"Only dreamers pay $150 to $200 for nylon expandable luggage, plus ten percent fees and taxes, hoping that they're going to find any treasures." This piece of wisdom from a man with a baby-blue Hawaiian shirt and a slightly sad face. Mike Morales resembles a deeply tanned, Taxi-era Andy Kaufman, but speaks with a distinctive Tex-Mex accent. He slouches against a wall, watching a line of Saturday-morning dreamers shuffle in disorderly fashion past rows of luggage lost by long-gone travelers through Miami International Airport. "These people are crazy," he says.
Reliably, at least twice a year, the pieces of people's lives that end up stranded at MIA are auctioned off to the public. This detritus of travel, from all over the world, sits for at least 90 days in the airport's lost-and-found office. There is the luggage, but also sunglasses, CDs, books, toys, minor appliances, jewelry, laptops, cameras, cell phones, wheelchairs, strollers, and more. There are, of course, less common items that never make their way into the public domain. Perishable foodstuffs, for instance. Or animals. Or body parts.
"We had leeches turned in once, alive in a jar," recalls Ernesto Alonso, an MIA lost-and-found veteran. "The bats were a surprise to me. They were dead, wrapped up in bundles. We get a lot of Santería and vodou stuff sometimes. Vegetables I can't even name -- roots, leaves. We try to get rid of it fast. It's sometimes dangerous working in lost and found. You never know what's in the bag."
Ah, but that right there is the beauty of an airport auction. The uncertainty principle is ultimately what propels hundreds of people to spend several hours of their too-short weekend inside the sweltering auction room of an airport building along NW 36th Street. No matter what the differences among this town's Balkanized factions, the simple human qualities of unreasoning hope and greed drive us all.
This Saturday in late June is no different. People arrive as early as 7:30 in the morning to scout out the roughly 700 pieces of luggage, plus bags and boxes of items sold in lots, such as jewelry and books. They write on the backs of their bid cards the numbers of promising specimens on which they plan to make offers. The funny thing is that people aren't bidding on what is in the suitcases. They're bidding on what might be in the suitcases. MIA officials claim they don't open and search the luggage. In the past they donated it all to charity, but owing to obscure regulations, they now have to sell the stuff. The money goes back into airport operations, where presumably it can be safely directed into the pockets of the legions of live leeches mooching off the county commission.
The auction room, all concrete floors and exposed pipes, is packed. Brown folding chairs hold about 350 people, with maybe 100 more standing along the rear and sides of the room. The auctioneer, a little old man in a striped shirt and black pants, is as experienced a pitchman as any vintage carnival barker. "You wonder where this stuff comes from," he tantalizes the throng. "They come into Miami International Airport from all over. Interesting stories behind all these. Interesting stories."
Several men in white "May's Auctions" T-shirts wander the room, spotting raised cards and relaying the bids. All Miami is gathered here, brought together by the visceral delight of a treasure hunt. There are girls in belly shirts and ponytails, boys with square chunks of cubic zirconia winking from their ears, Bahamian grandmas in polka dots. Also guys in snug jeans with sunglasses perched on their heads and unfunny jokes on their shirts, of the popular self-deprecating sports-and-sex variety, such as: "I hit two good balls today. I stepped on a rake."
The room is awash in chatter as people consult their companions while lots come up for bid, checking the numbers on the backs of their cards. Enthusiasm comes and goes. When too many of one thing is offered, it ebbs. The auctioneer knows this and frequently mixes up the order of the offerings. Lot 663, a bag of jewelry, goes for $150. A bag of cell phones goes for $70. "Don't hesitate," the auctioneer goads. "You snooze, you lose!" An aging tan golf bag, including clubs, goes for $150.
Excitement electrifies the crowd when a mysterious lot comes up, this one consisting of three large cartons containing excitingly unidentifiable cylinders that, on close inspection, seem to be mostly canes, umbrellas, and rolled canvases. It goes for $420. People applaud. "How sweet it is," the auctioneer remarks to everyone and no one.
A used laptop goes for a steep $600, causing Mike Morales to shake his head at the weird bubble economy of auctions. Morales is there waiting to bid on a large box of books. He is a computer technician, but as a side business he sells used books on eBay. "I can only make money if they go for less than $50," he explains. "A lot of it is junk paperbacks. With the books it's mostly hit or miss." He points to the rows of luggage waiting for their moment on the block. "That's mostly a miss," he opines. "There's less than a 50 percent chance you'll get something valuable."
Winning bidders pay up, then wait like expectant parents behind a velvet rope while their item is fetched. They are eager and fearful -- for like newborns, unsatisfactory items cannot be returned. Mixtures of avarice and wonder share time on their faces. Disappointment is almost inevitable. "This isn't an auction," decries an angry man in a soccer jersey, stalking away. "This is what I call a farce!"
"They got ringers in there," posits Scott, a pudgy, middle-age white guy dripping sweat and dissatisfaction from his brow. "Their buddies are telling them what to bid on, 'cause they know what's in them." He pauses to adjust his glasses. "The camera I wanted went for $250," he continues. "I could buy new for that." He'd come to the auction hoping, like everyone else, to score a cheap find, maybe a decent suitcase for twenty or thirty bucks. Scott's wife, a stern harridan in the prime of her harping years, stalks over to find out what Scott is up to. "You're gonna print my husband's views?" she inquires suspiciously, angling to read notes of what her idiot husband probably said.
"This is hardly a 60 Minutes exposé on Scott's view of the world," I offer.
Scott blinks in learned silence as his wife scowls. "Let's go, Scott," she demands, pivoting toward the elevators. He lumbers apologetically after her.
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Jorge Lazo, a compact 43-year-old Afro-Cuban real estate agent, saw a spot about the auction on the previous evening's news. Figuring a treasure hunt was better than roasting on the beach, he awoke early, slipped on a pair of khakis and an orange T-shirt, and went to the ATM. "It's like going to a casino," he says. "Pure fun." He has spent $270 to win two black Samsonite suitcases, one large and one small.
Lazo unzips the larger bag, inhaling nervously. "Moment of truth," he mutters. Unzipping complete, he folds back the flap to reveal lots of clothes, in pink flowers and red checks -- and about the size of a toddler. "Oh my God!" he exclaims. "I don't have children!"
Daunted but hopeful, he turns to the smaller suitcase. "I have a weak heart," he cautions. Reaching into a side pocket, he pulls out a pair of briefs, clearly soiled. "Ah! Dirty underwear!" he cries. The interior of the bag offers up men's clothes and a belt.
Lazo sags, then begins to rezip the bag. A couple of jocular voyeurs leaning against a railing nearby laugh at Lazo's misfortune. "Well, if you have kids someday, at least you're all set," remarks one man. The other steps forward to offer a bit of advice to the reeling gambler. "You gotta look for designer cases," he advises. "That way, at least you get a good case. Take it from me, I used to work for the airport."