The Mystery Box

America loves stories about people that start with nothing and end up with everything. We’ve all imagined striking it rich in one way or another and obtaining wealth beyond our wildest dreams. After all, America is “the land of opportunity.” The idea of getting rich quick is just ingrained in our culture.

“Something for nothing” is the basis for all get rich quick schemes. Every hair brained idea that ever had a chance probably started as a get rich quick scheme until it was properly thought through and worked out. There are entire industries that are based on this concept. The businesses of getting something for nothing is a a very real multi-billion dollar dream that often transcends every product, industry, and demographic. Some of these schemes actually have real results while others are just as preposterous as they seem.

We’ve all found ourselves enthralled by the stories of regular people that just seemed to somehow tap into something amazing. Maybe they were innovators or perhaps just some folks just have all the luck. These pie in the sky pursuits also happen to make for great television shows. The problem the normal person fails to realize after watching these shows is that the pie in the sky tends to be the most expensive pie of all.

Think about the majority of the television shows you’ve come across on the discovery and history channels about people making thousands of dollars from minimal or short bursts of effort by flipping houses, pawning rare items, finding priceless antiques in strange places, or risking death on a crabbing boat for a week in return for a years pay . Or maybe you’ve seen a show or two about people counting stacks of hundred dollar bills they’ve found hidden away next to precious gem stones inside of a shoe box they found in a storage unit. Well I’ll tell you right now, this story doesn’t have anything to do with the time I tried to get on an Alaskan King Crab fishing boat.

My room mate Mike and I have similar thresholds in regards to “risk.” So it was no surprise when I found out that he had dabbled in storage unit auctions a number of years back and he had managed to come across one unit that produced a small fortune. These real storage auctions were exactly like the ones depicted on the multiple television shows on the discovery channel. The premise is simple. A date is set and they allow anyone to come bid on all of the units that have fallen behind in rent by three months. They allow you to look from outside of the unit without touching anything,  and then they begin the bidding to see who gets to go home with everything inside the unit (including everything you see and a lot of what you don’t see). The idea is that somewhere inside of these large steel rooms, buried beneath mountains of crap, and tucked inside old card board box are hidden treasures.

Mike and I found ourselves out of work for a period of time during the early part of summer and on a whim Mike took a moment to look up local auctions again. As luck would have it, there was one storage unit auction taking place in the early afternoon about ten miles away. Neither of us had any plans that day so we began making arrangements. Mike called his buddy Russ who owned a large pick-up truck and within an hour we were en route to a storage war.

We were about fifteen minutes early and upon arrival it didn’t appear as though anyone else would be showing up. There were only a few people milling around the front office as we approached. We entered and were greeted by a one-armed older lady behind the front desk who claimed to be the property manager of all of the units. She asked us for our ID’s and took to photocopying them while we filled out basic contact information. You’re required to sign in so you can be held liable for whatever you buy in case you decided to leave without paying after you’ve discovered the unit you just purchased was full of shit. After we signed in we posted up outside the office to size up our competition. As you might imagine we didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the folks that clearly were makin’-a-livin’ doing this type of thing. The people of Walmart are totally interchangeable with the types of characters that showed up for storage wars that day. Fat old redneck women with tits down to their waistlines (no bras on these ladies), old scruffy looking hick types chewing dip missing most of their teeth, and your run of the mill good-ol-boy used-car-lot looking scumbags. This was quite the crew.

As we sat and waited for the auctions to begin one of the older rednecks in his late sixties approached me as I stood beside a chair near the door to the office; anxiously waiting for the auctions to begin.

“That chair come with a set? How much you want for it?”  Asked the old man in a thick redneck twang.

He looked like he was covered in a layer of dust and grime from not showering for weeks at a time.

“What?” I asked unsure what he was talking about as I looked down at the rickety chair next to me and then over at my two accomplices.

Clearly I didn’t own the chair as it was just sitting outside the main office. And for the shape that it was in, I couldn’t imagine it being used for anything other than firewood.

“That chair come with as a set or with a table or are you selling it as is?” He asked me rocking back forth studying me then the old rickety wooden chair next to me.

I couldn’t tell if the guy was fucking with me to make his competition uncomfortable (me and my friends) or maybe he was just kind of “out there” and genuinely thought that the piece of shit chair outside the main office was mine and -was for sale.

Before I could even formulate a response, Russ pipped up, “That’s a jerk-off chair.”

The old redneck turned to look at him, “A what?”

“Yeah, you know, a jerk off chair. You can put one those in your shower or living room or wherever and jerk off.” Russ said making the quick repetitive wrist motion as he bent his knees slightly while turning his torso upwards, “I’ve got one just like it in my bedroom.”

My mouth fell open for a moment. It generally takes a significant verbal jab stun me, but that one had done the trick.

“A jerk off chair?” Asked the old redneck as he started to smile.

I began laughing hysterically, “It doesn’t really come with a set but you can get some really serious torque out of your wrist if you use it right. I’ll let you have it for $150.”

The old guy began laughing as he threw up a hand like he was swatting away the idea from his face.  He ambled away chuckling, “you guys are alright.”

Looks like we passed the bizarre redneck’s let’s make things uncomfortable test.” I remember thinking.

A few minutes later the one armed lady came out of the office and rounded everyone up. There was a good twenty people in attendance as she explained how the auction was going to go and what not to do. The rules were simple:

  • Don’t touch anything inside of the lockers.
  • Everyone will get a chance to look.
  • Highest bidder wins.
  • If you purchase the locker you’re responsible for unloading its contents.

The entire group followed the one armed lady to the first storage unit to be sold. A chubby older man clipped the padlock off the front of the locker with a large red pair of bolt cutters and then stepped out of the way. We all watched in anticipation as the metal door began rolling upwards. When we finally peered in, the locker turned out to be just what we were afraid we might run into. Furniture upon furniture left for dead. Somebody had stored practically an entire house of shitty Ikea particle board tables, chairs, dressers, couches, and beds inside the unit. They must have been amazing at Tetris because they some how managed to fill almost the entire volume of unit up to the ceiling.

After a few glances I looked at Mike and Russ and quietly said, “There’s absolutely no reason we should even consider this one. Bunch of shitty furniture that we wouldn’t even know what to do with.”

They nodded in agreement as we moved further back and watched others step in front of the locker with flashlights in hand. It was like witnessing some type of poor mans yoga as they got down on their knees with their faces just above the floor, then they would stand up slowly eventually getting on the very tips of their toes in an effort to mentally catalog everything inside. You didn’t want to miss anything because maybe the one thing of value that nobody else saw was behind all this junk, secret treasure that was just waiting to be discovered. Or it was just useless shit.

The bidding started and it was very reminiscent of how the television show depicts these auctions. Guys were throwing their weight around and acting like they were playing a high roller game of blackjack as they increased the bidding upwards beyond $1000. The whole thing looks rather silly when you’re actually there in person. Watching all the showmanship along with the “drama” associated with the live auctions added to the amusement of the entire thing and made the experience far more entertaining than I had anticipated.

We saw two more equally poor units filled with household crap before we came onto the last and smallest unit of the auction. Mike, Russ, and I whispered about our experience so far being a complete waste of time as the chubby man finally clipped the lock off the last door. We stepped back as he he flung the roll-up door upwards. This was the “economy size” storage locker and it was comparable to a small household linen closet. The storage locker was virtually empty with the exception of a pair of shorts, a sock, and medium sized gray plastic bin with a lid on it.

I immediately began audibly quoting an episode of family guy where Lois and Peter go to a timeshare presentation and get to choose between taking home a boat or whatever was in “the mystery box.” I kept saying the words in my head over and over, “A boat’s a boat; but the mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat. You know how badly we’ve always wanted one of those. We’ll take the box.”

Laughter erupted down the halls of the storage facility as everyone got a look at what was left to bid on. Mike stared distantly for a long while, just looking at the bin. After a pause, he flipped Russ and I a look of lunacy and said, “I think we might have to go for this one boys.”

I laughed and said sarcastically, “That box could be filled with anything, imagine if it was a box of money or jewelry.”

“I think we need this one boys.” Russ said firmly folding his arms.

I wasn’t so sure he was serious until the bidding started. Most of the people were emptying out when the auctioneer finally got a starting bid of fifty cents.

“A dollar fifty.” Mike said with a funny smile as people around us continued to chuckle.

“Two fifty.” Said a voice coming from a group of college aged bro’ish guys that I hadn’t notice during the other auctions.

“Five bucks.” Said Russ stepping forward setting his gaze on the auctioneer.

It appeared that we were going to have ourselves a good old fashion bro-off via mystery box auction. Who was going to yield first to the absurdity of buying what ever lay inside a plain looking box inside a mostly empty locker?

“Seven dollars.” Said one of the college aged bros.

Here’s the majesty of the situation. It could wind up being a completely empty box or a box filled to the brim anything you’re capable of imagining. Your mind runs wild with the possibilities pretty quickly. Before you realize it, you’re no longer focused on the cost of disappointment; but the cost of letting go and having to wonder “what could have been?” I began coming up with scenarios as my thoughts raced over all the valuable things that could fit into that box. I had no doubt that my friends were doing the same thing as the bidding continued.

“Nine bucks.” Said Mike with crazy eyes and a joker-like grin.

You’re envisioning treasure maps, a bank robbery stash, guns, candy, a drug dealers inventory, etc. And given that there is a sock and a pair of shorts outside you begin to throw together a storyline of the escaped mental patient that jerked off into the sock after his bank robbery and then changed into a disguise but not before leaving all the money in the locker for safe keeping. Yeah I know; but it’s still possible.

“Fifteen.” Announced a bro from the other group thinking he had us over a barrel at this point.

Literally anything could be in this box and you have to assume that there is something valuable in there because why in the world would someone else be bidding on this thing. With ego’s flaring the bidding price quickly climbed to $25 and there was a pause. The college bro’s had the most recent bid and thought they had reached our threshold of “absurdity spending” as they smiled at one another triumphantly. But it wasn’t over. These guys wanted this box but they hadn’t anticipated what kind of people Mike, Russ, and I were. The amount of my own hard earned money I’ve spent on stupid things could pay for my college education twice over and that’s just counting the money I had spent before the age of 18.

“Going twice.” Said the auctioneer.

My palms were sweating and my heart was pounding.

“Going three times.” The auctioneer said again.

“Twenty-seven fifty!” I blurted out as my roommate Mike yelled, “Thirty!”

We laughed and high-fived as the auctioneer announced “thirty going once.”

I stood with my hands poised at my sides, my fingers twitched like I was in an old western gun-slinger in a duel waiting for my opponent to draw his weapon first.

The three of us stared down the college-bros hard.

“You guys really want that box huh?” One of them said in a frustrated tone.

I believe at that point we may have been willing to die for whatever was in that box. We each wanted it that badly.

“Whatever it takes.” I said nodding my head with fire in my eyes.

“Going three times.” said the auctioneer .

The silence was deafening.

“Sold! 30 dollars to the three gentlemen and their new box.” The auctioneer called out with a big shit eating grin on his face.

We fist pumped, danced, and high-fived for a moment as the bros and a few of the remaining people turned and headed out. Many of them, shaking their heads probably assuming we were on drugs or just a higher breed of stupid for trying to buy something that was more than likely garbage. But even if it turned out they were right, it was our garbage and we had won it. Much less, we had celebrated throwing away $30 for it.

This was the purchasing of a mystery and story for me. I was plenty alright with sacrificing $10 ($30 split three ways) on what could be any object(s) my mind was capable of conjuring up. The meaning of life or even the answer to all questions within the universe could be contained in this box. There’s a quantum mechanics thought experiment called Schrödinger’s cat where a person is told that inside of a box a cat exists but depending on the nature of an electron inside a vial of deadly radioactive fluid the cat can be either alive or dead but it would certainly not be both (a paradox). The act of observation makes this event true,  thus the cat is either dead or alive based on the act of looking. I wasn’t hoping for a live or dead cat, but the knowledge that there had to be something in there and until I opened it- it’s not real yet. It just plays with the mind to think about. In another theory about multiple universes there would exist one odd distant world -that given the infinite nature of the universe and given that all matter would exist in infinite combinations because there is endless amounts of it; then there would have to exist an infinite number of potential “treasures” in there. Therefore, on one planet very similar to our own, somewhere in a galaxy far, far away; inside of this box was enough money for me to never have to work again. Although the statistics of this occurring are pretty outlandishly rough there was still that off chance- it’s science, fuck you!

The three of us surrounded the box and stared at it wide eyed like Indiana Jones before he snatches a sacred gold idol off of its perch. In a smooth motion, I slowly put my hand under the lip of the plastic lid. I took a breath and flipped it right off.

A few people had gathered a short distance behind us and they had only stuck around out the same curiosity that drove us to continue to bid on the box. We all peered over the edge of the box to look inside with inexplicable anticipation and high hopes.

I felt all the air escape my lungs in disappointment, as I began to realize the dream was disintegrating right in front of me. The box was practically empty with the exception of an  old sweater, a pair of shoes, and a smaller cooler-like lunch box. These objects couldn’t have been less interesting. Just their existence was upsetting to me as they sat there in the box mocking our future aspirations and dashing all fantasies about discovering treasure. What a travesty. And then within a moment the idea of loss was gone and the element of comedy took over. To hold such a box in that location in such high regard and peruse it to the degree we did with absolutely no pay-out seemed to be an even bigger message of how life works. The reason these get-rich-quick schemes don’t pan out for most people is because many of them are a metaphor for a mystery box that turns out to only contain a sweater, a pair of size 9 Reebok sneakers, and a lunch box.

The three of us laughed while throwing around the contents of the locker while expressing a few choice expletives over the nature of storage wars. Mike tossed all the contents of the locker into the box and we parted ways with our winning locker.

People asked us on the way to the truck what was in the box. Mike said he would allow them to take a peek for a nominal fee of five dollars. Nobody accepted the offer.

We laughed about the experience of being a storage warrior and the short comings of a plastic bin entire way home.

We actually ended up keeping the box and the lunchbox sized cooler that was in it. They proved to be somewhat useful around the house but moreover served as a subtext reminder of what good fortune can look like and how expectations don’t always measure up to reality. I’ve never been much of a gambler but I was okay with losing that day. I’m not sure I would have wanted to open the box to find a pretty midget pirate lady with a rose in her teeth offering me three wishes anyway…

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