Reality Bites: American Pickers

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There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

I can't claim I was excited about the prospect of watching American Pickers, especially when it felt like my recap of Storage Wars was just last week (it was actually six months ago). But as the current glut of junk-related reality programming attests, we are living in a pack-rat society. Thirty years ago, the idea of a "storage unit" separate from one's garage was almost unheard of; now people have two or three. And why? Because we can't bear to throw away our crap.

Even shows like Hoarders only elicit extreme reactions when the homes are particularly squalid. More and more, as long as the clutter is reasonably organized and there are no obvious infestations, people can overlook seven-foot stacks of phone books and a dozen garbage bags full of yarn.

This is especially true with a show like American Pickers, which yields up hope to those of us unable to part with even one of our 800 snow globes: hey, there could be gold in them thar landfills.

But don't take my word for it, that's what Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz tell us in the show's intro. The pair "travel the backroads of America looking for rusty gold," a phrase which makes no sense if you know anything about metallurgy.

The pair have a sort of Laurel and Hardy thing going. Mike, the tall, angular one, looks a bit like Mitch Albom of Tuesdays with Morrie fame, so I instantly dislike him. Frank is shorter, stocky and balding. Mike plays more of the face role when it comes to speaking directly to the camera, while Frank mostly limits himself to wisecracks. I know it's not a component of the show, but for some reason I really want to watch these guys fight. Mike would probably be into that crane-style kung-fu bullshit and might get in a few kicks before Frank scored a takedown and went straight to ground and pound.

Sorry, where was I?

Anyway, the episode I caught on Netflix finds out their company -- Antique Archeology -- has been chosen to help the newly completed NASCAR Hall of Fame obtain stock car artifacts. I question the use of the word "artifacts," but I suppose when you're living in an age when all the tombs of the pharaohs have been plundered, you take what you can get.

The duo hustles down to Charlotte, North Carolina, in the Pickmobile (I just made that up) to check out the Hall of Fame, which opened in 2010 (this particular episode is a year or two old). The director tells the fellows they're looking for items that "tell a story." The current displays rely heavily on cars, helmets and racing suits. I know, outrageous, right? To think stock car fans would want to come to a stock car museum and look at stock cars.

Let me just say that Mike's "in your face" style is a bit much, but maybe I'm overly suspicious of anyone that gung ho about going through other people's garbage. Danielle, their office manager back in Iowa who gives the guys updates by phone, is more my speed. But then, I've always had a weakness for roller derby chicks.

Their first stop is "Tiger Tom's" auto shop. Tom's collection dates back 50 years, and he also used to race around Soldier Field, back in the days of concrete walls and cork helmets and onions on belts. He has some pretty impressive stuff, and Mike and Frank end up spending $4,800 of their $7,000 budget at Tom's (I must have missed the part where they set that limit), walking away with the nose from one of Cale Yarborough's Winston Cup championship cars, among other things. Because why not?

Next up: "Humpy" Wheeler, the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He's more of a weaselly type than Tom (hard to believe, given the nickname). One of his prize possessions is a replica '39 Ford, but of course he's not parting with it. And then there's a U.S. Tobacco Company humidor, custom made for NASCAR and helping them gain access to the Association. Humpy wants $5K (I assume he's jacking up the price because of the Stroker Ace connection). They eventually come away with a bottle of tequila (?), a plaque and (finally) a "donation" of the humidor to the Hall of Fame. And now they've got $1,650 left.

On a side note, the reticence of all these guys to sell their cherished items is pretty hilarious, considering absolutely no one was asking them to part with them for the last 50 years. Given their average ages, I'd say the odds of opportunity knocking again before they start pushing up daisies are pretty slim.

Finally, there's Billy Biscoe, who was once in Richard Petty's pit crew. Unsurprisingly, he's also got some choice items. And unlike the others, he's not a total jackass about price. Mike lands one of Richard Petty's old doors (as I understand it, in the old days the pit crews swapped out everything but the car's engine...which is as good an explanation as any as to why Billy has a freaking door lying around).

The Hall of Fame people like their finds. Frankly, they were probably just thrilled they didn't come back with a homemade still. Modern family-friendly marketing doesn't always jell cleanly with the sport's bootlegging origins, after all. All in all, a mildly interesting show that appears to operate under the same storage industry-supporting agenda as its other reality brethren: As long as there's an infinitesimal chance there may be something of value there, you absolutely cannot afford to throw anything away. Ever. I'm surprised Public Storage and U-Haul don't just underwrite these programs themselves and get it over with.

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