I believe I accidentally stumbled on an idea for the next reality television show. Last month I was trying to figure out what Southern California types do with their old and odd, out of fashion, worn, obsolete, and eccentric stuff. I awoke one Saturday (at an hour that only Francis Scott Key would find inspiring) to search for things I do not need at prices I cannot turn down.
What I witnessed was whole families in pick-up trucks or aging vans trolling the neighborhood at great speed. They represent the countries of the Pacific Rim, India, Africa, Central and South America. They are recent immigrants trying to survive off the fat of the land. What is sport in Minneapolis is serious business in L.A.
These clever and resourceful people, sometimes referred to in a less than flattering manner as “coyotes,” scour garage sales as far away as Malibu, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley. I learned that much of what they purchase on Saturday finds its way on Monday to Roadium, an open air market located in a former drive-in movie theater in Torrance, California. Roadium is a mix of Tijuana, Calcutta, and Bloomingdale’s basement. Like Rick’s Café in “Casablanca” everyone with something to sell or trade ends up there.
I began thinking, “What a reality show.” There is a strong “Survivor” component as well as the entrepreneurial element of “The Apprentice.” If this were on TV, camera crews would accompany “teams” of foragers on Saturday morning, and the action would pick up again on Monday as they attempt to sell their wares. You would need a heart of stone not to root for each of the families.
The colorful atmosphere at Rodium would be a natural for TV. It feels so Third Worldly, if someone were to approach you and ask to see your passport, your first inclination would be to reach for your pocket. There is music and chatter everywhere. The only English you hear is the cry “One dollar, one dollar…” There are also vendors—some there more long term– who sell wedding dresses, Chinese bras, Hawaiian shirts, dresses designed for Charro, car parts, cosmetics, not yet expired vitamins, dented canned goods, DVDs, exotic birds, and coffins.
The drama is the “Coyotes” who come only when they are able to raise the $35 or more for a square of asphalt. Their life is a difficult one. Not only do they cover many miles and pick through tons of stuff, but they must arrive at Roadium early and bid against others for the choicest spots to set up. A prime location purchased from the management may change hands a number of times during the informal auction that follows. Bidding takes place furiously in many languages with the winner sometimes having to pay $200 before they make a sale. The only rule seems to be that anyone who says a word in English is disqualified and has to go home.
The next activity is “What’s in the van?” A vendor who acquires a good spot may suddenly need more inventory. An instant auction ensues with goods acquired on Saturday changing hands again before it even hits the asphalt. This is pure capitalism with a splash of “The Antiques Road Show” thrown in. At the end of the day Donald Trump would come out and congratulate the winner and offer him an easier job, like running one of his companies. I believe I would call it “Survival In The Marketplace” since television is more comfortable with spin-offs.
Roadium is fascinating. It is similar to Hester Street and the Lower East Side of eighty years ago: recent immigrants who are shut out of the traditional venues of commerce, without a stake or connections, working long hours to gain a foothold into the middleclass. Sound familiar?
Tom H. Cook has one child graduating from college, and another getting married, yet he writes about stuff. His wife warns him that his regular “Trash Eve” forays are destined to lead him to his next career.