I am not a diarist, but I do hold my memories very dear. Objects have taken over the role of archivist in my life. When I pick up something as insignificant as a receipt or an old tee-shirt, I am reminded of where and under what circumstances it came into my life. The objects become a link to the memory. In the case of a somewhat trivial memory – the location of one of a hundred dinners with a friend – the object feels like my sole link to that memory. Throwing it out feels like throwing out the memory. It might come up again, but not without some concerted effort to access it.
What follows is my memory of a single object I picked up almost a decade ago.
It is ‘bulk pickup day’ in the Spring of 2008 – a twice annual event in which the local garbagemen will pick up whatever is put out that doesn’t fit within the bounds of standard garbage: couches, broken lawnmowers or, on this particualar day, a series of worn leather suitcases filled with the collections of a serial traveller. For me, this is a boon-time in which semi-functional record players, vintage radios and strange collections are as plentiful as water (and just as free). Amongst my three companions, one shares my frugality (if not my interest in the arcane) and two others are happy to come along for the ride and mock us. No one has time to fix things and no one cares, it would seem. If you’re willing to look and you live outside of a major metropolitan center, in which the ‘vintage’ label is a 2x multiplier on the price tags of even the most world-weary and unremarkable of side tables, there are deals to be had. Plus, each item comes built in with a particular sort of bragging rights: “the historical society threw out these elementary school textbooks from the 1890s after a flood – would you believe it?!”
Among the cohort of pickers that tend to assemble around these piles, my friends and I are young enough to stick out, but not quite old enough that people are worried. Four men enjoying themselves on the edges of your property are bound to be trouble, but our interest in this trash can be explained away as teenage boredom. No one suspects our genuine interest in this trash, so when I ask about where it all came from: the cases, the chests, the contents of a darkroom and numerous other objects this family apparently tried (unsuccessfully) to sell off yesterday at a yard sale, the owner of the house is somewhat taken aback. He was a pilot, she said, and died earlier this year. The family grabbed his photos and put the rest out.
Among the rest, I find in the drawer of a folding travel chest a small but impressive collection of furs and animal skins. A couple deteriorating mink stoles shed their feet as I touch them. Lovely. Digging deeper, I see some more curious and exotic bits of skin. Zebra is the most easily recognizable. I can’t help but hear the story – told at the prototypical 1950s cocktail party of my imagination – about a quick stopover in one of the more exotic of the airline’s destinations. The story is told with all the humor and insensitivity I bestow upon our pilot – about whom all I know is a willingness to purchase trophy furs – and one of his friends or neighbors inevitably follows this up with a crass joke about running from cannibals. I’m not feeling particularly generous with my imagination today.
Beneath these is a small folded sheet of liner paper with three of the most special trophies carefully taped on. ‘Piece of world record polar bear,’ ‘deer tail,’ and ‘zebra ear’ are written besides in pencil in careful, somewhat young-looking handwriting. I can’t help but wonder what world record this polar bear won? Size? Age? Most seals eaten? This feels like the trademark ambiguity of a hacky salesperson, and as I imagine the pilot overpaying for these tiny bits of fur at one airport or another, bringing them home to show his children before carefully mounting them to this this sheet of paper and labelling them, I can’t help but feel that the whole effort is endearingly lame. Maybe I’ve been a bit too hard on this poor over-worked pilot… In any case, he’s cared for this paper for several decades. The least I can do is care for them for a few more.