They’re these low, wide boxes that the Paperback Book Club used to send shipments of four or five books at a time. They’re sturdy and durable, and they hold tabloid newspapers and 13″ x 18″ posters laying flat. They’re perfect.
Today, these boxes languish and collect dust for most of the year in the back of the storage space in our attic— until some glint of a memory nags me badly enough that I have to go upstairs and dig out the item on my mind. At a time before internet bookmarking and favorites, I used to tear out pages from magazines and newspapers and keep them. Even though I near-refused to read what my teachers assigned me in school, my habit of devouring periodicals never dulled, nor waned. Whether from Rolling Stone or Ray Gun, Mother Earth News or Acoustic Guitar, the Village Voice or the Montgomery Advertiser, if I found something I wanted to access again, I put it in one of those boxes. Sometimes whole issues, other times just pages. No underlying raison d’etre, no long-range intentions, no meticulous organization, no finely tuned system— just pages and pages in those boxes.
Over the last twenty years, since moving away from home into bachelor-pad apartments then getting married and having children and moving a few more times, the boxes have come with me. I’ve done some purging from them, reducing the number from a half-dozen or more in my single days down to only two or three now. Our attic’s scant few pieces of plywood flooring haven’t been able to accommodate my pop-culture hoarding like it used to, what with Christmas decorations and the other accroutrement of family life. Perhaps, rather than purging the evidence of my past peccadilloes, I could have bought and put down more plywood, but . . . I didn’t. So, these otherwise-worthless keepsakes from my formative years have remained tucked away from our now-life, but are always available to sift through and recall what is now faded and withered.
Something like a hope chest, these battered cardboard boxes hold reminders for me of what I once wanted for myself, what I hoped my life would become. There are mementos from actual lived experiences (events I attended, shows I saw, music I liked), and there are dreamy tidbits that appealed mostly to a deep, deep wishing well that I once harbored and nurtured. Those latter ones were what I intended to fill the hole in my heart with: they were proof that the eclectic and the interesting were out there and that the proprietors of these strange excitements offered general admission tickets. Within the pile may be a review of an Ani DiFranco album, an ad for a Paul Morrissey double-feature, some Keith Haring art, a photo spread of Drew Barrymore, a campaign for Gap khakis.
The boy who collected those pages, who was at once scarily naive and wildly hopeful, would have hung his head and wept if he knew about the man that he would become: a high school teacher with thinning hair and a little belly that expands with every microbrewed craft beer. That shaggy-haired boy with his 29-waist blue jeans and his pawn-shop guitars couldn’t have imagined that the songs he wrote in his lonely bedroom would never be heard, that the internet would destroy the pop-culture rags that fueled his imagination, that his life would proceed uninterrupted in his hometown, and that his torn-out pages would, twenty five years later, illicit a strange mixture of pleasure and sadness.
You see, before he could leave, that boy fell in love with a girl. She had big blue eyes, and she smoked lazily on her front porch, so he stopped by one evening to take her out for pizza. A year and a half later, he married her, and that boy became me when I replaced my made-up narrative about the future, crafted from jagged-edged newsprint and brightly colored images of the faraway avant-garde, with a love story featuring a boy who left his lonely bedroom, got off his ass, and tried to building something meaningful where he stood. As it would happen, mine would not be a tale told from a trampoline leap, but one about a pair of boots planted firmly in native soil. What is perhaps most interesting to the middle-aged man who that boy would have hated is: I traded in an imagined journey for an actual life.
Yet, when I have the time and the inclination, I open those boxes, disregard the effluvium of youth, and delve back into the reminders about a font of hope that has since been covered over like an old well, one whose source went dry and which now functions as nothing more than a way for curious children to hurt themselves. I see in the contents of those boxes how youth can be a bizarre conglomeration of ignorance, desperation, wonder, and hope as clearly as I see in this middle-aged life how love, family, purpose, and a sense of place are worth more than all those angsty feelings and their unfortunate manifestations.
And who knows . . . maybe one day, I will leave this place, but at least I’ll know now what I didn’t know then: I will never this place behind.