By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Finding bargains, especially during the run-up to Christmas, can be especially invigorating.
Keith John Paul Horcasitas, whose first professional job was as a social worker for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 1980s, discovered that eight years ago when he accompanied his brother-in-law, Dale Pederson, on something Pederson told him was a “storage auction.”
For the uninitiated – those benighted souls who have never seen the reality TV show “Storage Wars” – a storage auction is something like watching a 150-1 longshot barrel down the stretch at the Fair Grounds with a 10-length lead while you are waving the winning ticket on Son of Secretariat.
Horcasitas had never heard of anything like it.
“I had no earthly idea of what he was talking about,” said Horcasitas, who doesn’t watch much TV.
Horcasitas had been to a few garage sales and flea markets, but he had a hard time wrapping his head around this phenomenon: Why would people gather more stuff than they need and pay monthly rent to store it, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of dollars a month, and then, sadly, walk away from that same property?
Or, even more fundamentally, why is the storage industry booming across America?
Is it because empty nesters are downsizing and don’t have the time or the heart to part with cherished mementos from grandma? Is it because millennials, seeking to live in smaller apartments or condos in the heart of downtown, need extra space to store their bicycles, their treadmills or the latte machines they will use one day? Is it because, in the end, we are piling our grain into barns, so that we can eat, drink and be merry?
Pederson looked at his role in the storage wars both as a fun time to socialize with his friends in his retirement and maybe, one day, unearth that hidden gem.
Ten years ago, when most of the storage auctions took place at the storage unit, the socializing part was fun. (The auctions now are mostly online, which cuts down on the camaraderie.) The auctioneer would crack open the door of the storage unit, allowing the dozen or so bidders to get a quick glance, and then open the bidding.
On the day Horcasitas accompanied Pederson, the auctioneer opened the door to Unit 113. Pederson spied an old oven and a couple of TVs that might be serviceable. There was a bed frame and a couple of large speakers and a few bags of clothes.
The auctioneer started the bidding, and Pederson offered $10. None of his friends nor anyone else made a bid.
“Going once, going twice, sold to the $10 bidder,” the auctioneer said. Pederson handed over the $10 bill and then placed his own padlock on the unit, promising to clean it out within 48 hours.
The best item Pederson ever came across was a pair of women’s Prada pumps, size 7 1/2, which were mixed in with other items in a plastic trash bag.
“They told me some shop in London sells those same shoes for $538,” Pederson said. “They were patent leather, and I never knew anything about women’s shoes.”
But, as Pederson admits, try selling those shoes at the flea market on Airline Highway in Prairieville.
There were many times, particularly after the sales when Pederson had a chance to sift through the belongings of an anonymous family, that caused him to reflect more deeply.
One that hit him hard was a letter from an inmate to his wife.
“It’s kind of sad that these were part of someone’s private life, and they don’t want to deal with it,” Pederson said. “Some of the letters came from people who had AIDS or some other health issues. I thought that was really sad.”
One locker was stuffed with new Christmas decorations, still in their original boxes.
“They probably bought them in January or February when they were 80% off, but they just let them go,” Pederson said. “Some of the lockers were filled with wedding presents. A lot of people have a hoarding tendency, and this fits right into it.”
With his background as a social worker, Horcasitas probably is more attune than others to the suffering of others. And, so, he wonders: Who was that family that had to walk away from its belongings?
“I couldn’t help but wonder who were the people whose misfortunes had led to the surrendering of their possessions,” Horcasitas said. “Could it have been one of my own neighbors? It also made me think about what values do I place on the possessions that I have? Are they more important than people?”
Horcasitas, who now lives in Baton Rouge and works for the Veterans Administration by visiting veterans as a home health social worker, says his Advent reflection will be on those who are less fortunate.
“I think so many people are just a paycheck away – they’re living paycheck to paycheck and aren’t prepared for these types of things,” he said.
Why not use Advent, Horcasitas says, to do a personal evaluation of “what I’m being called to ‘auction off’ to make room in this ‘storage unit’ that I have been blessed with from birth.”
“Will there be any room at the inn for the Lord or will I turn him away by what I have stored?” he asks.
A storage war indeed.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.