17 May At the Hoarder’s Auction

The day after the CDC announced that business could resume in a mostly normal manner, Jill and I drove to a country auction–held at a decrepit farm that had belonged to a hoarder. I don’t use that word lightly. Like all psychological disorders, hoarding occurs on a spectrum. Jill and I have been told that we ourselves are on that spectrum because we love collecting lots of stuff. However, the clear distinction between the avid collector and the avid hoarder is that collectors take care of their stuff and try to display it (or as much as they are able), whereas hoarders simply like to collect stuff, often indiscriminately. And they almost never take care of their “collections.”

So it was at this farm: piles and heaps of rusting, rotting, molding, mildewed, battered, broken, crushed, and twisted everything, from wheelbarrows to travel trailers, egg baskets to livestock gates, cast iron pots to antique stoves, sunhats to wagon wheels. I should mention that one of Jill’s favorite TV shows is “Hoarders,” about a psychologist and her team of scrappers who are trying to help hoarders reclaim their lives–and their junked-to-the-ceiling houses. Their interventions almost never work. Even after this team cleans out a hoarder’s house, you know it won’t last. The hoarding urge simply runs too deep. Jill–a social worker–loves watching this travail, episode after episode. But I can’t; it’s too painful a spectacle.

Most of the auction stuff pertained to farming. You should know that for farmers, hoarding is an occupational hazard because farmers need all kinds of supplies and surplus to keep up their farm. At our farm, we have bales of wire fencing, stacks of rough-cut lumber, a huge cache of paints (spray cans, gallon cans, and five-gallon cans), a jaw-dropping number of hand tools (at least 15 kinds of shovels, 10 kinds of rakes, etc.), and so on, not to mention stacks of stone (for walls and walkways), piles of gravel (for roadways), pallets of concrete and mortar, gallons of gas and diesel fuel, and so much more.

On a farm, you never know what will break and need mending immediately. I have a shop crowded with pieces and parts, jars of nails and nuts, washers and screws, etc. Just the other day, I was cleaning cat poop from a crawl space and fell into a water pipe, which snapped in two, water spewing suddenly everywhere. Fortunately, I have several bins of plumbing parts and was able to fix the break in short order. That’s daily life on a farm.

But here’s the problem with farms: as farmers grow old, they can’t keep up with their piles of stuff, much less their many outbuildings. All of the sheds on the auction farm were falling in on themselves. The auctioneers taped off the buildings to keep the treasure hunters from snooping and possibly getting themselves killed. Despite the damage from decades of neglect, however, enough objects survived well enough to sell. Any cookware made of aluminum, cast iron, or galvanized metal, for example, will survive the most extreme exposure to weather. But wood won’t. Rubber (tires) won’t. Old vehicles won’t. And this farmer had lots of rusted-out automobiles and trucks and tractors.

Bidding started at one dollar, no matter what the object. If anything got up to about $20, most bidders dropped out. Jill and I bought four livestock gates, three bird houses, two rolls of rabbit wire, a concrete urn, and a roll of rusted fencing. A word about rust: when you live on a farm, you learn that some rusty stuff will last a surprisingly long time. Rusted fencing, for example, may be good for ten years or more, especially if you’re using it to protect trees from deer (as opposed to using it to pen livestock).

Country auctions are a colorful scene. You’ll see lots of silver-haired farmer types, half of them hanging about, it seems, to socialize. These men seem to be either really big or really skinny. The big ones have mountainous bellies. The skinny ones wear suspenders to keep their trousers up. The oldest of them are wearing really old clothes, by the way. I swear the label on the back of one old man’s gaberdine workpants was from the 1950s.

And there’s smoking–lots of cigarette smoking.

I overheard one oldster telling his comrades, “The place don’t look any different than it always did.” You could tell, though, that the pathways through the grass–wending around the many decrepit sheds–had been weed-whacked just a few days ago. Jill made friends with a couple who had just moved into an antique schoolhouse, so we exchanged numbers. I almost bought a really cool old, lichen-covered ploughshare–“Great for a garden centerpiece!” the auctioneer hollered–but soon found myself in the midst of a bidding war and quickly dropped out. “Got yourself caught in a buzzsaw, didn’t ya?” someone behind me said.

In spite of painful neuropathy in both her hands and now lymphedema in her left arm (swelling and pain that make the arm mostly useless), Jill was excited to be at an in-person auction, our first in well over a year. At one point she and I got separated. I had picked out two old (but not overly rusty) livestock gates and hoped no one else wanted them. But as soon as the bidding started I had competition. I looked through the crowd to spy the other bidder: it was Jill! I called out, “Wait a minute, that’s my wife!” Everybody laughed.

By the way: nobody was wearing a mask. We were outside, of course, but it was clear that word had spread about the CDC’s latest revision: the atmosphere was markedly different than it has been all year, everybody relieved, even a bit giddy, to walk about with nothing between them and a wondrously beauty spring morning.

Jill’s Go-Fund-Me page

One of my collections