Requiem for a Paper Bag
ed. Davy Rothbart
Fireside Books, 234 pages, $15.99
Release date: May 5, 2009
Okay, so last week's Thursday Book Club has in fact turned into this week's Monday Book Club, but it's just this once. Sorry about that, faithful literary fans. It's been a little nutty over here at SFR headquarters (that's a nice way of saying that our eyes are falling out of our head, our red pens have all run dry and if anyone dares utter the words “Annual Manual” we go into convulsions). But here we go.
A few weeks ago, as I was coming into work, I saw a post-it note lying on the wet asphalt. It was drizzly, so I knew the note couldn't have been there for long, because it was dry. All it said was, in neat, controlled handwriting at the top, was:
Stop being a bitch.
I don't know who wrote it, who it was intended for or who saw fit to drop it in the SFR parking lot, but I had only one thought: FOUND.
FOUND is one of my favorite websites pretty much ever. It is a collection of things people find all over the world – school kids' drawings, discarded shopping lists, notes to roommates, fliers that have fallen off telephone poles, stuff like that. Some of them are hilarious (I've laughed out loud many a time at the website) – some are touching and sad. Sometimes the finders send in little blurbs about where they found the item, some just say where it came from and that's it. I've spent hours at a time clicking through all the found items.
So anywho, I mailed the post-it note into FOUND that very day. About a week later I got an email from Davy Rothbart, creator of FOUND, thanking me for the find and giving me a heads-up that FOUND will come through Albuquerque on tour this summer (8 pm June 27 at the Guild Cinema, 3405 Central Ave. NE). He also let me know he would send along an advance copy of Requiem for a Paper Bag, FOUND's newest book (slated for release on May 5, 2009). Sure enough, about a week after that, it showed up. Now that's service!
Flipping through Requiem for a Paper Bag, I see that it's not much like FOUND at all. It's a collection of essays by people from all walks of life, talking about the things they have found over the years. At first I was disappointed; I liked actually seeing the things that people found. Whether or not any explanation came with them was not important to me; I wanted to see some kid's report card from preschool, or a note from a high school thug to his girlfriend “wit da sweet a$$.”
As I read, however, I realized that this book was offering what the website does not: Story. Whenever you find something that holds any significance to you, it comes with a story. It affects you somehow. My junior year of college, I walked out back of my on-campus apartment and discovered a hand-painted ceramic frog perched perfectly atop an old tree stump. I left it there for a few days, wondering if someone just forgot it. But it stayed. So I took it. It doesn't exactly match the décor of my house, but when people ask about it, I say I found it at the magic stump, and say that I later found not one, but two pairs of underwear on the stump, two weekends in a row. The stump was tucked back behind the apartment building, so it's not like people frequented it with ceramic frogs and underpants. But I kept finding these things. Like someone left them there for me.
Tad Friend, staff writer for the New Yorker, writes in about mysterious bags of recyclables that he has found hooked on the fence of his apartment complex every few nights for seven years; he's never been able to find the culprit. Musician Andrew Bird recants a life-changing encounter with a Stetson hat in the middle of a street in San Francisco (that one actually gave me goosebumps). Novelist Mohsin Hamid explains how a Kalashnikov bullet that mysteriously appeared in the hood of his parents' 1981 Honda in Pakistan later appeared again in his first novel, Moth Smoke.
The FOUND website features items on paper – notes, drawings, letters. The book talks about 3D items (hats, bags of recyclables, bullets) and it gives backstory on what these items did to change the writer's life. The more I read, the more I was sold on the idea.
Perhaps we often underestimate just how much we leave behind. I'm not talking string cheese wrappers or Wendy's cups – I mean, things that actually say something about us. Just because we toss a post-it note in the trash doesn't mean it's gone. Just because we trust an item to someone doesn't mean it won't someday find its way to FOUND, to a cubicle wall, to this blog.
Like an envelope my editor received a while ago, which I later found on her office floor – the writer had written a cryptic message on the inside flap: “If this envelope is empty call my attorney and report it.” (The envelope was not empty, by the way, but the contents were apparently not engaging enough to warrant further investigation by us. So much for New Mexican mail conspiracies.) I keep the envelope taped to my office wall.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was writing a book series about talking dogs named Alexey and Demekey. I sold copies of the books to my classmates for $1 a pop. Years later, in college, I ran into a friend from elementary school who told me she'd recently found the book again, read it, and was enchanted. I could only put my head in my hands – oh, god. What would my creative writing professors at the College of Santa Fe think of they found some of the absurd manuscripts I'd printed out for classmates in years past?
Maybe they'd be amused that I was writing so much at such a young age. Maybe they'd find it obnoxious that, at age 11, I was already turning a profit from my creativity. Maybe, though, they would understand just a bit better – in the same way that we understand people ever so slightly more when we find something of theirs that they didn't know anyone would ever find.