that—a penniless auction. Blessed, happy are those who come to Him poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the hidden treasure worth all the risk in the world. It’s a treasure that no storage-raider can ever touch.

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