There are quieter places you might go on a Friday night.You might butt your knees up against the seat in front of you at the Biograph and watch "Women in Love" for the third time, or you might sit in a dark bar and draw pictures in your spilled beer. But if you're not afraid of the light of the blindingly ordinary, every week Colonel James' auction offers entertainment of a different sort, that is also a brilliant seminar in American culture and an opportunity for a light spiritual chastening.
Colonel James' Gallery is out in Laurel -- just stay on Route 1 about six miles beyond the Beltway and don't worry about missing it until you see a red neon sign reading simply "SCALES" branded on the night. The gallery is about a mile beyond that on the left, somewhere between the city and the country, in what used to be a Robert Hall's. On warmer nights the parking lot smells like hay and wet exhaust. And if it's past 7 when the auction has begun, while you're shutting the car doors, you can hear the come-hither song of the auctioneer. Then, were you like me, a devotee of the place, you would feel a warmth down deep like getting religion, and you would want to run, as I sometimes do if I'm not with someone, to find out what the Colonel is selling tonight.
When you first come through the door, the place smells like the inside of grandmother's empty bedroom -- a blend of leather, mothballs, dust, books and old men. In time, one grows to appreciate the way the cigarette smoke mixes with the atmosphere of the gallery, gathering over the heads of the crowd as smog does over certain western cities, curling around the rafters like cream stirred into coffee and getting into the eyes of the pure and the holy. Lately, cigarette-smoking has been restricted to the section next to the door.
If it's early in the evening the hall is sometimes crowded. The men wear pearl-gray Stetsons and fancy agate belt buckles and heavy rings. Some are bald and wear string ties with buffalo skulls with turquoise horns, and some have long hair like Johnny Winters and on their arms, tattoos of coiled serpents. While the husbands sit with arms folded, women wrap bric-a-brac in newspaper and pack it in cardboard boxes. Some of them are young, spare in their cotton dresses, looking back sadly to where their children are raising Cain among the piled furniture and rugs; some are older and thicker, in Capri pants and blouses printed with enormous mad nasturtiums. Up and down the aisles a baby with a sagging diaper toddles, sucking thoughtfully on a Coke.
Above the congregation in a sort of pulpit sits the Colonel himself calling out the sale. Trying to get a bid on a boudoir chair with a stained ruffle -- "Five . . . five . . . five . . . ? Do I hear five? . . . One! God bless you, honey! Move on back, folks. Don't be bunching up now like a lot of turkeys trying to get smothered." One by one his humors move across his face: affability and anger, calm knowledge and wounded innocence. His tone changes liquidly as each lot goes up: "Now this is a different story, folks!"
The most astonishingly random collection of things is offered for sale: a brass cash register, a Dick Tracy camera, an old black typewriter -- "You're buying it as working," two pieces of pink, etched Depression glass, a painted vase -- "genuine Nippon," a wedding doll with a far-away expression, a velvet painting of Our Lord bleeding and a brass samovar. The neon light in the gallery is white and harsh, and although it seems that a softer light would give plain objects an aura of mystery and thus of value, the "dealers," most of whom specialize in flea market "collectibles," prefer a starker light for discerning chips, cracks, scars and tears.
The ruthless light, however, discloses the purchases as well as the purchasable. They are discovered sitting in pairs, sometimes in families, but families without relation, their attentions completely immersed in the auction. Two rows up a pregnant woman leans back in her chair, chewing gum and smiling. tHer skinny husband, black Irish with a gold ring in his ear and a mean expression, won't answer her when she talks to him. But still she keeps smiling, leaning back in her tent dress with the Peter Pan collar.
Now and then people get up to stretch their legs and wander among the stuff piled around the edges of the room and waiting to be sold. They pick things up and examine them irreverently, carelessly. A woman peers at a wedding-cake top still wrapped in yellowing plastic. Apparently everything -- including a bedpan wrapped in a lace curtain and the former owner's wheelchair -- has a price, if not a value. Seldom does anything go unsold, nor does the Colonel often pull anything out of sale because the bid is too low. A wrought-iron hanging lamp that is also an end table, and a Miller can cigarette-lighter that is also a radio hover between identities. Two men carry out a huge mirror surrounded by tumbling gilt cherubs dropping posies and winding trumpets. Everything is piled together -- a toy airplane on a wicker casket on a Belgian carpet from a clergyman's study. A frail man with a pencil-thin mustache brings out Michelangelo's "David" in plaster. An Agnus Dei in wax and a rosary of mother of pearl appear; but if there is mystery down under the junk, the Really Real beneath the real, the pearl of great price under a yellow life preserver, it goes unperceived.
And still it seems to be a rule that at every auction there must be one really superb thing. Tonight there is a West African woman, carved in ebony, with a child clinging to her back. There is a fragile porcelain basket, hand painted and perfect. There is always some crystal, thin as wishes. And always there is some respectable silver, and as the world grows dark around us, silver does not shine any less coolly in the dusk for being somewhat heavy and old-fashioned. It doesn't seem to me that the ivory-handled carving set of good steel I bought two weeks ago will give me less pleasure because I can't afford meat. And also, of course, there's the investment.
Although some things command an unnaturally high price -- an empty Avon bottle in the shape of a poodle can bring up to $5 -- most go very cheaply. After a while, as a matter of fact, you learn to estimate the auction value of your own possessions pretty accurately. The crane-neck student lamp over my typewriter would fetch between $3 and $4. The Bob-Cratchit desk I'm standing up to right now, gumwood, mid-19th century, would get me about $150 -- on a very good night. It's big, however, and anything hard to move goes cheaply.
Some auction thoughts are sobering -- but not very; there always remains the charm of surprise and possibility. I can sit at an auction in rapt attention hours longer than I could ever listen to a lecture, because tonight may herald what I really want -- whatever that may be -- and it may go cheaply.
The Colonel had an estate sale a couple months ago at which someone's entire outer life went on the block. I bought the lamp from the front hall. Someone else bought the teapot, another the drapes, another the towels, and another the bed with sheets and pillowcases. Finally the portrait of the master went up for bids, the picture of a handsome, dignified man in middle age, wearing the academic robes of a doctor of laws. The Colonel bent towards us: "Ladies and gentlemen, how much will you give me for this beautiful frame? Forty dollars . . . ? Thirty? Ladies and gentlemen, where are you looking? Twenty dollars? Look at this frame now: turn it around and let them see the back . . . look there. Make me an offer then. Shouldn't have to give away a beautiful frame like that. Ten dollars -- God bless you, lady. Beautiful gold frame like that. Ten I got . . . Eleven where . . . Ten I got . . . Eleven where. . . Ten once . . . twice . . . sold! Number . . . ? Number . . . ? What number lady? Number 114 for eleven dollars."
One thing comes up after another, nothing in any relationship to anything else: a boxer's mouthpiece, a half-used bottle of perfume. Ironies of juxtaposition: a Bible and a mirror are sold together. A fat woman with a pretty face sits with her feet propped on a gigantic ceramic piggybank. But every irony, sublime or cruel, is lost here. The boy who holds things up raises a waterspotted chromo of Jesus blessing the children, and the bottom breaks off and falls on the floor. He picks up the pieces and raises them together. People begin to laugh, and the Colonel senses the danger like a hound and shouts, "This is good collectible merchandise . . . it's not that bad!" Then, as if to prove it, a pair of bronze "art nouveau" girlies comes up, each standing tiptoe on her prophyry base, one holding a gilded sun and the other a fistful of gilded stars. The Colonel holds them up, one in each hand: "What will you give me for these? They got names on 'um. This one's called 'La Joor' and this one's called 'la . . . Nut.'" He gets $35 apiece.
The auction is a complex experience, many leveled, baroque. Like church it's always pretty much the same. I myself have been going for years, and it hasn't changed a bit in any important way.
If you have plans, there is no reason to go this Friday. But if you do, you run the risk of wanting, nearly yearning for the possibility, the complexity. You don't have to buy anything if you don't want to, but there's a sort of person who never leaves an auction empty-handed. He or she leaves newly possessing -- and possessed. After all, the owning of things, no matter how small, changes the course of one's life. I know that the paste jar I bought last week has altered my experience -- not essentially, but enough. And while I load myself with things, I find growing in my soul that attitude of acquisitiveness mixed with detachment that marks true collectors. Among the broken chairs and chipped glass, therefore, I continue to search for the perfect bargain. It's a cheap mysticism, but there you are.