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A Saturday Morning Treasure Hunt
(August 20, 2006) Buried treasure is where you find it, as I found out recently on a buying expedition right in the heart of town. And sometimes, you really never can tell…anything.
We took a local phone call this week from a fellow wanting us to come over to his house and buy his bag ($1,000 face value) of US silver coins. In a couple of phone conversations, he told me he was 89 years old, and had bought the silver in 1984 for $4300 and thought our offer of $8100 was fair enough.

He lived in the north central part of Phoenix, about a twenty minute drive from our store. Directions were somewhat complicated, as he wanted to make sure that I did not arrive at his postal address. Instead, he told me that his residence has entrances on two different streets, and he gave me the address at the eastern end of his property. There, on Saturday at 9AM, the gate would be unlocked for me.

And by the way, the two canvas sacks of coins are in a room underground, and I will have to go down and fetch them myself. At the designated time, “Just drive in the gate, park in the yard, and knock on the back door,” he said.

At this point, let’s pause for a bit of background. Phoenix, Arizona has grown haphazardly over the years, spreading out over the flatness of the Sonoran Desert. This sets it apart from most cities, which were founded and settled somewhat on the basis of terrain and topography, with the larger houses of the more affluent typically situated on higher ground, literally looking down on the smaller homes of the working class.

But in flat Phoenix, development basically occurred without rhyme or reason as to upscale and downmarket housing. Today, the whole valley in which Phoenix sits is economically and demographically a random checkerboard: vintage mansions a block away from rent-by-the-week apartments, decaying older neighborhoods adjacent to pricey new developments, and high-rise condos with commanding views of mobile home parks.

So I really had no idea what to expect. But on Saturday morning I found myself in a micro-neighborhood of worn-out looking cottages and 1960s era apartment buildings that had seen better days.

Sure enough, a chain-link gate was open at the address I was given. I drove through and found myself not on the grounds of some vast estate, but rather on the grounds of a more modest compound surrounded by 12-foot tall oleander bushes. There were two cinderblock structures with flat roofs, a few palm trees, and other scattered plant growth, but nothing that you would really call landscaping. Next to the larger house (which looked to be about 1600 square feet) sat an inflated pool, an antenna mounted on a pole, the remains of an ancient garden, mismatched lawn furniture, and a makeshift carport under which was parked what looked to be the only functioning vehicle on the grounds, a Toyota from the previous century.

I knocked on the back door, and was greeted by the fellow himself. Having attained 89 years of age, and it being summer in Arizona, he had dispensed with the formality of a shirt, and wore only shorts, mismatched socks, and sandals. He asked me inside for a brief how-do-you-do. As for the interior of the house, let’s just say that he’s lived there, alone, for a long time, and cats seem to have the run of the place.

But our business was outdoors. There, on the concrete patio, was a horizontal door about a foot off the patio floor, rigged up with a system of pulleys. With a few pulls on the rope, the door opened on its hinge, revealing an underground concrete bunker with a nearly vertical ladder going down into it.

He showed me just what to grab hold of as I backed onto the ladder, and I climbed down into a circular room about ten feet in diameter. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that this room was concrete floor, wall, and ceiling, and mostly used for storage. It had some cobweb-covered file cabinets and a general appearance of disuse. However, it was attached to another room of concrete, this one a square about eight feet on a side, with a desk and computer set-up that was obviously in current use.

From the bottom of the ladder, I could hear him directing me to a gray metal box on my right. I opened the box and took out the two canvas sacks of silver coins.

As per his instructions I brought up the silver one bag at a time. Once done with that, I handed over the cashier’s check I had promised him. I asked about the fallout shelter I had just visited, but he didn’t respond to my calling it that. He did tell me that he had built the underground suite in 1955 at his wife’s request, and it cost $500 to do so. He also said that he had some gold coins, and that someday he might want to dispose of them also.

Now, normally at this stage of a transaction, there is a brief window where I might be offered a beverage and some conversation. In my twenty years in this business here in Arizona, this has happened many times. When someone is selling off things that they’ve had for a while, often that means that they are in transition. Sometimes, old memories about their personal histories and the old days flare up, and they want to talk about it.

But sometimes not, as this visit demonstrated – there was no invitation. Too bad, really, since I might have learned some things while having a cool drink out in the shade with the old guy.

No way I was going back into that dark house, though. Too many cats.

-Richard Smith, August 20, 2006.


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