J. Bear Savo

BEHIND THE BLOCK: Soft pack blunder

BEHIND THE BLOCK: Soft pack blunder
Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Pap was a stout man crowned by a wild mane of curls who took his coffee light and sweet. Sometime in his youth, a knife had severed the tendon in his left index finger, leaving it inflexible and unusable, except for giving directions and holding cigarettes. And Pap was always sporting a lit smoke. If one wasn’t dangling from his lips, it was perched between his paralyzed pointer and his middle finger.

I learned many things from Pap when he worked for my father, such as CB radio lingo, how to reinterpret assembly directions published by Chinese manufacturers, and how to properly open a soft pack of cigarettes. That last lesson I was taught when I was 12 years old and Pap’s copilot on a trip from Scranton to the J.C. Penney distribution center near Hartford, Connecticut. We were on our way there to pick up a load of catalog returns, a frequent source of inventory for my father’s auctions in the late 1980s. On this particular run, I was invited to go along. While Dad and Jeff (another employee) rode in one truck, Pap and I occupied the other.

As Pap drove, his left hand moved from the steering wheel to his mouth and back with a steady rhythm akin to one of those novelty drinking birds, a lit cigarette constantly clamped between his immobile index finger and his middle finger. After about 100 miles or so, he had finished his first pack.

“Johnny,” he said to me, “open me more smokes, please.”

I reached down between the bucket seats and grabbed a fresh pack. I was 12; I had never opened cigarettes before. I had no idea that I was only supposed to tear back a corner on either side of the tax label. I saw the foil flaps on the top of the pack and just pulled them apart, exposing the ends of all 20 filters.

Keeping his eyes glued to the road, Pap took the pack from me, turned it on its side, and struck the heels of his hands together. Had I opened it properly, inertia would have partially extracted one or two cigarettes. Instead, the whole score came tumbling out all over Pap’s lap.

“What the hell?” Pap yelled. “What the hell did you do?”

“I opened your cigarettes,” I shrugged.

“No, no, no…” he mumbled, “son of a bitch… damn it… damn it… “

Pap continued to curse until we pulled into a rest stop, at which he regaled my father with the tale of my soft pack blunder. After 25 years, certain memories become fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure Dad laughed his ass off.

There’s far more to being a professional auctioneer than merely marketing merchandise. Each Wednesday, Behind the Block explores the precise methods, the elemental madness, and the intrinsic humanity of the auction industry.