On Saturday morning, I attended Miami International Airport’s semiannual auction of abandoned baggage because 1) I suspected a scam and 2) I wanted to know what breed of humanity shows up for such an affair (besides shameless bloggers) and why.
Approaching the auction site, a musty storage room on the third floor of an ugly, glass office building on MIA’s northern fringe, I passed a man pushing a dolly stacked four boxes high toward the elevator. There was a light-brown fedora atop the stack of boxes, its brim almost as wide as the man’s smile.
Inside, several hundred people clamored for a hodgepodge of unbelongings: iPods, Blackberrys, surfboards, bicycles, crutches, memory sticks. An iPod, undistinguished by the auctioneer in any way (Nano? Touch? 4 gig? 80 gig?), promptly went for $200. This only strengthened my suspicion, particularly as bidders couldn’t check if anything was broken or damaged until after forking over a double-taxed, cash-only, unrefundable payment. Nonetheless, the “winning” bidder giddily took his ticket.
There were two main auctioneers, one a middle-aged Latino who looked like a third-base coach with his goatee and windbreaker jacket, the other a wizened geezer with overgrown facial features (see photos after the jump). They both had microphones and often appeared to be working at cross purposes: talking over each other, raising the bid independently of each other, snapping at each other on occasion, even calling the bid for different people once or twice. Still, the bids grew and grew. They knew exactly what they were doing.
The room was lively throughout the hour-plus I was there, but it really got going when a piece of luggage went up for bid. It was the allure of the “secret box” that did it. Before the auction, bidders had the opportunity to survey the goods, even lift the bags to see how heavy they were. But they could not open them, and they had to trust that airport staff hadn’t already divvied up the valuables (“Scout’s honor!”).
Despite the high likelihood that a piece of luggage contained clothes and nothing more, its appearance on the foldable table at the front of the room instantly increased the din by several decibels. Eyes narrowed, teeth came out of their hiding places. No matter how unpromising the bag, there were people who could do the logical yoga necessary to justify a pricy bid. A small Spider Man carry-on went for over $100 because, I suppose, that is exactly where an adult would hide a Rolex. No one suspects Spider Man.
The woman sitting next to me, a Haitian with reading glasses and gray hair, was waiting patiently to bid on a particular small carry-on because, she said, people didn’t check their valuables in the hold of an airplane. Sensible enough. I asked her if she suspected a scam. “No,” she said, “I don’t because this is so public. This was in the news.” Exactly, I thought. I asked her what she hoped to find in the bag. “Gold,” she said. “Something gold.”
Speaking of, one of the auctioneers’ assistants — yes, it takes a team to tango — estimated the auction would bring in roughly $50,000. “Hence the boys in blue,” I said, nodding toward the several cops milling around the storage room (who were actually wearing beige). The man laughed.
I never saw the Haitian woman bid. Out in the hallway, I tried to get a guy to open his secret box — a large suitcase he paid $350 for — but he declined. He was with two girls and probably wanted to hold on to a certain high-rolling image for as long as possible.
I did eventually see a woman open two sealed bags. The first contained a cliche: diapers. More than you could count. The contents of the second bag were more interesting, though only slightly more valuable. Mixed among an assortment of clothing were a pair of heavy-duty boots, a chainsaw blade (minus chain, plus sheath), and a package of files for sharpening a chainsaw blade.
The woman had bid $160 total on the two bags, but she laughed off her disappointment. After all, there was an orange blouse (with sequins to boot) mixed in among the lumberjack’s lost luggage. “Aw,” said the woman’s friend, who herself had bid $30 on what turned out to be a bag full of denim and patent leather, “he bought his girlfriend a present.”
Maybe. Maybe he was Paul Bunyan by day, RuPaul by night. Impossible to say. Regardless, there was a scrap of justice in the blouse ending up in the hands of someone who seemed happy to own it. Even if orange wasn’t her favorite color.
Here are some more photos from the auction.
All photos by Robby Campbell. More photos in Picasa.