Until I changed jobs a few months ago, I walked to work and back every day along Tenth Avenue. Being so far west, the avenue feels a bit removed from the bustle of mainstream Manhattan. And the people you see there, particularly north of the High Line, aren’t the usual bodies on their way to jobs. There are delivery people, bicyclists, the people who work in the galleries of West Chelsea, the occasional stray German tourists and homeless people.
Once every week or two, I’d spot the same homeless woman along my route. She had the soot and smudges on her face that suggested she’d managed to stay out of the city shelters where she would have had access to showers, but not to protection from the other guests. What made her stand out was not how recently she’d washed but what she kept with her.
The volume of her possessions seemed to wax and wane over time, but the way she managed them was as consistent as it was elaborate. Typically, she’d have found a couple of those two-wheel carts people use for laundry or groceries and stuffed them with things hidden inside big, black trash bags. In addition, she’d have other containers and means of transport — a grocery cart or several cardboard boxes — and would have filled them with more bulging black trash bags.
As she moved up and down the avenue, she’d push or drag one or two of her containers 20 or 30 paces ahead, then go back for another cart or box. Following this process endlessly over the days and weeks, she’d move sometimes as many as a dozen of these loads up and down the avenue and across the streets of western Manhattan.
I wondered what she kept in those bags. I wondered, too, if she ever took the time (or even had the interest) to look at their contents. I could imagine that, for her, it was less about the specifics of these belongings and more — or even entirely — about the fact that they were hers. In a world of people with things, a world of possessions and ownership, a world in which our peers judge us as much by what we own and wear as by any other measure, it could be most important for her simply to have things she could call her own.
I’ve started to go down the path of reason that explains this need for stuff as the symptom of a culture suffering from the larger disease of capitalism. Brainwashed by advertising and an ingrained need to compete with our neighbors, we adopt ownership and possession as the price of entry into our society and the economy that drives it. But, after I follow that path for just a few paces, it begins to feel like much too simple an explanation; like a cheesy attempt to explain a complex and weird bit of human behavior in terms of austere dogma. Besides: I’ve too often heard my sexual orientation explained as just such another symptom of that same capitalist disease. And that’s reason enough to cough up the whole wad like a hairball.
Then what is it that drives our need for stuff? Why do I find comfort in things that I possess when the only things that should give me emotional satisfaction are the intangible — un-ownable and ephemeral — connections I’m able to establish from moment to moment or year to year with people I care about?
As much as I like to pretend I’m a complex bundle of unique impulses and thought patterns, I know it’s not true. So my interest in stuff can’t be all that unusual. And the billions of auctions for odd second-hand items that have transpired through eBay in the last two decades tells me that there are lots of people out there finding the same peculiar solace in stuff; never mind the millions of new things people buy every day on sites like Gilt and Amazon.
We are obsessed with stuff. And for me — I’ll try to speak only for myself — the comfort I find in things grows more pronounced the older I get, the more I feel my grip loosening on the brightly lit world of the material, and the harder it becomes to imagine a future that once stretched out endlessly before me. When I was much younger, I didn’t seem to put much value on objects. My favorite book or album was only important because of what it contained, not as an object in itself.
Now I self-consciously collect things I think are beautiful or tasteful or just odd. I search the Web to replace things I had as a child or that might otherwise lend some substance to those memories I can’t seem to bring into sharp focus, evaporating as they do the more I concentrate on them. It’s like trying to chase those damn floaters on my cornea: I move my eyes in the direction in which they seem to lie. And as I do, they move too; always just out of focus and just out of reach.
Are things so important to that homeless woman simply because they’re something her situation denies her? If she had an income and credit cards and a place to put things, would her need to collect stuff go away? What drives her to such elaborate methods to hold on to her stuff when it’s likely she’s not even sure what’s in those bags? And [here's what's really on my mind] does the hazy vision of my own mortality off in the distance prompt me to latch onto books and CDs and vintage Christmas ornaments in much the same way that she drags around all those bags? Am I hoping that solid connection to the world of things will lend me a little bit of credibility, if not immortality?
I first discovered a wonderful blog, The Great Within, by way of photos its author posted. He took great care in capturing the images of three odd little ceramic figurines he’d turned up who knows where: post-War Japanese tchotchkes of three most feminine boys lounging and talking on the telephone. More recently, he’s written at length about proper table settings with silver and his collection of pig figurines.
His affection for these things is apparent in his writing. The pride in his connoisseurship, in his ability to talk about what makes certain things more interesting to him than others, is just as clear. But why do we lavish such affection on stuff?
His post on the telephone boys, it turns out, was inspired by another blog — The Haunted Lamp, a blog devoted entirely to stylish and unusual stuff — in which its author described a similarly odd figurine of two Russian sailors sharing a tender moment of camaraderie. His is an entire blog devoted to that affection for and knowledge of material things.
Two other homosexuals who like to talk about their stuff; two men whose connection to their things is more than purely intellectual. What’s up with that?
Do we really share some distress in common with that homeless woman? And are we trying to ease our respective discomforts — the discomfort of living outside the mainstream, of feeling our grip loosening on that world of solid assurances and promises — in the same way, however different our individual experiences may be?
Or is this need for stuff and junk programmed into the mechanism? Is it a vestige of some other existence our ancestors led, when hunting and gathering were more like compulsive drives than rational plans of action? Is this need for stuff more connected to our taste for fatty foods than it is to the politics of 21st century economics?
Damned if I know.
But I do like my things. And even if I rarely look them over carefully — much like that homeless woman may never open her black plastic bags — I find an odd delight in gathering them and holding them, safe in their cupboards and (strangely) deep in my psyche.
As a kind of exercise, I’m going to follow the lead of those two other (and finer) bloggers and parade a selection of my things before you, dear reader. Mine are probably not as nice as theirs, but they mean a great deal to me.
My friend, Dennis, found this for me in some junk store near his home in rural Pennsylvania. It’s just like the one my father had for as long as I can remember and which still sits on top of his dresser. He used to drape his watch over its tail and drop odds and ends (loose buttons, collar stays) into the dog’s saddle bags. Years ago, before his death, he gave me a watch he owned but stopped wearing. I remember it (big and chunky, electroplated in some gold-tone metal) on his wrist all through my childhood. I lost it a few years later when someone broke into my apartment. [Who'd bother to take a watch worth $12.00?] But, thanks to Dennis’s generosity, this caddy feels like the next best thing.
This came from Japan in the late 1950s. I’m sure it was one of dozens of dime-store ornaments my mother bought over the years. Somehow this one survived long enough for me to take possession of it. It was always one of my favorites — so stylized in its rethinking of an overworked icon of the season. His smooth, silvered surfaces seem so modern. The fuzzy hat and coat make such a nice contrast. And the way it catches the tree lights is really lovely. But most of all, I remember liking the way his eyes jiggle.
Cosmonaut and Rocket
Anyone looking for second-hand Christmas ornaments has probably stumbled on the half dozen vendors selling vintage Soviet New Year’s ornaments from one of the former republics of the U.S.S.R. They look and feel so industrial: their glass feels anything but delicate, their details are crude and muddy. And there’s something wonderful about so clumsy a translation of a religious holiday into an adamantly secular and nationalistic one, simply by replacing angels and Santas with cosmonauts and rocket ships (as if Christmas in the U.S. were anything but a celebration of shopping and the world’s largest economy).
Robby the Robot
This reproduction of a 1950s Japanese toy is just handsome. Forcing stiff, flat sheets of metal into these rounded surfaces seems like such an affectionate labor. And the fact that this replica of the robot from Forbidden Planet looks only vaguely like the original makes it all the more endearing. But its greatest value comes from its history: my husband gave it to me on our first Christmas together. Knowing that he paid such close attention to what I might like still moves me. And to add to its appeal, Robby walks, has a key for winding and comes in a reproduction of its original box.
Bull Dog Steel Wool
Canadians are so inured to their national brand of steel wool that they don’t even recognize the awkward beauty of its 1940s-style package. Misshapen white letters knocked out of fire-engine-red and banker’s-green panels. It’s really handsome. (Oh, and I bought this with my husband in a little hardware store in New Brunswick.)
Hy-Mark Thread Spool & SnapIt Spark Plug
For the very same reason I like the steel wool box, I grabbed these odd items in a junk store in upstate New York. They make me wonder about the people who created those packages: not trained designers for whom this was just another job and another chance to create a composition of professional excellence (or at least to design something that was legible). These were probably people who belonged to the companies these products represent; people who took great pride in having created that box or that label.
It was a thing of beauty: all that computing power floating inside a lucite frame. Now it’s dead, its logic board fried and its hard drive removed. And my iPhone has much more storage capacity. Even if Apple didn’t appreciate how wonderful a thing the Cube was, I can’t throw away this lovely moment in functional design.
Athletic Model Guild: Richard Regan
I have lots of things. And of the things I have, a good many are vintage beefcake and porn images, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s. This image appeared in a book friends gave me for my birthday one year. And this image ignited an interest that’s fed several binders and archival storage folders over the succeeding years. I don’t need to go on about what makes this image appealing; I can save that for some other time.
This is a replica of the action figures — not dolls — I had as a child. Hasbro re-issued this larger size some years back for people like me who are grasping desperately for the lost pieces of their childhood. I can’t stress enough how large a role this 11-inch plastic man played in the refinement of my sexual tastes in those years before puberty. I still find the careful molding of his torso fascinating and remember how, by age 11, I was always finding reasons for my guys to strip each other naked and wrestle on the floor of my bedroom.
This individual comes to us from Hong Kong by way of Costa Rica. My friend Dennis brought it back for me from a pleasure trip, knowing that I would at least appreciate the package illustration. There’s just so much to marvel at here: the blatant theft of the Batman image; the decision to place him on the moon to do battle (or is that interpretive dance?) with space villains; and the economical (if unimaginative) use of whatever cheap doll mold was available (breasts and all), made only a little more plausible with the addition of a cowled head. The package does assure us that this is “a powerful and wonderful man” who “beats off any opponent with his strong muscles.” I suppose that should be all the explanation we need.
I think I found this on eBay. It may indeed be one of those postcards made to capitalize on the popularity of certain geishas in early part of the 20th Century. Or it may be simply an American re-interpretation of that idea, capitalizing on a western fascination with Japonisme (since it bears the title of “Vanity” and the credit of the Detroit Publishing Company). It’s pretty, either way.
1920s Christmas Postcard
Christmas is a big deal in my world. And artifacts of Christmases past stir up all sorts of emotions in me, even (or maybe especially) when it’s someone else’s past. Christmas postcards preceded the popularity of the card style we know today. And mass production allowed the companies behind these cards to produce truly delicate and intricate designs at a price that allowed average folks to buy them. This one uses embossing and metallic inks to achieve a really lovely and subtle beauty. I like to dream that some day I can retire and supplement my savings by designing and selling cards much like these.