Saturday, September 09, 2006

This Rusty Lining

The interior of a Snickers factory ... a frosty winter scene, in bed with a very warm blanket ...
an island populated by monocled goats

These are all legitimate candidates for the place I'd most like to be right now. But with the possible exception of goat island, none win top honors.

Whenever I think of the place I'd rather be, my mind always returns to a rural backyard not far from the small town of Durant, Mississippi. Prior generations of Mississippians once flocked to Durant to visit the famous Castalian Springs, seeking mental and physical regeneration in the deep sourced waters. In more recent years Durant's major engines of commerce and tourism have been reduced to Danny's Auto Repair, a prominent Dollar Store, and the Double Quick gas station which offers lined up lunchgoers a full array of fried delectables dished out into styrofoam trays. But every once in a while, travelers still pass through Durant forgoing the Castalian Springs and seeking out a different type of Baptism, but leaving equally refreshed in body and spirit.

Pulling off the rural route into the driveway, the unassuming house and front yard look like many others in this state. An assortment of vehicles scattered about, each with the hauling capacity to remove all the others, if necessary. The one story house slightly leaning with the shifting earth, spilling out furniture in various states of disrepair. Sagging chairs and rickety tables spotted with the remains of rainwater pools long evaporated, and old dusty grills that haven't seen a burger in years. Check the GPS because you could be anywhere in this state.

But venture through a chain link fence trailing along on side of the of the yard and all familiarity
rapidly dissolves. A darkened forest populated by hulking piles of jagged metal, rusty husks bearing the barely discernable shapes of ancient stoves, farm implements and tools. A fleet of schoolbusses partially sunken in the earth, packed full with mouldering books, hooks, bolts, nuts, cowbells, teacups, saucers and spoons. Radios, typerwriters, dishes, the detreitus accumulated from generations of human habitation. I took a deep breath. I was home.

Presiding over this rusty fiefdom is Felix. A genial and generally shirtless man - save for a lifting belt used for heavy objects and a T-shirt when driving to satelite storage areas around town - Felix built a junk empire through four decades emptying farmhouses and homes across the region, lovingly and indiscriminately hauling the contents to his burgeoning piles.

It had been months since my last visit to Felix, and upon return I recognized that peculiar chest tightening that I've felt sometimes when reuniting with certain people, or special places. I bounded past old cotton scales, ploughs and wagon wheels, carefully disentangled my foot from a length of blackened chain coiled aside the vague path. Not knowing where to go first, I ultimately settled on a slanted shed near the back of the property. Warily eyeing the red wasps building a nest in a nearby cupboard, I pulled out boxes of records, sifted through old family papers and photographs and for the first time in months, breathed easy.

Cats scampered in and out of view as I made my way to the beached schoolbusses, packed tight with narrow paths down the aisle. Felix had removed the seats, and instead of young children on their way to school, the sinking vehicles now drove busloads of junk slowly into the earth.

My hands gathered rust, I breathed deep into the musty boxes and slapped at whining mosquitos. A thin perfume of the past settled onto my clothing. I stubbed my toes and reached blindly into dark corners, not knowing what my hands would encounter.

After accumulating a satisfying pile of keepers and having my fill of run ins with the wasps and other belligerent winged fauna, Felix drove me over to another house, his "auntie's", filled to the brim with old tables, chairs and cabinets. Any careless steps left dents in the rotten linoleum flooring and we both carried flashlights. I didn't know where auntie lived now, but I hoped she'd gone to a better place. My eyes lingered on a large cedar bookcase, before settling for some smaller pieces which we tossed into the truck and headed back to Felix's lost city of Junklantis.

On the way back we chatted about why certain people (us) can't be held down to regular jobs. At one point Felix motioned at the items in the back of the truck and said "for me ... I just love doing this ... this is my greatest hobby." I couldn't agree more.

Back in his yard we haggled and fought. We both knew that I was going to buy and he was going to sell, but we relished the posturing, the back and forth, the discussion of insignificant dollar differences with the utmost gravity. After the agreement smiles returned. Felix admired the amount of stuff I could fit in my van, he seemed impressed with my plastic bin storage system, and I felt proud.

The stuff is still in my van, I haven't brought it in yet. I might leave it out there a little longer. And when I watch closely, I can almost see the tires settling a bit deeper.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Scooby Dooby Brain, Where Are You?

I've realized for some time that I don't have much oversight over my brain. Figure that I'm Congress and my brain is the Department of Defense. Sometimes it'll do interesting or useful things when I don't expect it, sometimes it will overreact, but usually when I need some thinking done the clammy grey lump will be off fishing or checked out for a round of brain golf.

Which is unfortunate, because you have to be careful in this line of non-work.

I was pleased when Sophie told me her address, as it turned out to be only a five minute drive from my home. She had some records and old "pictures" (a vague word that always intrigues me) and she was close enough that it wouldn't matter if the records were all Perry Como and the pictures were of her cat. I knew the area of North Jackson, and I also knew that it was a rough neighborhood, so I tried to get into Texas Ranger always alert mode as I pulled out of the driveway. Little did I know that untrusty ole' brain had other ideas.

I drove down her street, carefully avoiding the kids, pets and garbage cans while watching for the address. Her fence - cobbled from chain link, white pickets and large wooden boards marked "no trespassing" - blocked off the driveway and reached almost to the curb. Just as I pulled away to find a nearby place to park I saw her knocking on the passenger window. Furiously.

"Sophie?"

I rolled the window down, and asked to a young woman standing there with an impatient look.

"Yeah, yeah, let me in ...."

"Why do you want to get in, we can't do it here?" Alertness mode was still semi-functional at this point and I kept the door closed."

"Not here, we have to go ... let me in ..." She was getting impatient.

She was young, non-threatening, and I figured that maybe she had the records and "pictures" at another location. I unlocked the door and she hopped in, right on top of the paper scraps, notebooks and cassettes that littered the seat.

"Drive!"

"Where are we going, do you have the records somewhere else?" I was still hopeful that this would turn out alright.

"Yeah, just drive, I'll tell you where to go."

But she didn't tell me where to go, just to keep driving so I tried a different tack.

"Why can't we look at them at your house, do you want to just bring them there and I'll come back later?"

"We can't, there's too many people there .... Drive! ... you know you can't stop on the street around here."

"Well where can we look at them?" I was thoroughly confused, and wanted a location, a direction, anything concrete.

But after my question she seemed similarly confused.

"Well ... wherever you want, honey."

"Okay, well how about Waffle House?"

I had performed transactions there a couple of times, including the great doubloon deal, and was surprised when she laughed.

"At Waffle House? How about ... a motel."

There should be some photographer who specializes in photographs of people who just realized they've accidentally picked up a prostitute. Suddenly I noticed the perfume that had filled the car. I wondered where my brain had been approximately 15 minutes earlier when this whole thing began. Brain golf again, most likely.

"Look lady, I'm just here to buy some records, all I want is some record albums."

"Just keep driving, let's not talk around here."

"No, I'm not going anywhere. I just want some records."

After a silent moment she glanced into the back of my car and looked over the plastic bins filled with records from a previous purchase.

There should be another photographer who specializes in pictures of prostitutes who've just realized that they're being passed over for an obsolete circular plastic disc.


"Golly" she said, "You really DO just want records."

"Yes."

Finally we both had our cards on the table. The confusing situation had resolved itself. She was selling sex, I was buying records. That should have been the end of it.

"You know ... I can get you a white girl. You want a white girl?"

"No thanks."

"You married?"

"No, I have a girlfriend." Usually a good conversation ender.

Not in this case.

"You ever cheat on her?" She looked at me very intently when she asked this.

"No, I'm really fine, thanks."

"Okay."

She got out of the car. She didn't even say goodbye.

I drove right back around and found the real Sophie. The records were all scratched and the "pictures" were some poorly composed watercolors of a Japanese garden. I wondered for a minute how they ended up there, said goodbye to Sophie and went home.

The Golden Years

So it begins. No more chasing my dreams on the weekends. Gone are the days when 5:00 meant I could live passionately again for a few hours before bedtime collapse. Nosiree, if I wanted that I could just go and be a Communist or some kind of butterfly with a 12 hour lifespan that just flutters for a while and then runs into a window pane. None of that bug stuff for me because there's nothing more American that quitting your job, buying some new shoes and living off the fat of the land. I get my sustenance from bread, peanut butter, refined regular unleaded Basra crude. The AC is my friend and my enemies a horde of flying pebbles. Bridges prone to ice and tires, sagging, weighted, underinflated and worn.

The Itinerant Peddler. Plunderer. Deals On Wheels. Fair Price Paid In Cash. They pay off the medical bills and I hustle home with their history crammed into rubbermaid bins that knock and tumble in the back of the van. One day I even crossed the Mississippi River four times in one day that I crossed that River four times. That's how it is.

I've almost forgotten about jobs and work and it's only been one week. But time isn't so important anymore.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mr. Denman - (Sometime a few weeks ago)

The initial phone conversation was tantalizing and bizarre.

"I've got ooooold records" he began, imbuing the last word with a tone of finality the way others would do with words like "Family" or "The Constitution."

Records.

"I knew Elvis when he was just a milk boy, and Johnny Cash when he was selling telephone books, I knew Loretta Lynn, Reba, all of 'em ..."

His voice was halting, his accent thick and at timed difficult to follow, but I understood enough to realize that this wouldn't be a simple case of a forgotten pile of LPs recently unearthed to be sold on the quick. But even the biggest music fan can have more pressing concerns, and Mr. Denman was candid with his own.

"See I'm an ooooold man .. and I've got to start planning to pay for my funeral ... those cemetary plots and gravestones will cost a whole lot of money."

We planned to meet the following Sunday, and in the late afternoon I pulled into a small apartment complex tucked behind a Home Depot and looking a bit claustrophobic before the steady advance of Jackson suburban sprawl.

He met me at the door, a large, solid old man with the kind of handshake that says "Hello Sir, I am pleased to make your acquaintance and I am certain our interaction will prove pleasant and mutually beneficial. Provided, of course, that you harbor no doubts regarding my ability to whip you into a cake topping."

He settled into an easy chair in the corner of the sparsely furnished living room. Adjacent to his recliner stood a bookshelf thickly packed with old vinyl. On the opposite wall a large blank screened TV tuned to a satellite radio channel emitted an uninterrupted stream of country hits. Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Johnny Paycheck with no song introductions, commentary or commercials. The unrelenting, disembodied music sounded strange when wrenched from any context or recognizable medium, an effect only compounded by my eager thumbing through his fantastic collection of old country music records. Johnny Cash LPs on the Sun label, early Hank Williams Decca releases and a small library of Jimmie Rodgers all left me with that heart thumping feeling that told me it was time for a cool down.

"So you knew Johnny Cash ... and Elvis .. before they were famous?" I asked casually, or as casually as one can attempt to pose such a preposterous question.

"Oh yes ... Johnny Cash was a telephone book salseman back then, couldn't sell a single book though..." He chuckled to himself, and for some reason the comment seemed more to be a quote from a biography than a personal recollection. I was confused.

"We used to go for drinks when I came to town ... I was a truck driver back then."

"Well what was he like?"

His thick, halting speech grew almost incomprehensible and I could only smile and nod at his response, wondering whether I was missing priceless recollections or more evasive semi-answers.

Subsequent proddings on the subjects of Loretta Lynn and Elvis produced similar results. The effect was excruciating, being so close to such rareified, first hand knowledge but finding it just out of reach. Maybe he was putting me on, or maybe to this old man Johnny Cash was just a telephone book salseman who hit it big, unworthy of any prolonged memory dredging. Finally I simply decided that he was an old man, and perhaps his once vivid memories were beginning to dim.

Mr. Denman had other, more important recollections to impart. He told me about his time in the Navy during World War II, and his voice grew clear and steady as he described his participation in Leyte Gulf: "We floated on a raft in the ocean for 11 days before we were picked up ... most of my friends had starved by then," and his aborted assignment to Iwo Jima: "Our unit was delayed so we missed Iwo Jima, we were lucky I guess"

He took me into an adjoining bedroom and showed me a wall of built-in book shelves filled with an impossible array of movies about the War. "I've got just about every World War Two movie ever made." The only non-military tapes were the complete "Death Wish" series, including Death Wish, Death Wish 2, Death Wish 3, Death Wish 4 and the rarely seen Death Wish 5 B-movie spinoff.

"I've got all the Death Wish movies, great series ..." He trailed off.

We went back out to the living room and showed me an area of wall densely covered with pictures, old and new, presumably including many grandchildren and family members. He passed these by and pointed to an old dog eared potrait of a scowling youth in overalls.

"Can you guess who this rascal is?"

He asked, and I made the only guess possible.

"Yup, a looong time ago, and I stayed a rascal ... they said after the war that I wouldn't make it six months out of the army ... getting into all kinds of trouble" He chuckled to himself and continued ... "Well, I'm 82 and I'm still around."

His thoughts returned to our business and again he brought up the funeral bills and the need to generate some preparatory funds.

I made a fair offer for the records and he laughed.

"Nooooo ... these are worth a lot more to me than that ... me and my wife ... we collected all of these records ourselves, and you can't find records like these anymore ..." Judging from some of the titles, he was probably right. "I've got no use for them anymore, but I think I'll hold on to them a little longer."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Stalled Out on the Green Highway

It's raining outside. Through the window I can see the car waiting patiently on the wet gravel. I used to love that crunch of rubber on pebbles, heralding every new departure, announcing every new adventure. But now those memories grow dim and all I know is the sound of water on those stones. The damp drizzly November comes late here I suppose.

In Mississippi rain is good for the foundations. It sounds counterintuitive, but much here is counterintuitive, so much that one wonders whether intuition should go the way of the winter coat: either stuffed into a forgotten box or shipped back north where it might be put to better use. In periods of extended drought here the unstable soil cracks and contracts, raising and dipping foundations at whim. If I had any marbles, I could better trace the barely perceptible but gradually increasing slant in my own floor and foundation beneath.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Mission 1 Update - A Happy Home for the Doubloons and Return of Sherwin

Following my perceived Doubloon debacle, I quickly sought a willing buyer who could take them off my hands. I wanted to be freed from this reminder of my ill-advised caprice, and also to salvage any funds I could for a more responsible investment.

A quick internet search led me to Douglas, a member of a prominent Doubloon trading club. He responded to my email with a bewildering list of Doubloon classifications and the prices he paid for each category: 10 gauge, 12 gague, bronze clausinate, brushed aluminum, dual tone aluminum, .999 silver, .925 silver. It seemed that Doubloon collecting was less an exact science than an entire field of human endeavour. I suggested we meet in person.

Luckily enough, Douglas worked near Jackson twice a week, and two evenings later we met at a Waffle House near the interstate. He was relatively young, late 30s or early 40s, obviously extremely enamored of Doubloon Collecting and mentioned his mother often. Between bites of a triple Hash Browns with Chili, Cheese and Onions, he sketched for me the fascinating history of New Orleans Doubloons.

As we walked through the collection, a complete social history of the city in the last half century emerged from the pages of coins. Douglas showed me which coins were from the first Black Krewe, Zulu, a very old New Orleans club which threw their first Doubloons in 1970. (The Zulu Coconut, one of the most sought after Mardi Gras collectibles, has not been thrown since 1987 following a series of "coconut-to-the-head" lawsuits) He showed me the doubloons from Apollo, the first gay Krewe founded in 1976. He lectured me at length on the history of the various women's Krewes. An early all women's Krewe, Daughters of Eve was founded 1973 but folded before the end of the decade, to reemerge in the mid 1980s as the Krewe of Eve. Douglas offered a scholarly and detailed discourse on the changing breast sizes borne by the female gracing the Krewe of Iris Doubloons, another prominent all women's group.

He then added that his mother marched in Iris. I changed the subject.

Douglas mentioned the "new money" Krewes borne in the oil boom of the 1980s who didn't march but held lavish private balls in the coliseum and other prominent spots.
"So is there some tension between these Krewes and the older groups?" I asked innocently.
His brow furrowed, eyes shone cold and mouth turned up in a frown, his countenance contorted into an interesting blend of "Are you kidding?" (directed at me) and pure contempt (for the new money Krewes).

He also showed me how to identify the different types of metals and production techniques. Soon I could easily pick out the brilliant pure silvers, the beatifully colored bronze clausinates, the brushed and multi-colored aluminum that bring a premium over the generic "commons."
By the fourth coin binder I was throwing around terms "thicks" and "heavies" like I'd been doubloon collecting for years.

Douglas didn't make his money from Doubloon collecting, and he seemed to be honest and fair. Three hours later we'd gone through the whole collection, noted their proper categories, tallied them up and I was pleased to find nearly all my original investment would be recouped. As we paid our bill the waitress remarked on our winning "the Waffle House marathon" and wanted to know what had captivated our attention for so long. Douglas wasn't quite as eager to provide his lecture for the locals, and he responded with the profoundly understated "Oh, these are just coins ... from Mardi Gras ... in New Orleans." As if.

I was particularly sorry to give them up after the history lesson, but I left with his promise that next time in New Orleans I could see his own collection. As for myself, if I should ever run across some again I likely won't hesitate to buy 'em again, particularly now that I can tell a common from a clausinate.

Last night I also called Sherwin back. He seemed happy to hear from me until I inquired if he made a decision regarding the magazines.
"Yeah ..." he responded casually "Last night I started burning 'em ..."
"You did what?" I probably evinced a little more emotion in my response than is prudent.
"I offered to pay you money for those magazines!" Suddenly O.J. the cutter seemed like the patron saint of magazines.
"Well for that amount I figured it wasn't worth spreading them around, giving people that kind of temptation."

In my head a number of thoughts were all trying to process this unexpected turn of events. I cynically wondered what price would justify his spreading this "temptation". I then remembered the story of his daughter and thought that maybe he needed to destroy these unholy magazines more than I needed them for historical significance or to make a quick buck. His behavior at the previous meeting began to make a little more sense. But collectibles are collectibles, and putting them to the torch seemed a little excessive.

"Well I'll buy what you have left, you don't have to burn them!" I responded in desperation. "I can assure you I won't be handing these out on street corners to grade schoolers, these are collected for their history."

He seemed to consider this, and explained that actually he had only gotten through burning about ten of them. "That's the thing ... the darn things wouldn't even burn." Although, painfully, he had started with the rare issues of "Adam" and "Dude," highly collectible Playboy spinoffs from the late 1950s. He agreed to hold off on the auto-da-fe for now and consider selling me the rest. Once again, nothing concluded, we promised to be in touch.

Afterwards it made me wonder how many of these magazines met a similar fate. Whatever Playboy may do or mean today, these earliest issues should be cherished, and it's difficult to underestimate the effect of Playboy Magazine on Post WWII culture. Heralding a new lifestyle that was at once wordly, sophisticated and unencumbered by traditional family structures, the unabashed individualism trumpeted in these pages eventually morphed into the social convulsions of the Beats and Hippies in successive years. Following the rule of unexpected consequences in history, one could even conclude that the early Playboy was a catalyst, or at least a stepping stone to the women's liberation movement in ensuing decades. Once again, this has nothing to do with the current issues produced today ... Playboy's sun set long ago.

Gut tells me the Sherwin saga has not reached conclusion, but that remains to be seen. Fire is final and ashes are unequivocal.

That night kept me turning with thoughts of my lost Doubloons. I missed them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Mission 1 (Sunday 12/18): Records, Magazines and Relics from New Orleans - Part 3

Scooting out of Hammond in shame, a dark, defeating mood replaced the morning’s optimism. The car shifts into first and the day is won, as long as you follow the rules. Now the car, the roads bore more menace than promise and I felt once more a novice, uncertain and prone to error. All those who've driven these roads carried certain images of freedom, mastery, self-determination and discovery. But they can be scary places as well, and dangerous, and what we find on them might leave us pining for the staid, sedentary lifestyle we once scorned and left behind in a cloud of exhaust. I wonder how many detoured off the Green Highways, got lost, their cautionary tales never put to print?

The next stop, a little hop over to visit Bruce in Walker brought me right back to what I do best, Records. No promise of grand rewards but I was back in my element and felt immeasurably comforted. I pulled up at a small house with a mountain of record-storage sized boxes piled in a cluttered living room. As I scanned the collection (visual estimate 1800-2000) a steady stream of children emerged from and then retreated into a single adjoining bedroom.

Watching me excitedly from beneath the brim of a crooked trucker’s cap, Bruce seemed eager to have his living room back. “Yup, you can take ‘em all, we don’t need any of them anymore.” Sweeter music than all the vinyl spread out before me. I finished my quick check: Bob Dylan promo record, sealed Everly Brothers, done and done. I gave my condition spiel, made my offer and finished the deal.

Or so I thought, when Bruce looked at me quizzically, pointed to my car and said "You're gonna fit them all in that? ... I thought you was gonna bring a truck up here."

If there's one thing I know, it's how many records can fit in a Corolla. I just nodded assuredly and said "Don't worry, they'll fit. "

A large boy of about 14 emerged from the bedroom who Bruce quickly enlisted to help carry records out to the car. He was a big kid, already dwarfing his dad and carried records like few 14 year olds can.

Bruce: "He's a football player, you know."
Me: “Well he can skip practice this week, carrying all these records.”
Bruce: “No, there’s no practice this week, he’s on vacation.”

We brought out the remainder of the records in silence.

They fit in nicely with room to spare, we shook hands and I left within 20 minutes of my arrival. If only the whole world was records.

My last stop was Sherwin in Osyka, a very old very small town on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. The previous night I had checked GoogleEarth for a bird’s-eye view of the town. The small, neat grid suggested a game of tic-tac-toe played by trees, with many more peering over their shoulders. Turning onto the main road into Osyka, the posted greeting confirmed my orderly, peaceful image of the town. “Welcome to Osyka – Noise Ordinance Strictly Enforced.”

Needless to say, I had no trouble finding Sherwin’s home, a small structure in tan bricks. The outside was well maintained, which is all I saw since he never invited me inside. When my car pulled up he walked out to the driveway to greet me and that's where we stayed. Tall, dark skinned and tired-looking, (an “Ole Cajun” in his telephone introduction), he spoke with the unmistakable Louisiana drawl perfectly recreated by Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking,” the movie about a terrible act of violence in a small Louisiana town.

Opening the back of a truck parked in front of the house, he showed me some boxes of very old Playboys dating back to the 50s, a stack of records and some eight tracks. The air was chilly, but not to the point of discomfort. I looked over the collection. He talked about his motorbike. I listened politely and made an offer. He offered to show me his motorbike. I admired politely and asked him how much he was looking for if my offer wasn't enough.

He launched into a long and very sad story about his ten year old daughter who got sick after bearing an unwanted child. I wanted to discuss the magazines, but Sherwin was somewhere else. He told me she was forced at an unmonitored grade school party. His words were direct, scoured of emotion after years of anguish. “She was raped … at a party … we didn’t even find out until she got sick and was having the baby.”

He told me about all the hospitals they took her to for years and how she eventually passed away. "She was my heart, and she's gone." I didn't know how to respond. He sounded like he'd told this story many times, that by now he was a tape recorder on perpetual playback, reliving this moment for anyone who'd stop and listen. But hearing it for the first time was heartrending, and I felt no small guilt over the original purpose of our meeting, the Playboys. He told me about all the challenges with the now grown granddaughter, who was born with “all sorts of problems.”
At times, my mind wandered to thoughts O.J., who only spoke of magazines and profit, and then back to Sherwin, who couldn't care less about such trifles. Eventually he concluded his tale with a promise that he would soon move to North Arkansas, “I’m through with Osyka.”

I didn’t bring up the magazines again. I would have liked to but didn’t see any point. We promised to be in touch by phone. I drove home.

Mission 1 (Sunday 12/18): Records, Magazines and Relics from New Orleans - Part 2

After escaping from O.J.'s house of horrors with my precious cargo, I headed back west on 190 to meet Nancy near Hammond. On the phone she had described a small lot of records, as well as a large collection of Mardi Gras Doubloons.

Growing up in Michigan exposed me to many an antique scythe and butter churn, but Mardis Gras Doubloons were somewhat scarce on the Midwest farms. I’d never seen one before in my life, never even heard of one. Right then the buzzer should have gone off: Do your homework! The night before setting out I sadly failed to follow commandment 9, and was wholly unprepared for what lay ahead.

I was dazzled. I was amazed. Shimmering coins in Mardi Gras Purples, Greens, Golds and Silver. Each one emblazoned with the year, the theme and the name of the issuing Krewe. "Forever Young!" "Famous Lovers of the Past!" Smiling Jesters and Crowned Kings looked up at me from the embossed medallions and reminded me that in New Orleans you never say no. She explained to me that a Krewe is essentially a private club that sponsors a float during Mardi Gras. Zulu! Rex! Iris! Krewe members throw common doubloons and other trinkets from the float, but Nancy had loads of the rarer limited runs in .999 pure silver, antiqued bronze and oxidized silver that were issued to members at the accompanying balls.

I'm certainly not the first person to be momentarily stripped of higher faculties by the city's infectious brand of joie de vivre, and before I knew it I was walking out in a daze, poorer, with the growing suspicion that I'd been had. Later investigations confirmed that their value was considerably less than the price I had paid. The hangover feeling was not much different than my first morning-after-Bourbon-Street.

Blindly buying any shiny coins that cross your path is great fun but no way to do business. On the Green Highways it’s hard to stay cool, especially when confronted with New Orleans and especially when loving and leaving is the toughest commandment of all.

Maybe I’m beginning to understand this mud a little better.

Next up in Part 3: Back in my element and more talk, less buying

Monday, December 19, 2005

Mission 1 (Sunday 12/18): Records, Magazines and Relics from New Orleans - Part 1

Mission 1: Sunday Dec. 18 - 8:30 am to 6:00 pm

Driving down I-55 towards the Louisiana border, I felt that familiar thrill. Four stops lay ahead, four question marked doors to flip around and see what prizes they concealed ...or perhaps not prizes, instead offering the big buzzing X or an indifferent cow mooing my defeat. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t seek my tonic in glorious triumphs nor derive pleasure from failure’s sting. The very plunge into the unknown, the escape from a scripted existence, this is why I go. The car shifts into first and the day is won.

Number one on the list was O.J. in Covington. Turning off 55 South onto Route 190 east, the landscape quickly came into focus. You can't learn much from an interstate highway but state routes rarely disappoint. It certainly didn't this time as I drove past bent Pine trees knee deep in the Louisiana muck, seafood restaurants luring travelers into snares of shrimp and crawfish po-boys, and everywhere, ubiquitous, a preponderance of tractors. I saw them lined up neatly in dealerships, proudly positioned in front yards, chugging deliberately down the road and cast haphazardly across open fields. The oversized tires were all caked in the same dark brown mud that seeps onto the road and makes mockery of foundations. Louisiana is a mystery. People here divide their time between getting stuck and pulling themselves out again. Maybe someday I’ll understand.

By 11:30 I pulled into the small apartment complex to meet O.J. I wasn't particularly optimistic about this stop, since apartment complexes rarely yield great results. The ideal situation is to find the original owner of an old house where items accumulated, left to age and ripen undisturbed by cross-town moves or renovation. When people relocate, they bring cherished items and discard the rest. The former won't be sold cheap and the latter is long gone by the time you catch up with them in their new subdivision or apartment.

This wasn't the worst of it, for O.J. was a cutter. For years collectors of cover art and advertisements have perpetrated a wholesale slaughter of old magazines, atlases and illustrated texts. I walked into his crowded abode past walls filled with disembodied covers and ads from Life, Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post and others. O.J. explained to me that there was big money in cutting - often much more than in the resale of intact texts - and his framed pieces were admittedly quite attractive. I found myself lingering over a Barbarella Movie ad with a particularly nice frame. But profitable or not, I will never stand for cutting, defacing or dismemberment of our material history and would be no accomplice to O.J.'s crimes.

He was friendly enough but clearly consumed by his hobby, a common sight but always sad to witness. Another victim of the voracious, unending compulsion to acquire until the entire world of collectibles is tucked away in what was once the linen closet. A slightly stooped and partially toothed old man, he hobbled me through a tour of his vast holdings and spoke of nothing else. He described his current difficulties as traditional buying channels have disappeared with Ebay’s advance. He told me how in his desperation he found a dealer in Vermont who regularly sends him low-grade magazines at exorbitant prices. “But you … you are young, you can travel like this, you can still find things.”

He told me about his old contacts in New Orleans washed away by the hurricane.
“Dead … all dead.”
“Oh gosh … I’m so sorry” I responded, shocked.
“Well not DEAD dead, but their businesses are dead, gone for me.”
O.J. was already out of the running for my "honorary grandfather of the year" award, but this comment eroded any of my lingering respect for the man. I had promised over the phone that I would bring some old magazines of my own for trade and at this point in the conversation he turned to me, excited:
“Ok, now … what did you bring for me?”

Greed. Recognize it.

No collector is fully immune to greed, but certain safeguards can help maintain sanity. Expect nothing. Like Abraham at the binding of Isaac, every traveler of the green highways must be prepared to sacrifice their cherished son or original Vanity Fair lithographs on a moment’s notice. Love and leave. If you don’t love the green highways, you have no reason to set out from home, and if you can’t leave you’ll never make it back.

Shifting to evacuation mode, I proposed a modest trade to conclude our meeting. I showed O.J. the magazines I’d brought and ultimately decided that they would be sacrificed to rescue an old stack of bound Harper's Weekly from the late 1800s doomed for the chopping block. As mentioned previously, I have little respect for cutting. Admittedly the loss of some Life magazine articles will not constitute a measurable loss to our literary heritage, but old Harper’s are another story. We leafed through them and I professed my excitement upon seeing contributions by Kipling and Twain - "I don't read much" was all he replied. Cutters.

To be fair, we're all cutters to one degree or anothers, this is the nature of collecting. Every purchase, every discovery is another item wrenched from its context to be placed on a shelf. I feel this most acutely at estate sales, when you often see the entire story of a person’s life, entire generations of American history broken up and parceled out into greedy and indifferent hands. Maintaining an authentic context for any artifact is a fallacy, since the time of that context has long past. All we can strive for is to keep items intact to the best of our abilities, and the picture of the past that emerges will be, perhaps, a little more complete.

Next Up in Part 2: Dazzled by the Crescent City, I Find Myself in Over My Head

Ten Commandments of the Green Highways (Subject to Revision)

1. Have Cash.

2. Expect Nothing.

3. Speak Second.

4. Always Fair Never a Fool.

5. Don't Spend the Night Alone in the Car Without Mr. Comb, Lady Mouthwash, and Uncle Clean Pants.

6. Eat Later.

7. Trust Rumors.

8. Recognize Greed.

9. Do Your Homework

10. Love and Leave.