by David Moloney
I’m not attached to possessions. I come from a middle class Irish family, where our heirlooms are silverware sets passed down through maybe a generation and a half (as “priceless” as they are worthless) and photo albums. Those are kept tucked away like rare coin collections. But otherwise, we only keep what we can house. Anything more is easily discarded.
This is to say, I was unprepared when a year ago I started working part-time at a storage facility in Lowell. The grounds have about four hundred units. The first floor is accessible from the outside, the second floor units are indoors and up a flight of stairs. My job is to scan the grounds for faulty doors, trash clean-up, run payments, and open units for new customers.
On Storage Wars, you see warring professional buyers purchase units after only a peek from the doorway and “discover” a rare collectible or two. So, when the facility scheduled an auction for delinquent units, I excitedly signed up to work it. I wanted to rip open the units in front of fat wadded treasure hunters like Dave Hester, watch the auctioneer with a cowboy hat rattle off numbers faster than the Micro Machine dude. I wanted to see buyers chewing their fingernails, doing math on their phones, calling their partners in a last second frenzy. It was exciting television, but it wasn’t reality.
The auction was held on a chilly morning in March. A maintenance worker cut the locks off the units the night before. No one had seen inside of them but the customers who had failed to live up to the contract. Trucks and vans lined the dead end road, people stood outside the office smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. They looked tired, cold, and, I hate to say, downtrodden. They looked like someone was forcing them to be there.
The auctioneer was no different. He had a button down shirt, light overcoat, and wrinkled khakis. He wore dirty sneakers and cautioned me to only open the units when he gave the order. He wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat nor looked like he’d ever owned one.
The twenty or so professional buyers followed me to the first unit, a five by ten. The auctioneer gave a nod and I pulled it open. Some buyers huddled around me with tiny flashlights; some used the ones on their phones. The small unit turned off most buyers immediately. When the auctioneer cleared the crowd, I took a look inside: a shop vac, filled black trash bags, picture frames, a cordless phone. The auctioneer opened the bidding at $15. His cadence was poorly executed. No one bid until his final, “Do I hear fifteen, ten, five? No five, no five, how about five?” A woman raised her hand and after he pointed quickly her way she walked off and he told me to close the unit. I caught up with the buyer on the way to the next one. I asked her what she saw worth buying. She told me the shop vac has gotta be worth at least five.
There were units that smelled so badly I couldn’t believe they sold. The buyer’s had to put up a hundred dollar deposit and empty the unit within 72 hours. Everything. Even the trash. Some buyers bought three units of junk and spent the next three days cleaning them out. One buyer, a man who was wearing the same clothes as the day of the auction, told me he had to rent a dumpster.
“When all’s said and done,” he said, “I might make two-hundred dollars.” He had two consignment shops that brought in a lot of foot traffic, he explained, but not many buyers. He seemed happy about it, though.
When I took the job, it was the customers that initially interested me. I was sure I’d meet people in-between homes, awaiting a sale or purchase, maybe a husband tossed out and living in an apartment until he could rally himself. But I found those cases are rare. Most of the customers are just people with too much stuff. In the end, it reminded me more of Hoarders than Storage Wars. The units fed the compulsion to accumulate; as if the most successful hoarders were the ones who’d found the means to house their possessions at whatever means possible, for as long as they could.
David Moloney is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.