Bottom Feeders

Every orphan has a story — and a price — at this homeless shelter.

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All of them are homeless and a few of them hopeless. Some of them come from bad homes and have been abused. Each one has a story.

Once somebody loved them, but now they stand in the shade and roast in the sun. They sit on flat tires and rusted rims, with busted transmissions, engines that won't crank, and ignitions that might or might not have keys.

But after 30 days in the shelter of the city's motor vehicle impound lot, scores of these orphans are about to get new homes and owners on this 98-degree afternoon, for prices ranging from $50 to $1,900.

Every Tuesday at noon, at the old International Harvester lot in Frayser, the city auctions off about 100 vehicles. Like mutts in a kennel, they can be admired from afar through a cyclone fence for 30 minutes before the auction, but no close contact or inspection are allowed.

All sales are cash or cashier's check only. Cars, if you can call some of them that, must be paid for by 3 p.m. and hauled away within 48 hours.

"If you don't pay, you are barred from the lot and will not be allowed to come back for one year," supervisor W.L. Taylor tells the crowd of about 75 tire-kickers, ranging from junk dealers chomping on cigars to a few couples with young children.

It's a $2-million-a-year business with a steady supply of inventory. Memphis has about 7,000 motor vehicle thefts a year, and thousands more cars are abandoned. For several years, the impound lot was run by the Memphis Police Department, but in July it shifted to the city's General Services Division.

"We're putting things in order to be more effective and efficient," said GSA director Estrice Boone. "In General Services, we have always auctioned off city fleet vehicles, so it seemed more righteous to take over impounded vehicles and blend it together. The staff will remain the same over there, but they will work for General Services instead of the Police Department."

A lot of cash changes hands during an auction. The auctioneer is a strapping, red-headed man in jeans and a "Bama" ball cap. He is shadowed by a uniformed Tact Squad officer in black. A half-hour before the auction begins, buyers are allowed to pass through the gates and enter the yard. Hoods are raised, doors opened, radiator caps removed and sniffed, dipsticks pulled, and, yes, tires are kicked a few times, assuming there are any, which is true in about half the cases. The smart buyers carry umbrellas and wear pith helmets to block the sun. The rest of us sweat through our shirts.

You're not allowed to start up any vehicles, although only about one in 10 has a key anyway, and you can't get keys made on the lot. "As is" means just that, as in a 1997 Plymouth with diapers, a purse, a child's toys, CDs, a car seat in the back, and a completely smashed front end; a 1993 Ford Explorer with a box of Huggies in the back and a Ron Paul bumper sticker; and a 1985 Ford F-150 that has been cleaned out except for a Gideon's Bible on the front seat.

Nothing is too wrecked to auction, although some can only be purchased by junk dealers because the cops don't want them back on the road. There are cars that have been shot up in homicides, cars that have been stolen and stripped, cars in which the occupants were mutilated, crushed, or burned up. A 1992 Toyota has been compressed to less than half its original size, and the "1993 Toyota" next to it is nothing but a burned shell.

The first vehicle auctioned is a camouflage-painted four-wheeler with only two wheels. The bidding is brisk, and it goes for $825. Next up is a Toyota Camry that looks drivable and fetches $575. The 1997 Plymouth with the smashed front end and the toys in the back is the pick of the litter on this day and sells for $1,900. A 1991 Caddy with what the auctioneer calls "custom headlights" (clear duct tape) goes for $900. A 1993 Ford truck in the corner of the lot draws half a dozen bids before selling for $450.

"Are we at a yard sale, folks?" the auctioneer jokes when the bidding lags.

So it goes, for more than an hour. One person's headache or death trap is another's find and salvation. The 1985 Ford truck gets $550, but somebody has swiped the Bible during the auction. When it comes time to auction the compressed Toyota death car, the auctioneer says, "It may have been in an accident, but you be the judge."

It goes for $50.

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