Three years ago I took a French 101 class. I like to do at least one thing per year that I’m totally unprepared and unqualified to do, for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In addition to keeping things interesting—and that’s what life’s all about, right, keeping things interesting?—a small goal like that is manageable and within reach. The standard resolution-type promises one makes to oneself around the new year are generally connected to making ourselves better, or anyway more efficient, people, and they’re often so sweeping that we can’t help but screw up at least once.
Not so with my plan. Even if I fall on my face or my ass, depending on which way my body’s leaning when I undertake the project, the tumble is usually spectacular. And when someone asks, “What did you think you were doing?” I can truthfully respond, “It seemed like a good idea when I had it.” Which is, to be totally honest, the only consistent reason I’ve ever done anything. Also, if anyone has the temerity to say to my face, “That’s the ugliest tryptich I’ve ever seen in my life,” I can reply, with serene confidence and Wildean timing, “It’s one more tryptich than you painted this year. Jagoff.”
So when I took the French class in 2007, I began taping up little note cards all over the house, upon which were listed the English and French words for whatever they were taped to: “wall/mur,” “refrigerator/réfrigérateur,” “bedroom/chambre à coucher,” and so on. This sort of memory aid is something you’re encouraged to try when beginning to learn a new language; it helps with retention of commonplace words and phrases.
Of course, three years later and long after I might have needed them for exam aids, most of those cards are still up, now faded and yellowed, a kind of humble memento to the semester I spent studying French. I sort of like the look of them, though, and part of me actually doesn’t want to take them down.
It’s not that I’m a bad housekeeper. I mean, I put things back in their places after I use them, I vacuum and wash dishes and do regular laundry and everything, and if my place exhibits the sort of clutter usually associated with nerds and professional bookworms (books, CDs, pens, paper clips, and rubber bands lying on most flat surfaces not otherwise engaged with holding up coffee mugs or liquor bottles), it’s at least a manageable sort of clutter. The place smells clean and doesn’t breed disease, or interfere with the comfort of anyone who might come around for a drink. And frankly, that level of comfort is all I ask of anyone’s home, let alone my own.
But in this, the week between the end of the holiday social brouhaha and the beginning of the new semester, I went on one of my semi-monthly cleanings and ended up digging a little deeper in the layers of the place than I might have, if I were taking only a single afternoon to do it. And so, sifting through the sands of time, here are a few of the things I found tucked away, hidden within, buried under, stuck behind, obscured beneath, or hiding in plain sight on top of, the stuff I was trying to clean today.
1. My college ID card, circa 1990, with social security number reprinted upon it in great big bold-ass serif font. Several things about this item are just flat wrong, not the least of which are (a) the blatant and apparent institutional and personal disregard for identity theft in those more innocent days, and (b) my hair. That’s how we rolled in Nine-Ought, player: Reckless and feathered.
2. An 1891 edition of Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of FREEMASONRY, Prepared for the Supreme Council of the Thirty-third Degree for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, and Published by its Authority, 1947 reprint. If any Masons are reading this, I’ll take $50.00 not to reveal your secrets in a subsequent post. Email me privately.
3. A 45rpm of Huey Lewis and the News’ 1986 single, “Hip To Be Square.” I ran across this item slipped inside a vinyl release of a Richard Pryor record—whether by me or someone else, I don’t know. My friends and I, when out at the bar on a slow night, used to play “What’s the most embarrassing thing in your record collection”? I used to say it was a Linda Ronstadt album, but I think we might have a new winner. In the plus column, the promo shot of the band on the sleeve made me feel better about my own hair.
4. Seven cat toys, about half the size of the palm of your hand (well, my hand), ranging from a brightly colored parrot to what looks like a stinkbug made from felt, pipe cleaner, and glue-on googly button eyes. Someone—one of the cats, presumably—has been stockpiling these behind the couch for some nefarious purpose. One had had its seam bitten open and its stuffing pulled halfway out, maybe as a warning to the others not to get uppity.
5. A McDonald’s promotional coupon, expiration date 12/31/2003. Dammit. Now I’ll never know the joy of stickin’ it to the man by consuming a McRib obtained for 75% of the actual purchase price: Take that, Ray Kroc! You and your whole gahdamn empire and its beyond-the-grave stranglehold on dollar-menu arteriosclerosis! That’s two bucks of mine you’re not gonna use to buy balls for your filthy indoor play area! AHHHH-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! And so on.
6. A pocket-sized notebook I used once, and then never used again. However, for anyone who’s interested, here’s what I needed at the grocery store on April 20, 2008: Onion, tomatillos, cilantro, bay leaves, olive oil, avocado, black beans (dry), garlic, ginger, canned clams, hot chiles, carrots, basmati rice, vinegar, basil, and flour. Also, for some reason, on the facing page is written the single word, “KNIFE.” Either I was looking to replace old cutlery, or I was wishing violence on someone else in the checkout aisle.
7. A beer-bottle cozy (cozie? cozey? khozhi?) given to me as a gift many years ago, in a “forest camouflage” print. (As one deer said to the other, “Heads up, Marv. I think there’s a fella hiding behind that tree over there. I can’t make him out, but he appears to be drinking a Keystone Light.”)
8. About a hundred and sixty unlabeled CDs. I listen to a lot of music. A lot of people give me music. Sometimes I despair of ever getting an accurate inventory of everything in this place. It’s like being trapped in a museum and not having a floor plan.
9. Lots of note cards written in French and English, for which I no longer have any practical use. Quel dommage. But I do think it’s interesting that one of the phrases I felt it necessary to memorize en francais was “liquor cabinet.” When I make it to Paris, boy, I’m damn well gonna be ready.
10. A small utility drawer in the kitchen that contained nothing but electrical tape, scissors, a cigar cutter, wire, half a dozen cigarette lighters, batteries, tiny eyeglass screwdrivers, and a small empty glass bottle, without a lid. I live here, people, and even I was a little creeped out by that combination.
Also, interestingly enough, here are the things I managed to lose while in the process of “finding” the things listed above:
1. My newly-gifted copy of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which I told myself I was going to begin reading right after I finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I succeeded in doing this morning at 2am, and p.s., the Franzen book was a solid read, folks. I know the Tarkington book is around here someplace. Probably under a pile of papers I moved to clean something else. That’s the problem with trying to clean the house of someone who’s got a reading addiction. It’s like playing Paperback Jenga.
2. The little booklet containing the monthly payment slips for my home mortgage. Luckily, I called the lender, and whaddya know, they’ll take my payment right over the phone. Of course they will. But now I’m concerned that the cats, angry over my redistributing of the cat toys around the house, have run away with my payment booklet.
They’ve had a beef with me since this morning, frankly. Jesus: You accidentally dump one coffee cup’s worth of water all over the head of a cat while you’re washing dishes, and all of a sudden you’re a bad guy.
Between you and me, I’m sleeping with one eye peeled.