Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Life in Trash bags

A couple of days ago I noticed workmen taking out bags of trash from one of the apartments that is off the lobby of our building. I thought they might be remodeling it or something.

As I came and went (which if often because the dogs are always pining for a bathroom break), I noticed that the contents of the bags seemed to be mostly books.

A few days later, as I passed through the basement of the building (where the trash receptacles and laundry are) I was stunned to find an enormous pile of clear trash bags full of books. Off to one side there were cartons upon cartons of vinyl records.

I peered through the translucent bags to see what kinds of books there were. I noticed books on language, Judaism, old volumes of encyclopedias, and biographies (mostly of Nazi leaders). I picked up a brand new elementary Japanese language book that was on the surface of the pile. Deeper in the pile I saw a stack of photographs. There was also a box with junk that included an really old Atari computer (it probably had something like 4K memory).

Here before me was someone's life...all in trash bags. Had the person run off? Died? Whatever happened, this was what was left behind.

Being in the middle of my own crazy and hectic week, I held the sense of sadness and melancholy for a few seconds and then let it drift away.

Tonight, when I was taking out the trash, I came across the pile still living in the basement. Rummaging through it were three twenty-somethings. I asked them if they had found something good. It seems like there were quite a few science-fiction classics. I told them that I had some extra boxes if they needed them. They took me up on the offer. When I returned a fourth individual was poking through the vinyl albums amazed at what was there.

Intrigued, I joined the scavenge telling myself that I would get one good book. I came back up with about eight. I picked up some old H.P. Lovecraft paperbacks. Not high quality, but I knew that Sara like HPL. We already had those stories in an anthology, though. I did get a nice hardback H.G. Wells from 1923 or so and a strange book on Magic and Witchcraft iconography.
The other people were certainly taking away more, including many first edition Phillip Dick, Isaac Asimov, and other sci-fi writers.

I asked my fellow rummagers if they knew what had happened. The story they had heard was that the person was carted off to a nursing home and no one wanted to deal with his things. So there they were, hanging out in the basement until tomorrow when they will be taken off to some landfill. From this person's archaeological record, he was some kind of computer scientist interested in space, science-fiction, magic, and languages. He was probably Jewish - maybe a Holocaust survivor or related to one. He enjoyed music and strategy games.

The whole experience has made me think of all the people we pass everyday. As an anthropologist I know each has a story, but this is the first time I have tried to get to know a stranger through their own collection of material culture. Put together a snapshot of a life through the windows of transparent trash bags.

I wonder what story my possessions will say of me someday...

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