The young man at the front of the room doesn’t know how to use his breath. He doesn’t know how to use his full body yet. We watch him struggle, watch him misunderstand, watch his chest and shoulders lurch and tense. His name is Mark. Matt Lowery tells Mark to get on the floor—this isn’t an emergency, but there is a better way to learn. The rest of us stand in a circle around him. We are learning. Mark lies face up on the blue carpet, blinking. Matt Lowery tells him to think and breathe like a baby. Mark seems to forget about performing—or maybe he understands better now. We look down and watch the small mound of his belly rise and fall under his flannel, push the button on the waist of his Wranglers toward the sky.
“Now, chant,” Lowery says.
Mark’s belly rises, falls again. His lips part. At first, his words and numbers come out tentatively, but soon, he picks up speed. His consonants melt together. The trill of his tongue speeds up. We’ve learned that our chants are our brands, our chants are ourselves. And when we hear his chant, we ask ourselves, “Is this Mark?”
Mark’s chant rolls as the numbers run higher. Matt Lowery calls out over the sound of Mark’s voice, “I just changed your breathing in one move, and I don’t need to say anything because they all just saw it.” Matt Lowery spreads his arms out wide behind us as we listen, trying to feel our own breath in our own bellies, trying to follow Mark’s chant. The numbers mount. His belly rises and falls. His lips slide and pop. His tongue darts at improbable speeds. Mark chants up at us; we follow his chant back and forth, our hands bouncing like metronomes to keep time. This chant is Mark. And this chant is Mark. And this chant is Mark. And we can know that this is true because within the clean crest of each breath, in every phrase of his chant, we can enter the open space of those breaths to find ourselves within Mark. Mark’s breaths become his chant, and his chant becomes his bids. Any bid has the potential to become any one of us—and any one of us has the potential to become any bid. And when Mark’s breath is strong, we can take hold of the bid he gives us, and, in doing so, take hold of someone else, too.
This is the end of the first night of classes at the World Wide College of Auctioneering. Forty-two of us have flocked from both coasts, several Canadian provinces, and nearly every state in the intermountain- and Mid-west to attend a weeklong training course on how to become auctioneers. For ten to twelve hours every day, we learn to breathe, learn to chant, and learn to call bids in the fully carpeted midsized conference rooms of the Best Western Holiday Lodge in Clear Lake, Iowa. It is the same Clear Lake where Buddy Holly’s Beechcraft Bonanza crashed in 1959. It is a small town on the edge of a lake in the middle of corn and soybean fields, and the Best Western Holiday Lodge is just a quarter mile off the interstate at the back of a sprawling parking lot. It is attached to a Bennigan’s.
The business of the World Wide College of Auctioneering is not as humble as its surroundings might have you believe. Since the Colonel Joe Reisch started World Wide in 1933, the college has turned more than forty-thousand people into professional auctioneers. They get that title—Colonel—not as a military designation, but as a continuation of tradition from the Civil War, when Colonels were the only officers who could auction off goods after battle. World Wide’s graduates have gone on to become National Auctioneer Associational International Auctioneer Champions, World Champion Livestock Auctioneers, and World Champion Automobile Auctioneers. These titles may mean nothing to people who have never ventured into a Bennigan’s attached to a Best Western in the middle of a corn field, but to the people who paid $1,400 to attend this week of training at World Wide, those titles mean everything. The students have watched those champions on YouTube, listened to their internet tutorials, driven to see them compete in person. The people I’m learning alongside of know about these championships, and they bow at the spurred heels of those Colonels when they come back to World Wide to raise up the next crop of bid callers. I came to World Wide to watch them, to mimic them, to try to understand how a person from humble beginnings pulls money out of thin air. I wondered about the invisible structures elevating these profits.
Matt Lowery is a sharp-looking, fair-haired cowboy in his late thirties who wears a Stetson pinch front indoors and holds his chin in place as if he’s constantly nursing a dip, though I never once see him spit. When he walks into the beige wallpapered room with his large gas station cup of Diet Mountain Dew, all the young men immediately recognize him. They’d watched him on the internet, heard his name in the competition circles—he was so young when he came through the ranks and started winning titles that he was a star for others to hitch onto. Lowery came to World Wide to study in 1995 when he was nineteen years old. By 2000 he was a Nebraska Champion Auctioneer, and by 2008, he was a World Champion Livestock Auctioneer, the industry’s highest title.
All of that started as a childhood dream, a way of figuring out how to be in the world, a way to access power, influence, money, connections. “College isn’t for everybody, so I went to auction school,” Lowery said to me. Going to auction school can be a path to validation in a world that values institutional approval over other forms of trust. If you grow up on a farm or in a mill town or in the country or in a trailer, and you can’t quite grasp how the things your teacher says align with your own self-worth—obscured as the points can be behind metaphor, a holistic sense of the human spirit, and the arbitrary slog of standardized testing—then you can still grab onto another handle. You can see that there are other people who are opening their arms to you. You can be something other than miserable. You can belong.
Lowery took the money from his early auctioneering championships and sales and built the other thing he really wanted: a ten thousand acre farm with eight hundred head of cattle in Burwell, Nebraska that Lowery described as “real Wild West type stuff.”
“We raise mama cows for beef cattle. We still rope drag ’em to the fire. They eat all native grass and drink from fourteen artesian wells that all flow into these big tanks we have. We try not to overgraze any of our fields, and we bale hay for winter feed,” Lowery said.
His easy description belies the true amount of work behind any one of the farm’s elements. Running this kind of operation is notoriously difficult and not necessarily profitable. The prominence and allure of factory farms make it doubly hard for a person to convince himself that doing things “the right way” is, in fact, the right way. As many of us do, Lowery made the choice to subsidize his passion with his day job—auctioneering, teaching, and competing. Before becoming an auctioneer, Lowery would struggle to farm and get by on $25,000 a year. But after auctioneering school, he could make $50,000 selling one real estate property alone. The first year he started professionally calling, he made $100,000. That made farm profits moot and farm passions central. Lowery makes his sizeable paychecks at the auction block and comes home to his 130-year-old family ranch to keep creating this world—authentic, attentive to nature, harmonious—by doing something that has an otherwise complex and dubious past.
It’s not news that the auctioneer isn’t a heralded figure in American history. Auctioneers tore enslaved families apart from one another, pushing prices higher for themselves while plantation owners cashed in on the labor of black bodies. Auctioneers pulled the rug out from under the feet of poor families during the Great Depression, starting the bids especially low for the smallest, cramped, most delinquent houses. The auctioneer has been a shyster, a fraudster, an obscurer. Auctioneers will tell you, “You don’t win at an auction—you pay. But you’ll feel like you won.” It’s their job to produce that feeling in you. And that can seem manipulative. Auctioneers can seem to be people for whom value is arbitrary. They’re interested only in its size. The very nature of the chant implies that the only thing the auctioneer cares about is how high he can get the price. Historically, the auction block has been a place where the poor and disenfranchised have gotten poorer, more disenfranchised, and where profit was consolidated in the hands of the bid callers. But the people I met who were learning to call bids embodied their own sense of desperation. In them, I saw more than the cipher of consumer and consumed. In today’s budding auctioneer, we might in fact find a shared disenfranchisement. Naturally, our gaze drifts toward them.
Perhaps we see the face of Johnny Kirkland, the Canadian boilermaker who has an unrequited lifelong love of auctioneering. His frame is slight—a nipped waist buttoned into stiff denim—but his face is full and layered, tunneling back to where his eyes lie, warm, round, and brown, a middle C played on the piano.
Kirkland grew up in auction houses in rural central Canada, and he became enamored with how many people paid attention to the man with the microphone. Starting out with a high school education and a young family, he couldn’t take a risk like starting an auctioneering business. He opted for a steadier trade. For forty-five years, he worked in steam and fire, lowering his body into claustrophobia-inducing holes to build and repair duct work as a boilermaker, soldering sparks and liquid metal threatening to close him in.
In his spare time, Johnny painted watercolors of his favorite birds. He brought photographs of the paintings to World Wide with him. He wrote songs on his guitar and practiced them over and over again until, in retirement, he took some of his pension money and recorded an album. He called it Auction Call and self-published the four tracks on Amazon. When he saw his work in front of him, he realized how long he’d put off this dream of becoming an auctioneer. Finally, in his late sixties and secure with his life savings, he took $1,400 of his nest and signed up for the week of classes at World Wide. He was easily the most enthusiastic person at the college that week, but by no means the oldest. So many of these people—farriers, landscapers, farmers—had the same story Johnny did. They spent their lifetimes using their bodies to make a living, and at the end of it, they were venturing out into uncertainty to ask themselves, “Could I be worth something else, too?”
When I listened to Johnny talk about his ambitions, his eyes were both far away and resolute, set back in the new wrinkles at the edges of his cheeks, but pressing forward at me, too. So frighteningly close now, the long-held dream and the realization of it, that Johnny’s body was asking for reassurance that we were both really there. I ran my fingertips across the photographs of his bird paintings. I listened to his song “The Boilermaker’s Dream” on his headphones. I looked at the photographs of his granddaughter, who he called his little doll. I tried to show it all back to him, just being with him, just listening. How unbelievable it is to be in those moments when the wild thing becomes tame enough to touch.
President and long-time auctioneer Paul C. Behr found me in the hotel conference room before the start of the first day, before we met. He knew I wanted to interview him, knew he needed to get school started. He meant to touch me on the shoulder but grabbed my arm fat on accident. It didn’t bother me. It seemed emblematic of Paul’s general effusiveness.
“Doctor Brittany.” He called me that out of respect, although I’m not a PhD. “Doctor Brittany, can we have our conversation after this first session? I’ll have more time to talk to you then.”
Yes, of course, that would be fine, I said, and Paul thanked me, looking me in the eye. Then, he said good morning to everyone he passed on his way from the back of the room to the foot-high stage and the microphone. He was doing a simple job—introducing the forty-two students to the program and explaining the logistics of the week—but his eyes sparkled. He knew when the audience might need a digression and peppered his explanations with prepared jokes. Every time a hotel staff member entered the room, he paused his speech and thanked them for their service. “Hello, young man!” and “Thank you for closing that door.” His voice was warm, enthusiastic, and as full as the cheeks under his square, wire-frame glasses. As I studied him, I realized: we were in the presence of someone who knew how to control a crowd through kindness and generosity. A more cynical version of me might want to believe that Paul was doing this simply because I was watching him, simply because he knew someone was writing about him, but I know how difficult it is to do what Paul was doing, and I don’t think he could fake his behavior that coherently. No—this is just who Paul Behr decided to become. To see him is to be in the presence of someone teaching virtue through action.
Integrity was the thing World Wide harped on from the very start of the week. It was strange and annoying to me at first, the intensity of their dedication to the concept—it seemed like it had the potential to be false. But if auctioneering had the ability to be a manipulative profession and if World Wide wanted to maintain its reputation and avoid the idea that it produced hucksters, then the process needed to be carefully structured. Some virtue needed to be at the center of it. Integrity happened to be the word Paul used.
The concept of integrity was never really defined outright by the World Wide teachers. The word was printed on the banners the college hung on the conference room walls, and Paul said it a lot, but it was my impression that we were all supposed to just get it. Everything Paul did was cheerful and kind. He was constantly reminding the students that they should both work hard and have fun. At the microphone, he said things like, “People like to enjoy what they do with their lives, and along the way, they like to make some money. This is an occupation that can do that.” The way Paul phrased his sentences indicated to us that there was a simple morality here, and that auctioneering is more than another type of job. This idea was something that needed to be taught here. A job should occupy you while you, in turn, occupy that job. Working could, in fact, feel mutual.
Paul told the students a story about a World Wide graduate who went to an auction house to interview for a job. The new auctioneer saw a bit of coffee spilled on the floor, so he picked up a mop from the corner of the room and cleaned up the coffee. When the general manager came out to get him for the interview and told him he didn’t need to be mopping, the young man said, “This is something I can do well, and it doesn’t hurt me at all.” The general manager gave him a job on the spot. Paul demonstrated that World Wide defines integrity as a sort of rigorous, benevolent self-awareness. The idea that you should always be aiming to help—and that that help will ultimately bring you goodness, favor, and profit.
“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat—you’re gonna go through a range of emotions. You’re gonna feel a whole range of emotions,” Paul said to his students. Hang in there, he meant, and be mindful that these feelings are just part of the process. Don’t get frustrated when it seems like things aren’t going your way. If you don’t get it at first, keep working. Keep working toward our goal, which is also now yours. Good things come to those who openly serve.
The process of bid calling is what the students are here to learn how to do. They learn other basic financial operations of auctioneering: they create networks, they learn how to build their own businesses, but the bulk of the time at auctioneering college is devoted to learning to call bids. Bid calling itself requires integrity, too. It’s why the students need to learn basic, diaphragmatic breathing and why they need to build confidence by practicing their chant in front of a room full of strangers. Unless you have blind conviction or lack all manner of self-awareness, practicing a chant for no reason feels entirely absurd. It’s enough to convince you to just keep serving at the Bennigan’s. The difficulty of the task is why thousands of people flock to any one of the many auctioneering colleges in the United States every year but why there’s only one Matt Lowery. And so, we practice, from day one, how to chant. That’s what bid calling is—a chant. And everyone at World Wide says your chant is who you are.
“I want people to have success,” Lowery said. “The people who succeed are the people who have the biggest hearts, the people who have the most passion about life. These auctioneers are an extension of me, so I want them to do it right. I do. I want them to have the success I have, and it’s why who you are is your chant. You’re branded by your chant.”
What did it say about you, then? What did it reveal, this ability to count higher and higher, faster and faster? To pull money from people without them thinking twice? What essential quality of you gets revealed during the chant?
On the first day, the class of forty-two was split into three groups—one with Paul, one with Matt, and one with JillMarie, a world-famous real estate auctioneer who is tall, blonde, square shouldered, and always smartly dressed and coifed. I stayed with JillMarie’s group in the main conference room. She had each one of us walk to the front of the room and try to call bids on the microphone. If you couldn’t call a bid, she had you recite one of the school’s Daily Dozen, a list of twelve tongue twisters aimed at exercising the tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips: the handle goes up and the hammer comes down, and you repeat that ten times. The handle goes up and the hammer comes down, over and over again. And if you couldn’t do a Daily Dozen, she just had you count from one to ten and back down again. It felt excruciating, this process of simply counting in front of other people, but at its most basic level, that is realistically what an auctioneer is doing. She has to be secure in her numbers before she asks people to start assigning value to them.
Some of the students, the younger men especially, had chants they thought would impress JillMarie, and so they tried them out. One particularly blond-and-red-haired boy did a strange tongue-trilling effect in between his numbers, just percussing in his mouth instead of minding the space with filler words like we were supposed to do. He was talked down from this by the end of the week.
A kind, red-haired woman named Jenny Shotwell who wanted to bid call to help raise money for her sister’s late husband counted nervously and slowly from one to ten. JillMarie had her do it a second time. Her skin was pulsing when she sat down next to me.
When I stood up to chant, I felt estranged from my body. Reciting a long list of numbers in front of other people is unnatural—we have no reason to slip them into everyday conversation—and all the talk about integrity made me feel as if I shouldn’t fake it. I shouldn’t hide behind a veneer of acting. I should try—in earnest—to chant. I laughed, and I felt very naked and alone. None of these people knew me, and any amount of pretense I could use to protect me melted in my hands. If I was going to ask these strangers to buy something from me, all I had was my chant. I took a deep breath, over-enunciated every word, and practiced the quarters in a sing-songy rhythm with a bulky smile stamped hard into my cheeks:
One, one-and-a-quarter, one-and-a-half, one-sev-en-ty-five...Two, two-and-a-quarter, two-and-a-half, two-sev-en-ty-five...Three, three-and-a-quarter, three-and-a-half, three-sev-en-ty-five...
I went all the way up to ten, but I didn’t count back down again. I let the microphone slide out of my hand and into the next student’s hand, relieved that I was no longer in the hot seat and feeling entirely uncommitted to the prospect of actually becoming an auctioneer. It wasn’t my dream, but still, I felt I really underperformed in front of this professional and successful blonde woman. I felt slack in my skin, disconnected from joy, and too far back in my own head to ever command a crowd. Many of us were performing this way—one foot in the door, the other foot wondering what the hell we were doing there. Our performances were small and brittle. It felt easy, embarrassed in that way as I was, to lash out against the process, to denigrate the school, to say it held no promise for me or anyone else. How stupid this all was—how stupid it made me feel. Counting in front of a room full of people. What did it mean? Consumerism, capitalism, they were always a sham, and besides, there were better ways to engage in this kind of public masturbation. Why was it necessary to expose yourself like this when you could just go to a store and buy something off the shelf? Or better yet, online, without having to talk? Just me and my stuff. And no one else ever at all.
And yet we needed it. Stopping the auctioneer didn’t stop the amassing. It only pushed consuming into silent, sterile spaces, monitored by machines, profits piling up neatly for someone whose status I could never touch. I imagined myself hitched up to an infinite trough.
Integrity, I remembered. What did it mean here? Perhaps this: only a known quantity can act as a conduit. Only fully soldered pipe won’t leak.
“You have to be clear,” JillMarie said, not to me in particular but to all of us. She was so assertive. “You have to get out of your own way. And your chant has to be clear. You are a conduit between the buyer and the seller, and if you’re all gummed up, you’re never going to get that sale through, and no one’s ever going to want to buy from you.”
To be a conduit between the buyer and the seller, we must sublimate our own selves, we must move our ego and self-worth out of the way. We must be secure enough in our chant to hold open the gateway for the buyer and seller to reach one another—so that their value may be multiplied, not our own. Our value increases when the sale is elevated—not ourselves. We must be clear and open so that we might give and receive the proper bids—so that the buyer and the seller can each grab hold of one end of your being—so that through you, they might whisper.
A sixteen-year-old Missouri Mennonite boy with thick black eyelashes and cheek acne named Kendall Nisly went up to the microphone and rattled out a pre-practiced chant. His voice made him sound ten years older than he was. It was so smooth and quick, with no hesitation to consider how silly he could feel in the moment, no second-guessing about whether what he was doing was correct. It was pure instinct and emotion. When Kendall sat back down, I asked him what was going through his head when he was up there, because he was doing such a great job and it all seemed so natural.
“Oh, ha, thanks,” he said, with a huge smile on his face and a kind of breathlessness in his voice. His dark eyes shined with the formation of new memories. “I don’t really know what I’m thinking about. I guess nothing,” he laughed and continued to smile in his bemused way, watching the other students, all of us much older than he was, as we tried desperately to mimic his fluidity.
There seemed to be something so necessarily pure in Kendall’s love of the task, his mind so unadulterated by the implications of adult shame, foolishness, or embarrassment that he was able to simply stand and deliver. As an adult, all I’m ever doing is a pantomime, a set of moves I believe I’m supposed to be making—approximations rather than authenticities. Society has so many necessary constructions. Do I really want to tip the waitress twenty percent? Do I really want to attend this Christening? Do I really feel love for my parents when we hang up the phone?
Then again, I understood that a true auctioneer, according to World Wide, is someone conscious of his choices—that was part of the school’s morality, too. Awareness belonged to integrity here, didn’t it? This kind of mindfulness might allow a true auctioneer to come fresh, open, and clear to each interaction, no matter how the last sale went. While I stood with the microphone limply in my fist dreading the pretense of performance, I was missing altogether that this act is a true gesture of openness, of newness, of human value and connection.
While Paul told us that “the ideal auctioneer is the person you see staring back at you in the mirror,” the prospect and the meaning still eluded many. There are those who never make it to auctioneering college, or who spend a lifetime only wishing that they had. For people I met at the World Wide College of Auctioneering, attending was the answer to a lifelong question, the ultimate test balloon, the flare sent up to illuminate the dark by those brave enough to ask: could I hold open a space for something more?
Follow a long corridor to a familiar and protected patch in the back of his mind. Walk away from Main Street in the small, rural town of Rockwell, Iowa, link up with a long dirt road and take the dusty path to the house at the very end. Seven kids chase each other through the yard between chores, after five a.m. milkings, six a.m. applications of balm to drained udders in the hay. Paul Behr is a young child in the late 1950s on his family’s dairy farm. He is five years old, with Campbell’s-Soup cheeks and a cherub smile, and when he hears an auctioneer at a sale barn for the first time, all the flesh gathers at the front of his face in joy. The sound grabs him—a fast and clean nonsense, what most adults sound like, at least—but something else is happening here. The auctioneer is in the center of attention, and when he is fast enough and good enough, people listen to him more, they are leaning on the edges of their folding chairs, following his bouncing, leading hand back and forth as it washes waves of incremental cash over the crowd. The people hoot and holler and wave their cardboard numbers at him. The auctioneer’s ring man is whipping the people up into fervor, each time a new bid hits the ring man bellows, “YEAUP!” pressing the word hard back to the auctioneer so that everyone can feel the movement. It goes from him to you and back to him. Untold numbers of cattle and horse are led into the ring, appraised, valued, sold, and led away, only to be replaced by an endless line of other animals. Food, money, life, control. Paul learns this is a job—the man selling these livestock gets attention and a paycheck. Paul begins to learn: the faster and better the man at the front of the room is, the more people he moves, the more animals he moves, the bigger his paycheck gets, too.
When he is thirteen, Paul gets up the nerve to write to the World Wide College of Auctioneering to inquire about how to take their course, but his family doesn’t have the money to let him attend. He goes on milking the cows at sunrise and sunset and going to school, though never quite making the grade the way some kids do. And when he struggles to keep his feet underneath of him, he pauses, always keeping two things close: his childhood dream and the words of his mother, “Please and thank you will take you halfway around the world.”
War is what actually does that. Paul does a single tour in Vietnam as a Marine, and when he comes back to Iowa, he is “picked up” three times in his twenties for “driving too fast.” The bottles that clink out onto the asphalt when the officer opens the door never make it on the formal record. These are the kinds of minor incidents afforded some of us in youth, instructive in their revelation that we have nothing but time and we are wasting it. Paul takes the hint, saves up enough money, and finally enrolls at World Wide, twenty-one years after the dream began. Eighty-five hundred auctions and three international championship titles later, Paul took over his alma mater. I asked him why he keeps doing it.
“Oh, that’s pretty easy. It’s giving back to people and putting more into people’s lives. When we put more into the cash register of life than we take out—” Paul stopped and corrected course. “Life is not about money. It’s about people.”
People or money. Money or people. What we needed, what we are. The lines began to blur, even for Paul.
“All these folks are wanting to add something to their lives—the art or skill of auctioneering—and World Wide has trained forty thousand of them. When we give to people, give back to people, that’s the essence. That’s the quality of a successful auctioneer,” Paul said.
Out come the boilermakers, the farriers, the ranch hands. They straighten their spines. They turn up their faces to be seen. “Life is about people,” they agree.
After four more hours of practice and a pot roast buffet dinner, a group of eighteen students stays with Matt Lowery in the conference room until ten thirty p.m. Lowery forces all the students to get rid of their current chants and concentrate on the basics. This is when Lowery helps Mark find his breath. Then, he goes on teaching us.
“It doesn’t matter how good your chant sounds when it’s fast, if you can’t slow down and say all of the words one by one, it doesn’t matter. I need to be able to know what you’re saying in order to trust you—and you need to be able to trust what you’re saying, too, so that when you start getting really fast, you don’t forget what you’re talking about,” Lowery says.
He writes on a whiteboard in the front of the room:
One dollar down
Now two now two
Now two dollar down
Now three now three
Now three dollar down
Now four now four
Each time a dollar goes down, the bid goes up, and the auctioneer moves on. Doing it slowly is easy but listening to Lowery chant at full speed is like watching someone transcend to speaking in tongues. He changes all the dollars to dudders and his breath plucks the word now as nah from his opening lips like a rubber band stretched taut over a Kleenex box. He speeds through the numbers without a second of hesitation, and still we understand him. Or, more, we want to. We trust him. We recognize the necessary interval for incrementalization, we buckle up, ride. It is the mark of a person who has done a task enough times to place himself into a trance, but also, to recognize that trance as a way back to the purity of childhood action. The mindful auctioneer removes that pretension, comes into his current moment, and chooses to move beyond the farce. He is capable—right now. So, Lowery’s voice is both full and present—twangy and vibrating in the mask of his face, it grabs us in our seats. Kendall is watching Lowery with his mouth agape. He’s been studying him on YouTube for the last two years, and when he chants, Kendall knows he’s seeing something that registers in a realm beyond his own ability. What he sees is awesome.
It is clarity and structure that Lowery wants, not incoherent white noise. This path feels like integrity, at least, or a way to start finding it. It’s a nuanced twist to the idea of the conduit—yes, the bid flows through the auctioneer, but the auctioneer is in control of the bid. Everything she thinks and says is her own thought and speech. The relationship is prompted by the bidders and sellers, but the auctioneer determines the moves. When the auctioneer picks up her pace, she has the firm foundation of a clear chant to stand on. The chant comes from within. The chant is her. The language might meld, but the ideas stay discrete.
Lowery teaches us, finally, that we should be holding out our hand, gesturing to the bidders and moving the bid from one side of the room to the other. The hand helps follow the money around the room and keeps the auctioneer in complete control of who bid last and who’s on deck.
“But never point your index finger,” he says.
It’s too accusatorial. Open your palm up to the people instead, the ceiling, he suggests, and tuck that first finger on down behind your thumb. This is crucial, especially in an auction barn full of people clamoring for a hot item at the feet of some lightning fast caller. “It is very, very important that you catch bids with your dominant hand. If I take your hand away, you lose balance,” Lowery says.
This, as if we might grab ghosts of dollars—of humans, then—as they zoom through the air in a hot barn. Or, more precisely, as if the upturned palm cups the underside of a thick, umbilical rope, like an overhead handhold pulsing with the bid of each person in the barn, each voice rising like a spark or a curse to add texture to the rolling din of the chant. The auctioneer as conduit, yes, the burning resonance roiling under bright bursts in desire, the spikes in sound that pique fire and further the course. We want the livestock. We want the chair. We want. We grab. What would it mean for all of us to truly touch?
What I realize, then, is that this dream is about transcending station, extending the humane. The position itself is a higher calling: it is a position, at least as World Wide casts it, that demands your personal and moral integrity over everything else. And in a world where it is all too easy to barter scruples for status, auctioneering becomes a preordained place for operational goodness, easier this than a priest or shaman. How often do our lives demand that first we be good?
An auctioneer is not simply a person who sells; an auctioneer is a person who creates an intentional bond between the incorporeal and the material. How quickly can we bring two people together? How quickly a person and a thing? Auctioneering college, then, in order to answer this question, teaches the skills that permit a person to be in control of both herself and other people—which is why World Wide is so infernally precious about integrity and care.
Integrity does not spring from some new lust. It comes from the known, the dirt road and the chapped hand. It comes slowly and well-worn. It comes from knowing enough to be dangerous—and then forcing yourself to learn more. It is a terribly tender and difficult thing, after all, to hang the purse strings of a crowd on the edges of your extended fingertips, the last three fingers on your hand—middle, ring, and pinkie—your index finger curled beneath your thumb with your palm turned up to God, in a way that harkens to the apostolic, in a way that suggests a delicate strength.