August 20, 2010
Lately I’ve gotten hooked on a reality show about a pawn shop, in spite of the fact that, having seen one episode, I’ve seen every episode. The only thing that changes from one episode to the next is what people bring in to try and sell, which ranges from horseshoes to hand-held thermonuclear devices. There is something kind of fascinating to me about the whole process of haggling over the value of things since, basically, anything is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. According to a Biblical story that was a favorite of a friend of mine Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a pot full of beans, which may have made them the most expensive beans in history, even though, adjusted for inflation, they aren’t worth peanuts, but that’s another story. What always fascinates me is people who think that a bona fide, genuine, mint-condition piece of crap has got to be worth at least ten-thousand dollars, apparently not realizing that a bona fide, genuine, mint-condition piece of crap is still a piece of crap. Figuratively speaking, of course, since there are some things even pawn shops won’t buy.
And I can’t help wondering why people who will go down to the pawn shop and try to sell some piece of junk for a thousand dollars when there are auction web sites where people will bid hundreds of dollars on a potato chip that looks like Carrol O’Connor. There’s another show where two guys appear to drive around randomly and wander into peoples’ barns and buy old signs, old tractors, and even old hand-held thermonuclear devices, some of which are even in mint condition. Apparently just two miles away from any interstate exit there are farmhouses with enough valuable memorabilia to pay off the national debt. At least the people who own the farmhouses are, for the most part, collectors, and not hoarders, which is something entirely different. Hoarders are people with a serious psychological condition whose lives are seriously affected by their need to keep stuff that they couldn’t sell at a pawn shop even if they could bring themselves to do so. I’ve never watched the show about hoarders, partly because it doesn’t interest me, but also because making a whole series about real people with a real psychologically debilitating condition seems like exploitation. People who go to the pawn shop get, if nothing else, a free appraisal and the chance to be on television, but hoarders have enough trouble without a film crew trying to navigate through their overcrowded homes. Maybe it’s because of my own personal experience that I have qualms with using mental illness as fodder for entertainment. In college I took a class in abnormal psychology, and we made several visits to a hospital. The professor told us stories about the schizophrenics howling every time there was a full moon, which was probably supposed to pique our interest, but I just felt sad. The only thing that really intrigued me, without being depressing, was someone playing a piano behind a locked door. I wondered which had to be locked in: the piano, or the player. I never saw the pianist, but I wondered what his or her story was, and hoped that, in the hospital’s windowless basement, playing the piano was a form of escape, not only from the hospital but from whatever illness kept him or her there.