Before the advent of eBay, sloughing off one's unwanted junk on others was a considerably less profitable affair. No guarantees existed that anyone could unload vintage, unworn L.A. Gear hi-tops, California Raisin figurines and Dolly Parton vinyl via a newspaper ad or by setting up shop in a yard sale or on the flea market circuit. More than likely, you'd accept a hosing in order to declutter a basement, garage or attic.
Today, of course, millions of Americans put their stuff up for eBay bid. A fraction of them effectively derive an income primary or secondary through the site. Enterprising prankster Art Farkas emerged, perhaps inevitably, from this capitalism nexus. The nom de plume of schoolteacher and eBay bidder Paul Meadors, Farkas whose name immediately brings to mind the sneering, moss-toothed bully who tormented Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story delights in bombarding fellow sellers with outlandish queries about the merchandise they're trying to move.
The compilation Letters to eBay reads like a digital-age compendium of Jerky Boys phone calls, as Farkas pushes e-mail-enabled curiosity to and, often, beyond its limits. Since he began shooting off e-mails to unsuspecting sellers in 2005 (beginning with his brother-in-law), he's been a gay teen-boy salivating over a Hello Kitty backpack; he's a brokenhearted rodeo clown; he wants to spice up his clown-averse sister's wedding by saturating it with clown-related crap; he runs a cockfighting ring and needs a "Happy Birthday" banner for a party in his feathered pet's honor, to be held before a big bout.
Would a proffered three-speed, GE electric fan be adequate to dry strips of deer meat? Would a keychain loaded with huge skeleton keys be sufficient to impress and win the heart of a lunch lady at the Catholic school where he works as a janitor? If he won an auction for a six-piece set of crochet hooks and took up the hobby in earnest, might his championship-level rock-paper-scissors prowess be enhanced? These are among the tamer scenarios Farkas launches, with all due sincerity, into cyberspace, and what's shocking is how many unsuspecting sellers take him seriously.
Reading Letters to eBay, one cycles through a series of reactionary stages. The first which happens in the first quarter or so of the book is sympathy for the author's victims, who earnestly try to answer Farkas' questions with an eye toward earning some quick and easy cash. Later, one feels a mixture of revulsion and admiration for Farkas, who is simultaneously mocking and capitalizing upon the greed of the unsuspecting. By the end of Letters, it has become amazing how much intimacy and information people are willing to divulge about their own lives to both assist and, they believe, ensnare a complete stranger who is looking to perform unadvisable, illegal, immoral or just plain impossible actions. A handful do realize they're being had, and call him at his bluff or call him crazy, but the vast majority take Farkas at face value which is terrifying. At one point, Farkas enquires about an office chair he wants to use in a manner the manufacturer never intended.
"Let me be frank here, I want to duct tape myself to a rolling chair and be pushed from the top of a small hill" to sustain serious but nonfatal injuries and collect a huge settlement from his employer, Farkas writes. "Would duct tape hold firm to your drafting chair?"
In response, his dupe is chillingly encouraging and accommodating: "I suggest wearing a helmet in order to avoid head injuries, and I would consider using twist ties instead of tape. That way you can tie your hands behind the chair and your legs to the outside part of the chair, increasing the possibility of damaged or broken limbs significantly. Plus, the ties can be removed and discarded whereas the duct tape would surely leave residue: evidence of your scheme. Trust me, insurance claim inspectors can be ruthlessly perceptive."
Later, Farkas ponders placing a bid on a Lando Calrissian doll (a Star Wars character played by actor and Colt 45 spokesman Billy D. Williams) but struggles with the morality of acquiring it because "I couldn't get it out of my mind that this man was trying to sell liquor to underage kids." This dilemma elicits a long, thoughtful reply about the positive examples set by minority celebrity endorsers and the U.S. drinking age. When Farkas states his desire for a Lazy Susan that he would by complicated and no doubt untenable means convert into the zippier "Hyperactive Joe," the seller reveals himself as a specs-spouting former engineer enamored of the concept.
The question, then, is this: Does buying a book that embodies the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute" make the buyer a sucker as well?
Raymond Cummings is a book critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].