Sunday, September 5, 2010

In The Antique

In the antique trade, not the fine, or estimable part of the trade, but the everyday leftovers of lives ended, there is a central figure that is all but unknown to the customers, but without whom they would have little to acquire: pickers.

Pickers are men, generally, who comb the city's alleys and abandoned buildings looking for anything they can haul to a dealer for some cash. They are unafraid of stealing what they see if they can imagine making a buck on it. Most of what they haul around is trash, and it always sells. It has been my experience that "antique" dealers relish these encounters because pickers are just at the bottom rung of the same brotherhood.

I once set up a small space in a rambling, decrepit mall on Belmont Avenue in Chicago trying to sell whatever it was that I came across at garage and estate sales. I watched the pickers with a mixture of disgust and awe. They stole iron benches from cemeteries, broke into homes when they knew there had been a death, they ransacked each others trucks (if they had them), but more often fought over the stolen shopping carts they used to haul their finds to the mall.

I once bought a box full of spine-busted books for twenty dollars because there was one immaculate book in the lot and it was worth over $300 dollars easy. After the sale the picker regretted it and tried to give me my money back, but that's the shitty thing about being a picker - you always risk more and make less than anybody in that particular food chain.

I mention all this for two reasons: 1) None of the pickers had anything approximating a life. Most were drunks, a few were addicts, all were dirty and almost all were homeless. The dealer who ran the mall on Belmont let one of them sleep in a corrugated metal storage container he kept in back of the building; and 2) I realized this morning that the way I go about this site is the same as the pickers I used to know. I look for evidence, clues, bits of loose string, the odd association and bring it here and try to sell to you the idea that if your life is fucked you are the only one who can unfuck it.

Picker, me.

* * *

Rarely do I know what I'll say before I say it. I listen to what is said around me, to me; I eavesdrop; I attend. Books, music, news all feed this process, but just as often it is a found thing, an unintended thing that gets it all started. I fear establishing a pattern or rhythm to any of this. That would run counter to my intention. No, all this is built one word, one thought at a time and what works works, the rest...

The rest doesn't matter because for my purposes it all works: this is how I unfuck my life.

* * *

After my father's death I was heir to the flotsam and jetsam of his sad and solitary life: a tin of pipe tobacco, a box of .22 caliber bullets wrapped in twine from when he was a teenager hunting squirrels, chipped hand tools he'd acquired at a Salvation Army store in the early '50's, his pipes, old 8mm movie cameras, a forgotten scrapbook from his childhood, a broken Walkman he listened to as he died, old invoices for his work as an embalmer, two packs of Pall Mall cigarettes. My grief was based on how little I knew of him, how secret fathers are to their sons, but also on the paltriness of his life, the narrow range of his happiness, the sadness he could never shake over the way things turned out for him: a difficult marriage, a difficult childhood that clung to him to the last, the brevity of his joy owning and flying an airplane. As I sat among his few battered assets I imagined that I could conjure the truth of him by simply understanding the relationship between these few objects that he'd once held in his hands. Emotional Archeology I termed it. Where were the connections? Where the meaning?

My time with the pickers amplified this notion until I was stultified by the magnitude of the connections, the meanings in these once meaningful objects and the lives they passed through, their personal history the worst sort of pornography - peeking in on loss, ignoring the journey that brought the silver platter, the book, the chair, the dresser, the gossip table, the tobacco tin to the shores of a resale shop.

And still I lean into the idea of searching the ground for lost money, searching in attics for a forgotten beauty, searching in books, in music, in bits of overheard conversations for something I can use, something I can bring here to show you, something that adds to the story, the beautifully sad and noble story of how we try to make our way in the world.

There are prophets in garage sales, cranks in battered boxes of books, saints in tobacco tins.

Open your eyes. Your answer is waiting for you to find it.


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