Sunday, December 7, 2008

Infinitely Better Than the Gun Raffle

Over last Thanksgiving break, the Boy From Work dragged me to a gun and meat raffle. Of course, dragged is a bit of an exaggeration. I'd heard him talking about gun raffles for months, and I was curious. I knew enough about meat raffles--Ex-Keith's mother haunted meat raffles like nobody's business and often came home loaded down with turkeys and hams bound for the freezer--but I didn't have any experience with gun raffles.

The way I pictured it, there was a fire hall filled to the brim with antsy rednecks who were jostling each other to get a better look at the stage. And on that stage stood the event host, holding rifles and pistols up under the lights before calling out the winner's name. Everyone waited with bated breath for their name to be called, and if it was, the winners would let out a mighty woop! before descending on the stage to claim their prize, fill out paperwork, and tote it home.

To me, that sounded at least mildly interesting. Plus, I was told there was a whole bunch of food at gun raffles, and, as we all know, I am a fan of food. So I let the BFW pick me up a ticket and drive me to the small-town fire hall. When we got there, I was filled with a sudden panic. The parking lot was frighteningly crammed, and a line of broad-shouldered men trudged toward the door, cases of beer crooked from their fingers.

"You can bring your own beer?" I asked.

The BFW looked at me like I was crazy. "Well, yeah," he said.

"To a raffle where guns are being distributed? You can just waltz in with booze?"

He nodded, grabbed my mittened hand, and tugged me toward the door. When we pushed through those doors, it was a surreal experience. First of all, there was no stage. There was no discernible front of the room, no hub, no center of the action. Instead, there was a giant hall filled with collapsible tables and chairs. Almost all the tables were full. Some people--the unlucky ones, the ones who had come late and hadn't had friends save them spots--were wandering through the aisles, pitifully looking for a place to sit.

People had coolers cracked open next to them, showcasing beers of all varieties. Men wearing confederate flag T-shirts were playing poker and slowly erecting giant pyramids of beer cans. Women with teased hair and big bangs were shouting at kids or rubbing beer bottles against their lips or shrieking at their friends.

Near the back of the room, volunteers from the fire department were setting up a buffet line filled with sliced deli meats, bratwurst, macaroni salad, Limburger cheese, baked beans, pickles, sauerkraut, and condiments.

There was no display of the guns that were being raffled off. There was no auctioneer calling out their names, statistics, or finer qualities. There was only a pair of tables covered with thick tablecloth, and those were the tables that housed the meat. Steaks, turkeys, hams, thick-sliced bacon, and roasters were spread out for display and scrutiny.

As can be expected, I did not exactly "fit in" at the gun raffle. It wasn't anything like I'd hoped. It was less like an auction and more like a social event, like an indoor picnic, like some giant family reunion--except less cooler than any reunion my family might have had; at those, there is at least a dessert cook-off. Here, instead of the tables filled with Best Chocolate Cookie or Best Brownie or Best Pie submissions, there were only tables of bloody meat. And no guns. Zero guns, which is exactly what I thought we were gathered to celebrate.

Today, though, I got to attend an auction--my first--and that was a much more satisfying experience. It was sort of what I was hoping the gun raffle would turn out to be. And at this auction, actual guns were lofted into the air for the general public to ogle before they flashed their bid cards into the air for a chance to make them theirs.

Before today, I had approximately zero experience with auctions, aside from what I've seen on television. The word auction made me think of the following things: artwork, mothball-smelling old ladies, and fast-talking men. When one of my colleagues suggested we go auctioning this weekend, I conjured up the stereotypical scene in my head--shouting! paddles in the air! fabulous items being carted to and from the stage!--and I thought, Yes. We SHOULD go auctioning this weekend. After all, I wanted to see how right I'd been in my head.

And, well, I was sort of right. There were an awful lot of mothball-smelling old ladies who sat in the front row--reserved seats--and bid on the lots of costume jewelry, rosaries, and plant stands. There was a fast-talking man who went straight through 600 lots without taking a break. And there was artwork, although it was less "fabulous" and more "icky" and "musty." Of course, that's not to say there weren't some deals. One of the people I went with picked up a great vintage photograph of a man bending over a book and looking very scholarly. "This," she said, "is going into my TV room." She'd floated her bid card into the air and--poof!--it was hers, and they marched it right over to her. The instant gratification was intoxifying.

Still, this was no New York City auction, where mink coats and grandmother's pearls and famous paintings were wheeled onto the stage. This was an auction where there were at least ten different lots of antique planers, chipped china, and moldy boat building manuals. But it was fantastic. It was exactly the experience I wanted in return for waking up at 6:30 AM on a Sunday so that we could drive to the sweet coastal town where the auction house sat flanked by two bear statues wearing Santa hats.

I wanted the smell of old wood and antique silver. I wanted the shouting. I wanted the bustle. I wanted the food table with its big vats of chowder, its buckets of oyster crackers. I wanted to throw my bid card into the air for a mahogany "pie crust" table (what would I use it for?) and a lot of small glass pitchers (why would I need that many?) and a lot of rose-printed teacups (how quickly do I want to become my grandmother?). And then I wanted to go eat lunch with a man who bought a lot of comic books in hopes that he could sell them on eBay and a woman who buckled her vintage photograph into the backseat of her car so it didn't get jostled on the way home. And then I wanted to go and stand on the marshy winter edges of my co-worker's home town--Southport, Maine (which looks like this in summer, but trust me when I tell you it's just as spectacular in newly fallen snow)--and I wanted to wish for the hundredth time that I could live on the water, so close to everything good in the world: beach, ocean, seafood, and a place where I could get a six piece wicker patio set for $25. (No lie.)

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