The Sleaziest Reality Show Yet?

A&E's Storage Wars goes through foreclosed storage units to find items to resell. Christopher Dickey reports on the unemployed victims whose lifelong possessions get trashed.

12.02.10 10:41 AM ET

Sue B. is 58, unmarried, and used to be middle class. That Storage Wars debuted on A&E Wednesday night, the same day that Congress failed to extend unemployment benefits, struck her as insult added to injury, on top of years of insult and injury at the hands of “pond scum and vultures.”

Perhaps you missed the Storage premiere. It’s about people who bid on the contents of personal storage lockers when they’ve been foreclosed after three months of non-payment. Everything but everything inside them is put up for auction. A&E has a special knack for bottom feeding in American society, as anyone who’s watched Dog the Bounty Hunter will know, and for a casual spectator this new show basically just proves that reality TV is the Surrealism of the 21st century. Where else would you find a midget on stilts peering into the shadowy corners of a storage locker with night vision equipment?

But Sue is not a casual observer. Thanks to the economy, Congress, age and bad luck, she’s a participant in the surrealism of real life near the bottom rungs of the income ladder. When I met her while waiting for a train in Washington, D.C. a couple of months ago, we started chatting about e-books (I had a new reader) and wound up talking about funeral urns and ashes.

At the time, Sue knew that everything in her locker out in California, where she’d worked in marketing in years past, would be going up for sale. She told me then about the process, which Storage Wars now shows without the very rough edges, because this TV “reality” is about buyers, not those who’ve been foreclosed. Sue said that she’d been talking to a woman running one storage facility on the West Coast who’d explained that anything not wanted by the top bidder just goes in the dumpster. The woman had a shelf in the back of her office with urns on it. “Peoples’ ashes,” said Sue, remembering that this particular facility manager didn’t feel like she could let those go in the trash, and couldn’t think of anything else to do with them.

After I got on the train in D.C., I couldn’t get that image of the urns out of my mind, and I thought of Sue’s situation often, because it gives such a clear sense of the way the earth has shifted under our feet in America, how unsteady people feel, and how and why there’s been so much anger.

So this week I e-mailed Sue to see what happened in her case. She wrote back, but asked to remain anonymous, because she’s not really interested in becoming a celebrity of poverty. Thanks to the new Republican-led trends in Congress, she said the $146 a week she gets in unemployment benefits is about to stop. Because of her age, and because she’s been taking any job she could, from sales person in a shop to waitress, her résumé in marketing is way out of date. Not surprisingly, her credit is shot, and she’s found that a lot of prospective employers now check credit ratings before they’ll even consider taking on a new employee.

Here, slightly edited, is what Sue had to say about storage facilities:

“You know if you just consider home foreclosures and the remarkable impact of that gut-wrenching experience, it's no wonder folks are tossing just about everything they own into these storage units—items that one would normally not think of ever storing in a unit. It's kinda tough dragging one's belongings around when couch-surfing! But, what else could folks be expected to do while they're sorting out everything else, sorting out their life?

“I, myself, finally fell victim to the wrath of the pond scum, the vultures, that step in, bid on average between $100-$150 per unit hoping to 'find a needle in the haystack' and secure storage units from those (such as myself) who are seriously tipped over and essentially powerless money-wise. My auction took place on a Friday, October 15, in the East Bay of San Francisco at 11:30 a.m. PST. To be brief, after paying more than $8,000 to the storage facility over the past couple of years, and working every angle humanly imaginable with them, but with no new job, I found out about the impending auction less than 48 hours prior.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather; given that I had previously been told that I had at least a week or two to get my situation rectified. In the end, obviously, my legs were knocked-out from under me. The total amount of monies that the facility needed (that I desperately needed) to avert this mind-boggling action was only $535—which I was unable to secure from anyone I knew. It seems if someone else is not in the same position, that there is very little understanding. A common response: ‘Anything can be replaced.’ Forty years of one's life; yeah, I'll run right out and pick it up (resurrect it).

“Forgive me for going on, I'm really trying to be brief. As a result of my loss, I'm no longer in possession of one single photograph of myself as a baby/a child, any photos of/with parents (both deceased), deceased friends, not a single snapshot of a home where I've lived. You get my drift, I'm sure. You know the saying ‘Time Heals All Wounds,’ well, in this case I beg to differ. My personal anguish continues every single day; it will follow me to my grave. The ‘pain’ is relentless and excruciating and often strikes when I least expect it.

“Needless to say, I am forever incredibly changed by all this. The loss of all of my personal belongings (all I have left, with me here in D.C., is some clothing and bedding—that’s about it) has greatly contributed to my experiencing, if you will, my own personal death. While sounding very dramatic, I am more than serious. When one's sense of self, their identity via their basic belongings/sense of home/rootedness, etc.—evidence of who you are—not to mention the lack of any viable/meaningful livelihood—is gone, there simply are no words. No words! Life, as I knew it, is basically over. At this point (at only 58!), I'm simply marking time. O.K., here goes... I'm 'signing off.'”

Christopher Dickey is Newsweek magazine's Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor. The author of five books, including Summer of Deliverance, his Shadowland column about counterterrorism, espionage, and the Middle East appears weekly on Newsweek online.