Barney and Ralph

By Tom Word


Barney Griff was a born trader.  Raised on a south Illinois farm, he had gone as a boy with his father each Thursday to the sale barn to watch cattle and hogs auctioned on the hoof, then shipped off in smelly trucks to feedlot or slaughter house.  He’d watched pinhookers bargain with impatient farmers to buy their livestock off their trucks as they waited in line to unload at the dock.  He’d learned early the key to trading success, knowing more than your counterparty.  The pinhooker could judge at a glance the weights and grades of a truckload of calves or shoats, knew where prices stood and were likely to drift, knew every angle on demand.  Barney learned early that when a farmer’s truck pulled out of the line and backed up to the pinhooker’s truck, the pinhooker had locked in a profit based on superior knowledge of everything relevant.
Barney hadn’t liked farm life much, but he liked trading and was good at math, and so he ended up in Chicago at the Board of Trade as a commodities trader.  He’d retired early to south Florida.  Then, after Hurricane Andrew, he and Mable, his wife of forty years, half-backed to Asheville, North Carolina, where they now lived in a quiet neighborhood with views of the mountains.
During their brief stay in Florida, Barney and Mable had hit upon a hobby that supplied Barney with some of the stimulation he’d so long absorbed daily in the pit.  It was a simple game, one that used Mable’s eye for the unusual and Barney’s trading instincts in happy partnership.
Each morning during the week, the aging couple climbed into their five-year-old Crown Victoria and, armed with the local paper’s classified ad section, toured neighborhoods for yard sales.  By lunchtime, they usually had a trunk full of treasures.  Come Saturday, they had the week’s buys displayed on their table at the flea market.  By Sunday night when they ambled home, stopping at the Red Lobster for supper, they had a tidy profit in 5’s, 10’s, and 20’s rolled up and rubberbanded and secured deep in Mable’s pocketbook.  On Monday, they worked E-Bay to unload items that hadn’t moved to at the flea market.
In Asheville, the action was not so available as it had been in Homestead, but there was action enough.  And there was an added bonus for Barney.  His long-time friend and fellow commodities trader Ralph Sloacum and his wife Alice had half-backed to Asheville and moved into a house just three blocks from the Griffs.  On Tuesday afternoons, Barney and Ralph played golf; on Thursdays, Mable and Alice lunched with their book club and discussed with other half-back ladies the latest best-sellers by Joyce Carol Oats, Rita Mae Brown, or Patricia Cornwell.
Ralph was having difficulty adjusting to the retirement life.  Unlike Barney, who was completely absorbed in the yard sale–flea market gambit, Barney could find no outlet for his keen analytical mind.  The slow pace of life left him deflated.  Then he stumbled upon a chance to entertain himself and turn Barney’s trading passion back upon him.
Ralph’s scheme began when he met at church a fellow retiree named John Kelso.  During his pre-retirement years, Kelso had enjoyed an odd hobby, pointing-dog field trials.  And his daughter and wife had been equestrians, riding the local horse-show circuit.  Over thirty years, they’d won dozens of trophies with their horses and dogs, silver bowls, cups, wine coolers, trays.  When Ralph and Alice visited John Kelso’s home and saw the collection of trophies in the den, an idea came immediately to Ralph.  When he explained it to John Kelso, he had a partner, for John was looking for a way to cash in on the trophy collection—he was tired of polishing the silver.
The following week Ralph read the classifieds for upcoming yard sales.  He arrived early at a half dozen, asking the sponsor for permission to place one of John’s trophies in the sale inventory at a modest asking price (below melt-down value, which Ralph had checked using Google).  He offered each sponsor half the proceeds.  As Ralph expected, Barney Griff bought every one of the trophies.  When Saturday arrived, they were on Barney’s table at the flea market, marked up smartly from their cost.
Ralph and John Kelso had arranged for friends of John, fellows and gals from his regular Saturday night fire station bingo game, to stop by Barney’s table and buy up the trophies.  Ralph’s after-market conversations with the straw buyers confirmed Ralph’s expectations—Barney had upped the asking price on his remaining inventory after each sale.  The straw buyers had been instructed to buy one item each, the cheapest left on Barney’s table, and not to haggle with Barney on price.  By the end of the day, Barney believed he had hit upon a hot collectible category in sterling silver trophies.  
The following week Ralph and John salted Asheville yard sales with the rest of John’s trophy collection, priced by Ralph at well above meltdown value.  By the end of the week, every one of the trophies had been bought.  On Saturday, Barney’s table at the flea market bore three trophies.  A rented truck nearby held the rest of John’s collection, waiting to be placed on the table by Barney three at a time as the earlier three were gobbled up.
Ralph and John waited until 11 a.m. to show up at Barney’s table.  They found there a very frustrated Barney.  Not a trophy had moved.  Ralph introduced John and Barney to one another, then casually asked Barney about the trophies on display on his table.  Barney explained what bargains they were.  John inspected each, but made no offer.  John and Ralph were about to leave when one of John’s old friends ambled by and engaged John in conversation.  Then he noticed the trophies.
“John, here’s your trophy from the Tar Heel Championship you won with Fast Delivery Skipper—I judged that one, you remember.  What in the world is that trophy doing on sale here?”  
Barney knew at once he’d been pinhooked, and that Ralph was behind it.  When he told Mable, she said, “Barney, you’re a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  She’d heard the saying at her book club.  A writer named Oscar somebody had supposedly first said it.