Saturday, March 31, 2007

Junk--the Verb and the Noun

My dog, Sally, has outed me.

I am neither neat nor tidy. At some point in the day, I manage to appear neat and tidy, but soon enough--all too soon--cosmic forces collide most notably with my shirt, tie, sweater (if the weather warrants). If my jackets often slip under the radar, the back seat of the Camry makes up for it.

Work areas--the worked-over two-car garage now euphemistically referred to as "the library," and that portion of my room where a desk, computer, printer, and bookshelves seem to present themselves like dogs up for adoption at the animal shelter--become a multiple and mixed metaphor, a Sargasso Sea, a Bermuda Triangle, a mine field, a cemetery.

This is not something I have set forth with deliberation to achieve, nor does it emerge from any desire on my part to rebel against authority or conventions (Writing is my ally in that struggle. The condition has been with me as far back as memory extends; it is best defined by two pleasant but remarkably different forces, an archaeologist and my late father.

Brian Fagan, even though now emeritus from the academy, is a world-class archaeologist. I first met him as editor to client, but by now, at least a dozen books later, that line is seriously blurred. We meet, as friends do, to gossip, drink coffee, and describe the world to one another, only incidentally addressing a particular chapter or two of a particular book in progress. "Archaeologists," Fagan maintains with voluble force, "are glorified junk dealers. They cherish items you would be hard put to charge ten cents for at a garage sale. What is the archaeological wing of a distinguished museum but a well-labeled rubbish heap?"

Somewhere within the clutter of my desk is an empty Altoids Mint box. True enough, I did eat the mints, but having found at one time a web site filled with interesting second uses for Altoids tins, I keep the box, eternally hopeful a second- or third-generation use for it will emerge. Besides, think of the range of social and historical significance were my one Altoids tin to grow into a collection, demonstrating size, flavor, and design.

So there you have an example of the Fagan effect on me: Altoids tin as artifact; junk as definition, trash as cultural evidence. Did the Cro-Magnon not have bad breath or dyspepsia? What they did not have was a tin to carry about their Altoids, and so my wannabe collection assumes the status of a tree ring or core sampling.

Jake, my father, was not an academic, but he was hardwired with neatness and organizational skills of such significance that he drifted into a radical change in occupation. Auctioneers fought for his skills in preparing commercial sites for sale at auction, these skills including an ability to make junk look important. "Make junk look important, and people will pay for it," he told me, shortly before yet another of his demonstrations to me of what worked in life and what did not work. At the same auction, a dustpan filled with the lees of a large floor I'd just swept, sold for seven dollars. The contents of the dustpan included sundry screws, bolts, and a few brass washers. Dumped into a corrugated box with neatly trimmed edges, then labeled as Miscellaneous Machine Parts, the contents of the dustpan brought in more money than the chuck of a lathe, worth at the time at least twenty-five dollars.

I am at heart a collector. Over time I have collected pulp mystery magazines, pulp science fiction magazines,cereal boxes, Coca-Cola bottles, baseball trading cards, miniature Oriental rugs once used as a premium in Murad cigarettes, lithographed drawings of airplanes included in packages of the now-defunct Wings cigarettes, Big-Little Books, playing cards with interesting patterns, kachina dolls emblematic of Hopi and Zuni supernatural figures. I won't talk about National Geographic magazines or toys from boxes of Cracker-Jacks, or those old Dell paperback mysteries with the maps on the back cover because everybody collected those, and not a word about my current passion, fountain pens.

There is something comfortably filling about having such collections, of a piece with having had an enormous steak dinner at Gallagher's or Smith & Wollensky in Manhattan. These collected things are artifacts of a time, a place, a way of life, a culture. True enough, they take space in the garage that could otherwise be used for, say, cars; they occupy space in closets and drawers that could provide splendid homes for first-aid items, clothing, cleaning implements, things bought in large quantity from COSTCO.

As a young man, Brian Fagan worked in Africa, in fact, with Leakey in Olduvai Gorge. At one point, he relates, he found a small, hand-shaped wedge used to split logs, and was told, Well done. He is not likely to go on digs now so his sifting and searching is mostly in libraries or direct interviews with men and women still working the fields. I liken his fascination for wrist watches to something more than the status symbol of owning an expensive time piece. Even though I can and often do wear a Timex, I can relate to the sense of beauty one senses under the crystal and well into the inner workings of a hand-made watch.

With some exceptions, I can lay my hands on most of the stories that appeared in the issues of Black Mask Magazine I collected, mourning with each new addition to the collection the fact of the demise of Black Mask before I could submit stories to it. Somewhere in that garage-cum-study, there is an actual Black Mask cover, announcing that within these flimsy pages, you could see a story by Dashiell Hammett.

Junk, Jake would say, using the Yiddish word tinnif for it, gold for you who wants it and even more for the person who owns it and knows you want it. This was not said with scorn, mind you, but with the vision of a man who kept himself, his home, and one of his kids neat. He, on the other hand, had a virtually photographic memory, obviating his need after a time to keep a collection of The Daily Racing Form, that lovely data base of equine velocity relationships, the sines, cosines, and tangents, as they were, of what Horse A did against Horse B over six furlongs on a fast track.

Junk. What we once used and threw out--and which becomes valued by someone else. The detritus of one society, the artifacts and relics of another. Also the items we thought we wanted and can no longer live with. Items we once thought contained the lightning in a bottle of beauty. Or meaning.

Found art; unrelated cast-offs, put in proximity by a person with "an eye for beauty."

I once saw, hanging on the wall of the church at Acoma Pueblo, a sconce of preternatural loveliness, a candle within it casting mystical light through the textured surface of the glass in which it was embedded. Closer inspection revealed the secrets of the sconce and candle holder.

The metal from which the sconce was cut, bent, teased, and painted was once a tin bearing a Hormel ham. It was later revealed to me that the glass candle holder was originally a container for Welch's grape jelly.

Can anything be found in or made from the clutter in my work area? Hope springs eternal in the breast of man, Alexander Pope has told us. There are ideas and bits of energy in those piles. Like the archaeologist, I sift through them for artifacts, hearing Jake's voice as a reminder that if it is treated with respect, possibly, just possibly, something might come.

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