Going from place to place I often stoop to pick up bits of street treasure. As I walk through New York City, I scan sidewalks, curbs, cement crevasses, stair seams, roadsides and building ledges, proceeding from place to place. I’m cautious about plunging for fractured artifact vestiges close to fire hydrants and prudent about bending for candidate odds and ends in front of stopped buses. I’ve noticed that most folks look in the direction toward which they’re headed and at merchandise in shop windows or at their own passing reflections. Many stare blankly ahead while listening to their headsets or conducting the business of life on cell phones. Sure, I look at architectural details, eye-catching store windows and traffic lights, greeting friends en passant. Besides all that, nifty bits that glimmer or show other irregularity in the compressed soil between cement sidewalk cracks, speak to me in operatic tones. My friends and family consider squatting for truck droppings mid-conversation to be my peculiar flavor of multi-tasking. A few companions show aptitude for quick study and vet and acquire good street stuff, gifting me later.
Browsing doesn’t interfere with the course or functions of my life; it’s an enhancement. I didn’t train myself for this avocation. It just happens to be how/who I am. As a youngster I frequently found things that others dropped, lost or tossed. Noteworthy is a bronze coin that I found in front of the apartment building of my childhood. A half-inch in diameter, it was a portrait surrounded by Christopher Columbus 1493. As a six-year-old kid, I knew the year was not the important year because at P.S. 106 I had learned a song about Columbus Day:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
Fourteen hundred ninety-three was close enough. I had even drawn the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. How did the coin get from Hispaniola to the East Bronx? Did the guy who lost it come by ship? I checked my living room window in case he was retracing his steps, looking for it. This find was a zenith in my budding collectorhood and important enough to show to my father. He was perplexed and astonished to be holding anything so old. He brought it to a coin shop near where he worked, in New York City’s Garment Center. The professional numismatics dealer told him kindly, I hope, that the coin was part of a Catholic school medal that had become detached.
I put the coin into a cigar box with my other precious tidbits, happy that I didn’t have to give it to the Museum of Natural History, beloved destination of class trips. In my mind’s eye I can still see that coin. Aided by experience in handling coinage, I now know that the reverse, showing the negative of the obverse embossment on thin sheet metal, should have been a temporal clue; the sharp strike and the unoxydized and uncirculated condition were dead giveaways. Three lessons were learned from this adventure. Printing or embossing doesn’t imbue words or dates with truth. Parents don’t know everything. Deductive reasoning may be applied to any object once the dropped-jaw phase has passed.
The nadir of my street finds was a small, luminous aquamarine stained glass tile. Clever and careful as I am, I reached for its crystalline perfection to discover that it was a previously owned Hall’s Mentho-Eucalyptus lozenge recently sucked to glassy even thinness, spit out and catching the sunlight. All that glitters is not gold and how boring life would be if it were.
Souvenir pinback button with Trylon and Perisphere, 1939. Celluliod coated printed paper, made in the USA for the New York World’s Fair, 1.25"
Thinking Out of the Box
In April 1973, I was in Paris with my husband Ivan and our four-year-old son Jesse. After visiting the studio of Erro, an artist whose paintings Ivan intended to exhibit at OK Harris later that year, we went to Chez Rene, a neighborhood bistro for late lunch. The restaurateur was a fan of Erro’s work. After a fine repast of specialties that were not on the menu, he offered a round of a crystal clear cordial that was poured from a bottle fitted with a pink hand-knit zippered coverall. Smitten by sumptuous food, starched white table linen, engaging conversation and copious libation, this was a fitting closure to our meal. Jesse, who had been quietly entertaining himself with toy cars and tableware obstacles, reached over and unzipped the bottle cover. He said, “You drank that.” The bottle contained a long slender grey viper, tightly knotted at the bottom of the bottle with its open-mouthed head leading up the bottle’s neck.
Apparently, French peasants from the Pyrenees know how to make good things from life’s unavoidable afflictions. They are “can do” when it comes to taming vipers with alcohol. Post-glacial generations of Basques have perfected viper liqueur. This is the recipe. Force a sugar cube into a empty, clear uncapped wine bottle and place it, on its side, under your bed, in a dark corner of your barn or workshop or wherever you’ve previously seen a viper. Leave the cork within easy reach and be patient. Cork the bottle as soon as the viper enters. While the snake is enthralled in a sugar high, pour an inch of the nearest thing to pure high proof moonshine and quickly recork. Do this daily. As the regurgitated sugar, alcohol and venom marry, the snake’s head gets closer to the top of the bottle in search of oxygen and revenge. Besides remaining clear, flavor-wise, something magical happens to the liquid. I have thought about who first figured this out while kicking stones along the banks of the Garonne River or in the mountains around Artez-de-Bearn. Someone regarded the given conditions of life sidewise. This person is a first cousin to the collector of uncommon things. They are two disparate examples of people who think out of the box.
They cause one’s world to shift slightly, in a good way. Those who cherish the “unlovable,” those who see significance in what most people perceive as corny, banal, common, too familiar or invisible look at the world in unconventional ways. Each is still in touch with their inner child. They may be provident, innocent or helpless but they are vigilant and undaunted in their singleness of mind. They are seekers with an impulse that is unteachable. The gifts of original thinkers can shock us. Then, if we’re susceptible, comes comprehension and enlightenment.