It was 10:00 on a Wednesday morning, and I was running the Twin Rocks treadmill. Midweek can get a bit crazy around here because we are more short staffed than usual. Steve closes the cafe on Tuesday nights and gets home around midnight, so he is allowed to sleep in an extra twenty minutes. Café Manager Marc is off, as are Rick and Susie, so it is down to Priscilla, Toni, and me to take care of business. With the help of those two girls, all would be well. I was running back and forth between the cafe and trading post making “executive decisions” and trying not to go postal on anyone. I was also attempting to write the weekly new items mailer so that our internet team would not lash out at me for being late—again.
I was working in my office typing away at my computer when I heard the front door chimes go off indicating someone had just entered the building. Priscilla, who was sitting and working nearby, jumped up saying, “I’ll get it.” As I worked, I listened to the conversation between Priscilla and an unknown man. Priscilla was showing him around the shop and educating him to our inventory. By his questions and comments the guy sounded interested as he seemed to be plumbing the depths of Priscilla’s knowledge and understanding of the arts. No worries there, Priscilla knows her stuff; she has a firm grasp on the art and is closely acquainted with most of the artists.
On occasion, if Priscilla was unfamiliar with some small aspect of what the man was looking at, she would call out to me to see if I knew the answer. This type of interaction must have seemed odd to him, but it is not to Priscilla and me because it is one of the only ways I can still write and get anything accomplished. As I listened, the invisible man began to hone in on the baskets of Elsie Holiday. He found them “incredible,” “alluring,” “fantastic!” I smiled to myself because most people feel the same about Elsie’s art. She is, arguably, the most creative Navajo basket weaver of all time.
Steve and I have been attempting to amass a small collection of Elsie’s baskets in an attempt to get the attention of a major museum. The idea is to impress the scholars into mounting a retrospective show of her work. A presentation in such a setting not only gives us credibility, it helps Elsie as well. We display her baskets in a side room, because we never know when a museum professional may come around. The baskets arrayed there are not really for sale, but collectors can be quite persuasive, and the trading post business can be an economically ravenous beast which demands to be fed. Every once in a while, one of the herd gets away from us.
At one point, I heard the man ask, “How much is the Mustang basket?” Priscilla pointed out the “Not for Sale” sign and went on explaining Elsie’s textile technique and attempted to move him to the baskets that were for sale. Not willing to be put off, the man asked again: “If you were selling it, how much would it cost?” “Barry,” Priscilla called out, “What is this Mustang basket worth?” Because he had never seen such things before, the chances were that the man was about to have a bad case of sticker shock, but I dropped the bomb anyway: “If we sold that basket, it would be in the neighborhood of $6,000.”
There was an extended silence from inside the trading post while the information sank in. Later Priscilla told me that the man’s face went through several contortions while he thought about what he had heard. Elsie’s baskets are expensive, but she regularly puts more time, effort, and creativity into her work than almost anyone else. The bottom line—Elsie’s baskets are worth more. “Wow!” came back the man’s reply, “You could buy a car for that amount of money.” I chuckled at his reaction, stood up, and walked into the store and said the first thing that came into my head, “Sure, if you’re buying a well-used 1970s-era Ford Bronco.”
There, standing next to Priscilla, was the sixty-something-year-old man with white hair and striking blue eyes. “Well,” he said, pointing out into the parking lot, “I prefer the Bronco.” There in all its glory sat a 1978, full-size, Ford Bronco XLT 4x4, painted primer grey with only minor patches of rust. “Oops!” I thought to myself. “That choice of vehicles was a major coincidence.”
The man explained that he found the Bronco in a barn somewhere south of Chicago. It only had 137,000 miles, was in “cherry” condition and ran like a champ. “I stole ‘er at $5,500.00,” he proclaimed with passion in his voice, “She’s a beauty,” I said trying to overcome my faux pas. It took the guy another twenty minutes to extoll the virtues of that sway-back mare. All Priscilla and I could do was stand there and listen in wonder, all the while thinking, “There will be no basket sale to this guy.”
When the man left the building and climbed back into his broken-down Bronco, we heard him turn the key and start ‘er up. From where we stood, Priscilla and I could hear the distinct tick, tick, tick of a stuck lifter. The vehicle rolled backward until it was far enough away from the barrier of rocks in front of the building. Putting that old grey mare into gear and stepping on the gas caused an eruption of black smoke from the tail pipe. Away drove the man and his noxious mount, clanking and rattling as he went. “Well,” I mused, watching him go. “I guess one man’s lemon is another man’s cherry.”
“He liked it,” said Priscilla, “I guess that’s all that matters.”