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Last night, A&E debuted Storage Wars, a new series about professional garbage pickers who forage through abandoned storage units hoping to find treasure. Only in America do we have so much crap that sifting through it deserves a TV show.
I'm fascinated by this show, which follows four storage unit buying fiends in California as they travel around the state bidding on unseen piles of crap and hoping to extract some serious cash out of it. I didn't even know storage unit auctions even existed! Apparently at storage unit warehouses, if you haven't paid your bill in three months they sell off the contents of your whole unit to the highest bidder. On the show they open up a locker, everyone gets to look inside from the doorway and figure out if the want to bid on the contents or not. Sometimes it's obvious it's a winner, other times it's clear it might be stuffed with shit, but you never know just what you might find tucked away in there. It's like Hoarders with a payout!
Barry, one of the "characters" on the show, bought this unit half full of boxes (and flies) that no one else wanted for $850 because he saw something under a tarp. It could have been a stack of mirrors. It could have been a fake Christmas tree. It could have been anything. But it was a rare vintage BMW micro-car! What the hell? He ends up selling the car for almost $4K, making a tidy profit. He also bought several boxes without seeing the contents at rap impresario Suge Knight's storage sale. They contained the star's custom made clothes, which he made about $5,000 selling.
The biggest sale of the first two episodes, which aired back-to-back, was a unit containing all the appliances of what must have been a closed down restaurant, which a speculator bought for $2,000 and sold for $19,000. Pretty easy money.
But it's easy to see an industrial refrigerator and know it's worth something. The more exciting finds come when you uncover a bag that is full of thousands of dollars in rare baseball cards, as someone did last night. And that is the real fascinating thing about this show. We now have so much shit that we need to buy places to put our shit, and when we forget about it, then other people come in and buy our shit and then they sell that shit to other people so that they can have even more shit that one day they'll forget about too. Round and round, people just buying, forgetting about, and reselling the same old junk. This is the ultimate extension of our rabid consumerism: the shit economy.
And as quintessentially American as consumerism is, so are the people hunting through these units. They are prospectors, just like the ones from the Gold Rush, but instead of kneeling in freezing water sifting for gold, they're knee-deep in the mountains of our cast-offs. They are entrepreneurs, blue collar folk trying to make their fortune with a little bit of hard work and luck. It's classic rags to riches, but the riches, in this case, are also rags.
Still the show's biggest problem is they're trying to make the people into personalities, like the much more flamboyant family behind Pawn Stars. I don't really see that working, and the strain is showing. However, they should focus on what is really fascinating—the people who leave these things behind. How do they get to a place where they have to squirrel all their possessions away in a metal box and then abandon them. Who buys a rare BMW and then just leaves it there. Who does that? Who are these people that have so much, have such abundance, that they leave it all behind? That's the real gem of this show, trying to figure out how and why each and every one of us got to the point of over-saturation of shit.