Recently I’ve been thinking about the craft of writing biographies and how, despite being a journalist, I’m just not cut out to tell someone’s life story in the standard narrative manner—you know, with the “Then young Johnny Carson attended the third grade at Plains Elementary School in Omaha” kind of biography. I’m too lazy to do all that research.
At the same time, I’ve become interested in the notion of biographies being told through examining the artifacts people hold on to—their keepsakes and such. I don’t mean it’d always be compelling to look at some old lady’s spoon collection or a lock of hair from junior. I mean those “Rosebud” kinds of items, to borrow from Citizen Kane, the items that represent a kind of personal archaeology.
As a kind of test case, I’d like to talk a little about one of my own—and before anyone tosses it into the proverbial fire like poor Charles Foster Kane's sled.
It’s called My School Box. It’s small, yellow and made of cardboard. I used it to store my various pencils, erasers, and other detritus of the second and third grade. I know this because on one side of the box, where solicited by a few blank lines for my eight or nine-year-old scrawl, I list my teacher as “Watson”, and on another as “Martin”—my second and third grade teachers, respectively. Afterward it spent the next twenty-five years or so in the top drawer of my desk at home.
The box has a series of hand-drawn illustrations of a banal midcentury modern-looking school on the front (not that I don't like midcentury modern), a yellow school bus on one side, and a couple of kids running for school with books in their hands. But over the years I placed various stickers on the box. On the top I have a butterfly covering the head of the boy running to class, as well as stickers of a gremlin from the movie “Gremlins”, Christopher Reeve running in a field toward the camera as Superman, a drawing of John Lennon’s face with the block letters “JOHN LENNON”, and finally a sticker with the slogan, “I’VE GOT THE EATIES FOR WHEATIES”. Funny that I don’t remember ever eating Wheaties as a kid. I was more of a Cocoa Puffs fan.
I’m embarrassed to say the inside top of the box has a campaign sticker for Bob Packwood. (Embarrassed less, by the way, by his later disgrace upon sexual harassment charges, and more by the simple fact of his being a Republican. But I deserve some slack—my parents voted GOP, so I didn’t know any better at the time, and I later saw the err of my ways.) That same portion of the box also includes a Portland Trail Blazers sticker featuring Terry Porter taking it strongly to the hoop. I’ve also drawn a rocket ship (I was way into astronauts in those days) and have hand-written the slogan “FIRE UP!”, which was the marketing slogan for the Oregon Ducks football team in 1980.
I also chuckle seeing the price tag is still on this thing after 25 years. It reads “NON-FOODS” and, below that “49¢”.
Inside the box I’ve kept a number of small items over the years.
There is a note card from Valarie written on May 25, 1995, just a few weeks after we started dating. It’s got a beautiful quote from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
There is also a New York University window sticker that never made it to my car; I don’t like overloading my vehicles with stickers, and if I’m going to put just one on the window, it’ll be for the Oregon Ducks.
I’ve kept lots of tickets over the years. Closest to the top is one from a Yankees game against Oakland at Yankee Stadium on April 22, 1994. I seem to be recall being in the front row of the upper level and being excited to see Jose Canseco.
Next up is a basketball card of the Blazers’ Cliff Robinson (this was before he asked to be called Clifford) from 1992 that I got free with a loaf of Franz Bread. In the photo, Robinson is slam-dunking against a Lakers team (gotta love that) that includes AC Green, Byron Scott and Sam Perkins. What’s really amazing is that Robinson, who’ll turn 40 this December, is still playing in the NBA.
There is also a handful of various student ID cards: NYU from my senior year, 1995; McMinnville High School, sophomore year in 1987-88; a ‘Free ID Card’ I got at Payless Drug Store in 1985; NYU, freshman year; 7th grade; and finally, MHS student body cards from junior year senior year.
More tickets now. One is from the Basketball Tournament of the Americas on June 28, 1002, in which the newly formed “Dream Team” of NBA players, formed for the 1992 Olympics, played Cuba at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. My dad and I saw the US win that game by 81 points. The starting five was Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird and Karl Malone. Portland’s own Clyde Drexler came off the bench to a standing ovation. I also remember before the game the Cuban players asked to have their pictures taken with the US team.
I also have tickets from an NFL exhibition game between the 49ers and Broncos that my dad went to at Eugene’s Autzen Stadium on August 29, 1970 (price $6); a Simon & Garfunkel show at the Paramount Theater in New York on October 30, 1998; two Oregon Ducks football games against USC and Oregon State with no year listed (it was probably the late 80s); and two unused tickets to the 1991 Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, in which Oregon lost 32-31 on a controversial no-good call on what would have been Oregon’s winning two-point conversion.
Next I find a circular Cub Scout patch commemorating a day camp I went to in 1980. This is followed by a metal Pittsburgh Steelers sign, and a cutout from the newspaper of an ad for Ocean Way Motors in McMinnville, where I worked during the summer of 1989. My co-worker Matt Mattecheck gave it to me, and wrote all our funny nicknames for the sales staff pictured in the add (“San Antonio” for Frank Celentano, “Pink Floyd” for Lloyd Mobley, “Richter Dichter” for Bob Richter, and so on). Matt drew two arrows to various salesmen with the inscription, “What a dick!”
After a baseball card featuring Cincinatti’s Eric Davis from 1989, I find a school photo of my cousin Susie at age 14, then some more snapshots of various relatives as well as a shot from my 14th birthday, attended by my friends Reese and Todd as well as Amy, a girl I had a crush on at the time but who had been hospitalized with a heart defect. Reese is so big that in the photo he’s on his knees on the floor while the rest of us are sitting in chairs, but Reese is still taller. (I'm happy to report, incidentally, that he's grown up to be a bad-ass prosecutor knicknamed "The Velvet Hammer".)
There is a postcard of Judson Memorial Church at NYU that I gave to my comparative politics professor, Ernest Oliveri, at my final exam, with the idea that he could mail me back my final grade. Which ended up being a B+. Despite being a good grade, it’s frustrating, because ultimately I finished my undergrad studies one point short of graduating Cum Laude. Had the B+ been an A, I would have made it. Another postcard reads SHALOM FROM ISRAEL and was written to me by my college friend Glenn during a summer he spent in Tel Aviv.
Next there are several photos of my dog Nancy, a gorgeous German Shepherd/coyote mix who passed away when I was in college. And still another photo, this one an official shot taken for my parks & rec swim team, shows me posed in my little blue and yellow Speedo suit, with the none-too-subtle photographer's imprint Stewarts of Dayton right on the front.
More snapshots: me at Madison Square Garden for a Knicks game against the Lakers in about 1994; my friends Joel and Nathan playing backgammon in 1991 when Joel and I drove down to visit Nathan at the University of Oregon; a faded old picture of me hunting for Easter eggs with my mom and my grandpa; and two shots of a C-130 military transport plane (my dad was in the Air Force).
At the bottom of the box is a program from an April 1991 show by jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis at New York’s Village Vanguard club. This was before Branford had, to my great dismay, become the Tonight Show bandleader for Jay Leno. I got him to sign my program after the show. Also written in the inside is a message from my friend, with whom I went to the performance: “He just played a lick from ‘Mad About You’”, referring to the song on Sting’s Soul Cages LP from that year.
It seems very likely that others will find these contents a bore, but for me they are essential artifacts I’m determined to hold on to come spring-cleaning or a trip to the dump. I’m not sure if it collectively tells my story better than I could do with a standard narrative, but somehow it feels comforting to know this junk remains with me.