Mrs. Tchotchke, Alice Cooper, and the Box of Guns

27 Apr 2006

boxofguns.jpg

I wanted to follow up on a quiet mention several posts ago about finding a cache of guns in a woman's house. A while back, a guy I know introduced me to a woman I'll call Mrs. Tchotchke, a nearly retirement-aged widow who wanted my assistance selling stuff on eBay. A mutual friend had referred her to me.

"I'll warn you now. She has aLOT of crap, Patrick," he said.

"Yeah, but how much is a lot?"

"Trust me, you won't believe it."

Mrs. Tchotchke had a three-story house where she'd lived with her husband for ages. They'd both shared one passion in life: collecting. The house was more or less a museum of kitsch. Every wall was covered floor to ceiling by some kind of display case filled with trinkets:antiques, sports memorabilia, movies, Barbie dolls, Nascar collectibles, military history stuff, baseballs, coins, stamp collections. In many rooms, the walls themselves were not directly visible. For example, in the "Barbie bedroom," every wall was completely made up (floor to ceiling) of thin shelves holding the Barbies (still in their boxes). Not an inch of actual wall space could be seen.

Even the ceilings in this home were covered in collectibles. They'd affixed Plexiglas tiles overhead in order to display posters in most rooms. If there was a small bit of wall showing -- say, a six-inch swath between two door jambs -- there would be tiny shelves installed to hold miniature collections such as thimbles or hat pins. In some rooms, they'd even resorted to installing hanging display cases from the ceiling. Inside these were the various racing collectibles, mostly.

"I know," she said at our first meeting, seeming to acknowledge the massive nature of her accumulation. "It's a little overwhelming. Where would you like to start?"

"I have to be honest with you.I have no idea, Mrs. Tchotchke. In my entire life, I've never seen this much stuff in one place."

"Well, why don't you just have a look around and then let me know."

"You mean, you want me to just wander around your house?"

"Yeah, sure.I trust you.Feel free to open closets, drawers, poke around. Whatever you want."

"Well, thanks!" Fortunately for her, I'm a relatively trustworthy person; I wasn't going to steal anything from her. However, I did find her a little too trusting for an old widow, and advised her to be careful in her dealings with strangers. She shrugged off my advice, of course, citing her unusual gift for knowing whom to trust in life.

So, I spent the next few hours simply taking it all in -- three floors chock full of shit collected over a lifetime. I'd brought a large legal pad and made notes of things. Brand names to research, lists of individual collections, notes about especially valuable items, etc.

It was overwhelming by the end of the first floor. By the time I reached the attic, it was more or less just a fun tour with free reign to nose around into her stuff. That's when I found the box of handguns. There was a starter pistol, a .38, a .22, several holsters, and a few antique pistols that I couldn't identify (not that I know anything about guns). There were rifles nearby, and an ammo box brimming with thousands of rounds of .357 ammo.

It's possible the guy was a cop once, as he also had a badge collection hanging on one wall. By the way, I soon found out that you can't sell real police badges on eBay, so I never got rid of those for her. Mrs. Tchotchke blushed a little when I pulled out the badge collection because one said "Pussy Inspector" on it. She said, "Oh, I forgot about that one." It's kind of funny to watch an old woman blush.

Later, I was reviewing my plan with her for liquidating her estate. We'd start with the autographed baseballs, I suggested."However, Mrs. Tchotchke, I have to say that there's one really peculiar thing about your husband's sports collection. There's everyPittsburgh Pirates collectible known to man in this collection -- team-signed balls going back to the 50s, jerseys, baseball cards. But, there's one gaping hole in the whole thing."

"Really, what's that?"

"Well, a lot of this stuff dates from the mid 50s through the late 70s, yet I saw absolutely no Roberto Clemente artifacts. But, that's simply bizarre since your husband was obviously friendly with the players. He had to have been to have amassed all of this stuff."

"Oh, he was. He knew them all."She paused to reflect a bit, then added, "Well, there is one thing I didn't tell you. He had a son fromPhiladelphia.We hardly ever saw him. But, after the funeral, he came by, and I told him to take whatever he wanted that belonged to his dad. So, I suppose he probably took that stuff."

"Well, it's good to hang on to the prize things, I suppose -- keep them in the family," I said, trying hard to contain my frustration about that. Signed Clemente balls, as I suspected and soon came to learn, are worth a fortune.Judging from the holes in the collection, I'd estimate that he would have had at least four or five such balls in his possession. Who knows, the guy probably had a friggin' Honus Wagner tobacco card. Wagner was a Pittsburgh Pirate, after all. (That card's worth more than $1 million, by the way.)Still, even with the super-valuable collectibles gone, the lady was sitting on a lot of cash, and I was eager to begin selling for her. We agreed that I'd take 25%, which seemed decent at the time. However, in retrospect, it was a lot of work for the money. If I were to get back into that business, I'd charge a minimum of around 35%.

Considering the estranged son's visit to plunder the household, I realized something else. "Tell me about his guns," I said.

"Oh, did you find the guns?"

"Yeah, I came across the box of handguns, and also the rifles. But, there was a ton of ammo for a .357 magnum, and I didn't see that gun. Did his son take it?"

"He must have, I suppose. But, you know, I really don't like all of that stuff in the house. Can you sell it?"

Suddenly I'm an arms dealer.I'm Nicolas Cage in Lord of War (great flick, by the way). "Uh ... you know, I don't think they allow handguns on eBay, Mrs. Tchotchke. Why don't I go see a cop and ask what to do?"

"That sounds fine.Take them with you when you leave."

So, later that night, I nervously packed my trunk with the firearms and drove home. The next day, I walked up to the police station and asked to speak with an officer.This huge dude came out and I explained the situation to him. "Look, I know I can't sell pistols on eBay, and I figure you probably don't want me listing them in the Pennysaver ..."

"Jesus, no!" he said. "Look, wait here."He stepped out of the room, and then returned a minute later with a business card. "As far as the rifles go, I don't care what you do with those. But, take the handguns to this guy. It's where we [the cops] get our guns.He can do it all legit for you."

The next night, I'm on the phone with this very freaky guy. I'll call him Alice Cooper in this story, for comic effect. "Yes, this is Alice Cooper," he said in deep, slow, mysterious tones. "Bring the box of pistols to my house at8:30 p.m.However, do not come to the front door. You must walk around back and knock at my basement door. I'll be inside." [I know that sounded like rather awkward, choppy language, but that's exactly how he spoke.]

The guy lived about a mile from my house, as it turned out.Outside, the house looked completely normal. Don't you ever wonder what the insides of most people's houses look like, though?I always wonder: Are they boring? Are they normal? Are they trendy?Are they like the sample rooms in Ikea?Are they practically dungeons with dark winding hallways, creepy tools hanging along the walls, and littered with pistols, rifles, machine guns, and giant vaults built into the foundation? Well, I can answer that last question for one family, anyway, as this was exactly what Alice Cooper's house was like.

Walking into his basement was one of those unsure moments in life.You're uncomfortable, crossing the threshold and thinking, I should not be doing this. That man was disturbed. Completely disturbed. I imagined he probably had a normal family running around upstairs, but this place was his private sanctuary of madness.By the time we reached his workshop, we were about as far into someone's basement as is possible. In fact, I wasn't sure I could find my way out on my own again, as we'd gone through so many dark passages.

Huge steel vaults, each of which was larger than the door to the room, lined two walls of his dimly lit workshop. The vaults were all open at the time, revealing an arsenal resembling that scene in The Matrix when they load up on guns. He took a seat at a workbench along another wall. That wall was lined with all sorts of hand tools and hundreds of plastic bins holding various gun parts. The wall directly behind me was all shelving. It held at least 1,000 boxes of various ammunition.

If you've read any of my earlier "Tales of theMidwest" postings, or any of the "Budman" posts, you know that I'm no stranger to guns. I don't own any myself, though.It's always just been one of those things. If someone gives me a gun to shoot, I'll blast off a few rounds. I get a kick out of that stuff. But, I also realize there's a whole societal issue there. Questions like "Should people be allowed to own assault weapons?" come to mind.To tell you the truth, I think society would be just fine without them. In a nutshell, I suppose I have mixed feelings about the issue. They do, I think, make me a little nervous. And, perhaps that's why I've had fun shooting them from time to time.

As I said, though, usually it's just "a little" nervous. But, sitting in a tiny corner of Alice Cooper's dark basement, completely surrounded by guns and ammo ... That was a tad unnerving. He began rifling through the box, pulling out the .38 first and spinning the cylinder. He reached for some ammo from a bin on his desk and loaded a few rounds, then spinned it some more. I immediately flashed back to the Russian Roulette scenes from The Deer Hunter (a story that takes place only a few miles from my home, incidentally). I'm waiting for some Viet Cong guard to jump out of a vault and start screaming "Di di Mau!" whileAlice levels the pistol at me.

Ever been in a situation where you just wanted to get the hell out?That was definitely one example.However, my uneasiness eased up a bit as the guy worked his way through the box. He became somehow more sociable as he inspected the guns, as though guns had become for him a comforting device. By the time I left, he'd loosened up and even bordered on friendly.Still, I felt relieved to leave and never checked back with him. Dumping the old lady's guns off was probably above and beyond the call, anyway.

Looking back at that, I don't see it as a terribly interesting story, really. But, it's definitely weird -- another example of how I get myself into awkward situations from time to time. So, I'll post it anyway, as I've blown off enough time today writing it. That's the interesting thing about writing. Sometimes it takes you to interesting, perhaps unexpected places; other times, it's more or less a pleasant diversion from doing actual work.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On May 1, 2006, ~mince~ wrote:

i know exactly what you mean.

i hope things improve for you.

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