"A lot of stuff in here!" the auctioneer calls out, trying his singsong best to conjure up luster for the contents of self-storage compartment No. 0104. But the words do not exist that could gild these ordinary remnants of someone else's life: the car battery, the damaged headboard, the bag of clothing.
So, he switches to broad humor about the items' owner. "Ay yay yay, he run out of money," he says.
From the raised stature provided to him by a small black footstool, the auctioneer begins the bidding at US$300, US$300, does he hear US$300, as potential bidders peer one last time into the compartment's shadows. Their flashlights beam in vain for some glittery wink of hidden treasure.
The numbers tumble from the auctioneer's lips, until the nod of a bidder's head puts the moment out of its misery: US$50 for the lot.
"He's welcome to it," another bidder mutters, and clicks off his flashlight.
The auctioneer, Don Bader, folds up his footstool and leads the gaggle of 20 down the blue-and-white maze that is the American Self Storage building on River Avenue in the Bronx. Some of the bidders own secondhand stores. Some work the flea market circuit. Some just want to see other people's stuff.
Nearly all of them know the drill, but Bader lays it out anyway: Cash only, including the refundable deposit, and a couple of days to remove everything from the unit.
They parade past rows of locked compartments whose renters are in good standing, then board a freight elevator that groans up to the next level. Down one row that looks just like all the other rows, then another, until they stop at No. 1200, which contains the belongings of someone else who has fallen into default.
A man cuts the lock, and the stuff of another is laid bare for prying flashlights and surreptitious pokes. Radio. Furniture. A ball of clothes. And a single suitcase, daring anyone to guess what it holds. A whole lot of cash? Or a whole lot of nothing?
The bubbly Bader mounts his footstool once again and begins a patter that eventually ends with the successful bidder's name: "All done at US$375 -- Fernando!"
New York City has hundreds of thousands of self-storage units, housed in old factories and new warehouses, rented by the rich and the poor -- from the couple who has to store winter clothing to the transient who has too many bags to lug. Most pay their rent on time, but a few fall months behind. Maybe they cannot pay; maybe they have lost interest in what was once worth storing.
The typical self-storage business sends certified letters and makes phone calls, but every month or so it uses an advertisement in a local newspaper to announce another auction.
"And we don't make money, we lose money," Jack Guttman, one of the owners of the River Avenue business, says later. "We're just trying to get the premises back so we can rent it to a paying tenant."
It is a legal process, a necessary one. But it is also voyeuristic, fraught with naked moments that remain largely unknown to weekend bargain hunters. People who go "antiquing" do not smell the hint of homeless emanating from, say, No. 0525; they do not see the canned food, or the half-used toiletries. The used-furniture dealers and flea market mavens go from auction to auction, searching with flashlights for the Tiffany lamp or wide-screen TV that means pay dirt.