There are two hard and fast rules to life: 1) If a pretty woman asks you to dance at a tiki restaurant in Vancouver, you should always say yes, and 2) If a friend tells you that clearing out his storage unit will only take a couple of hours, you should replace “hours” with “days” before you volunteer.
And so I followed the first rule and ignored the second and wound up yesterday morning in Surrey, British Columbia — a bright, beautiful Sunday — with Ben, who had, in the six years since he had first deposited all of his parents’ and family’s keepsakes there, lost the key to the unit, forgotten the access code, and vastly underestimated and misremembered the amount of stuff can fit inside a 5×10 metal box.
I think her name was Lila. She was the attendant at the storage unit place. She was very helpful.
“Do you have a locksmith with you?” she asked us.
No, we do not.
“My district manager can come by and break into it for you, but he won’t be able to do it until sometime later in the week,” she said.
Since Ben and I were slated to depart the next day for Vancouver Island, and since he’d already rented the minivan (another hard and fast rule, by the way: rent a bigger van), I asked if we could try to break into it ourselves.
“Yes, of course. I’d just have to be there to witness it,” Lila said. “I think Canadian Tire rents drills by the hour.”
This is how we came to find ourselves at Canadian Tire, buying an 18-volt DeWalt cordless drill and a rather large metal bit, watching YouTube videos on how to break a cylinder lock. This is how it all began.
“I don’t know if this is even going to work,” I said. “I mean, I’ve used a drill plenty of times, but I’ve never broken into a storage unit with one before.”
Ben was optimistic. I was beginning to regret mentioning the idea in the first place.
We left the battery to charge in the office and went to the unit to size the bit and orient ourselves in the large maze of hopes and dreams, boxed up and packed away, to be retrieved when the timing was right. We brought beers into the cool, climate-controlled building, and bumped into Lila on the way back down to the van. She looked at the beers, at us, and frowned a bit. We had been so quirky and nice till now.
But when the battery was charged, she followed us up to the unit and bore witness as I got some purchase in the metal with the driver and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed. I took a break. Lila said, “You’re getting close, but you should know that some people bang their heads against the door when the lock finally breaks.”
I braced my knee against the door and thanked her. When the lock finally went, I was glad she had given me the heads-up.
And then: a mountain of boxes.
Ben sorted through them, separating those that would go to the Salvation Army from those that would be kept — the junk from the sentimental. We loaded up a van full. I went outside to smoke my last cigarette and get some more. I got another stupid idea.
In Surrey on Sundays there is a flea market, the signs for which I had noticed on our way into town and on my trip to the gas station across the street. I brought us two more beers from the van and proposed it to Ben.
“What if instead of donating all of this stuff, we go to that flea market down the street and find someone to sell it to?” There was plenty of good shit in the discard pile — an antique cradle, paintings in neat frames, teacups, silverware, sturdy furniture, a quaint parasol. Plenty of good shit that some crazy flea market vendor would buy if we hooked him with some of the nicer stuff on top of our van-load and convinced him to go big or go home.
“Like that show Storage Wars?” Ben said.
The flea market in Surrey is held outdoors next to a little pony racetrack — men in chariots stood behind their steeds coaxing them around the track over and over again with no particular purpose. Small children sat on their parents’ shoulders and oohed and ahhed. We divided our efforts. The strategy: find the people whose wares most aligned with what was in the throw-pile, bring them back to the van, and get them to buy everything else, sight-unseen.
Gunther said that he wished I’d come to him in the morning, but that at this hour, he couldn’t afford to pack up and check out the unit. Mel reported to Ben that he would be happy to come by the next morning. Then I met Tom.
“Hi, how are ya?” Tom said he was fine thanks and what could he do me for and the like.
I explained the situation. He asked the man at the station next to his to mind his things while he went to investigate. Tom is in his mid-50’s, with a belly out to here, which he explained was the result of a recent stomach surgery and not poor eating habits, though it was likely a combination of both. Goateed and slow-footed, his Canadian accent was as thick as maple syrup, though we were only about ten miles from the American border. He expressed his pleasure that we had parked illegally, rather than out among the used pick-ups and 90’s sedans in the vast parking lot. Business, apparently, was not so hot today, despite the weather.
“Maybe it’s because the weather’s so nice?” I suggested. “People might just be out enjoying the Vitamin D.”
I popped the trunk, where the paintings were on display. Tom rifled through the rest of the boxes and told me that there wasn’t much he thought he could sell in there, but that he’d give me $20 for the paintings.
Deal. Also, his first tell.
When we got back to his lot, he said he might be interested in taking the rest of the stuff off our hands if the price was right and we could drop it off at his house down the road. I went and found Ben. We went back to Tom, who was in the middle of a faux-dramatic negotiation with an old bat who wanted to purchase a lion doll from him. She’d already purchased a tiger from someone else. Tom was explaining the superiority of his product to the tiger, his reason for asking for $20. She was having none of it. In the name of building friendly rapport, I stepped in and said that I might want to buy the lion. A trick commonly played by con-men and thieves to dupe the mark into paying a premium for an inferior product.
“Ah, you don’t want that lion, you just want to get me out of here,” she cackled. Not the case. I just wanted Tom to like me, and Tom knew the game I was playing.
She told him that she’d be back later and went off to find other trinkets for her mantle. Tom, Ben, and I went over the situation again: three vanloads full of inheritance. The question was simply a matter of price.
“$300 for everything,” I said. “$150,” he countered. Another trick among hagglers — always halve the first offer. “$225,” I said.
“I’m not a rich guy, you know?” Tom said, and proceeded with his sob story about how not-rich he was, and about how hard it was out there on the lot today. Trying to lend credibility to his counter. Even though I already liked him, I really liked him then. He was good at what he did.
We vaguely settled on $200. Tom called his roommate Sean and told him that two young men would be coming by with a few loads of things, and could he please direct us to the garage on the left when we arrived. Tom said he would pay Sean the $20 for whatever it is Tom’s yippy dog broke in the house. Tom said, “Yeah, you should probably move your hockey stuff out of there so it doesn’t get mixed up with their stuff.”
Ben offered to take pictures to back our claim. At the time, this might have seemed reasonable, but in retrospect, it simply gave Tom the upper hand in the negotiation, as we discovered when, upon sending said pictures from the unit, he texted me to say that it didn’t really look like much, and he wasn’t sure how much of it he could sell, and yadda, yadda, yadda. We went back to take more pictures. He continued this song and dance via text message. Then he said he wasn’t interested.
I called him. “Look, Tom, we can simply bring all of this to the Salvation Army, and they can have it. We have other options, you know? We just went to the flea market on a lark and happened to find you.”
“What’s your bottom line?” he asked.
I told him we’d take the $150, he agreed, and told me, “I really hope I’m not just buying a bunch of junk here. I really do, because otherwise I’ll never trust anyone again.”
When we hung up, I laughed. That was his best line of the day.
Three loads later, in Tom’s living room, we exchanged pleasantries and he ponied up the $150. Ben, in a hurry to leave (we were meeting his high school history teacher to play pool in 45 minutes) took the money. I pulled it from his hands and counted it. I looked at Tom. “Just wanted to double-check,” I said.
We both smiled.