When I first became seriously interested in buying old things in the early seventies (odd even then for a high school student) I was lucky to run into two great waves of objects washing ashore from the surrounding dying communities. The first came from the passing of the generations of people who had fled Europe from World War One and after. The second came from the passing of people who had become adults from the 1910's to the 1930's.
The heirs of these people were dumping their stuff by the attic full at $25 a load. These were not only mementos like Russian icons or old books or Art Nouveau and Deco furniture. These were boxes full of tintypes and paper photographs and grandpa's engraved pocket watch and his military decorations. Perhaps because my family had done some of this heirloom dumping themselves when I was too young to stop them or perhaps because I was influenced by getting to know some of these people who hadn't quite died yet, I was fascinated by all of this stuff. And with my very limited means as a grocery store stock clerk, I started making a modest collection.
The most knowledgeable sellers were people of the same age as the people who were dying off. I learned that the small blue Russian Icon that I saw (and didn't buy) was Our Lady of Kazan and was probably about 100 years old at the time and had been one of the few things the late seller had managed to granb before the Reds came. The box of unsorted photographs had at the bottom a selection of photos of young men in Austro-Hungarian uniforms and ladies with big hats. As I moved up the pile, the fashions changed and eventually thick cardboard and tin turned into the cheap American Kodak photo paper. Sometimes there were photos of the dead and of wakes and tombstones, things we did not now commit to paper. The suits got baggy and cars began to appear. If I knew the seller and could press him about where he got the box, he would show me the recent photos he had peeled off the top of the box because they were too recent. These would be the old people a month of two before just before they died, sitting with the grandkids on the steps or in front of the lighted tree. These photos were discarded because they were too recent and it was explained to me by one cunning seller that the trick to selling old things was to depersonalize them as much as possible. Let the buyer personalize them with his own fantasy was the rule.
I couldn't see then why someone would let things like this go. I should have, because there were many survivors in Logan Square and Humbolt Park walking always alone to or from the store with their tiny bags with today's meal. The kids now lived in the suburbs. Too many Puerto Ricans now in the old neighborhood and besides, the yards were too small and the schools were too old. So I might buy the box and also have the seller throw in the photos that were meant to be left behind in the trash.
When I became an adult I met real collectors of antiques. They loved what they acquired and if you have ever read the wonderful detective novels by Jonathan Gash about the antique dealer, you will get an idea of the monomania that can possess them. While I certainly liked certain categories of old stuff (icons, satirical 18th century prints, Japanese woodblock prints, Asian ceramics) I never became a collector. In part I guess I was never particularly acquisitive and in part I only tended to buy things that gave off a "vibration" of some sort.
These vibrations were feelings of connection and were quite the same as seeing someone that one knows one has seen before. No, I didn't believe in reincarnation. I also didn't tell people about these feelings, which scared me with their intensity sometimes but which I nonetheless pursued for quite a while. In that little internal story that we build and keep deeply secret; the story of why we are so special, I told myself that perhaps I was able to connect with the memories of other people. Because these vibrations were exactly like that. They were both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Then I took a many year hiatus from going into antique shops. I would still get vibrations from other people's things and I noticed as time passed that they became more and more unpleasant. I couldn't understand why. When I once again entered an "antique mall," instead of the series of pleasurable thrills of the recognition of other people's nostalgia, I was both overwhelmed and oppressed. Every object seemed to have a vibration and every vibration was sad. I found that I could not walk through the place and had to leave. I did not want this. I wanted to go back to these places and like them in the way that I had when I was young. I told myself that maybe I was having a bad day or something and tried another mall the following month.
But when it happened again. So I started to focus more closely on the impressions I was getting. The impressions were definitely pictures in my mind of strangers and their homes and personal events. Almost all of the artifacts had begun as gifts or as things dearly desired. Some had been deeply cherished. Now they were all abandoned to a shop full of strangers, and that moment when the wife had been given the special jade pin or the grandmother the set of napkins had all washed away leaving only skulls in the shapes of antiques behind. It was like a cemetery, except that the corpses were still above ground. And worse, these things had been sent here by heirs who could have kept these things in memory of their owners and of those moments. But the tintypes of ecstatic lovers now sold at 3 for $15.
I had to reflect on all of this. Of course I wasn't actually seeing all of these things. These "memories" and feelings were fantasies. But as I thought about it, these feelings were actually about me and my life and my past and my dead relatives and my own dead relationships. I had believed once that an idea will adhere to an object; the idea that one has in its acquisition and what one intends to do with it. It might be a gift that one hopes will bring joy to someone or it might be a gift that one hopes will bring joy to oneself. These ideas and feelings, though, don't and cannot last. However, they can start accumulating in one's own mind, and though detached from their original time and place they are now looking to swarm out and attach themselves to something else. And when they came, they all came. The mind can keep them locked in memory but is not large enough to see them all spread out on a table in an antique shop. As I grow old, I see that I have collected not sets of objects, but sets of feelings, intense and undifferentiated, that are only looking for someone else’s memory to begin leaking out.