After hanging the laundry on a rack and folding it into crispy rectangles all summer long, I will soon make the seasonal switch. Air-drying is fine when it only takes half a day – good German that I’ve become, I now actually prefer the crispy rectangles to fluffy bundles – but when it takes a week for the towels to dry, I stop caring about the environment and start using the dryer. Which brings me to lint. It crept up on me until it could no longer be ignored. I would empty the catch and think: this is too special to throw away. But then I would throw it away. Until I just couldn’t. I started putting it in a jar, which is almost full.
I’m not cooking, I declare. We head out to the italian restaurant at the corner. Someone at the table next to us is holding a wineglass full of that orangey champagne drink, an adult lollypop. I want one of those, says M. Moments later it arrives, along with a platter of antipasti for us and spaghetti for the children. The sun is setting, we watch people walking by on the sidewalk.
This is great, M says, why don’t we do this more often? Then the guy with the greasy hair and the suspenders comes around the corner. He’s a face we know from the neighborhood. We’ve lived here 19 years; he’s probably lived here all his life. Spare some change, he says, extending a dirty hand. M gives him a two-euro coin. And that piece of salami, he says, his long yellow fingernail nearly touching the hunk of meat. We all look at each other, not quite knowing what to say or do. No, M says, this is my dinner, you can buy something with the money I gave you.
He shuffles off and R bursts into tears, angry with her callous father. I feel guilty that we have so much and others so little, she cries. We spend the rest of the evening talking about the line separating a cold heart from a bleeding heart. The next day at the street festival R is planning to sell old toys and junk from our basement and donate the proceeds to a charity. After she’s in bed, I go through the boxes of stuff she’s weeded out for the sale, picking out the rings, just because I really want them.
December in Germany – if you have kids – means you will find yourself more than once at the dreaded Christmas Market. You will be informed that your offspring wants to peruse the various crap for sale, eat cotton candy, ride the carousel. Buying three rides at once is cheaper. Around and around they go as your toes turn numb. Again! Again! No matter how many times, you always end up with one leftover chip in your pocket after the Christmas Market has disappeared.
There is something tragic about finding compromising images of strangers. I have to take them home with me, even though I don’t really want them around – I have enough photographs of people I know. But how could I just leave them there? That hopeful young girl in a yellow bikini, languishing in a moldy cardboard box nestled between all the Nazi wedding portraits, that little boy in a gingham shirt. I found him on top of a stack of encyclopedias, next to a door where dogs pee. And what kind of monster throws their kid’s school picture out anyway?
What is it? A No Parking sign? Part of a car? A cleaver? A map of the great lakes? I found it in the street while running over piles of dead fishflies in 95-degree Detroit heat. Then I carried it like the Olympic torch in my sweaty palm for another 4 miles and collapsed in my father’s kitchen. I suppose we have to take it home with us, M said. It was added to the stockpile of miscellaneous debris I had collected so far for the annual import: baking powder, vanilla, various bottles of vitamins, some old aprons, a stray baseball, 9 pairs of new underpants, a souvenir plastic replica of the 1952 Wienermobile in the Henry Ford Museum, an advertisement for the long defunct boat to Bob-Lo. Three weeks later I surreptitiously wheeled our bulging suitcases under the Nothing to Declare sign, expecting the bored German customs guy to pull me aside and demand a cut of my treasure. He didn’t even say welcome home.
Whatever you’re saving – the strapless dress, the king crab in a can, the frequent flyer miles – don’t. Everything has an experation date, including you. And while the wish to wait and find the right occasion can be overwhelming, it is born only of the fear of squandering that precious item. More often than not you will miss the perfect moment and find yourself hurtling towards death clutching something outdated, spoiled and useless. Which may or may not be a green sequined belt.
Steer clear of candles: votive, scented, whatever. They will only make your apartment smell like a gift shop and remind you of Wanda, your upstairs neighbor in Chicago with the inspirational posters of cuddly animals. Take time to Smile! Friends forever! You had posters from museum gift shops. L’Esprit Nouveu! Tentoonstelling Graphica! After a certain amount of use the wicks will just shrivel up and be impossible to light; dust will stick to the waxy surface and you will wonder why you bought them and when you can throw them away, just like with the posters. And if your kids made them you will have to keep them forever.
Yes, loyal reader, I’m back. Where was I? Shopping the internet for maternity wear. Changing diapers. Washing itty-bitty things with snaps. Which has left my hands very dry. This might also be due to years of printmaking without gloves and a lot of cooking. I bought something at the drugstore called a hand mask. Things are improving. As long as you ignore the things that are deteriorating and don’t ask too many questions. Or just the little ones. Should I paint my nails? There are eight shades in the refrigerator to choose from. None of them seem quite right.
A friend mentioned that no images of me show up when I am googled, which left me feeling equal parts pride and shame. Is there no record of the me who enjoyed various lines of overextended credit? The me who told overzealous art lovers not to touch the Francis Bacon? The me who drove the 1981 Honda Prelude? The me who did step aerobics? The me who was an anthropology major for one lone semester? In the interest of filling this essential void, I offer a selection of outdated IDs.
Ah, Berlin in March… Now that the glacial covering has receded, swathes of slushy dog shit and banks of the crushed gravel strewn by the city in an ineffectual effort to keep us all from slipping create an obstacle course for the average pedestrian. If you lost your keys in November, now’s the time to search for them. And if, like me, you have a fetish for select garbage, all the more reason to look down.
Some collections are inherited. Years ago I returned from Florida after my grandfather’s death hugging a battered cardboard box full of the grosgrain and woven linen watchbands he changed daily to match his seersucker jackets and madras plaid pants. He went to Princeton during the depression and his style evolved into a combination of old school preppy and dime-store dandy. Some of his sweaters were threadbare cashmere, others polyester blends. He smelled like cigarettes and Old Spice and was known to fart at the dinner table or dive into a pool with his clothes on.
Back in Chicago, where I was going to art school, I started wearing the watchbands as bracelets, or hooking them together to make belts. I wore bright pink or orange lipstick and embroidered cardigans buttoned up to the neck, and spent a lot of time trying to get my hair to look like a model from the pages of the Sears catalog, ca. 1961, an obscure code to signify a highly private form of rebellion.
At the movies last night on my way into the bathroom there was a girl carefully prodding the elaborately pinned curls of her rockabilly hair-doo back into place, her lips a perfect pouty heart on an alabaster complexion. Part of me thought, Such a ridiculous effort. Another part of me thought, Why don’t I wear fishnet stockings more often? I was wearing a gray sweater with jeans, along with the modern-yet-not-flashy accessories: middle-aged-hip. Walking out I passed a woman wearing the international uniform of the senior citizen: frumpy hat, beige clothes, wedge heel shoes. And now I’m wondering: Is the progression from retro-fringe to tastefully-modern to nondescript-utilitarian inevitable? And, if so, is it something I should welcome or fear?
Give me your broken, your useless, your rusty refuse yearning to be saved… I lost a new cashmere cardigan before Christmas, which was kind of annoying, but if the wire thingy with the two red plastic discs were to disappear it would be a real tragedy. Where did it come from and when did it mutate from junk to talisman? William Davies King answers my questions in his book Collections of Nothing, which intersperses a poignant chronicle of lonely childhood and midlife crisis with lists such as all the varieties of tuna fish for which I have labels. Wise man. And I thought I was the only one collecting the patterns on the insides of envelopes.
Whose keys are these anyway? Are they yours? Were you a Latchkey Kid? Did you hang them around your neck on a shoelace? Key to Success? Key to the City? Key to Your Heart? Etc., etc…
Family lore has it that my first full sentence was Where are the goddamn keys? Well, they’re in my desk drawer, now. I’m guessing one of them might open the padlock on the door to a windowless, nine square foot space at Your Personal Vault, a place mom and I liked to call The Family Estate.
If I found the right key, I might discover things that have been broken and then glued back together, things too ugly for anyone to want but which cannot be thrown away because of their official status as Family Heirloom. I might also find a black portfolio filled with drawings of fruit and baskets, rendered painstakingly in colored pencil on Bristol board. Or the electric pencil sharpener that was so essential to this neurotic activity. The Family Estate might offer up some very overdue books from the Detroit Public Library, Main Branch. Also, some clothes that no one wants to wear anymore.
Another Thanksgiving… Food it took two days to prepare is devoured in two hours. It always tastes the same, which is the point, I guess: ritual, family, leftovers. What remains: a wishbone. What I wish for: world peace, longer legs, another wishbone.
On my desk are two squished foil wrappers – found on separate occasions in front of the same building. They remind me of twin cheerleaders: one skinny, one fat. My mother is a twin. And was once a fat cheerleader, but is now skinny. Must be a sign.
At a kindergarten picnic the kids ran wild while the grown-ups hovered by the food in various clusters. Men with hands in pockets talked about old punk bands. Women with folded arms whispered about schools and doctors. Sporty types peeled off layers, sweating and shouting as they tried to pass the ball to 4 year-olds who were running in the wrong direction. As usual, I couldn’t really make the commitment to join any of these groups. I spent the afternoon milling around until I finally took off my shoes and did cartwheels on the grass, where I found another popsicle stick for the collection.
Animals, in my favorite form: reduced to two dimensions by being photographed in bizarre sentimental settings and printed on cheap stock.
On a gray morning, there’s beauty right at my feet when I step into the street. A bundle of rusty wire – nearly come undone, somewhat damaged, past its prime, still useful, if not exactly as originally intended. I can identify.
The Berliner Präparationswerkstatt is a tiny storefront crammed with the prepared remains of a variety of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. There are always lots of antlers, of course. They had a shark head, once. Sometimes there are works in-progress lying around, like the half-sewn-up pig I see when I walk in today. The smell of formaldehyde brings up bad memories of being pelted with frog eggs in a 7th grade biology class gone berserk.
I called ahead so there are three nice and dusty boxes waiting for me, full of broken bits of legs and wings. I ask the owner if he ever finds the whole thing with the animals disturbing. No, it’s science, he tells me. It’s fascinating! He says the only thing that really gives him the creeps is when people bring in their Fluffy or Rover to have it stuffed and mounted for display in the living room. I don’t mention that I use the boxes to display pictures of my kids. The door jingles and a woman in a black leather jacket comes in and announces, I’m here for the fox.
One of my aunts wrote to me the other day: If I know anything after all this time, it’s that the attention we get is rarely related to anything other than our knowing how to get attention. She would know. This is a woman who used to run marathons with helium balloons tied to the ends of her braids. Publicity-wise, I take more after the other side of the family, the shy pessimists. Lately though, I’ve been feeling the exhibitionist urge, hence the blog, which I intend to fill for all to see with the ephemera that’s too good to throw away, the detritus that’s been rescued from oblivion, the miscellanea that remains.
Here I give you one of many prized possessions: a gold foil embossed matchbox, empty, ca. 1979, from the aforementioned aunt’s shop, a fantastic place where you could eat ice cream, sign up for a 10k run and buy a kazoo. You’re welcome. And don’t forget to say nice things about Detroit.