Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Con Stars

"Mrs. Bunting had a fierce horror of the pawnshop. She had never put her feet in such a place and she declared she never would - she would rather starve first."

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1913.

Two of the "stars" of The History Channel's hugely successful reality show, Pawn Stars, Rick and Corey Harrison, blew through Manila this past weekend. In a country where pawn shops are as ubiquitous as coconut palms, the show is broadcast on a Filipino cable news channel and has developed a following among Filipinos, who know very well the reasons why people visit such places.

This is surely one of the most odious of new cable TV programs. Not content, apparently, with its usual despicably misinformative programming about ancient aliens and Nostradamus, The History Channel is serving up yet another example, as if I needed one, of the rock-bottom loathsomeness of my native culture.

The notion of exploring such an establishment as a pawn shop and having the proprietors relate how each object came into their possession, who sold it to them and why, is a tantalizing one. Cameras could enter a pawnshop anywhere in the world just to investigate the menagerie of strange things that people pawn or sell for a little cash, and learn the stories that they tell of destitution and desperation. The jewelry - the forsaken wedding bands, engagement rings - family heirlooms, baubles commemorating past events, old artifacts, musical instruments (musicians are forever on the brink of poverty), all the things whose sentimental value is impossible to calculate but which only managed to procure for their owners a few miserable bucks in exchange for their personal loss.

When I first learned that The History Channel was airing Pawn Stars, I was looking forward - silly me - to a program like this, exploring the sad history of purloined personal histories. Instead, the show makes the terrible mistake of concentrating on the people who run such establishments - the pawn brokers themselves - whose profession requires them to cheat everyone who crosses the threshold of their shops, to grossly underestimate the value of anything that sometimes desperate people might wish to exchange for the money that could pay their rent or some other past-due debt, enough to - if only for a short time - keep the inescapable wolf from their doors.

I am astonished at the success of the show, which has turned a family of Las Vegas pawn brokers into instant celebrities. A friend of mine who lives in Vegas tells me that the shop featured on the show (which, he assures me, is a "dump") is now a routine stop on Las Vegas tourist itineraries, with autograph hounds lining up to have their pictures taken, shake hands with one of the "pawn stars," like they're people someone would want to take home to meet their folks.

If folk memory is anything to go by, a pawn broker is usually a social outcast, like the town executioner or the undertaker. Pawn shops are routinely situated in the seediest parts of a city, and are regularly targeted in robberies. Historically, pawn brokers are looked upon as social parasites who have safes full of cash from which they dispense pittances to people unfortunate enough to need it, like inveterate gamblers and drug addicts. They are also supposed to have a sixth sense for items that are "hot," i.e., stolen.

One of the things that utterly falsifies the TV show is that the pawn broker always calls in an "expert" to appraise potentially valuable or historically important objects. No self-respecting pawn broker would ever do such a thing. It goes against virtually everything he stands for. He will size-up the object himself (as well as the person wanting to sell it) and appraise it for however much he thinks he can cheat him out of. And whoever heard of a pawn broker who haggles over a price? His offers are invariably "take it or leave it."

In Manila last weekend, the visiting pawn stars "offered tips to fans ... about bargaining and putting value on things," according to the Philippine Star. What on earth for? By the time Filipinos are desperate enough to take something to a pawn shop to sell or to pawn, they should probably be willing to accept even the most outrageous estimation of their most prized possessions.

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