Category Archives: Notes from the Waste Stream

Notes From the Waste Stream #10: Doha Marriott Stationary

Do you remember what it was like to write a letter? Not a thank you card (not that people write those any more) or one of those all-purpose family update Christmas card enclosures, or even a postcard, but a real letter? Do you remember how excited you were once to receive letters, maybe needing to decipher handwriting, re-reading for complex meanings, stowing it carefully in the envelope for later? Did you ever write or receive a letter on onion-skin air mail stationary, the kind that folded up to make its own envelope? Did you ever re-write a letter to make it seem more spontaneously brilliant or heartfelt, to make sure the handwriting was lucid, dreaming all the while of the response you might get?

Do you remember how good it feels to have a pen in your hand? The right kind of pen, with the right kind of ink flow and point size, pressed against the right kind of paper that gives just enough but not so much that your hand slides and your ink runs? When was the last time you wrote more than just signing your name?

I have drawers full of letters in my home. Someday I will read through the inherited letters between my parents and paternal grandparents as I try to understand their relationship and my family history. For now, those stay tucked away. The trauma of loss is still too strong to pull those out and remain unscathed. I have other letters, though, that I read from time to time that make me unreasonably happy. What I like best about them, weirdly, is their lack of context. They are often responding to a letter of mine that I may never see again – a missing partner, possibly lost to time or trash. Though I like to think that the kinds of people I write to are the kind that know better than to throw away correspondence, my view of human nature isn’t quite that rosy.

Let me just say that an email is not the same as a letter. Sure, there’s some analog nostalgia at play when I make such a claim – emails, after all, can be archived and called up in a flash, sent in mere seconds, easily sorted by author and date, and don’t take up much physical space in your house. An email is easy to send – something that cuts both ways. A letter requires more thought. Not just the sitting down to write, but the addressing of an envelope, the finding of a stamp, the waiting days to know of receipt, the uncertainty (despite the miracle of the U.S. Postal Service) of receipt. And while you may be precious about the typeface of your email, the reality is that all typed correspondence is impersonal when compared to the idiosyncrasies that handwriting allows. When I get hurried (or have a glass or two of wine), my handwriting flattens like a dangerous EKG signal. Other times, when I am particularly thoughtful, the vowels are fully formed and the consonants spike appropriately. If I am confused, sometimes my writing takes on a peculiar backwards slant, mirroring the work of my mind to reach back into the morass of events and pull them gently forward. It has rarely been described as “legible.”

As a child, I refused all attempts to train me to hold my pen in a proper manner. This means that the fourth finger on my right hand has a permanent callous and a fingernail bent with a vertical crease up the middle from four decades of use. My cursive has never been up to par, but is still for my money vastly more efficient than printing – usually when I print, it’s in reaction to anger or frustration.

Little Notebooks

Last week my husband asked for a little notebook. He was embarking on a new writing project and wanted something dedicated for that purpose. When I said I didn’t know where one might be, he said: “Surely, if there’s anything this house has in surplus, it’s little useless notebooks.” This is a true observation. When you write as much as I do – pithy observations, observations that seemed pithy at the time, character studies, emblems of anger, totems of love, short story ideas already doomed to obsolescence – you need many small notebooks.

Some years ago I was invited to interview a college professor who had recently published a collection of the writings kept in the many hundreds of tiny notebooks that Robert Frost used. They’re held in the collection of Dartmouth College’s excellent library, and they were full of incomprehensible scrawls, recursive notations, grocery lists, and all the things that I, an unknown aspiring author, keeps in my notebooks. I’ll admit that I was a little ego-boosted by the whole affair. Who among us, the society of keepers of little notebooks, doesn’t secretly fantasize that our scrawlings will one day be decoded and carefully considered like the Talmud? In the meantime, we write. We write to ourselves, and occasionally (not as often as we should), we write to others.

Writing from hotels

This used to be something I did. I’d check into a hotel, find the stationary, and dash off a letter to a loved one. I enjoyed the process of mailing, of seeing if the front desk had a stamp, of watching the letter go into a pile and hoping it made the destination unscathed. This is especially fun when writing from abroad. In the first place, there are the foreign stamps – made even more foreign by the fact that you don’t know how much money actually a stamp costs. As a child, I loved foreign stamps. I imagined their far-off provenance, steamed them off envelopes and kept them for a fantastic future increase in value. When my father died, I found out that he was the same way. I inherited volumes of worthless stamps from countries I’ve never heard of, meticulously kept as a well-licked atlas of the world. I can’t bear to get rid of them, even though I’ve been told that philately’s heyday is long past.

These days I don’t do this much anymore, especially not from domestic hotels. The front desk staff seem genuinely confused at the prospect of actual mail, rarely have a stamp, and in any case there’s not stationary available in the kind of cheaper hotels I stay in these days. But the other day I found some old stationary and decided to use it.

img_2876When I first moved to Montgomery, there was a period of a few years when I was going back and forth from the Middle East pretty regularly. Usually I was spending a week or two in Doha – the capitol of Qatar. I flew over Iran! I was there when we bombed Libya, something that caused considerable anxiety among my friends and family. I learned to register with the Embassy, to pay attention to travel alerts, even as I never felt unsafe for a single minute while in-country. Except in taxis. Doha driving makes New York seem like Dothan.

When you’re so far away, your clock gets flipped. You are 12 hours apart from your loved ones, and it gets hard to stay in touch – particularly when you are working 12 hour days. Letters become your lifeline, even when you learn that usually you arrive home before the letter takes its sweet time getting to Montgomery. There’s still a feeling of connectedness that comes from setting pen to paper, addressing the person you love thousands of miles away. You can, if you do it right, come to feel like you are speaking to them directly. Skype can’t substitute for this kind of intimacy. Neither, if you really think about it, can email. You can read someone’s heart in a letter. If you know them well enough, you can decode their cursive cadences into a context for the words on paper that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Even if the letter arrives after you are safely tucked in bed and sleeping off an epic jet lag, it still speaks to the sense of distance and longing, to the particular distance that can sit between but not separate two people who love each other to distraction.

When you write from hotels, you either do it in the bar or your room. Writing from the bar will allow you to offer a series of observations; it gives a sense of local flavor and lets you riff on the circumstances and cast of characters around you. You will describe the people, their dress, the music, the menu, your feelings at being surrounded by experiences that your loved one may never share. Writing from your room draws you deeper into yourself. It makes you think of all the times before you’ve set pen to paper. If the room is quiet and sheathed against sunrise (the better to help your jet lag), you may lapse into a meditative state, feeling as if the person is right there with you, as if they could touch your neck as you hunch over the ergonomically incorrect writing desk that even the nicest hotels have on offer. I have written letters both ways and never regretted my approach.

The point is to seize the words inside of you and make them count. The point is to bring your interior conversation out into the light and set it down for someone else to examine, with only the filter of cursive and time. The point is not to show how you are in love; the point is to be in love, at that moment, and to craft the words that reflect your feelings without the interfering filters of maudlin, of precision, of preciousness, of reserve.

I found this stationary today in a forgotten drawer. It’s not a tiny notebook, but it might as well be – it’s a blank page full of promise, a love letter waiting to be written, the unfilled ledger of my heart. I am traveling this week, and have determined to resume my custom of writing from hotels. This time, I’ll bring my own stamp.

Notes From the Waste Stream #9: Still Life

A few months ago I spent some time with a baby. It got me thinking about a painting in my house. The baby is a six week old lump, eyes dilated, warm and deboned, whose major skills seemed to be sleeping, eating and pooping. Roughly in that order. After noting her smell (powdery), her manner (snuggly) and her affect (oblivious), I started thinking: What will she remember of her life? What will her parents be to her? What will she do with all the stuff her parents own? I know that most people do not have such morbid thoughts when holding a baby.

The Painting

Sometimes I write about our relationships with the things we own. This means that many, many people have suggested that I read Marie Kondo. In case you haven’t, you’re supposed to get rid of things that do not “spark joy.” My inner economist likes that her approach deals with loss aversion (we are more attached to what we have lost than what we do not yet have – see also: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) by shifting presumption towards disposal. But I’m not storing my socks vertically. Or speaking to my shirts. And although, like Kondo, I’m an all-in declutterer (one room at a time, no wandering off to leave the task half-done), the fundamental animism of her method doesn’t speak to me. I am extremely averse to overt branding. I relate to the “brand allergies” of Kayce Pollard, the heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. But I will not cover up the labels of my detergent bottles so they do not “shout at me.” This seems a bit much; surely I can just look away?

I think that I have much in common with Kondo. Things, in general, seem to torment her. They must make their case or be banished. For me, no matter the cause of my sadness, I can feel better if I banish some stuff. I like an empty countertop. Some days I feel impossibly burdened by stuff. It’s not that I want to pick up and leave, but that it would be super hard if I wanted to. A military childhood imposes such discipline. Growing up, it was understood that everything we acquired needed to be moved every few years, so we weren’t to do much in the way of accumulating. Somebody would need to lift that box; somebody would have to pay for it to be shipped. The portability imperative seeps into you, influences every decision you make long into adulthood. Or else you refuse it altogether and decide that you will dig in absent outside orders, as my mother did in her later years.

These are first world problems. Kondo’s getting rich on a middle-brow version of affluenza. It’s a sweet spot: exporting the Japanese minimalist aesthetic to a society that takes comfort in its accumulation by watching Hoarders. “It could be so much worse,” we say as we buy something else from Amazon Prime.

IMG_2248Perhaps you have a house. Perhaps you read the glossy magazines, the tip-filled websites that armies of style mavens and merchandise wizards propagate, ostensibly, to help you achieve the kind of beauty and grace that will make people compliment you on your taste. Are you someone who needs to be complimented on your taste? If you are, in the immortal words of Flava Flav, “I can’t do nothing for you, man.” If not, you probably still have a dim understanding of the ecosystem’s map. You may not have “taste,” but you have “a” taste. Or perhaps, at the most basic level, you have graduated beyond Blu Tack to the adult practice of hanging things that are in frames or on canvas. Like all of life’s pursuits, the business of decoration has levels of obsession. How you assign worth (social worth, not monetary value, in case you’re the sort of person who gets those confused) to these levels may depend on the number of times you’ve read Hal Foster’s masterwork Ornament and Crime.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you’re decorating. Unless you are a psychopath, or incarcerated in an especially restrictive institution, you probably have things hanging on your walls. Some of these may be pieces you love. Perhaps they speak to you and bring you happiness. Some may be art that you just like –  they don’t “spark joy,” but just look good in a particular place, or are the proper size. And then there’s art that you hate. Or, at least it’s not to your taste. I have a painting like this. And yet it is hanging in my house.

The reason why begins with our shared human experience, whose CliffsNotes read something like this: You’re born. Your father’s hands seem impossibly huge. Your mother loves you to distraction. You learn right from wrong, good from bad, tasty from not. You navigate furniture you learn to treasure, hewing to norms you internalize but may later reject. You may dye your hair. Or get a tattoo. You’ll come to terms with your family, or you won’t. In any case, the odds are that you’ll bury them. This means they won’t have to die alone. For you, there are no similar guarantees.

When their story is over, you may end up staring at a painting you don’t like.

It is not an ugly painting. I have lived with ugly paintings before – you learn to glide your vision right past them, the way Linus says he bleeps over the Russian names when reading Dostoyevsky. There are paintings that I love but would never hang in my house, ranging from the kind of “art” generally sold around Jackson Square in New Orleans (though I have an amazing painting from there, a beloved gift from my husband) to the kitsch people buy to remember Key West. Then there’s the expensive stuff. Lucien Freud: too disturbing to contemplate over morning coffee. I love Damien Hirst but would prefer that my home not contain preserved animal corpses. A mummified bird once lingered in the sad corner of my dead mother’s basement. I paid someone to remove it to an inglorious afterlife.

This painting sits squarely at a puzzling intersection of values: high sentiment and low currency. It is a simple still life of casually arranged white flowers in a clear vase on a white tablecloth. They light up a dark background. The frame is gilded to a point that approaches ostentation. It is signed by the artist, Juan Ignacio Sardi. A small gold plaque along the frame’s bottom edge helpfully displays his name. The untitled work is surprisingly large. It hung in the dining room in all of our homes. The leaky propane-heated wreck “on the economy” (as they say in the military) in Spain where we adopted a stray cat imaginatively named Gato. The featureless house on base in Rota. The giant, sprawling coal-heated mansion in a tiny English village. The Lubbock ranch home. Albuquerque’s in-between rentals. The yellow brick house where my mother died on the couch while folding laundry.

It does seem like the kind of picture you would hang in a dining room – peaceful, even a bit atmospheric, grand but not pretentious, monochromatic but a bit romantic. In short, art that doesn’t take away from a room. In the right context. Right now it hangs in our guest room, the golden frame clashing queasily with our unfortunately mustard-colored walls. There was already a nail in place, and I worried about the way our cats might decide to interface with things made of canvas (violently, if our couches are any indication), so there it sits. I don’t go into the guest room very often, so I don’t have to look at it. If nobody looks at art, is it still art?

In Kondo-speak, I’m not quite ready to “thank it for its service.” Mostly because I’m still trying to figure out the nature of its service. While your parents are living, it’s awfully hard to learn to know them as actual humans with hopes and dreams. Oddly, one of the best things I’ve ever seen about this is a profane cartoon involving Burt Reynolds.

Once your parents are gone, your last chance to know them is through the things they left behind. I’ve been sorting through their things for years. But it wasn’t until I thought about selling the painting that I realized I’d never considered what it meant. It has always been so fully in the background – the way a parent can be if you’re not conscious or careful.

I stare at the still life. I do not understand it. What is there to understand? Table, vase, flowers, cloth. I think of the chaos it has overseen – just three years ago, a wake complete with lobster salad and cheesecake, the time we stuffed everything into the garage to make the home seem serene, driving the chihuahua to Colorado, the cat to the vet. Their deaths. The day before closing when the hot water heater leaked, the awkward holiday meals. She would have been able to see the painting from where she died on the couch, just around the corner against some florid, dated wallpaper. Did it give her comfort? Was it background that it escaped notice? What was its service to her?

IMG_2249Standing in the guest room, I notice for the first time that the flowers have already begun to shed a few leaves. How have I not seen this before? Both the not-noticing and the wilting seem bittersweet. The painting exists outside of time – flowers always about to wilt, tablecloth ever a little rumpled. It’s also deeply embedded in time and context. How will I know if it’s sparking joy? What is its service to me? Then I realize that I’m asking the wrong questions altogether. Kondo’s gotten in my head.

And then I get it. Marie Kondo doesn’t understand what objects are for. Or, more to the point, she has a fairly specific and crassly utilitarian understanding of what objects are for. They exist to serve us. Once they do not make us happy, they are released into the waste stream to serve someone else. So much of Kondo’s appeal is anchored in the valorization of the liberal humanist self, fully empowered to choose and deserving of all the service objects can provide. It’s such an appealing understanding of the world, just a little removed from the “dominion” philosophy used to justify activities like murdering and eating other animals. We want to believe that objects exist to serve us; even that art, somehow, exists to serve us. And that we should be filled with joy all the time. I get why this is popular. The alternative is pretty bleak – a de-centered self, a self shot through and constructed by the vagaries of time and chance. So instead we believe in “The Secret,” or the prosperity gospel, or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Or we decorate.

The House

Montgomery, Alabama is a tough place to live. We moved here eight years ago and saw it as a big adventure: Strange new city! Lots to explore! Over the years, our gee-whiz optimism diffused gradually. First there was: “there must be more than this,” then “hey, stop talking bad about our city” wagon-circling, then “let’s rattle this cage and make it better,” to “let’s talk about something else for a little while.” The background radiation of persistent racism is palpable in Montgomery, where there’s little in the way of live music and vegetarian food. As for public transportation, we’re famous for our buses, but not because of their efficiency. But we were determined to make it work.

A crucial part of our big Montgomery adventure was the thrill of owning our first home. Not just any home – the kind of home you dream about, with built-ins, transom, high ceilings and all of the molding and baseboards one could possibly want (turns out these are super hard to keep clean – who knew?). Over the years, we’ve thrown ourselves into many home repairs and been thrown into many others. Someone once told me that when the world outside seems tough, you’ve got to garden your own corner of the universe. So I’ve gardened every inch of this house. Some of this has involved decoration.

And then death made me sad. More specifically, I was seized with grief. I’ve learned many things about grief in the last three years, but here’s one people don’t talk much about. You can’t decorate your way out of out of it. This knowledge reveals itself in stages:

  1. What am I supposed to do with all this crap? This is the part when you drive a truck across the country and dump its contents into your front room. You despair over the pile, secretly wishing that it will vanish.
  2. I am totally going to deal with all this crap. Here, you shift into hyper-organized mode. Who can wear these plaid shirts? Shred the taxes. Stash the photos.
  3. Hey, some of this crap is really nice. You remember that you love your mother’s china pattern, even though she worried that it might be “too masculine” for you. Keep a flower vase, a few meaningful trinkets from overseas adventures. They make you smile.
  4. I can’t bring myself to get rid of this crap. It gets hard. You start slipping. Soon you hide a painting you don’t understand in a room you never visit.

Grief cauterizes the ends of more feelings than you’d care to acknowledge. Songs that used to make you sad, if you really listened, just glide through your brain now. What hard-hearted person can listen to Missing by Everything But The Girl and not get at least a little misty? You, it turns out. Meanwhile your brain’s mad librarian begins to shelve memories erratically. It pushes some to the back while others hang in front of your eyes for days. A story told hours ago seems sepia toned while a 2010 car trip feels fresh. As time whispers its contrails into the unknown future, key events become less liminal. Someday you are surprised to remember that your first boyfriend is dead. Or that there was a time when you read all of Love in the Time of Cholera out loud. Or that it’s been nearly 20 years since your father blindly choked his last in an Albuquerque hospital bed, so you can’t now ask him what to do with his military duffel bag or ancient Soviet history books. You discover that there is at least one more stage:

  1. I hate this but can’t explain why. This persistent painting, this enigma, this flat representation – how did it survive when everything else disintegrated? You hate it for its survival. You realize that this is entirely irrational.

Memory is a close cousin to grief. They share some traits. Neither prizes veracity or cares about opportunity costs. You can remember something to the letter, feel it despicable, and still not regret it. Grief drags you along, makes you look even if you don’t wish to. Memory makes wishing immaterial. Memory is the major and triumphalist key that grief doesn’t answer so much as amplify beyond your set frequencies.

Memory and grief also share a common and contested territory: time. My still life, for all of its efforts, cannot exist outside of time. This is both an ontological condition and an ethical imperative. As T.S. Eliot says, “If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable.” Redemption requires assigned value. In turn, that requires a reckoning. As you leaf through through things, sorting them for various destinations along a foreign trail divorced from both grief and memory, you will feel lost. You will want to hold on to as much as you can. You will want to get rid of everything. The painting reminds you that neither option is possible or desirable.

The flowers offer no answers. Their stillness reminds me we cannot stop time. Why, then, search for joy? Shouldn’t we let it find us? And why demand service from objects? Would we not be better to release ourselves from this sickening dependency? The truth about our belongings is much more difficult than dreamt of in Kondo’s philosophy. They’re not devices to deliver joy. Our things are the breadcrumbs we deploy so we don’t get lost in time. If they have something to do with joy, it’s only because we load them with our baggage and the things expected of us. The idea that we can discern “our” joy from the joy manufactured and force-fed us by the culture purveyors would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

I make my peace with the painting. Sometimes it’s okay to keep things that make you sad, or that you don’t understand. You can surround yourself with joy and not feel a bit of it. Every inch of your home can be servile and you can still want for more. Again, Eliot helps us to understand the predicament:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

When it’s time, I’ll give the painting to the baby. Perhaps she will have grand dinner parties under it, or contemplate it with tea in a quiet moment. Until then, I’ll hold on to it as a reminder that sometimes leaves fall without notice, without joy, and this can be beautiful.

Notes from the Waste Stream #7: Giant Metal Hippo

This is the story of how I came to carry a 8.2 pound metal hippopotamus on board five flights from South Africa to Alabama. It is a story that begins, in a roundabout way, in North Africa, but I’ll get to that part last.

Istanbul

I learned to haggle in the winding passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been told all my life that it was extremely rude to haggle. But the Turkish travel guide I read on the airplane was quite clear on this point: it would be rude not to haggle. So I did what I normally do in uncomfortable situations and entirely overthought it. I memorized haggling tips and picked at the partially comprehensible Turkish-language keyboard of the lonely shared hotel computer into the prime hours of jet lag.

Few places on earth can prepare you for Istanbul’s old city. The layers of history pile on each other in ways much more haphazard, strange and lovely than any textbook can explain. The Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans (sometimes more pragmatist than the usual narrative allows) decided to keep the church and just cover the blasphemous frescoes. Rebranding, they might call it now. Where actual Vikings carved something like “Erik was here” into the floor while passing through. The wasp-waisted towers of the Blue Mosque, where enterprising vendors will try to sell you special socks to wear inside, even though any socks will do. Unless they have holes. Check for holes. If you go into the basement of the souvenir shop next door, you might discover an actual Roman cistern where rich-smelling water drips slowly down rows of dozens columns each wider than your embrace. If you are rich, you can stay at the Four Seasons, located in a renovated Turkish prison. If you are not rich, you can at least go drink at their bar and read the English language newspapers (how I’ll miss the International Herald Tribune) before retreating to your more modest lodgings.

Istanbul is the first place I ever really heard the call to prayer. You don’t so much hear it as become suffused by it, the symphony of muezzins calling the faithful over loudspeakers both tinny and rich bouncing off old and new buildings, into corridors and breakfast nooks. I was there once during Ramadan, when every kind of food cart lines the streets just waiting for fast to break and lines to form – a joyful end to the day, when twinkly lights are strung between trees and poles.

Then there’s the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost Orientalist by definition to write about this place: The exotic array of goods! The seen-it-all merchants! The foreign scents and foods! I prefer on the whole to think of it as a mall long predating Victor Gruen’s great and terrible idea without the baggage of urbanisms old and new. It is, fundamentally, just a place to shop. More to the point, it is a place for foreigners to shop. It is a place where the shopping is both exactly and totally beside the point. Visitors are not just shopping for goods – they are shopping for a very particular experience of shopping for goods. The Grand Bazaar may still occupy its original warren of tunnels and side streets, but it’s clearly a performance of a specific version of itself conceived by and for others.

In this respect, it is sadly like Doha’s Souq Waqif, which is “fake” in the sense used by the late Umberto Eco. Doha is accelerating at a pace where the hyperreal is only an event horizon. In a place like this, there’s no point in seeking authenticity. But they’d like to sell it to you anyway. The Souq Waqif, as various promotional materials are happy to tell you, is in fact a centuries-old site for trading. They are less likely to mention that the site was abandoned, then burned down, and then reconstructed to look authentic so that this former village might claim a soul, or at least a history, as its armies of indentured laborers busily erect all manner of temples to commerce and excess. As Eco writes, “The industry of the Absolute Fake gives a semblance of truth to the myth of immortality through the play of imitations and copies.” Check.

Souk Waquif

Souk Waqif

You can buy good saffron here, the Iranian kind not allowed in the United States, for reasonable rates. If you do your research, you can even bring this home through customs. Also there are a surprisingly large number of vintage radios in gorgeous bakelite cases, so miraculously preserved from the elements that it seems possible to tune into broadcasts from World War I. And of course the Souq feels real, whatever that means. It feels as real as the chocolate fountain at the Intercontinental Hotel’s sumptuous dessert buffet. Trying to pin down its realness is entirely beside the point and, besides, may distract you from small children sticking their hands into the cascading sticky goo.

At the Grand Bazaar, I dickered over, walked away from and ultimately purchased a bracelet ostensibly made of silver and amber. If you like old things, as I do (records, radios, paper newspapers), then you’ll appreciate my interest in amber. In retrospect, it is clear that the seller did too – and despite my best efforts, I surely overpaid. Still, it was fun to negotiate, and I like the bracelet (though its silver content was, at best, wildly overstated). On another visit I made the mistake of displaying too much interest in a piece of fabric I thought I’d wear as a skirt. It’s now an overpriced table runner for those biennial occasions when I might need to dress my Ikea tables up to impress someone else.

I mention my time in Turkey because by the time I met the hippo I fancied myself a bit of a haggler. I’d even negotiated over white gold in Dubai with an impatient man who swatted away my tourist Arabic until a Lebanese friend who wasn’t about to give me any false compliments congratulated me on my score. Then I met my match.

Capetown

By the time I got to South Africa, I was well into my 30s. I considered myself very experienced in international travel. I was also supervising a group of high school students – something that for a time took me all over the world to enviable destinations where I would normally stay in the hotel at night failing to navigate the hotel’s useless Internet connection while hoping that the students didn’t roam the streets of Santiago, or Athens, or wherever, and get me sued.

Capetown is magnificent, but the trip had some hiccups. First, although the hotel we stayed at was called the Ritz, I am sure that it was not one of “those Ritzes” in the same way that the “Diplomat Inn” down the street from our house in one of Montgomery’s sketchiest neighborhoods is probably not where the actual diplomats stay. Second, it had never been explained that we would be given the opportunity to climb around on Table Mountain. This would have been fine, except that I ended up getting the privilege in a skirt. With the added weight of my personal computer, which I could not leave in the room because of a wave of thefts reported at the conference hotel. I would very much like to return to Capetown. I would not stay at this particular Ritz again.

Going up Table Mountain

Going up Table Mountain

When you take students to these unending debate competitions (ten days, if you can believe it, with two debates a day – you drink all the bad coffee just to stay conscious), there are precious few moments to enjoy the company of other adults and actually see the city. I treasure the afternoon I got to explore the Parthenon by myself, taking pictures of anarchist graffiti in the streets below and getting to know the many feral cats of Athens. In Capetown, an old friend and I seized the chance to escape for a few hours to a local market. The people at home need souvenirs, and I always want to buy one thing for myself to remember each adventure.

The market was set up in a square, densely layered rows of stalls selling all manner of crafts – tiny paintings, florid textiles, preposterous wooden utensils, every possible thing that could be made from metal bottlecaps. We turned a corner and I saw the hippo in a collection of animals and objects made of scrap metal. I’ll admit that I fell just a little in love. My first misstep.

Of course there is a backstory. Like many morbid children, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Some of my most formative early memories include seeing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the National Gallery in the 1970s and then discovering a beautiful copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my grandfather’s library. When we were children, our parents entertained us with the story of William, the Met’s famous hippo. I was primed to like the hippo.

IMG_2210 copy

I loved his rusty and pointed exterior, his wide eyes, his comic nose, his heft, his rounded belly. I joked to my friend that he was so heavy I could probably use him as a deadly weapon. I picked him up. I was, in short, a mark. But I would never buy such a thing. I had a ton of luggage and an excruciating trip home. Still, just curious, I asked the sculptor for the price. Strike two.

To this day, I can’t remember the price he quoted me. And it gets fiddly in other countries, because no matter how good you are at doing exchange rate math in your head, in these moments the stuff begins to seem a bit like monopoly money (I still have an ATM receipt somewhere from the time I withdrew 10,000,000 in Turkish lira). I do remember that, to be polite, I offered him exactly half of the price. Which I thought would end the deal, because he would go higher and give me a chance to walk away. It did not. The students made fun of me.

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I wrapped this unwieldy thing in a sweatshirt and ran it through every metal detector and bomb swabbing apparatus from Capetown to Atlanta, via Johannesburg, Frankfurt and Heathrow. At every stop it was pulled aside for inspection, muttered over in cadences which I did not always understand but seemed to sum up to: “Can you believe this giant metal hippo?” He now sits by my fireplace. I named him Rand, after his birth currency and to remind me that money in other countries is actually real.

Morocco

I think I know why my parents forbade me from haggling. It has to do with a giant and ornate birdcage made of metal and wood that was a fixture in my many childhood homes. This is a birdcage that my mother populated with a stern-looking stuffed black vulture. She would often produce it at parties or use it as a prop to burst in and scare groups of children during sleepovers. Anyone who knew my mother will remark, unprovoked, on her unusual sense of humor. She once let a gaggle of pre-teens watch Psycho after midnight, allegedly unsupervised, bursting in at the crucial moment with a knife. I lost a lot of friends that evening.

She was a military wife. This included any number of activities: complicated dinner parties, herding children back and forth between continents to visit family, worrying about a deployed spouse, negotiating the commissary system. It also meant that sometimes she would go with other military wives on vacations organized to both enrich their lives and stop them from going quite mad. When we lived in England, she went to the Soviet Union and came back singing the praises of the Winter Palace while complaining about how difficult it was to acquire Coca-Cola there. I still have a stash of kopecks from this visit.

When we lived in Spain, she went with other wives to Morocco – a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. I know this because one night when I was old enough to split a bottle of wine with her I finally asked about the birdcage. Evidently she, too, had been raised not to haggle. One key difference: she had not done her homework on the matter. One key similarity: the homework did not, in the end, make much of a difference. Evidently she admired the birdcage in the market, picked it up, showed it to friends. Until her death she claimed that she did not make an offer. She did, as she pointed out, cling to every penny in those days (and long after).

The first part of the transaction is lost to time. The second is a matter of record. She and her friends turned and walked away. The proprietor, enraged at what he perceived as a broken deal, chased them through the market with the birdcage as they fled. She was in her early thirties at the time, with two young children at home, inconceivably far from the small town of her birth with no grasp of the local language or custom. I imagine her fear at that moment, the sharp thrill of being scared and lost in another country, the worry of coming home with something so extravagant. In the end, she paid the man. As I did, without the chase.

The birdcage is lost now, a bit of debris stripped of pedigree and set loose into the broader waste stream that absorbs death and the stories it splinters. The bird is also gone – a story for another day, attached to another and similarly painful loss. I can’t say I’ve learned my lesson.

Notes From the Waste Stream #6: Masterpieces of Eloquence Vol. 1-25

When people walk into our house for the first time, they almost always ask the same question: “Have you read all of these books?” Sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, I might say “most of them.” Which is not really true. We’ve been married for more than six years now, and even though we own a house and a car together, have merged bank accounts and basically all other parts of our lives, we have never merged our book collections. This is probably the only part of our marriage where there are profound and possibly irreconcilable differences.

The shelving of books is a difficult matter. I prefer my fiction alphabetized by author. He prefers it arranged by subject sometimes, other times genre or era – an impenetrable system that annoys me to no end when looking for something on his shelves. Both of our nonfiction collections defy the alphabet but don’t nearly approach something as orderly as a Dewey classification system. So I’ve got my books in one room and he’s got his own room. Because we’ve got as many books between us as a small town public library, there’s the inevitable overflow into other rooms, including a designated “reshelving area.”

Books are beautiful. Not only individual texts, the way all bindings glide differently across your fingers or fit into your hands. A wall full of books is a cacophony of colors, sizes and fonts. To my eye, it is more magical than even the most expensive or thought-provoking art. Taken separately, even the most boring books can be endlessly provocative if seen in the right light. Collectively, their possibilities can blur your consciousness if you let them.

The waste stream isn’t particularly kind to books. Some get called antiques and marked up, often for no comprehensible reason. Others are tattered from being passed on and on through avid hands until they can be had for a nickel in bins marked by author or genre. Some are simply sold by weight, or by the yard for decorative projects destined to adorn the shelves of non-readers.

Others are picked up and curated by folks who run an increasingly rare species: the used bookstore. Blame Amazon or Ebay for this decline; blame our depressingly collective low literacy, or television, or whatever favorite scapegoat you have for what seems to be a widespread lack of interest in old things (strike one) that are written on paper (strike two) and take time to consume (strike three).

I go to used bookstores like some people go to museums. There are destination bookshops, like the remarkable King Books in Detroit – a warehouse the size of a city block filled with more stories than a thousand Scheherazades. Milwaukee’s airport houses Renaissance Books (whose downtown location is closed, as far as we know), shelving new alongside rare and used books of an incredible variety. Then there are bookshop districts. My favorite may be the cluster in the French Quarter – some specialize in regional ephemera, others in fiction, others in piles that seem to defy gravity. Each offers treasures commensurate with time spent. It’s an old bargain, but I’ll take it every time, usually ending up with more books than I can reasonably carry or check on to an airplane. This complicates the book storage situation.

A few times a year, I’ll go through the stacks and do a strategic cull. I’m trying to stay within the available capacity, so as new books come in (which they do by the bagful sometimes), I try to find new homes for books I’m done with. Usually, I’ll keep a book if a) I’ll read it again; b) I’d lend it to someone; c) I probably will read it someday; or d) I’d use it as a reference.

But there are always some books that you can’t get rid of, even if they don’t fit into your utilitarian calculus. It’s hard to imagine getting rid of my dead mother’s high school yearbooks. I wonder if I will ever stop missing her enough to dismiss her classmates’ exhortations and hard-to-decipher notes regarding her character and conduct in classes and activities that I struggle to imagine. The same applies to my father’s decades-overdue library books about the Soviet Union. And my calculus textbooks. And the collected works of John Steinbeck. And the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence, occupying almost an entire shelf in our hallway built-in.

Over the Transom

This set came from a magical bookstore in tiny Fairhope, Alabama. It was called Over the Transom. You had to walk through a record store to reach it. The record store is still there, run by Dr. Music. Though I’ve never known whether Dr. Music is a real doctor, one of his specialties is surgical: he grafts speakers into old suitcases. You know the store is open if there’s music playing on the sidewalk from one of these contraptions. There’s now a comic shop behind Dr. Music, where the owner’s stock is solidly eclectic but almost weirdly censored: no issues with sex or witchery in the titles. Evidently because it’s a tourist shop, the proprietor’s trying to keep his shelves G-rated. Nevertheless, he’s got a wicked good collection of old issues of Doctor Strange.

America’s got a collection of places like Fairhope (and at least one wonderful novel about an imaginary community somewhat like it) – tiny, experimental, aspirational utopian communities founded on principles that promised to solve, once and for all, the root causes of the problems of the old society. Like America, we all eventually become our parents.

In childhood, we learn the lay of the land. As we do, two paths become clear. We can find a way to thrive in the existing stream of goods, services, values and priorities. Sometimes this works. Or we can try to cut our own path away from or against the prevailing currents, upending and contesting commonly held beliefs as we go. This works less often.

Fairhope began with a dream that puts most people to sleep: tax reform. More specifically, the colony’s founders migrated all the way from Des Moines to relatively remote South Alabama because they were inspired by the ideas of Henry George, an American journalist and sort-of economist.

As best I can determine from touring the Fairhope municipal museum and consuming the things the Internet has to say about Henry George, I can explain Georgism this way: land has intrinsic value to a community, but people should own the value of the way that they improve land (buildings, businesses, etc.). This translates, in practice, to a “Single Tax” colony like Fairhope, where the land is understood to be a common good and is taxed accordingly. Sound socialist? It might surprise you to know that the land value tax is a concept endorsed by free-market types dating back to Adam Smith. George’s main idea was that because economic activity and investment created the value of land, it made the most economic sense (read: efficiency) to tax land value itself, rather than the factors creating that value. As a bonus (and in theory), land value taxes are progressive; they cannot be passed on to tenants, workers, or people who otherwise use the land. In theory, this means that a single tax structure should promote growth by removing disincentives to improving land. The owners pay the tax while the innovators reap the rewards.

Sounds good? Enough to move from Iowa to Mobile? In 1894, 28 people were convinced enough to relocate. Even today, the Fairhope Single-Tax Corporation is still a thing, covering more than 4,000 acres in and around the current city of Fairhope. Which is, let me say, a very charming place to spend a day.

Fairhope is the kind of place you feel compelled to write home about (or Facebook about, or whatever passes for this kind of notification these days). Downtown is mostly composed of a shopping district outlined by about six by six streets, densely layered with boutiques, galleries and restaurants. You can happily kill a day wandering from store to store while considering all of the things that you might like to buy and/or eat. A few key factors will affect your decision-making:

  • Are you a person who likes glittery or exceedingly patterned things? If so, Fairhope’s retail offerings are definitely for you. You will find items from the affordable to the aspirational in every clothing store, often on curbside sale racks. Also there is plenty of oversized novelty jewelry, which will look great matched with your new white capri pants, turquoise blouse and sparkly sandals.
  • Are you walking a dog or other companion animal? Good news! Most stores will allow your dog indoors, and almost all have water bowls outside. Many restaurants will allow you to dine on the patio, where sometimes you can listen to singer-songwriter music about meaningful places, sad relationships and big ideas.
  • If you have a beach house sadly lacking in beach house-related decor, the shops of Fairhope have you covered. You can find many signs, tchotchkes, and other signifiers designed to tell people that you live at the beach. This is in case they didn’t know by, for example, looking out of the window toward the actual beach.

There are bookstores, but none of them are as good as Over The Transom was. Page and Palette is good, but in an obvious way. They’ve got most of the books you already knew you wanted to read. They key to Over The Transom was that they had the books that you didn’t know you wanted to read – Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Proprietor Martin Lanaux had a quiet but always present approach to his shop. You’d come in, be left alone for a while, and then he’d manifest suddenly, guiding you to the book you didn’t know you wanted but now could not leave without. This is a special gift, the matching of reader to book. While there, I watched him join the curious to a mystery series; the gardener to an environmental history; a tactile child to science primers.

Me, I was a harder catch. I resisted recommendations. I’d read it already, or I wasn’t interested, or I was skeptical of the genre. We played a cat and mouse game for more than two hours that day. I went through boxes of books to be priced later, allegedly from Rick Bragg’s moldering basement. I considered some overpriced psychology books. I set aside a handful of fiction. Finally, he caught me mulling over a set called Masterpieces of Eloquence. I’d studied philosophy and rhetoric, so I was interested in what was contained. I think he smelled a sale, even though they were marked at $500 for the set – much, much, much more than I was interested in paying.

IMG_1765He asked: “Why are you looking at these?” I explained that I taught debate, that I’d studied rhetoric. I added, for some reason, that in the next two weeks I would take the US national high school debate team to South Africa to debate for the world championship.

He asked: “Would you use these?” I said that I wasn’t teaching classes right now, but that I was sure that if I taught a class on rhetoric again, I’d use them.

He asked: “Can I sell them to you for $50?” I paused.

This would be an entire shelf of scarce shelf space. Never mind the richness of subject. Volume one has orations from Homer to Demosthenes. Volume 23 contains oration from Eliot to Bourinot. This ranged from vague undergraduate philosophy knowledge in volume one, to just about no idea by volume 25. I imagined myself reading all of these – at best a hazy future. And the space they’d take up! But then I thought of all of the work that Mayo Hazeltine, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Mason and others that I’d never heard of had put into this collection. That gave me pause. I turned to Martin.

He sized me up. “You’ll use them, right?” Yes, I said, or at least I nodded. I wanted the books but I had no idea how they might come home or where they might go.

He offered to sell me the books if I promised to use them. I agreed, and loaded them into my car. Weeks later, I sent him a postcard from Capetown but never heard from him again. The next time I went to Fairhope, Martin’s store was occupied by thin volumes featuring capes and costumes.

Masterpieces of Eloquence

These days, the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence occupy most of a hallway shelf in our Montgomery home. I do not open them often. I wish I was more child-like about their presence, that I thought of them more in the way that my younger self encountered the encyclopedias, great book collections, and other sets sold by volume that occupied my grandparents’ shelves. But I’m older now, and more resistant to wonder. Age imputes the worst kind of immunity. I find myself prone to pick up books that already interest me. That leaves the volumes of MoE, sadly, out of the regular rotation. For this post, I picked volume 23 off of the shelf and dusted it off a bit. I opened it to a random page and found a quote that seemed, eerily, to speak to Martin – or at least my work:

As one goes in life, especially in modern life, a few conclusions are hammered into us by the hard logic of facts. Among those conclusions I think I may, without much fear of contradiction, enumerate such practical, common-sense, and common-place precepts as that superficiality is dangerous, as well as contemptible, in that it is apt to invite defeat; or again, that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well; or third, that when one is given work to do, it is well to prepare one’s self for that specific work, and not to occupy one’s time in acquiring information, no matter how innocent or elegant, or genuinely useful, which has no probable bearing on that work; or, finally- and this I regard as the greatest of all practical precepts – that every man should in life master some one thing, be it great or be it small, so that that thereon he may be the highest living authority: that one thing he should know thoroughly.”

Gendered pronouns are kept as in the original, as I’m pretty sure Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) meant to be talking about cis men upon the occasion of his address to Harvard in 1883, titled “The Study of Greek as a College Fetich.” The text notes that this speech “attracted wide attention, the speaker contending that the knowledge of Greek should not be required for attention to Harvard.”

Evidently, this speech caused Harvard to make Greek optional. Which is entirely in the keeping of Over the Transom’s lost ethos. The books you take home may or may not be “canonical,” whatever that means. You choose them, but that doesn’t mean that you occupy the entirely heroic free-choice subject position. The good bookseller knows that their role goes beyond mere curation. It’s about putting books in the homes where they go – where people might open them up and give them a shot on their own terms. In a bookstore where there were at any given time at least three copies of Dale Carnegie’s masterwork, Martin knew better how to influence people. He also seemed to embody Adams’ message, that superficiality invites defeat.

And this is how I ended up with a shelf’s worth of the Masterpieces of Eloquence. A master book seller sized me up as I stared askance at Joyce Carol Oates and saw that I was wanting. He watched as I touched the collected works with wonder, imagining at the treasures within. He knew that it might take some time, but that one day I would open them and maybe even share them with the outside world, and he took a gamble on finding them a new home.

We’re living in a world of surplus stuff – does this need any explanation or elaboration? It has not been too long since any issue of Tom Swift or Nancy Drew was valued beyond price and read under the covers. Just last week I ran the cashbox at a yard sale where these same books were sold by the yard. But just as you fix your mind on civilization’s inevitable catastrophe, it’s worth bearing in mind Mark Twain’s comments from Volume 23:

You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under and take hold of something to steady yourself, and, the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning.

Book love begins as a child, when words and their vast accumulation seems like a repository of absolute magic. You work your whole life to master their incantations, to identify and mimic the artists you admire so that your powers might grow stronger. But then, at some point, you begin to doubt yourself. The ocean is so vast and your boat is so small. You brace for disaster, cowering behind hastily constructed barriers of safe and reliable words. Then, inevitably, there is lightning. Which we used to call eloquence.

Notes From the Waste Stream #5: Squash Blossom Necklace

The shop is dim. It feels older than the modern exterior lets on. The cases are full of sparkly and shiny things, all the price tags turned down so (as is usually the case in jewelry shops) you have to ask about any item you see. I wasn’t there to buy, though. I was hoping to find new homes for some of the jewelry I inherited when my mother passed away. Not anything super-expensive, just a few pieces that aren’t to my taste but might suit someone else just perfectly. I’d asked around and someone I trust had recommended this place. I was there with three necklaces and a bracelet, all New Mexican classics, most set with turquoise.

The man sitting at the desk said that the owner wasn’t in, but would return shortly. We made small talk while I waited, idly browsing. A rheumy dog watched from an elevated perch.

I’ve lived in Montgomery for seven years now, and probably one out of every three people I encounter asks me where I’m from, especially if the conversation lasts longer than, say, handing me a purchase or some change. Though I use useful terms like “y’all” and “fixing to,” my accent still gives me away – I’m not Southern. I explained that I was from New Mexico and had lived in town for a few years now.  He said he was relatively new in town himself. We got to talking about how we liked Montgomery. I said some version of what I always say: “Very affordable, nice people.” As I fingered some ornate flatwear, he agreed.

“Too many blacks, though.”

I put down the spoon.

I’ve had more anti-racist training than most. I’ve even had my share of anti-bullying messaging, as I spend a lot of time in grade-school classrooms with signs and posters urging students to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders.” Even so, I was paralyzed. We hadn’t been talking for five minutes before he felt comfortable enough to lead with overt racism. Was there something about me (my whiteness, presumably) that made him think I’d be similarly prejudiced? Was this just how he operated in the world, his biases aired freely for everyone to see? Like the dim shop full of discarded trinkets, it felt out of place and time.

This is foolish, obviously, because the reality is that few places on Earth are so steeped in racism and its consequences than Montgomery. The only other places I’ve experienced this level of background radiation from the hot glow of historic and persistent racism are South Africa (for obvious reasons) and Qatar (because Doha is basically being built by slave labor). And yes, I know that lots of other places are racist – that’s just counting from where I’ve been.

I think my body language alone was enough for him to veer away from the topic. I should have said something. I should have left. But I didn’t really know who this person was, and was hoping for a smooth transaction once the owner returned. It is hard to explain the emotional turmoil that had brought me to this point. After two years of fretting and moving jewelry from box to box, I had finally worked up the nerve to sell some of my mother’s things. I wasn’t going to be deterred by this guy.

Finally, after some awkward chit-chat about the going price on old china sets (very low) and Waterford crystal (likewise), the owner came in. We sat at her desk, she looked over my things. The man offered various comments and produced a scale. I learned the going price of silver (pretty low at the moment). As one does in this small town, I learned where they lived – just a few blocks away from us. Price estimates flew; I tried to keep track, not getting distracted by the sadness that felt likely to drag me down past the metal rim of her desk to the carpet below.

Just as the owner began to fill out the contract, she felt moved to tell me a story about a time, many years ago, when she bought a house to resell and was choosing among competing bids for purchase.

“I said to the agent, look, I know we’re not supposed to talk about this…what was your address again, sweetheart? Anyway, I asked if any of these offers were from those people who all look the same?”

I had heard this sotto voce racism before – it reminded me of the way league softball players out at Lagoon Park would talk about the black teams.

What she was suggesting, without elaborating and unpacking all of the unstated implications, was that she was asking the real estate agent to to steer the transaction to white people.

I had to leave a copy of my drivers’ license. The man volunteered to make the photocopy. As he disappeared, she explained that this man was her husband, newly moved to town. Both of them newcomers, their racism a ready conversational gambit with me, a stranger and a potential client.

Must everything in Montgomery have a dark and racist element to it? Years ago, when we were new in town, we took the dog to explore Greenwood Cemetery. It’s over by the Ann Street Wal-Mart, and it’s where George and Lurleen Wallace are buried (along with lots of other people, obviously). Just around back, we discovered Lincoln Cemetery. In 2010, it was a terrible and depressing mess – the untended black cemetery around the corner from its shiny white counterpart. This story had a happy ending: The Advertiser ended up raising a fuss, and the cemetery has by all accounts been fixed up after some fundraising and legal wrangling.

The other uncountable stories of racism and its consequences here remain largely undercover and unsolved.

Maybe that’s because we don’t talk about race much here, except in private conversations with people we assume are like-minded. That, and the reprehensible comments section on Al.com. Or, perhaps more to the point, we talk about race a lot. I have never lived in a place where white people feel compelled to flag someone as black when this seems to have no bearing on the story (“A black fellow, he was real nice, helped me move a box.”). This post is not the place to hash out why race is so hard to talk about or even how to talk about it. It’s just a place to describe the reality: Even as Montgomery becomes more progressive and inclusive, we’re segregated in places beyond churches, schools and cemeteries.

Close to the place I was trying to sell some jewelry, there’s a bar where lobbyists and government types are known to gather – especially when the legislature is in session. A few years ago, I invited one of my friends to have a drink there. She declined, saying, “Every time I go there, I integrate that place.” White privilege means many things, including not noticing when an environment is all-white.

I wish I could say that I took a stand that day – that I grabbed up my jewelry and stalked out. Perhaps I found a teachable moment, delivering a lecture? Nope. I wasn’t any kind of social justice hero. I walked in overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to sell multiple Valentine’s Day gifts from my father to my mother (both dead). I sat there, dazed, as a price was set. I let them photocopy my license after I bargained for a fair price. Then I left. And stewed.

A few weeks later, I’d had it. I decided that the right thing to do was to go and remove my things from this shop. Why should these people, whose views I despised, profit from my family’s hard-won things? Even though my mother was known to have the occasional offensive view about people of color (particularly the “gang-bangers” of New Mexico – the American West has its own unique racist flavors), I could not put her tokens of love in an atmosphere of hate. I readied myself. My plan was to arrive with my contract and secure the items. Once my things were in hand, I would explain why I had decided to take my business elsewhere and leave.

I was not under any illusions that whatever little speech I made would change either their minds or their business practices. Prejudice is deep-seated and extremely hard to uproot. Even targeted re-education over the long term has little effect on folks who cling to views of racial (or gender, or religious, or other) superiority. This is because bias isn’t just a matter of facts (“Actually, not all Asians are smart”); neither is it purely individual (because our beliefs are not entirely our own – they are the product of social relations). Bias is remarkably persistent, as anyone who has been in a conversation about the “good blacks” and the “rest of them” will attest.

I just wanted them to hear a countervailing opinion. I wanted, in short, to be an upstander. Sure, this was a little narcissistic. Anyone who says it isn’t is just kidding themselves. “Upstanding” works as a motivational tactic precisely because it appeals to the ego, to a sense of self as a person who wants to be the kind of person who does the right thing. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than grabbing back some silver and giving a speech.

Having talked myself into righting my previous (and cowardly) wrong, I approached the storefront before closing time. I’d imagined that I’d be alone in the dim shop with their full (if probably dismissive attention) as I symbolically dropped the white progressive anti-racist mic before being buzzed out.

I locked my car and strode toward the door. Another woman crossed in front of me at the last minute and buzzed for entrance. She smiled at me. Under her felt hat and dark wool coat, I could see that she was beautiful, gracefully aging, and black.

Inside, the light carved a swath through the front windows, spotlighting the dust around the cabinets and counters. The owner and her husband were blinded at first, but recognized the woman before me.

“Where have you been? Working hard? We haven’t seen you in so long!” This was the owner, emerging from the back room. Her husband was arranging items in the rack, barely turning around.

“Oh, I’ve been working.” The woman removed her gloves and reached into her purse to remove a much-folded yellow receipt. “I’m here to finish my layaway – I bet y’all thought you’d never see me again.” She had an expression of longing and finality. I think that I have seen that look before, when something you’ve desired is about to be yours. I found myself wrenched with curiosity about the thing she’d waiting for all this time.

“Oh, we knew you’d come back. It’s been more than a year now.” The owner directed this to the waiting woman as she noticed me for the first time. She asked how she could help me. I explained that I was there to pick up items I’d left to consign and had changed my mind. I gave her the contract copy, but explained that there was no hurry – I suggested she should help the woman first.

“No, I can help you now. Just give me a minute.” In the time that ensured, I tried at every opportunity to get behind this layaway transaction in the queue. The jewelry was dumped into my hands, the countersigned agreement photocopied, even my copied drivers’ license rooted out and returned to me.

I did not expect this. I had considered the possibility of another customer, and had thought I could wait a while. But the owner was not about to let me wait – probably because settling up a layaway would be more complicated than my transaction. Or maybe I was watching white privilege in action – I was being served before the other woman, who had come in before me, after all. In any case, when I thought about being in the store with another customer for the “big moral showdown,” I did not think about the shine in their eyes that a final layaway payment brings; the last chunk of a well-earned thing of beauty. I have had object lust. I know what it’s like to imagine the ways that the perfect thing will make your dreams come true.

My jewelry appeared. The contract to sign again, annulling our previous transaction. At every turn, I tried to defer: “Y’all can help this other lady first, that’s okay.” But the owner persisted, even as I asked for the copy of my driver’s license back. So there I was – everything I had asked for, ready to leave. I was taking my business away from them, not allowing these racists to profit from my jewelry. They never asked why.

There were three parties involved in this transaction. Me, of course, the righteously angry person with nothing in particular at stake except my own sense of self. The owners, who a) were comfortable with prejudice-as-ante; b) were relatively big-time jewelry dealers who needed my business so little that they didn’t even ask why I was taking my items away. And then there was the other customer. I knew how I felt about the owners. I was quickly trying to decide how she fit into my planned morality play.

IMG_1353I had two major options. First, I could declaim in front of all parties. Second, I could find some excuse to wait and talk to the owners without the other client present. The second option was basically off the table. They wanted to hustle me out, no matter how much I protested, and I didn’t want to linger amid the dust.

The first option seemed like the braver one anyway. I’d have the opportunity to shame the owners in front of a client, much less a black client, creating awareness and multiplying my impact. It also seemed like the worst option. Who was I to create a scene of racial conflict in front of this woman, perhaps imperiling her layaway payments, perhaps second-guessing her ability to interact with retailers like an adult? Who grows up black in Montgomery (or in the United States, for that matter) without knowing that racism informs all transactions? What if she lost her money? What if she had waited months for her shiny thing only to walk away because I had heard some blowhards say some hateful things? I couldn’t do it in front of her.

I left, the door jangling behind me, with my father’s promises of love to my mother safely in my purse. I made no speech. Now, I suppose I am able to sell this necklace online – safely insulated from the potential prejudices of anonymous buyers. And maybe that’s also what white privilege looks like.

Notes from the Waste Stream #4: Whiz Comics #2 (reprint)

Comics: An Overview

Up until a few years ago I knew the following things about comic book collecting:

  1. An Action Comics #1 will set you and your family up for the rest of your lives.
  2. Comic books take up an extraordinary amount of storage space, as they are traditionally stored in “long boxes” which cannot be stacked vertically lest they bend/crush the valuable things inside.
  3. Most of the books meticulously stored in these boxes are worth a fraction of the cost of an entirely incinerated corner of a page of Action Comics #1.

Now I know the following additional bits of information:

  1. It is well beyond extremely unlikely that you will find anything even approaching Action Comics #1, no matter how hard you look.
  2. The small possibility of finding undervalued treasures with lurid illustrations is worth the hunt despite #1.
  3. There are more efficient ways to store and search for comics than long boxes and a patchy memory.
  4. When a collector encounters the technology referenced in #3, your comic collection will grow at a much faster rate.
  5. Many of the new books you encounter will be quite good, challenging your “low culture” expectations of the genre.

The long boxes – at first there were only three or four of them – came into the house through our marriage merger. At first I put them in the same category as the baseball cards and the several boxes of Harper’s back issues. Surely at some point they would migrate into the attic, or go to a thrift store. They persisted, even as the baseball cards went upstairs to the long holding cell that prefaces the slide down to the very bottom of the value ladder (Still holding on to cards? Forget about it. Or come get some of the thousands in our attic, if you can pry them out of their owner’s warm, very much alive hands.).

0It seemed that, in principle, I would enjoy comics. I was raised on the pulpiest of the pulpy science fiction and started playing what I could figure was a probably-mostly-right version of Dungeons & Dragons before I was ten years old. But I’d never read a comic book before I was an adult. They were, perhaps, a little too expensive for us. I think being a girl might have had something to do with it, although my father never seemed particularly aware of gendered notions of parenting. I’m not sure that they sold comics at the military commissaries where we shopped, and even if they did, I can imagine Dad saying no. We were a library family. You could read as much as you could borrow, and only special occasions meant that you might own an actual book. Much less a disposable comic book.

So I had no context. I’d read some of the new things called “graphic novels,” when they became fashionable – V for Vendetta, of course, and The Watchmen (although I never understood that book’s particular brilliance until I saw how it operated as a critique). But aside from a love affair with Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman in college, I’d never picked up a flimsy paper book to see what was inside. I began to ask about the boxes of comics. Where did they come from? Why were they here? What was their value to my husband?

He told me stories in response. Long, winding, improbable, sometimes cosmic and glorious stories about the characters in the books and their histories. Over hours of close questioning in cars and over meals, he revealed universes so bold but closely held that they stood alone as one of the most high-wire acts in writing. There were so many variants. You could be handed a character with decades of canon and the fans to boot and told to “make it new.” You might be assigned a book that everyone has always hated and told to “make it interesting.” You might be singularly motivated to turn a good title into something great and crazy and eye-popping. You might be a mad genius, inventing your own path with new characters or repurposed cast-offs to make something genuinely new. Or you might just spend a decade writing what was, essentially, a soap opera featuring people with special powers.

These stories are complicated. They span decades of feverishly creative minds and artists trying to sell as many people as possible on all kinds of crazy stuff. And although many of the stories intersect (there are team-ups, cross-overs, random cameos clearly designed to bait fans into picking something entirely second-rate off the shelf because ooh, Wolverine!), they occupy different universes. These days, that’s basically two (yes, of course, indie comics – not going to totally nerd out here). I mention this because even though I’ve been reading comics for a few years now, and even though I’m lucky to have a patient interpreter husband who will tell me the back story and then some (“Wait, what’s the deal with Bullseye?”), I still get DC and Marvel confused. I’ll say things like “Why doesn’t Superman just come in and waste this fool?” (Usual answer: wrong universe.) The more I heard, the more I read. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

the collection expands

I’ve never especially felt that I wanted to collect anything, even comic books. The collecting impulse feels different from the way I curate my personal library. When you collect, you want the entire (original) run of G.I. Joe. When you curate, you recognize that Hugh Howey’s Wool is brilliant but the rest of the series is disposable. I didn’t want to collect, but I sensed that he wanted to. I was inspired to help this happen. First, I investigated the archiving technology. I found an app to allow him to keep track of his comics in real-time. No more guessing whether he already had Daredevil #312. The phone would allow him to monitor his collection. Second, we needed vertical storage. Research showed that the legal file cabinet was the key: side by side storage, no light exposure, high density. It seemed like only a little while before we went from a few long boxes to several cabinets. Storage somehow expands and accommodates demand. This has allowed us to have an entire room in our house now dedicated to comics – a room I’d initially seen as a place for sun and relaxation, a comfy chair and a martini at the end of the day type space.

We didn’t start off to have a expansive collection of comics. Looking back, it’s hard to explain the new influx except as the result of being, well, lost in Montgomery. You live here for a long time. Friends come and go; they have babies, or move to New York, or circle wagons with their work people. As you get older, it gets harder to make friends. You seek refuge in what makes you happy. If it’s not bourbon, it’s likely to be the euphoria of a well-told story. Whether that’s by Murakami or Remender, you’re operating on the same basic impulse. Some books are just shorter that others. And some have pictures.

I’m writing about the comic collecting ecosystem this month because it’s a fascinating place that hits all rungs of the value ladder. It’s also really how we started going to junk shops in the first place. We’ve come to see it as prospecting. This is a rationalization for canny consumption. But it still feels like an adventure.

On the hunt in Maine

Last year we were in Lewiston, Maine. We had a day or so to kill, so we thought we’d try to figure out where the town’s comics were held. Our operating premise is that every town has people who used to collect (intentionally or not) comics. Most have people who still do. Poking around in junk shops and used bookstores (if a place is lucky enough to have the latter) will give you a good sense of where the stashes might be. If you find a box, sometimes its owner will turn out to have a secret garage full of them. Or they may know a guy. At a junk shop, you’re likely to see two kinds of comics, defined largely by their pricing. Some are priced simply to move – a quarter here, a dollar for this one – by someone who either doesn’t know what they are worth or is too lazy/technologically inept to look up the going rates. Others are priced in a wildly aspirational fashion. They have been deemed “OLD” or “RARE” for no reason (people, being from the 1970s doesn’t make you old and probably not rare except in the all-people-are-special way, so why should some random Spider-Man titles be any different?) and marked way above market prices.

Like every other consumable, comics are worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for them. Unlike lots of other goods, there is, in theory, a master guide to comic book prices. It’s called the Overstreet price guide and it’s very rare to see someone haul it out to look up books. If you want to see that practice in action, visit the Collector’s Corner in Auburn. Be prepared for the smell of cigarette smoke. Most of the time, if you’re dealing with a non-expert, you can expect to either score some bargains or walk away from overpriced hologram covers wedged in between other OLD and RARE back issues of Life magazine. As with coins, condition is a factor – some comics have been poorly stored and get wrinkled, torn or crushed. So is scarcity. The oldest of the old comics are valuable not just because they feature the first appearance of some favorite character, but because there aren’t many around. Comics weren’t meant to be treasured – they were cheaply printed and cheaply treated in MUCH smaller runs than today’s big titles, so the restricted supply tends to drive up their prices, even if the demand isn’t as great as might exist for an early Batman.

Speaking of early Batman, the road to Lewiston had taken us from scenic Bar Harbor down a bookstore trail helpfully mapped out by the Maine Antiquarian Booksellers Association. We’d stopped at a junk shop not on the map in tiny Ellsworth, just to see what they had. We craved a coffee table made out of an old pinball machine and briefly contemplated driving it home to Alabama. We puzzled over a large collection of glass eyes. Then we found the comics, big racks of them, with boxes underneath. The owner knew he had his hooks in us pretty good, and even invited us to look in the “secret room,” which thankfully did not end in our grisly deaths. Although it could have – the precarious shelves of improbably balanced and unmarked boxes seemed ready to collapse at any time. Our stack grew. And grew. Finally we came to the end, the cash register reckoning, the inevitable dickering over the price of a few higher end things. And then he stopped, sizing us up a little bit. Seeing, perhaps, that maybe we were in it for something more.

“I have something else,” he said. “Something I don’t show to many people, but you…you might be interested in it.” He produced a metal army box from somewhere in the giant pile of doll arms, rusty trucks, baggies of costume jewelry and yellowing file boxes behind his desk. He opened it gingerly and turned it to face us with the kind of care I’d always assumed would be given to, say, the Hope Diamond. Inside was a Batman #4. This is not an actual picture of the book we saw.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.52.15 PMIt was in pretty good shape for a few pieces of colored paper printed in 1940. He wanted several thousand dollars for it. Gulp. Cash only. This seemed like an insane amount of money. But if it was real, if it was in good condition, well…it actually might be a bargain. We thanked him for letting us see it, knowing we would probably never see one in person again, and rushed to the car. To call our dealer. This is a strange thing in the comic world – you have a dealer. In our case, it’s the owner of our own Capitol City Comics. We got Rob on the phone to ask if we should buy it. Never mind that we hadn’t figured out how, exactly, we could make that amount of money appear. He talked us off the fence and we continued on. Because condition is everything, and we’re not experts. There could be any number of small things wrong with that book that we’d never even know about until we sent it off to have an expert grade it.

This is something I didn’t know about before comics – there is a whole professional infrastructure set up to evaluate condition. The way it works is that you send your books off to one of the grading services (the most popular is the Certified Guaranty Company, or CGC) and they give it a number between 0 and 10. Then they put the book into a slab (this is called “encapsulating”) and return it. Only the expensive stuff gets graded and slabbed; it’s not cheap to get your stuff graded professionally, and then the pesky things are hard to store.

We soldiered on to Lewiston. It’s a working class town; at least, it seems like it used to be. Along with neighboring Auburn (the locals call it LA, for Lewiston-Auburn), the metro area had a hard-up, post-industrial feel. Downtown seemed like it was emerging slowly from its wreckage – exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a trove or two of undervalued comics. We were surprised to find two shops selling new issues, and equally surprised not to find boxes of back issues at either place. Where were the city’s comics? We found a used book store of the trade-in-your-genre type, staffed by a crusty man tending an even crustier aquarium. Gently sliding past a duo of elderly Nora Roberts aficionados, amid the macrobiotic cookbooks and right wing manifestos (you can tell so much about the politics of a place by looking in its used book stores), we found a stash. The owner was of the price-em-high school of thought, with an additional wrinkle: the bundle. He’d evidently decided that the key to getting high prices was to sell issues in sets of ten or so, all wrapped up so that you couldn’t judge the quality of the books. We passed, but thought perhaps this gentleman might be the key to the city’s missing stash. After some buttering up, he copped to having a storage unit, or perhaps it was a garage, full of comics. But we’d have to make a date to look through them, and we were scheduled to return home to warmer weather. So we passed.

shazam!

Lewiston aside, Maine was a bit of a gold mine for my husband. I didn’t get anything of note. I’d say that I don’t buy many comics, but that’s just not true. It’s just that I have discovered my own specific tastes. I’m not a generalist. Sometimes I just like the art – anything atomic or space themed catches my eye, especially if it’s got good mid-century styling. But I also found myself discovering authors who seemed to share my sensibility, or whose writing was similar to other (non-illustrated) fiction that I loved. I discovered China Mieville by experimenting with Dial H for Hero last year, just because I thought the premise was amazing and insane (you go into a phone booth, dial…yes, you guessed it, and become a hero). This led me down a rabbit trail of some of the very best science fiction I’ve ever read (or fantasy, or whatever, those genres are super-blurry at the cutting edge he’s writing from).

One of my favorite comics came from South Alabama, in a big multi-vendor “antique mall” called Mr. Bill’s. It’s near Mobile. The place somehow supported two vendors with comics – one guy with some more high-end “first appearance of some villain or another” type books displayed in Mylar bags on high shelves; the other a more “also I have knives and gently used heavy metal records” type with a couple of random stacks. Here I bought a reprinted version of the first appearance of Captain Marvel. I mostly liked the art. And the price – 50 cents.

I had no idea who Captain Marvel was, or that this particular story was so important in the comics genealogy. But the story, as I read it out loud on the car ride home, was so engaging and improbable that it has come to signify something especially wonderful about comic books. It is almost unnecessary to say that the premise is preposterous. We are, after all, talking about an industry where time travel is about as routine as romance as a plot device.

We begin with young Billy Batson, alone on the streets of the big city. He is homeless and selling newspapers. A mysterious stranger tells Billy to follow him, which of course he does – PSAs about this sort of thing evidently didn’t exist at the time.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 3.21.07 PMA mysterious subway ride later, and Billy meets an old man sitting on a throne. This guy is Shazam. He knows everything about Billy’s life, which he summons before the eyes of Billy and the reader through the amazingly named Historama:

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 3.28.24 PMThis turns out to be like the Cyclorama except more portable and personalized. Shazam is super old and also there is a giant block suspended above his head by a thread. He’s ready to pass on his powers to Billy, who learns that by speaking the old guy’s name (“SHAZAM!”) he becomes Captain Marvel, the “strongest and mightiest man in the world.” To become Billy, Captain Marvel speaks the name again. This second announcement somehow causes the block to fall on the old guy. There’s no time to mourn his death, because the next thing we know, Billy’s out on the street again selling papers. And he foils a plot, etc.

Captain Marvel didn’t last long- there were some copyright issues. A subsequent version had a doppleganger saying “Kimota!” instead to activate his powers – that’s “atomic” spelled backward, sort of, if you’re interested.

Here’s why this issue, with its stripped down and lovely artwork, appeals to me. First, the Historama aside, it doesn’t mess around with too much back story. We get right to the point. Second, it taps into a deep cross-cultural fantasy: that you were, all this time, meant to be something more than you are. As a child, I read A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett. This caused me to become deeply convinced that I, too, would be pulled from obscurity into better circumstances. I would often say to my mother that she’d be sorry for treating me in a certain way (demeaning stuff, usually, like washing the dishes) when “my real mother” found out.

Kimota!

So far in this series, I’ve talked a lot about how things burden us and can make us sad. I’ve written about consumption’s transient therapy. We grasp at things floating through the waste stream, whether uphill or downhill, as little patches for existential ailments. It’s easier to deal with dread when you have new shoes, or vindication as some kind of thrift store conquistador. All of us have giant blocks hanging over our head. All of us need magic words to get by.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I tell myself a story. It’s always a story I know well, so I don’t have to stay awake for the ending. Insomnia will make you crazy because it’s full of stories that have no end. Narrative is a good solution, letting the structures, characters and processes lull you into dreams that (if you’re lucky) transport you, down past the surface tension of worry and regret into the deep and hopeful structures of your imagination.

Lately, I’ve been telling Billy’s story. Which makes no sense. It’s not an especially good story. It’s not likely to happen to me (or anyone, especially as modern children are hopefully disinclined to follow strangers into subway stations). What Shazam provides is the murmur of destiny, combined with the idea that just one word could transform you. That’s the stuff of genius. No need to find a phone booth to change, no need to be some rich guy with a cave full of bats and gadgets. Just you and your bright future, separated by a few mystic syllables – all for just fifty cents.

_____

Note: If you’re interested in viewing free comics online, I highly recommend visiting Comic Book Plus and the Digital Comic Museum, free to register and chock full of wonderful old comics. Images above are thanks to the Digital Comic Museum archive.

Notes from the Waste Stream #3: One-Armed Silver Torso

It’s time again for those bells to ring in support of donation to the Salvation Army. I don’t give. I never give, and have been known to explain why to the bell-ringers in detail. But the bells persist, and they are everywhere. So I thought I’d talk a little bit about thrift stores this month. Lost in Montgomery started with thrift stores. Having moved here from the godless West, I wasn’t prepared for them to be closed on Sunday and was surprised that there wasn’t an online catalog of thrifting options. I furnished a Seattle apartment entirely from thrift stores, and went to college in Atlanta with friends who are thrift store ninjas (Pro Tip: Dress in leggings and tank tops so you can try clothes on at the rack instead of in the nasty dressing rooms), so I had high hopes for our local options. Sadly, they are not that great.

The modern thrift store is an artifact made possible in large part by the advent of garbage collection services. It’s strange for us here in the rich countries to think about the world before municipal garbage collection. We take it for granted that someone will regularly drive by and take our trash. We also don’t think much about where that stuff goes, other than sometimes caring about recycling because of philosophies of environmentalism or economy. But there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no such thing as a city sanitation department and we were responsible for our own waste.

In practice, this produced and sustained an entire secondary economy of people who picked through trash to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have been much of a living, and continues to be a miserable way of life for people in the majority world who live without basic sanitation services like clean water, let alone the fancier business of trucks to whisk away our dinner scraps and Amazon boxes. But it was big business, especially among poor and immigrant families. It was also dirty business, often populated by needy children picking fiber scraps and other waste for bosses to aggregate and resale. But it was a kind of self-sufficiency for the poor.

In her wonderful book The Victorian House, Judith Flanders describes one of the innovative advertising strategies used by “rag-and-bone men”:

The youthful Sammy, dressed in light-blue trousers, gamboge [bright yellow] waistcoat, and pink coat, is throwing up his arms in rapture at the ‘stylish appearance’ of his sweetheart Matilda, who, like Sammy himself, is decked out in all the chromatic elegance of these three primary colours, while the astonished swain is exclaiming , by means of a huge bubble which he is in the act of blowing out of his mouth, ‘My gracious, Matilda! how did you ever get that beautiful new dress?’ To which rather impertinent query the damsel is made to bubble forth the following decided puff: ‘Why, Sammy by saving up all of my old rags, and taking them to Mr. -, who gives the best prices likewise for bones, pewter, brass, and kitchen-stuff.

Here are some of the things I love about this advertisement. First, it illustrates the link between dress and class so perfectly. Second, it mirrors today’s emphasis on thrifty clothing purchases. I continue to be surprised at how common it is that upon complimenting someone for their clothing, you get a report on how much it cost. My grandmother – heck, even my mother, who sewed most of my clothing while I was growing up – would have called such talk gauche. To say what you paid for that scarf or those boots? So rude. But now it’s a measure of your canniness to say that they were only $15 at TJMaxx or whatever. And you don’t have to save up at all. These days, we’re more Macklemore than Matilda.

Garbage collection destroyed the trash-picking industry. Partly on purpose. Progressives were appalled by the piles of waste littering the streets and, in particular, the homes of the poor. Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash shows how the municipal waste collection movement was energized by often plainly racist and xenophobic language about the unclean lifestyles of immigrants and annoyance with their domination in the secondary waste market. Immigrants were so associated with trash that they were even described as waste on the Statue of Liberty (“the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”).

Along with municipal waste collection, charitable donations meant that trash would not be left outside, or reused in the household, or dickered over. Some was donated for a better cause – to provide jobs for the poor, and a place for old goods to travel down the value ladder. Here’s Strasser’s take:

Donating to charity, the better-off could free themselves from the social discomforts that might arise from identification or intercourse with beggars, scavengers, and ragmen … The organizations also fostered new ways of thinking about the sorting process: people could now avoid the trouble of repair and remaking and get rid of unwanted things without having to define them as worthless.

The truth is that most of the clothing we find at thrift stores is cheaply made. That’s because we’re turning over unbelievable vast amounts of clothing every day to charity to make room for more stuff – stuff which, in turn, is more cheaply made than anything our parents wore. Most of us donate clothing to thrift stores under the assumptions that someone else will wear and cherish it. This is pretty far from the truth. Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed shows that an astonishing 80 percent gets sorted out into the waste stream. Some things end up for resale in poor countries, undercutting their ability to develop indigenous textile industries.

We’re living in a world of surplus fabric – something that might amaze the American colonists, whose rag shortage was so acute that citizens did their patriotic duty by saving rags to make paper in support of the Revolutionary War effort. What would they make of the millions of tons of fabric now entering landfills across the world?

I can remember feeling amazed by thrift stores when I was younger – set free from my parents to be my own economic agent. It felt empowering to have things. I couldn’t walk into the mall and buy anything, but here I could leave with everything: plates, cups, lamps, a coffee table, a dresser, a coat, gifts for friends.

And then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but I think it had to do with reaching peak stuff. I got married, and we merged our households, and suddenly we had boxes and boxes of things I could not identify. Then there’s the aging factor – as you get older, you have more things. Even if you’re diligent about patrolling the piles on your coffee table, you accumulate: letters, ticket stubs, gifts, furniture, shoes.

The tipping point was unraveling the maze of things that filled my mother’s house. Once they were sold off and distributed, I still had a truckload to drive across the country and deal with. She collected Lladros – you may not know the name, but you’d recognize their distinctive blue and white finish if you saw one. She bought them in Spain, one by one at the military commissary. Most of them had the original box and price sticker. Having grown up poor, she treasured each of them for their delicacy. They must have seemed unspeakably rich to her, the fineness of the hands rendered just so, the tiny flowers sometimes strewn across the base. They were seasonal, particularly the Christmas ones we brought out every year to arrange on the mantle. And it was my job to sell the lot of them. Partly because I promised my brothers I would, partly because they’ve never been to my taste, and mostly because I simply needed to be rid of them.

There were other boxes, too – so many files that needed reading, shredding, saving, weeping over; the records of our childhoods mixed in with postcards and lost gloves. All of it occupying space in my home like an unwelcome but surprisingly bulky ghost.

I used to enjoy thrift stores, but I really don’t any longer. I fear seeing things from my childhood home there amid the coffee cups. I worry that I will find my mother’s robe and slippers or a familiar lamp. I know that there are people there who are shopping because they must, not because they can, and somehow this fills me with shame. Because I want to be freed from the things I have, the keepsakes that seem to keep me instead, and when I remember that the plague of too many things is not something most people in the world will ever experience, I feel deeply sad.

After all this, I bought a life-sized one-armed silver torso for $6.99 at the Goodwill over by Maxwell Air Force Base. We were there to see if they had comic books (a subject for another post). Finding none, we poked around listlessly to explore the contours of our city’s waste stream. The faceless model spoke to me from across the room somehow. Seeing the price, I felt like it had to come home with us. Even the cashier was bemused.

TorsoAs I write, I can see him (I have come to think of it as male, for no particular reason) in the living room wearing a Santa hat. I have no good explanation for this purchase. I think it spoke to me because it had absolutely no utility – an improbable decoration, a bizarre addition to the household, an admission that it’s okay to have things that you love.

At some point we will probably tire of him and find him a new home. If we put him on the curb, as folks in our neighborhood sometimes do with their non-torso items, he’d be gone in a minute. If we sold him in Brooklyn or Austin, we might be able to make a hefty profit. For now, he reminds me that not all stuff has to have a purpose or memory as impossible freight, and that’s a good enough reason to keep him around.