Of Nose-rings and Nissans:
A California Auction

by John de Pillis (7 May 1995, Riverside, Press Enterprise)

It was like walking through the local shopping mall and seeing a storefront sign reading, "Travel Agent & Brain Surgeon". But instead of a sign, it was a full-page ad in the Riverside Press for the weekly "Auction of Cars & Jewelry" which takes place in Upland, California.

How does that work? If your bid is too low for a Honda, can you transfer that bid towards a 14 kt gold nose-ring? To learn the answers, I decided on a personal visit to this California institution --- the Auto/Jewelry auction.

The next Sunday, I got an early start for Upland. As I headed west on Highway 60, I could hardly wait to reach the Central Avenue off ramp in Chino. I knew that she would be there waiting.

As I turned north onto Central, I saw her standing at her usual place near the corner of Philadelphia Avenue. How compelling and magnificent she was. I admit, I am influenced by her superficial physical attributes --- like her 35-foot height. But to me, she is the ultimate pino maritimo, an Italian Stone Pine tree like no other.

As I drove on, I noticed her graceful lines diminishing in my left rear-view mirror. That's the mirror where objects are not closer than they appear.

A left turn off Central onto Foothill Boulevard soon brought me to the parking lot for the great Auto/Nose-ring Auction. The lot was full enough that I had to hunt for a space, even though it was early morning.

And what a Chamber-of-Commerce morning it was! The sky was a clean, pure blue, the temperature was warm and, looking north, you could see the snow-frosted mountain peaks. I took a deep breath of the delicious, clear air and headed on in.

Copies of the Auto Blue Book were on sale at the entrance. Further on, there is the inspection area where all the autos, destined for auction, are lined up for public viewing. (Actual auctioneering would begin at noon.) People were allowed to poke and test, doing just about anything short of actually driving the vehicle. Hundreds of people were evaluating, pricing, and discussing bidding strategies. Serious homework was going on.

I thought I might fit in better if I casually but purposefully kicked some tires. On the other hand, no one else was kicking any tires. Not even the little kids! Another of my stereotypes had to be abandoned. Tire-kicking was as out-dated as the polyester leisure suit.

I soon met up with my friend, Mike, who also came to the auction out of curiosity. Mike doesn't have to kick tires --he knows a lot about cars. So does Ted, the fellow who married Mike's sister. You see, Ted, owns an auto repair shop. But it was not always so.

At first, Ted owned an auto paint shop. He was successful at painting cars even though he was color blind. Ted relied on the paint labels to determine colors, a system that worked very well. Until one day when the labels were switched at the factory. Soon after, a customer came in to collect his freshly painted green vehicle. As Mike tells it, the customer "literally fainted" when his shiny green car turned out to be a shiny mud-brown car.

Ted interpreted this non-verbal signal (fainting) as a clear message that the time had come for him to quit auto painting. (Strong, reenforcing, verbal signals soon followed.) In any case, that's when Ted decided to enter the auto repair business.

The story goes on. Mike's sister, a competition body builder, helped in the new business by keeping the books. Then, she started to help in the shop after Ted taught her how to disassemble brakes. Ted would then finish the job. But before long, she was doing full brake jobs and, finally, any repair and service provided by the shop. Today, she also sews dresses for babies who enter "beautiful baby" pageants. That's where the real money is.

As noon approached, Mike left. People were seating themselves in an open area shaded by an overhead protective canvas. The auctioneer was facing the audience from the top window of a small, two-story tower directly ahead. The autos were lined up along the side, waiting to be driven, one-by-one, to stage center along a dirt track which ran between the audience and the auctioneer.

Directly in front of the audience, wearing white shirts and distinctive baseball caps, were five men acting as "transmitters". They took bids from the crowd and passed them on to the auctioneer.

To start the bidding, a car is driven onto the track and pauses in front of the crowd. The auctioneer describes the vehicle over a squawky low-fi sound system and then, energetically, he asks for an opening bid. Then, the car whisks off and the strange, tribal bidding ritual continues.

In the crowd, some people are shouting. Some are gesturing, or waving their arms, nodding, or holding magazines along the sides of their noses. The five Transmitters with the distinctive baseball caps, blow whistles, alternately facing the auctioneer, then the crowd. All the while they are shouting and making large, pulling gestures in the air, as if to milk some huge, invisible, cow.

Seeking a clue to what was happening, I concentrated on the auctioneer. His delivered his non-stop, high-energy, chant in a musical cadence, that sounded like, "Nissan did-dley fif-ty dif-fty did-dley FIVE!"

One of the Transmitters blew his whistle and threw his fist toward the auctioneer like a baseball umpire calling an out. The auctioneer, responded, as if to say, "Oh, then hed-dy wed-dy dod-dley TEN! Do I hear TEN TEN did-dley WHOA!" This provoked even more whistles and arm gestures from the crowd and the Transmitters. Finally, the auctioneer announced, "Hep-pedy Dep-pedy TEN-tee-dee SOLD!"

The dance concluded as the successful bidder announced her identifying number to one of the Transmitters, who then shouted it along to the auctioneer. This, and the other dances lasted about a minute for each car.

Off to one side, there is a bank of caged openings resembling a line of betting windows at a racetrack. It is here that the successful bidders line up to pay for their cars either in cold cash, or by credit card. There are people with fistfuls of both.

To the left of the bank of windows is a sign that reads, "No Children allowed in the inspection area, No Cameras, No Soliciting, No Alcoholic Beverages, No Weapons."

As I saw more and more cars being trotted through, I didn't really get to understand much more than when I started. But one thing came clear. If I scratched my nose at the wrong time, I could find myself unexpectedly driving home in one of those Nissan hep-dep hey-diddley fifties.

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