It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)



This Is Your Brain on eBay

Posted on | February 4, 2014 | 1 Comment

This Is Your Brain On eBay
By Erik Hedegaard
Photo by John Weber

He had so much: loving wife, adoring daughter (well…), nice home — a life. Then he discovered junk.

Not long ago, my wife thought it would be a great idea to unload some of the crap cluttering our house. Most of this crap came from dead people–dead aunts, dead grandparents, dead mother. There were silver compotes, Gorham coasters, maps of the Meuse-Argonne offensive from World War I, ancient Swingline staplers, fruity-tooty tiny Limoges cocoa cups, tons of Spode Tower china, four broken-down and chipped Louis XIV end tables, a lurking grandfather clock (“Hideous,” according to my wife), a shoeshine kit, broken watches, a Danish meat cutter, a footstool made by Appalachian hillbillies–that kind of thing. It was all the stuff that all of us get when the old folks go. And it was everywhere–in the basement, in the attic, in the closets, on the walls, under the beds, freaking out my wife so thoroughly that one day she seriously threatened to give everything to the suffering homeless. Can you imagine?

“Over my dead body,” I said.

“Well, you get rid of it, then,” she said, rubbing her temples. “Please.”

“EBay!” I said.

“EBay?”

“It’s only the premier online auction site, is all,” I said. “It’s the nation’s virtual flea market! The place on the Internet where America circulates and recirculates its junk!”

“Fine,” she said. “Whatever.”

I myself thought I’d never come up with a better idea. No garage sales for me, what with the coffee-stinking early birders trampling through the boxwoods at 6 a.m., and no dealing with the local consignment shop, either, where the doddering blue-hairs want to take 30 cents on the dollar. Yes, it seemed to me that eBay, at www.ebay.com on your Internet browser, was the modern, fashionable way to go. I’d sign on, sign up, and within a month’s time unload everything that stood in my way–and make some pretty fine coin in the process, with which I would buy myself a nice new fly rod and my wife maybe one of those cool but very expensive eight-pound Oreck vacuum cleaners. We’d have room to spare. We could start anew, as my wife has always dreamed, living with objects that we liked and bought, instead of with a load of last-will-and-testament spider traps. That was my general plan. But before I started in on my own stuff, I thought it best to take a practice spin with someone else’s junk. I went down to the Salvation Army, browbeat the nice counter lady, returned with an old plastic typewriter that cost me six dollars (not eight!), conducted a little online research, gave eBay my credit-card number, took the eBay name of fish8, and wrote up my auction notice, laying in as much Madison Avenue-type huck as I could.

This is a terrific example of the super-swank and increasingly rare red portable Valentine typewriter made by Olivetti–and designed, in 1969, by the great Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. Said noted British design expert Penny Spark a while back: “[This typewriter is] an appendage of contemporary life rather than a piece of office machinery.” Indeed, Sottsass himself once said that he designed the Valentine to be an “anti-machine machine,” for use “anyplace but an office.” If you’ve ever entertained the idea of entering into a union with an actual typewriter, this is the actual typewriter to do it with. It speaks volumes, both about you and about itself. And it’s nearly perfect. What more could you want? Good luck. And good bidding!

Chuckling, I thought to myself, Increasingly rare? If I say so! Sottsass a great designer? Could have been! Penny Spark noted? In my book! Nearly perfect? Near as I can tell!

Seven days later, when the dust settled and the auction ended, I swung downstairs and found my wife at the kitchen sink, head bent to the day’s dishes. I reminded her of the typewriter and asked her how much she thought it had finally sold for.

She shrugged.

“Two hundred thirty-two dollars and fifty cents!” I nearly shouted. “Two hundred thirty-two dollars and fifty cents! That thing cost me six clams! I netted $226.50! Can you believe that? Well, can you?”

I rubbed my hands together, grinning.

“If that’s what you say you made, I believe you,” my wife said. “Now start on the junk around here. And don’t you buy anymore. Okay?”

“Right you are,” I said and returned to my office, where I immediately went to eBay and started auctions on a couple of Playboy Club ashtrays, a cracked BOAC bamboo cup, a few Winged Foot Golf Club ball-mark repairers, an old Hewlett Packard calculator, and two foil etchings by the late actor Lionel Barrymore, none of which I happened to own before my visit to the Salvation Army store. Then I sat back and waited, in no way suspecting that these early eBay adventures would soon turn my life upside down, infinitesimalize my annual income, nearly upset my marriage, cause my daughter to mutter in disgust, foreshorten an afternoon lunch with beautiful actress Tori Spelling, saddle me with a collection of 212 handheld battery-operated calculators from the 1970s, and leave me holding up to a dark new day an unopened cardboard FedEx box from circa 1995 that contained my grandmother’s ashes, her final remains, all that was left, with me wondering how much they might be worth to someone just then logging on to eBay.

Online auctions are everywhere on the internet these days, and while many of them are small and specific–for instance, those specializing in carousels (www.carousels.com) and meteorites (www.naturalhistoryauction.com)–others feature such a variety of junk that it probably could not all be contained within the state of Rhode Island. The two newest of these big players are the auction sites at amazon.com and yahoo.com. But they are pikers indeed compared with the hugest of them all: eBay, which was the first auction site and to this day remains the best–if only because, as financial analysts like to say, “it’s got branded first-mover advantage!” At this very moment, for instance, 2.4 million individual items are up for auction on the site, in 1,627 individual categories, with about 8 million individuals dropping by on a monthly basis to have a look-see–and to drop (just in the first quarter of this year) $541 million while there.

This has made eBay one of the few Internet businesses actually able to turn a profit, as it has done every year since summer’s end 1995, when it first opened its virtual doors. Investors, of course, find this fascinating, so when the company went public in 1998, at a price of $18 a share, they quickly bid it up to an astounding high of $702 a share (taking into account a stock split), making millionaires out of a few lucky early investors–and billionaires of a few lucky eBay insiders. A couple of furrowed-brow financial types thought this was insanity, of course–a price-to-earnings ratio of 5,000! A price-to-sales ratio of 700! A price-to-book ratio of 460! And even if you didn’t have a clue what those ratios really meant (who does? who cares?), it made sense to question how a start-up company like eBay could justify a market value of more than $25 billion–10 percent bigger than Anheuser Busch! Twenty-five percent bigger than the Gap!

To eBay believers, however, these worrywarts simply didn’t understand the true beauty and significance of the eBay business model, in which all you need to make gobs of money is a bunch of computers and some people manning them and then some higher-ups to make management-type decisions. What’s so great about this is what’s left out, which is inventory. EBay has none and needs none. Essentially, all eBay is selling is an agreeable environment in which users can conduct business among themselves, with their own inventory, in return for which they pay their host per-item listing fees of between 25 cents and two dollars and after-sale commissions that slide between 5 percent and 1.5 percent, depending on final price. EBay’s take may seem absurdly small–in the case of my Olivetti typewriter, the final tally came to $6.36, or 2.72 percent of the $232.50 winning bid–but so many people are doing business on the site that gross sales are expected to reach $2.7 billion this year, resulting in gross revenue of more than $170 million. This has driven more than one stock analyst gaga. Writes the fellow at BancBoston Robertson Stephens: “We believe the market opportunity is monstrous, the business model is much more profitable than almost any other on the Web, and the stock may reach unprecedented levels.”

To make this so, of course, eBay needs people to continue buying and selling like crazy on its site. It needs lots of people to open their attics and empty out, and lots of other people to open their attics and fill up. What kind of people are these people that eBay needs? People like you, of course: sensible, responsible people, tidy in mind and outlook, people with a few things to sell or a few things they’d like to buy. But mostly what eBay needs are people who aren’t like that at all. It needs the opposite of those people. In other words, what eBay really needs is a lot of people like me.

For a while, it was all fun and games. during the week, I’d ply my regular trade and then on weekends go out looking for crap at garage sales, flea markets, thrift shops, and utter-junk stores. I got a box of 30 little plastic Marilyn Monroe figures (all for three dollars); a box of 42 VW Rabbit key chains (all for five dollars); 17 brand-spanking-new sets of Guiding Light Soap Opera Trivia Challenge Playing Cards (all for five dollars); a couple of grimy Jim Beam shot glasses (a dollar each); an old Pyrex coffeepot (part of a thrift shop’s four-dollars-a-loaded- bag sale); a bookmark featuring tanks from World War I (free), an acid-eaten book entitled Rogers Erecting and Operating Machinery (25 cents); a couple of fractured transistor radios (a dollar each); a great big goddamned stuffed California Raisin doll (five dollars); a Sterno stove (a dollar); a couple of videotapes featuring TV-show bloopers (a dollar each). I’d stagger home with armloads of this dusty, beer-smelling stuff and hustle it up to my office before my wife could get a whiff of what was happening, then I’d go out for more, always buying the cheapest junk I could find (nothing over five dollars, most less than two) that still looked like it could inspire a bidding war between two or more bozos of the republic. How much money could I make doing this? I didn’t know. But it seemed like a lot. And I aimed to find out.

There was a knock at my door.

“Daddy?”

It was my 15-year-old daughter.

“Yes?”

“Whatcha doing? Can I come in?”

“Nothing. No. How about later?”

There was another knock at the door.

“Listen,” I said irritably. “I’m busy. Go away. Later.”

But this time it wasn’t my daughter; it was my wife. “What the hell are you doing in there?” she said. “You’re like some 16-year-old boy and every five minutes you’ve got to go–”

“No, no,” I kind of shouted. “Busy on the computer. Business. Busy business!”

Her footsteps receded down the hallway. I looked at the shut door and wished I could smoke a cigarette. Only I’d stopped smoking. The last time I’d smoked (more or less) was at a place called the Viper Room in Los Angeles.

I swiveled around in my chair, yanked open a desk drawer, rummaged around, and came out with exactly what I was looking for: a pair of Viper Room matchboxes from my last visit. I lay them flat on the couch in my office and hovered over them with my cool new Fisher digital camera, to take a couple of snapshots to use in my auction write-up. Actually, it wasn’t my new digital camera but my daughter’s, to whom I’d given it for Christmas a few weeks earlier, though Lord knows she didn’t want one, had no use for one, and upon unwrapping it guessed immediately its true intended recipient. “Here you go, Dad. Thanks a whole lot.”

Photos taken, I loaded them into my computer, then signed on to the Internet and called up a program called AuctionAssistant, a $60 piece of software that lets you automate the auction-write-up procedure and bypass eBay’s own, rather more laborious system. Then I bent my head to the job of creating my pitch.

No matches come with these two matchbook boxes from the infamous Viper Room in Los Angeles; instead, you get lots of cool! The joint is owned by actor Johnny Depp (he of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Edward Scissorhands and Ed “Bring on the Angora!” Wood) and the place hops with all the cool L.A. cats. They go there to drink and to hang low and, on the sad occasion, to OD and die outside its doors. Well, enuf of that! These two boxes are in pretty good shape …and are a minty lime green in color…Fill ’em with matches, take a sip of absinthe, and off you go, into the realm of the hanging-out, slitty-eyed pups. “What?” it says on the side of the boxes. “What?” indeed!

I could just see some Iowa rube buying these matchboxes to impress the livestock at the local minimart. Instead, a week later, they sold to a woman named Nancy who lived in Lincoln Park, Michigan, and who bought them for reasons I could only guess at, like communing over them to get deep into the soul of the mysterious, dark-eyed Depp. Why else would you spend seven bucks on a couple of crummy matchboxes? Anyway, Nancy sent me a check and I sent here the goods, and afterward both of us dutifully left feedback for the other in the feedback area. The feedback area is where buyers and sellers leave post-sale comments–positive or negative–about a transaction, and it’s the main way buyers and sellers are kept honest. It’s where you make your reputation on eBay and where you go to check out those with whom you might do business. And I loved reading my feedback.

Wrote club88lf: “A wonderful person to buy from, easy, quick, reliable. We are very happy!”

Wrote 1draftpick: “Quality seller! Super fast & well packaged fun collectible.”

Wrote spanf: “Hits the spot! Just what I wanted and needed!!!”

After about six weeks, I had a feedback file with more than 40 positives in it, and snippets of all that positivity began to circulate in my brain, steady, warm, and self-affirming: “…wonderful…reliable…happy…quality…well packaged…fun… wanted…needed…”

Occasionally, that was the kind of person I thought I was. But I also had one negative in my file, from some jackass named deyoii, who was the high bidder on an auction of mine that closed a few days after I had to unexpectedly leave town. I appended a note about my departure to the bottom of my auction, but deyoii couldn’t be bothered to have a look there after the auction ended. Instead, when he couldn’t reach me, he went to my feedback file and wrote: “Poor seller, hasn’t responded to emails, won’t confirm sale.” A person is allowed to respond to feedback, so upon my return I did: “See bottom of auction, where on 4/8 I say I will be out of town until 4/18.” I also E-mailed deyoii, blasting him for his various failures: “Your negative feedback on me was totally unwarranted and you are a jerk for having posted it.” His E-mail in response was a brush-off, so I went to his feedback file and wrote: “Impatient, sloppy & unapologetic buyer.” To which he responded: “We all fear these kind [sic] of sellers.”

And so it was that all my positives were sullied by that one stupid negative. And so it was that on occasion that one negative also circulated in my head along with all the positives, saying, “We all fear these kind…We all fear these kind…”

After a while, i could not get enough of eBay. It was a wonderful world, and I sunk into it completely. I loved getting up in the morning and seeing if anyone had bid on one of my auctions, and I loved doing that in the middle of the night, too. I loved hearing the clatter of mail dropping into my mailbox and finding it full of money paying for goods that had cost me basically zilch. I didn’t even much mind the job of packing everything and taking it to the P.O., for that at least got me out of the house and away from the computer. I was also learning a few things, especially about modern America, its likes and dislikes. Take my experience trying to sell some salt-and-pepper shakers that once belonged to Tom and Roseanne Arnold.

So there I was, a couple of years ago, standing outside Tom Arnold’s great big Beverly Hills house. He had a new girlfriend. He was divorcing Roseanne. And right then, hitching up his pants in the garage, he was tossing out stuff he and Roseanne had accumulated during their riotous albeit ill-fated (if not ill-conceived) romance. Suddenly, into one trash can went these beautiful bone and silver salt and pepper shakers…with a few cracks, a few splits, and some chipping here and there–perhaps as a kind of reflection of the Tom and Roseanne union itself! In any event, I watched in horror as Tom turned away from the trash. “Hey, Tom,” said I. “What’re you doing–those things are pretty neat.” “You want ’em?” Tom snarled, his face darkening with a flood of unpleasant Roseanne memories. “Take ’em. I don’t give a hoot.” So I did. And now I offer them up.

Couldn’t get a single stinking bid on those things! Not one! America had turned its back on Tom and Roseanne! And on Madonna as well–or at least as she compared to Marilyn Monroe.

I learned this with that boxload of Marilyn Monroe figures I bought for three dollars. I found them so stunning in appearance that they called forth from me what I consider my finest bit of eBay blather:

This 3-1/2″-tall, immaculately conceived plastic Marilyn Monroe has a number of things written on the base beneath her feet: “China,” “Applause”–and “Disney.”

That’s right–this creature is Disney licensed!–making it a truly wonderful odd-coupling: sex goddess bombshell and the King of Clean, old Walt himself. Weird, yes, to contemplate. But worthy, too. For in so contemplating you will notice several things about this Marilyn: Firstly, her figure, so curvy in black gown; then her decolletage (let’s talk revealing, hey, Walt: vaa, vaa, vooom!). And that head of flaxen, coiffed hair: just as we remember her, the locks falling, as she sang to JFK that sweet-hot, loin-charged birthday lullaby.

But then comes her face. Mark it well: the signature mole dot is there, punctuating. But go deeper: to the expression. For with the mood on her face, the great Chinese artists under Disney’s employ have both outdone themselves and revealed themselves to be the true sons of Walt, the pipe-smoking, mustachioed moralist. She is sad; verging on tears. Wistful. Distraught. Clearly, she is paying some price, suffering some consequence. Withal, then, looms a sense of the tragic, of the doomed, in miniature and set in plastic.

This is mind-boggling stuff. And you must hold it in your hands to believe it. Indeed, if you are a Marilyn collector, then this is a must-have: a trinket, that shall be allowed, but so much more!

I coupled this prose with a few close-up pictures of the trinket itself and thought I had a real winner on my hands. Which I did: In a shrieking blaze, what had cost me a dime shot up to $17.

But then someone E-mailed me some rotten news. This wasn’t a plastic Marilyn figure. It was a plastic Madonna figure, modeled on her Breathless Mahoney part in the Dick Tracy movie. I slapped myself on the forehead, ended my auction early, retooled the prose to feature Madonna, and put it back on the block. But as Madonna, my little plastic figure couldn’t draw more than a couple of measly bucks.

“Huh,” I said to my wife. “How do you like that.”

“Fascinating,” she said. “Simply fascinating.”

“Look,” I said, sensing her lack of interest. “Why don’t you get more involved in this. You could be selling, too. You aren’t working. You don’t have a job. You don’t do anything. Why, you could make us an extra $1,000 a month with hardly any effort!”

That’s when my wife started shouting, about how she drove the kid hither and yon and made breakfast, lunch, and dinner and tended to the garden and mopped the floors and did the laundry and did I happen to notice the falling-down ceiling in the living room and who was I to say she didn’t work, didn’t do anything, when all I did was spend all day every day on eBay, and no longer lived in the real world, and wasn’t in bed at night when she needed me to be in bed, and wasn’t making the money I used to make as someone who could make $200 an hour with his real job, which was now seeming more like his former job, and yes, she had been poking around my office and had seen what was going on, and did I think I could fool her, like I’m always trying to fool her with some moneymaking scheme, like using that stupid FastTrack mutual-fund software I once so loved to make money trading mutual funds, how much did I gamble away using that, and she’s about had it, I’m too selfish, a selfish bastard, really, and if I don’t take care of some things around here, she’s going to find a handyman who can.

It was a blistering screed that rocked me back on my heels.

Our daughter opened the door to her bedroom and peeked out at us.

“EBay,” she said to me with some force. “Look at all it’s done for you.”

Then she shut the door again, and my wife stomped away, and I was left with myself. And so back to eBay I went.

I began selling things for friends, taking a nearly usurious 60 percent cut of the action for auctioning off their old stereo equipment, beaded purses, Ted Williams autographed pix, neon signs, vintage Boy Scout hats, and whatnot. Pretty soon, I’d sold over 100 items, and contrary to what my wife said, I still worked my regular job, even though it was true eBay was almost always on my mind. Flying Northwest Airlines to Iowa on business, for instance, it occurred to me that I could probably auction off even a set of Northwest breakfast-time cutlery. I grabbed a flight attendant and asked if the company kept tabs on its knives and forks, because I was thinking of maybe taking some, and I didn’t want her to get in trouble. She pulled back a little. “Well, that’s stealing, isn’t it?” she said. I said, “Maybe. But the airline must have so many of them.” She said, rather archly, “I guess I’ll have to leave that to you. I know I couldn’t do it, whether the company counts the silverware or not.” And with the decision left to me, I did not sink to the level of common thief. Of that I was proud. I was many things, but I was not a thief!

As it happens, my grandparents were many things, too. For one, they were millionaires who once lived in Iowa, and while there I drove by the storefront in Des Moines where, as the state’s first distributor of Ford tractors, my grandfather started making his millions. Then I stopped by the house where my grandmother spent most of her time assiduously trying to spend those millions.

It was a great big house that had a horse fence around it and sat on a little promontory. It had once, during my grandmother’s tenure, been featured in a lush Better Homes and Gardens photo spread. At the time, its garage sheltered the splashiest car in all of Des Moines, a yellow four-door Lincoln Continental convertible. Yellow! What a rich, grand life they had led, and it was only compounded when my grandfather rose to the position of assistant secretary of defense under Eisenhower. My parents had married by then, but they soon divorced, my father moving back home to Denmark–where he married the Danish prime minister’s daughter, had three beautiful kids, and made a ton of dough in the reinsurance racket–while my mother (with whom I stayed) briefly dated a Rhode Island Mafia-type racketeer, then settled down with a spineless, bearded, love-bead-wearing music teacher, which so infuriated my grandmother that she would often haul her skinny Cadillac-driven bones onto our front porch and start shrieking at the top of her lungs.

“You will get nothing! That man is nothing but a dirty beatnik! Do you understand me? Who do you think bought you that house? You will get nothing more from me! You are out of the will. Cut! Out!”

Over time, then, my grandfather died, my mother died, and my grandmother died, each of them leaving me whatever crap they thought I would like, my grandmother’s crap festooned with fluttering little white tags upon which she had written her deeply inflated sense of a thing’s value.

I stood out there in Des Moines, looking at the house and wondering about my family and the meaning of money and things. I finally decided that they were all terrible and destructive, and I soon felt a little better about having lived a life marked by nothing so much as a constant state of downward mobility in which my chances of ever doing better than an assistant secretary of defense had grown increasingly slim. I continued to stand out there as the wind came up, bringing with it snow and a chill that quickly seeped through the holes in my old Jack Purcell sneakers. I looked down at them. They were entirely pathetic. I was sure my grandfather had never worn a pair of Jack Purcells in his entire life. I have two memories of him. One revolved around a small cocktail party into the middle of which ten-year-old me toddled, whereupon suddenly, inadvertently, my penis sprung free of my pajamas and into view, the jaws of a few guests dropped, my grandfather slapped me silly, and later on the family gathered to discuss the advisability of sending me away to military school. The other is of him sitting on the back patio of his retirement villa in Sun City, Arizona, sipping lemonade through a silver Mexican-made straw, his legs crossed, on his feet a happy, dancing pair of brand- new black wing tips. The bastard. I’d sure like to kick his Eisenhower-loving candy ass a mile or two.

Who knows why a person rambles into these kinds of thoughts? I surely didn’t, but they disturbed me, and I left Iowa as soon as I could.

People worry about doing business on eBay. They worry about sending checks to strangers, about not getting what they paid for in return. My feeling is, go to the feedback file area, check things out, deal only with people who have a nice fat number of positives (like me, fish8!), and don’t worry. According to eBay, fraud plays a part in only 0.03 percent of all transactions. I believe it. I’ve never had a problem. It’s not a big deal.

People also worry about eBay itself. In many official eBay notices, eBay likes to refer to itself as a community, a home, a warm, friendly place where all can gather for a few hours each day, if not to buy or sell, then at least to chat in one of its numerous eBay-related chat rooms. And so it has become: According to Media Metrix, each month eBay racks up 896 million total user minutes, a number that in all of Internetdom is second only to Yahoo’s. But does management really believe in community, or does it believe in community only as a marketing ploy, as a way to increase profits and thus fatten its own paycheck? Many people think eBay’s top brass couldn’t care less about its customers and cite as evidence what happens when eBay’s computers go down, screwing up everybody’s auctions. What happens is, they don’t come right back up. They stay down. Why? Because eBay has thrown more money into management’s wallets than into sorely needed redundant computer systems!

You don’t often hear these complaints inside eBay’s own official chat rooms, as eBay takes a dim view of anyone who criticizes the company and sometimes will retaliate by banning the offender from using the service. So the place where the grousers go is www.auctionwatch.com, and there they complain in full, loudly and often. For instance, following eBay’s great, extended, system-wide failure in early June, which prompted a stock-price slide of nearly 26 percent in two days’ time, the message posters went wild with anger and began posting messages with headlines like: “eBay Lies????,” “Time for Ship to Have New Captain,” “Time for a Class Action Lawsuit????,” “You don’t agree with me? Then I hate you,” and “eBay: Shut Down and Don’t Come Back Until Everything Works.”

At one point, I decided to have a little talk about this kind of anger with eBay founder and president Pierre Omidyar. He seemed like he might be an okay guy, if only because he gives credit for the idea behind eBay where credit is due–not to himself but to his girlfriend, who one time over dinner said to him, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to collect Pez dispensers and interact with other collectors over the Internet?” A fanciful notion that soon became a reality. So I called the eBay corporate communications office and relayed my request to a woman named Jennifer Chu, who subsequently proved herself as unreliable and feckless as eBay’s computers sometimes are. She said she’d call me back, then didn’t. I began leaving messages, fruitlessly. I occasionally got her on the phone for a second, but then she begged off, saying she’d call me right back, which she never did. The last time I got a word in edgewise, she said, “He’s very busy. He won’t be able to talk to you for a month. A month is okay? Well, he’s very busy and it may be longer than that. How much longer? A lot longer!” I could see what she was driving at, so I slammed down the phone on Miss Too Important for You Chu, not exactly overjoyed with the eBay brass myself.

But my anger didn’t last long. For by this time I was not only an eBay seller but also an eBay buyer, and I needed to get into bid mode.

What I was buying were calculators. Not the ugly, modern ones with the gray LCD screens but older ones from the 1970s, with glowing, mostly red LED screens, like the screen on the Hewlett Packard I’d bought early on at the Salvation Army and sold and immediately regretted selling. Why they spoke to me, I do not know. But they did, and I’d started buying them like crazy. And there were lots to buy on eBay, with company names like Rockwell, Bowmar, Craig, Omron, Unitrex, Unisonic, Texas Instruments, Sperry Remington Rand, and more. One day, I had a telephone chat with Guy Ball, a fellow eBay nut and co-author of The Complete Collector’s Guide to Pocket Calculators, and he told me that during the golden age of calculators over 220 manufacturers were making over 1,500 models. I let out a long, low whistle, for I’d decided I wanted to become a player among calculator collectors, and that would mean I’d have to buy one helluva lot of them. So I got started and began winning auctions the way most people win auctions. After one such win, I pushed open my daughter’s bedroom door to tell her all about it.

“Couldn’t you knock?” she said.

“It was almost open,” I said.

“It wasn’t almost open. It was almost shut.” She paused. “What do you want, anyway?”

“I just got in an eBay bidding war on a calculator. Won. But paid more than I wanted. A lot more. But I won. Whew!” I said, sort of wiping my brow.

She looked at me blankly, as she so often does. My win held no interest for her. But then she tilted her head and squinted her eyes.

“Calculators, huh?” she said.

“Old ones from the ’70s that glow,” I said.

“You have enough stupid hobbies that cost us money without adding one more. Fishing. Radio-control gliders. Now it’s calculators?”

“What’s a life without hobbies?” I said nervously.

“A better, richer, more productive life,” she said, and I backed out of her room, not wanting to disturb her any more than I already had.

I bought a few things to make my ebay life a little more comfy. One of them was a software program called the Oracle. Into it you plug the eBay ID numbers of everything you’re selling and everything you might want to buy, and it then keeps track of them for you with a long list featuring the item number, the item description, the current bid, the high bid, the seller’s name, the high bidder’s name, the date the auction ends, and the time it ends. It’s all there for you. But to me, neat as that was, it wasn’t the Oracle’s true appeal. Because, among many other things, the Oracle can also automatically update itself, can on its own contact eBay and see if any prices have taken a leap. And if they have, the program utters the most wonderful sound: a cha-ching. The universal noise of the cash register. Cha-ching!

How I came to love that sound! Many were the days, now marching from late winter to mid-spring, that I sat in my office, computer on, the Oracle up and running, my back to the screen, just lounging there, staring at the ceiling–and then, cha-ching!

I shivered with happiness.

Sometimes, when I left my office very early in the morning, I would crawl into bed next to my wife and watch the lights dancing behind my eyelids. I knew the Oracle’s schedule of updates, and my heart’s beat tightened the nearer the next update drew.

Cha-ching!

“Hey! Hey, what’s that!” my daughter sometimes shouted from her sleep.

“Can’t you turn that goddamned thing off?” my wife sometimes muttered from her sleep.

I didn’t say a thing, though a soft moan escaped my lips.

I just loved that sound!

May 6, 1999.

Fish8’s stuff on eBay: a crappy Pan Am key chain, a Jim Beam shot glass, a guitar-shaped nail clipper, an old broken Minox 35mm camera, some weird books by the weird art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, a Duncan top, two plastic Wonder Woman figures, two books on the history of the American freak show, a Shirley Temple pin, a diary, a Mickey Mouse calculator, a Playboy Bunny stickpin, a battered leather case, a Nikko power amp and synthesizer, a stereo equalizer, a couple of Eastern Airlines glasses, an old radio, a pack of soap-opera trivia cards, a watch, a golf-ball-mark repairer, a Mercedes Benz key chain, a Mad Magazine card game, a Volvo key chain.

Total cost of stuff to fish8: $39.05.

Total number of people viewing fish8’s stuff so far: 1,464.

Total current bid value of fish8’s stuff: $605.72.

Cha-ching!

And hours went by when all I did was stare at my computer.

Then, in the late afternoon, my wife pushed her way into the room. “Look at all this crap,” she said, frowning. “And it’s not even the crap you are supposed to be selling.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, standing up and moving so she couldn’t get a good look at my bookshelves. Over the past few months, I’d picked up a number of books, including How to Make Ea$y Money in Antique$ Without Even Half-Way Trying; Antique Secrets; Flea: The Definitive Guide to Hunting, Gathering, and Flaunting Superior Vintage Wares; and Backyard Treasure Hunting–none of which had taught me much. But a new one had arrived in today’s mail, and I was sure it would be the book to lead me to numerous sellable items that wouldn’t cost me a cent and would pay off in truly remarkable eBay profits.

She nudged me aside and cast her gaze on the lineup.

“What the hell is this?” she said, picking up the new book.

We both looked at the title–The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving, by one John Hoffman–and I groaned, knowing that the shouting would soon start.

But it didn’t, not for a bit. For she had seen something else that interested her. She was looking at my couch, on which I’d shone a couple of lights and in the middle of which was one of my plastic Madonnas lying on its back, with a little plastic baby I’d bought nuzzled facedown on one of her bosoms.

“What the hell is that?”

“What do you think it is? It’s Lourdes, Madonna’s child.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” she said harshly.

But before she could, I broke in with a more complete explanation. “In some of my auctions and where circumstances warrant,” I said, “I’m moving somewhat in the direction of artistic statement. You take Madonna there, with Lourdes suckling. Here’s what that really is: plastic Madonna and child. Get it?! So, even if it doesn’t sell, for seven days, the length of an auction, I’m able to say something about a singer who I think is plastic as hell and as a result has produced a child who is also plastic. It’s art, okay? And I’ve got a theoretical audience of eight million!”

“It’s sick,” my wife snarled, “and you’re sick. You’re going over the edge with this. You’re losing it. I’m serious.”

“Get out!” I shouted. “Get out!”

I’m no idiot. I knew she was right. But I didn’t care. It didn’t seem important to me. What was important to me was the peace I felt when I was inside eBay, inside a new world of mercantilism. I was somebody there, a presence, a force in a community where people actually stepped forward and said good things about me: “…wonderful…reliable…happy …quality…well packaged…fun…wanted…needed…” It didn’t matter what I was in the outside world. In the eBay world, I was at least an assistant secretary of defense, if not a whole lot more.

Indeed, I was beginning to view myself as a kind of eBay genius, and I had plenty of evidence to back up my opinion. One time, for instance, my nephew-in-law Steve S. and I stopped by a watch store, where we happened to see, and to buy, a couple of old-looking, cool-seeming digital watches, $20 each. Steve S., a New York State employee, which about says it all, posted his watch on eBay with a very plain description: Le Courier digital watch, made in the 1960s, good shape, and so on. Sold the thing for $43.

I myself let the genius out of the bottle once again.

Crafted sometime in the 1960s, this vintage Le Courier digital watch has never seen a day’s worth of use–not a single day’s worth in the past 30+ years. As a result, it ought to keep pretty perfect time. It is in pristine condition, showing only the slightest, nearly invisible signs of wear from sitting so long in a dealer’s showcase as the LED watch revolution swept in and obscured its own humdinger, very mod, quite Shagadelic technology…What more can I say? This Le Courier is a space-age beauty and will attract admiring commentary no matter where you go or who you see (or who you are seen with). It’s groovy–and destined only to get groovier with the passage of time! Winning bidder to pay $3.20 USPS priority-mail shipping. There is no price-gouging “handling” fee.

Brilliant, am I right? And someone bid the darn thing up to $152.50!

God, I was good. I was at the top of my game. A winner!

Then, one day, i happened to be having lunch in Santa Monica, California, with Tori Spelling, a star of the Beverly Hills 90210 television series and the daughter of TV-show producer Aaron Spelling, as well as quite a looker and a delightful conversationalist. After a while, she let it be known that both she and her mom, Candy, collect Beanie Babies–and that they had bought just tons of them on eBay.

“Do tell,” I said, leaning forward.

“I became obsessed with them, like addicted to them,” Tori said. “It got to the point where I had so many of them they didn’t have any new ones. At work, I’d bring my laptop, and when I wasn’t on the set, I’d be in my room, and when they came for me, I’d be, ‘Like wait five more minutes! I’m in an auction right now! I’m bidding on a Beanie Baby!’ And the cast would make fun of me. Jason Priestly would say, ‘Uhhh, say–did you get another Beanie Baby for like 200 bucks?’ Like, I’m a sucker.”

I nodded in deep sympathy.

She chuckled. “And then when I bought things, I’d get E-mail asking, ‘Are you the Tori Spelling?’ I’m thinking, Oh, shit! And then my mom says, ‘See, that’s why I have an alias and use cashier’s checks only.'”

I didn’t have that problem, of course, but I nonetheless felt the stirrings of a connection with Tori, based on our mutual love of eBay. There were possibilities here, I thought, especially since after lunch we were supposed to go across the street to a craft-making shop and spend a few more hours together, making crafts. And who knew where that might lead? These were warm, pleasant thoughts. At the same time, however, I’d recently met a fellow in L.A. named George who wanted to introduce me to a fellow named Roger, who happened to have 150 calculators he wanted to sell. And I was supposed to see him in just a few minutes.

I peered into Tori’s eyes, weighing the moment.

“Shall we go across the street?” she said, pressing napkin to cupid-shaped lips.

“Oh, well, I think we’re done here, aren’t we?” I said. “I mean, I think that about does it!”

“Oh,” she said, eyes drifting down. “And we would have had such fun!”

I felt like I’d blown an unbelievable opportunity. And for what? Calculators! What kind of person would do that? What kind of nut? It was perplexing to me. All I knew was that I needed those calculators, that I very much wanted to be a player in the calculator-collector world, and that I really did need to get them from Roger at a very good price, since only then could I start auctioning off the lesser ones on eBay, create a fine reputation for myself there as a calculator know-it-all, and simultaneously make my new hobby a self-sufficient one.

Two weeks later, on June 14, 1999, three big boxes arrived at my house. The calculators. I heard the UPS man pulling up and knew what he was delivering. My wife was upstairs. I ran outside and told the UPS man to take the boxes to the side of the house and hide them in the bushes.

“My wife,” I said, “doesn’t like strange packages.”

He looked at me like I was a little strange but shrugged and dumped the things in a hedgerow. Finally, my wife went to the grocery store, and I was able to get the boxes inside. I was drooling like a baby. I’d wildly overpaid–overpaid by a huge amount–but I didn’t care. All it took was for me to see those calculators, beautiful objects (and if you have any you want to sell, feel free to E-mail me at floete@aol.com), and I paid pretty much what Roger wanted. I felt terrible about having to hide the things from my wife and daughter, or at least I would feel terrible if I got caught hiding them. But I was falling, falling into a deep hole. Everything I’d made so far on eBay I’d just spent on calculators. I can’t say the amount. It’s too horrible. Plus, Roger had 150 more calculators in a storage locker that I could buy next time I was in L.A. I needed money. More money.

And so that’s how i came to be an ebay seller, then an eBay buyer, and finally an eBay addict. That’s how I think of eBay now, quite literally as an addictive substance as bad as tobacco or booze. It feels good, but it’s bad. You start on it, thinking maybe you can clear your house of all its accumulated ancestral crap, then all of a sudden you’re hooked; you never do accomplish your original goal; eventually, you make a single mistake like my calculator-buying mistake, and you feel like you can never escape. And really you don’t want to. It’s got you. It possesses you. It messes with your finances, your marriage, and your kid’s happiness. And it messes with your head. And it’s such a new drug that very few people are talking about how dangerous it can be. One time on auctionwatch.com, a member named Leebot wrote about the problems eBay was causing him: “I am losing my job because of it….I don’t smoke, drink, gamble [or take drugs]. But all the symptoms are there: compulsive viewing of pages, self-loathing, a desire to stop and an inability to stop….Don’t get me wrong. I think eBay is great and I want to be able to use it, but I have to achieve a much better balance.” I responded to Leebot, telling of my own troubles. But pretty soon, I went on a buying-and-selling bender and forget all about him. More recently, I surfaced to have a look at a New Yorker magazine piece on eBay, hoping that it would be both amusing and profound or insightful and that it might go the distance and wander into the land of eBay addiction; instead, it was a half-amusing, entirely vapid story and a waste of paper. I tossed the magazine into a corner.

I am a junkie, and like a junkie I crept downstairs. I opened a drawer and took out the FedEx box containing my dead grandmother’s ashes. She’d passed over in 1995, and why I had not yet floated the ashes on the wind I couldn’t say. Maybe all these years I’d somehow known I would someday find a better use for them. I thought of what I might write.

I don’t need these but you may. It’s a box of human ashes (my grandmother’s, in fact) in mint, A1 condition, just as they came out of the crematory. You’ve seen none better! Weight: four lbs. Comes in small cardboard mailing box that’s unopened and as sweet as the ashes: no rips, no tears, no flaws. Still features certified mail tag and original mailing label that reads (in part): “From: Rapp Funeral Services, P.A….human cremains handle with care.” Wow! So if you’re looking around for something like this, then this is definitely the thing you are looking around for! Buyer pays actual shipping costs only. There is no crummy “handling” fee. Good luck. And good bidding!

I stood there, nodding to myself and wondering whether early summer was the best time to sell ashes. Maybe, I thought, I should wait for winter, when more people are stuck inside and sitting at their computers. I shook the box, and my grandmother’s ashes made a grainy, shifting sound. I squinted my eyes, pondering this matter, as well as what kind of trouble I could get in auctioning off human remains. Maybe the cops would come–that would be bad. Maybe eBay would ban me–that would be worse. I decided to wait for winter. That would give me time to sort out the issues at hand. I was in no hurry. My grandmother wasn’t going anywhere. I could come back for her then.

Comments

One Response to “This Is Your Brain on eBay”

  1. jp
    January 26th, 2017 @ 12:49 am

    I could’ve sworn I read this in Forbes or Fortune in 1999. Great article/essay.

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