Selling the three-legged pig

by Brian Clarey

You can taste the energy at the Mendenhall Auto Auction on a Tuesday night, taste it in the air like the thick exhaust fumes collecting in the rafters. As the energy swells it steadily adds pressure to the walls of the warehouse at the rear of the lot, like a balloon filling with helium until it gains enough buoyancy to float on its own.

The stock rolls through at about one per minute, three lanes deep, and on the selling blocks the auctioneers rattle, trying to generate excitement for each new item, coaxing bids from the milling crowd.

In Lane 4 Rickie Parks trills his tongue. He’s talking like a machine gun with his elbows on the block and a white handkerchief wrapped around the mic.

‘“I got two, can I hear two-five? Let me get a two-five ba-da-da-da-da-da-da-da two-five, there it is, can I get a three?’”

He’s spitting some serious verbiage, the words coming so fast and furious they wash over the crowd like a tincture and lose all meaning. Except for the numbers. Everybody who’s listening catches the numbers.

‘“LET’S-start-at-three-hundred-dollars-do-I-see-three-hundred-dollars,’” he sings in melodic staccato, filling in the gaps with words like ‘“hey’” and ‘“c’mon’” and ‘“there it is’” and a drilling trill of his tongue that seems to be his trademark.

It’s a masterful performance.

‘“His daddy’s an auctioneer,’” explains David Blake. ‘“And I’ll tell you: when he came through the school and tried to sell the three-legged pig, he called his daddy and said, ‘I can’t do this.””

Back at Lane 4 Parks has drawn the biggest crowd of the night and he’s moving cars like Godzilla on a tear through downtown Tokyo. He’s a success story, a role model and an instructor for the fifty or so students of the February Class of ’06 at the Mendenhall School of Auctioneering, who are right now on the other side of the room in Lane 1 getting their first taste of a live auction. Blake, a longtime instructor at the school, stands to the side and watches his pupils give it a go.

John Carter, a mechanic from Jonesville, Va. climbs up to the block in a stiff cowboy hat the color of bone and wraps a folded blue bandana around the mic. Carter, who hopes to find work after graduation as a livestock auctioneer, has some natural skill; he gets $50 for a knife emblazoned with a NASCAR logo and bidding for the next item, a hand-carved wooden bowl starts at seven dollars. Carter ratchets up enthusiasm for the object with his rapid delivery and light taunts.

‘“Ten dollar now twenty, ten dollar now twenty’… come on now, you need something to put your nuts in on your coffee table. Ten dollar now twenty’….’”

The bowl sells for $26.

Next up is David Case from Knoxville, Tenn. who owns an antique dealership in nearby Kingsport. He’ll go back there after he graduates on Sunday and hopefully have a whole new way to sell his wares. But it’s his first time on the block and he’s nervous when the first item comes up for bidding.

‘“It’s a’… a gift light,’” he stammers, and the bidding for this item, an illuminated glass box wrapped like a gift, starts at $10. Case fumbles with the numbers, leaping from $10 to $25, but he strenuously gains his composure. The next item, a $15 Wal-Mart gift card, goes for $25.

It’s a pretty easy sell tonight on Lane 1, the site of the class’s first test after four days of training at the school. The crowd is mostly family and friends and the proceeds go to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. But still it’s a roiling hive of activity and action ‘— nerve-wracking for some and fortifying for others. But what better proving ground for aspiring bid callers than this, a perfect model of supply and demand at ground level, with the bids flying through the energized air like hard confetti?

Everybody has to sell the three-legged pig. Everybody, 15 minutes after registration. On the first day.

‘“I have to be this big, bad drill sergeant,’” Blake says. For the selling of the pig he sits at a desk in the lounge and one by one the newbies take the seat opposite him. They read from a script, introducing themselves and saying, ‘“This is what I think an auction sounds like.’” Then they must sell Blake the pig while he shouts bids in their face and the pig, a miniature spotted sow with one of her hindquarters sliced off, stands mute on the desktop.

Some of them can’t take it ‘— they lost one student immediately after the pig exercise, a woman who, Blake says, ‘“said she didn’t want to get up in front of people.’”

She came to the wrong place.

The Mendenhall School is in its 44th year, begun in 1962 by Col. Forrest Mendenhall and his brother Red. Forrest was only 31 at the time, but he was already an old hand on the auction block.

‘“I started fairly young,’” Forrest remembers. ‘“I started in ’53. I was 21. My background was in auto auctions’… North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Chicago, New Jersey, New York’… I used to make that run every week. I guess I got tired of it after about ten years. I bought some property and started the High Point Auto Auction in 1960’…. There was a shortage of auctioneers so we trained some to help there at the auto auction.’”

The school was born of necessity but persevered due to the same rules of supply and demand that dictate the sale price of an as-is ’69 Mustang or a Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card or a head of black Angus cattle. There just weren’t very many auctioneering schools in the country at that time. Even today there are fewer than a dozen in North America, and Forrest says his is the only one in the US with its own working auction facility.

The newest incarnation of the course is nine days long, from 8:30 a.m. until 10 or so at night.

The school and auto auction sit just a fling of a hubcap away from Business 85, so close to the intersection of three counties as to give it an identity crisis: it has a High Point phone number and an Archdale zip code, though in actuality the facility itself lies in Randolph County. The auto auction is way to the rear of the lot and the suite of chambers that comprises the school sits on the roadside. The original building was a small real estate office and shortly after acquiring it Forrest began to expand, adding the lounge and main classroom in 1975 and the adjoining auction hall in 1985. The compendium of rooms is long and squat, made of sturdy brick. ‘“We built it to stay,’” Forrest says.

Today, on the fourth day of classes for the February, 2006 session, the cars in the parking lot bear tags from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. The class, just over 50 strong, sits in rows in the main classroom: farm-fed country boys looking to break into livestock auctioneering; soft-spoken, genteel antiques collectors; salt-and-pepper retirees looking to find a niche in the real estate market; newlyweds from Elizabethton, Tenn.; a pregnant woman; an ex-professional wrestler; a teenager from New Jersey; an engineer looking for a weekend hobby; a cowboy in hat, boots and belt buckle.

Mike McBrayer, a 65-year-old businessman with a Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership in Aberdeen, is here for business and pleasure.

‘“I just opened a new used car lot and the future seems to be the auction business,’” he says, and he hopes to create a self-contained auction facet of his business. ‘“But,’” he confesses, ‘“I’ve always had an ambition, even if I never use it, to get to this auctioneering school.’”

Brent Turf, an ex-Marine who lives right here in High Point, has a wholesale warehouse in Lexington and he’s been using auctions to buy goods for some years now.

‘“I want to learn the legal aspects and have the license so when the opportunity comes I’ll be ready,’” he says.

After graduation the class will disperse into their respective fields with the honorary rank of colonel ‘— all auctioneers are colonels, a tradition that goes back to the Civil War, when soldiers of that rank were charged with selling off the spoils of victory ‘— bringing ancient knowledge of the open and free market.

‘“You know what the world’s oldest profession is?’” Forrest always reminds his students. ‘“It’s not what you think. It’s auctioneering, because that’s how they set the prices.’”

Nice one.

It takes a particular type of person to be an auctioneer. The job offers a certain measure of celebrity, especially in small agricultural towns where auctions can serve as live entertainment. The good ones can hold a crowd in their hands and jack up the energy in a room until it reaches a frenzied pitch. Some of them, according to Forrest, make salaries well into the six figures.

‘“It’s very lucrative,’” he says, ‘“depending on the individual.’”

Some are better at it than others, better at soliciting bids, creating desire, better at reading the room or better at the fast talk of the call.

The act of calling is a viable outlet for creativity and the callers themselves each have their own styles ‘— someone selling rare antiques uses a different rhythm and patter than someone, say, taking bids on a waterfront lot or moving used cars or unloading bales of cotton. But the technique is much the same.

‘“It’s very helpful to be articulate, to be strong, use your breathing, do your voice and vocal exercises,’” Blake says. ‘“But you’ve got to learn the numbers. Forwards and backwards. When the auctioneer is on the block, 99 percent of his vocabulary is numbers. You have to learn them backwards and forwards so you don’t have to stop and think.’”

They drill the numbers into the students’ heads.

‘“I can’t sleep at night ‘— the numbers run through my head all night long,’” says Turf, the warehouse owner from High Point. ‘“If you’ve ever played Bingo for like four or five hours, you know what I mean.’”

About 7,000 students have passed through the school since its inception, from all 50 states and seven foreign countries including Australia, New Zealand and Nigeria. The youngest student ever to graduate was just nine years old. The oldest was 81. Engraved plaques from every single class adorn the walls of the front office, the lounge and the main classroom. In another 10 years they may start running out of room.

On this fourth morning Blake stands at the front of the class. They’ve just taken roll call and discussed the ceremonial gavels and impending elections ‘— ‘Most Improved,’ ‘Best All-Around’ and ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ ‘— which will be awarded at the graduation banquet Sunday night. Blake flicks the switch for the microphone he wears on his head.

‘“All right, stand up everybody. You’re getting too comfortable in here.’”

They rise to their feet and Blake leads them in a morning drill: counting to a hundred in cadence, singing from one number to the other and hitting the fives and tens with gusto. When they get to a hundred Blake yells, ‘“Sold!’” and they count back down to zero to the same beat. Then it’s back up to a hundred, this time by half-measures. Blake pumps his fist to the staccato ‘“and-a-half’” addendums to the chant while he paces the rows. Forrest stands watching in a rear corner of the room like a bulldog in repose.

The auctioneering business has been good to him ‘— the walls of the school are crowded with his awards and accolades; laminated and yellowed newspaper articles about the accomplishments of his graduates; photos with famous alumni. He’s at the top of his game and he’s been sitting there for about 30 years, even through three life-threatening instances: a ruptured appendix about 20 years ago; a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the ’90s; and a near-fatal auto wreck five years ago when his wife, Betty Jo, found him barely conscious at the bottom of a 50-foot ravine in a car that was slipping underwater.

The cancer, he says, was the scariest ‘— nine months of chemotherapy, 10 pills a day every 21 days, prolonged periods of weakness and nausea.

‘“It’ll knock you down for three, four, five days,’” he says, ‘“and you’ll hit bottom and then you’ll come back up again.’”

The cancer, he says, is ‘“one of the key reasons I have a soft spot for St. Jude today.’” Since 1996 he has raised over $200,000 for the cancer research facility through various contributions, including the charity auction for students on the fourth night of classes.

‘“He’s done a great thing, I’ll have to give him that,’” Betty Jo says with sparkling good humor. ‘“He’s got no more awards to win.’”

According to the dog-eared schedule Forrest keeps in his breast pocket, today’s morning speaker is Rick Romanus, president of Blue Ridge Digital in Roanoke, Va., who’s here to talk about internet auctions and electronic marketing.

‘“This internet thing,’” Forrest says, ‘“ten years ago who knew about it? Now you can’t survive without it.’”

The auction itself, like Forrest says, is the oldest way of selling things in the world. In ancient times soldiers would strike their spears in the ground to signify the selling point for pillaged goods. In merry old England auctioneers sold by inches of candle, whereby the last bid cast before the flame snuffed out was the winning one. American colonists began selling goods at auction in Boston in 1717. In the South, auctions became the preferred method to sell off commodities like sugar, tobacco, horses, cotton and slaves. The tradition survives all over the world, in open markets, county fairs, churches, antique galleries and charity functions. In 1996 when Jacqueline Onassis’ possessions went up for auction the form was again at the forefront of the collective consciousness. And, of course, eBay introduced the concept of the auction to the electronic marketplace to the tune of $32 billion, the value of goods sold through the online auction house in 2004. The internet has made the auction mainstream once again, and Forrest says that’s where much of the future of the business lies.

‘“I’m gonna tell you something,’” he says. ‘“Some of these young kids, they’re geniuses at it.’”

Near the front of the classroom Rob Efraus, a 17-year-old high school senior from Springfield, NJ, listens attentively and makes diligent notes in his binder, his coarse hair shaped by a hotel pillow into a black flame job. His parents let him take the week off school, but it’s not exactly a vacation. He’s at the school for nearly 14 hours each day for the whole nine-day program. Today, the fourth day of classes, he watches David Blake make his paces up and down the aisles preparing the class for the charity auction tonight.

‘“Auto auctioneers have to hear themselves,’” he says to the assembled group, ‘“and yes, it will be noisy. We’ll take cash. We’ll take one-way checks ‘— that’s the kind that goes to the bank and stays there. We’ll take MasterCard and Visa. We haven’t got down to food stamps yet. And remember, the first person on team number one will be the first person to sell tonight.’”

The field of goods is varied, each item donated by members of the class. Blake says the goods themselves are of secondary importance.

‘“That’s the fun of the auction business,’” he tells the class. ‘“You will never go to an auction anywhere that’s the same. It’s always different.’”

Efraus looks forward to the challenge.

He’s an ambitious young man. As a high school freshman he began selling cars on eBay from his dad’s dealership. If he wanted he could begin making a top salesman’s salary right out of high school, but he has other plans.

‘“I don’t really want to go into the family business,’” he says. ‘“I’m an actor ‘— I been in musicals and plays since I’m a little kid. I really want to be an actor professionally, but I’m trying to be a little more realistic. If I work for an auction house I can go for a few hours, get my check and go home.’”

He wears a neat grey suit for his premiere performance at the charity auction on Tuesday night, following Joel Andrew Collins, a yuppie from Charlotte who sells a doll for $15 dollars with his rapid patter. The kid’s first item for sale is a St. Jude’s clock. He opens the bidding at $5.

‘“Can I get five? I got five now ten? Five now ten? Ten dollars. Got fifteen? Got a fifteen? Fifteen now twenty. Fifteen now twenty. Whose got thirty? Whose got thirty?’”

His voice rises with the escalating bids, working the crowd into a lather, and the spotters, his fellow classmates, are gesturing to the soldiers in the bidding war.

‘“Hello? Can I get a forty? Fortyfortyfortyforty. Can I get a forty? Nope?’”

He gets it, and the bidding continues.

‘“Fifty. Fifty dollars. Whose got it fifty? Fiftyfiftyfifty. Come on, people, it’s a good cause.’”

When the smoke clears, the clock has sold for $55.

Dave Blake has been watching from the back of the room. When the kid comes down off the block, flushed and enervated, his teacher smiles.

‘“You got different voices, different personalities, levels of speech,’” he says, ‘“but in the end it’s how long and how hard did they practice.’”

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