I’ve broken through a membrane in our garage, the garage that’s bigger than some apartments I’ve lived in, where our kids can ride their bikes or scooters when there’s no cars and I’ve cleared the boxes to the side.
The garage, that’s come to represent all our excess, that’s formed a membrane between us and our objects, because objects have weight and sentiment and your possessions can grow to consume you.
And so the task of cleaning out our garage grew to become more than it should. The task now something more, a symbol of life’s lethargy, a dark lidless bird outside my window, a reminder growing more ominous each day that passed as if time alone, my procrastination, gave it life.
But like anything, once you start and make some progress, you’ve broken through the membrane.
It’s the thought of what might be buried in the boxes, the boxes under the stairs, that made it so hard. The boxes that came from my mom’s house in Pennsylvania, labeled “Master Tapes,” all caps, underlined. An implied directive to handle with the utmost care. If the Ark of the Covenant were labeled, it would have the same font.
So I dismantled the insides of all the boxes and laid them out on the ground. And like Noah, I put an order to things; I organized them by their color and species.
For my stepdad John was a musician and a collector, and at times a stretcher-of-the-truth. In other words, every object, every record, every book or piece of art had a story behind it. It’s not to say John lied, but because he was a story-teller I’ll call it more a creation of New Realities.
Because he said things like,“I knew Marc Bolan and actually had some letters he sent me when he was going through a difficult time…wasn’t easy being Irish and gay and Jewish in the 60s…”
Or the fact he was in the studio the night they recorded The Court of the Crimson King.
It’s scraps like this that force me to go slow taking apart his boxes, in hopes I’ll come across something truly precious.
Here are a few stops along the way:
The Master Tapes boxes are from John’s recording studio, an era spanning the 60s into the 90s, with multiple sized reels and audio/video format, including 5″ reels, 7″ reels, two sizes in between, compact discs, cassettes, vinyl in 45s and 33⅓, video cassettes, Super 8, even video film, the big reels: the original film from BBC recordings John starred in, late 60s. African safari expeditions, too. It’s stuff I will likely never watch because I don’t have the equipment but I’m compelled to keep.
And while it’s not wise to do so and lesser to admit it here, I’m moved to drink in the garage, to start earlier than one should and continue on deep into the night, as if there are spirits here in the garage, that The Chamber of Secrets has been opened and it’s true: you can hide pieces of your soul in books and objects, it’s not advanced wizardry.
That may sound New Age or Young Adult, but amid the old microphones and chords and many small recording devices unopened and described on the packaging in German, amid all this I found a random love letter from an old girlfriend of mine, read it, had the impulse to save it, but when I put it in my pocket I sensed it actually stir, like it was alive, and so I threw it out and closed the lid.
It’s all these things that drop to the bottom of the boxes and roll around like loose pebbles in our shoes: handwritten or typed letters, the ink fading, addressed to John.
A musician in Salzburg offering to put John up at his house and maybe John could get him a recording deal,
…I hear you’re touring in Austria in the near future. I have been singing around the German and Austrian folk clubs and many people are asking me for a record of my songs…I have sufficient material for 5 or 6 albums but you would have to choose whatever songs you wanted.
Signed, Les Brown (who sounds like he should be someone).
By going through John’s records you can follow him around the world as his tastes grew from the blues and ragtime in the American South, onto Hawaii, Portugal, India, Afghanistan, parts of Africa.
Because he was signed to Island records in the 70s, he’d get promo copies of records from the label, and it’s through John I first heard Rain Dogs, because according to John, Tom Waits had contacted him directly asking, would he produce his next album? But John couldn’t listen to it it was so bad, which made me about die.
Many of the cassettes have lost their mates (tapes without cases and vice versa), and some of the reels have the tape hanging out like guts, and I do my best to organize them and flip the titles so they’re all facing the same direction, and I’ve effectively moved contents of boxes from one box to another, but I’ve at least scoured the insides and feel like I know what’s in there.
And I move on to my boxes now, containing the precious but disorganized artifacts of my own life, and release old letters from professors, first resumés, drunken photos from college. It’s the micro-scenes lived, lost, forgotten until this moment, a final gasp where we all go to die, in the garage.
From a writing professor (in red pen, cursive),
May well be the very best (at least creative) journal I have ever read Bill. If you ever really get control of all your talent & channel it better you might well be a force to be reckoned with.
(Then, a capital A with a circle around it.)
So you’ve learned how to expose the naked nerve. Ooof. Creepy, painful, devouring, liberating, useful — above all, useful. Keep doing it, nerve by nerve, body part by body part, jagged edge by jagged edge…
When you discover your planet of origin, please let me know.
She may be dead now but she was alive again when I found that letter yesterday.
And so the picking away at these forgotten parts of our lives takes on an obsessive aspect, like picking at dried glue and scabs, because there’s parts of us buried in boxes but some things buried are better left that way — there’s a reason they’re buried, they’re dead.
Of all the treasures I imagined there is one I did not: an antique pocket watch my grandfather gave me when I was going off to college. I thought it had been stolen from a fraternity house, from a special place I’d hidden it but it was gone. Instead, it was here at the bottom of a box and my grandfather appeared when I held it in my palm and looked to the sky, I felt him.
It’s in our basements, attics and closets in the things we keep we think we’ll find answers to life’s pointlessness, the gaps in our past, but of course we never really find it in our things, it’s just enough to make us keep looking.