Dave Niec's router table has a peculiar charm -- kind of like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, or a painting of dogs playing cards that's hanging in somebody else's house. But he never expected it to generate a worldwide following.
A couple of months ago, the 30-year-old engineer was sifting through junk in the basement of his Stockbridge, Mich., home and decided to list his worthless carpenter's tool on eBay as a joke. Niec (pronounced nees) quickly found that the world loves a good gag -- and loves to be in on it: By the time the auction ended, he had 435,732 hits, priceless input from amused observers that became part of the auction listing, and eight bids (with a winning price of $26.22). He got 40 to 60 e-mails a day, appeared on Chicago public radio and received a handful of marriage proposals.
It's not rare to find weird or worthless items on eBay, including bellybutton lint and prosthetic testicles. But a couple of recent farce auctions spawned a wave of participation -- even fame.
A Seattle man took this creativity to new extremes recently when he posted pictures of himself wearing his ex-wife's wedding dress in an auction that produced more than 16 million hits -- easily an eBay record; appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Today"; a $3,850 winning bid (later nullified); and a stand-up comedy gig in Atlanta. He also got some uncomfortable scrutiny when the media dug up some inconsistencies in his story.
Meanwhile, the winning bidder -- a pre-med student from Ann Arbor, Mich. -- got a lot of unwelcome attention because the bid was from someone else using his log-on.
Niec's router route to fame began with an auction description that left no doubt about the table: "I've wasted money on a lot of things in my life: women, cars. . . . But I've never felt like I totally 100 percent wasted my money on something until I bought this router table. . . . This is the most worthless piece of crap item I have ever had the displeasure of working with in my life."
And one of a kind? You bet. "It became three-legged after I was trying to rout something one day and I noticed that the table was moving. That was from the plastic inserts working loose on the leg mounts. It was like routing wood on a waterbed. . . . After a few more pieces I'm in the middle of a cut and the leg just fell off. So I had to stop to keep from losing any fingers."
For a finishing touch, Niec used a beer bottle as the fourth leg so the table wouldn't fall over when the picture needed for the auction posting was taken. He reminded everyone that the bottle carries a 10-cent Michigan deposit -- "so, yeah, it's like a huge bonus, worth hundreds of times what the table is worth" and valued "in the hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish liras."
Surfers on eBay were quick to ride the wave of delightful dumbness.
Niec added their recommendations -- including setting the table on fire or shooting it full of holes and mailing pictures to them -- to the auction description.
The seven-day auction ended March 28, but Niec says the e-mails slowed only recently. The marriage proposals and offers to go on dates were flattering, his status as husband and father notwithstanding.
"One proposal was especially serious," Niec says. "She sent me a four- or five-page note and told me her life story. She volunteered to be my love slave. I figured I'd better not respond."
Wedding proposals were also the last thing Larry Star of Seattle was looking for after a five-year marriage that was almost as ugly as the divorce. But the proposals began flooding in after he squeezed his burly, tattooed frame into a dress and cyberspace.
"I feel like one of those mass murderers on death row," he said in one of the auction updates. "I never understood how the hell they got more chicks than I did. Now I know. They sold crap on eBay."
Star said it was his sister's idea to auction the dress -- which looked quite nice, actually. As for the decision to model it himself: "Seeing as I have sworn off women for the time being and I ain't friends with any, it left me holding the bag."
Star, a 42-year-old guitarist in a band called the Buzzcuts, said all he wanted was enough money for a couple of Seattle Mariners tickets and some beer. There were just a couple of stipulations: "Buyer pays shipping and handling. Sale is final. Marriage isn't."
But Star's newfound fame has its downside. A Seattle Times story reported that he admitted he doesn't have a sister, actually has two ex-wives, had a baby with his second wife after saying in the auction that he had no children with her, and was charged with fourth-degree domestic-violence assault in 2001.
Yet somehow, the glass slipper still fits. Star said he was on "Today" a second time, appeared on Tech TV's "Unscrewed" and was still running faster than someone late for a wedding.
"It's been crazy, but I love it," he said. "A lot of possibilities have come from this. . . . I'm on my way to do TLC's 'Wild Weddings' right now, and I'm fielding offers for books, maybe even a TV pilot."
That's a lot more attention than Barry Chapman wants. The 24-year-old pre-med student, who works at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, was part of this dress-capade as well, albeit unwittingly.
He explained: "One of my co-workers decided to bid on the dress using a computer at the hospital. I don't know if they knew my name was signed in or not. Regardless, I never found out about having bid on it" because of e-mail problems.
"Ebay contacted me to confirm the validity of the bid, only I was in one of the operating rooms at the time and missed the call. . . . It wasn't until I received hundreds of e-mails from eBay users, news networks and newspapers around the world that I knew what had happened. Finally I spoke to eBay, and they nullified the bid. It was a . . . mess."
Maybe it's lucky for Tim Warren that Niec's auction ended at only $26.22. The winner of the router table, who is from Memphis, said he contacted Niec after the auction and told him he'd pay the auction fees "as thanks for the laugh," but he didn't really want the router table.
So, yes -- after all this, Niec still has the table, and Star still has the gown.
Niec said he has been contacted by a couple of editors who want him to write a book, "though I'm not at a point in my life where that's a high priority." Star, on the other hand, clearly has intentions befitting his last name.
He wants to make a living writing humor, and he made his stand-up debut last month at Punchline, an Atlanta comedy club. "I did a total of six shows, he said. "I had a great time, and it was well received. I have a standing offer to come back."
Others with a keen wit and creative mind will undoubtedly hop on eBay in pursuit of similar fame. But Niec -- who said his motivation was simply some frustration and a few beers -- warned that "this kind of notoriety can be overwhelming, to say the least. And it can even be a little cruel, because that table is sitting right where it was when all this started."