Thursday, April 28, 2005


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)


Job #3: Trash collector (Part VI)

I had numerous adventures working for my uncle David, both the rest of that summer and the many that followed. There was the time the brakes went out on the dump truck--and naturally we were on a hill when it happened. There was the trip to Maine; the time David passed out under the house and I had to pull him out with the truck; the time I impaled myself with the pitchfork; and the time I got dumped into the landfill along with the trash. There was also much wheeling and dealing, when my uncle taught me everything he knew about haggling (a skill I use almost everyday, when I'm negotiating with freelancers).

Together we cleaned out many houses and found many treasures, including a Duncan Phyfe table that my aunt still uses as a nightstand. And there was the time I found the bundle of small dovetailed boards in the woodshed of an old estate David was cleaning. They looked like really worn shingles, but when I fit the dovetailed sections together it turned out to be a Shaker carrying bucket (in fact, it looked something like this). David referred to me as his "number one nephew" for a few days after that, he was so pleased.

As I've said before, these moments of discovery were rare in the overall scheme of our summers. For every Paul Revere spoon or Shaker bucket, I must have hauled a solid ton of shitty diapers, soggy cartons, and moldy, manky detritus from our various customers. In the heat of summer, it could get discouraging sometimes. But gruff as he was, uncle David also had a buoyancy about him, a way of making you feel that a new treasure awaited us just behind that next attic cobweb, just a garbage bag away.

One Friday afternoon late in August, though, I wasn't feeling so buoyant. We had just returned from the county landfill and I was performing my usual post-rubbish route chores, which included hosing out the back of the dump truck while David took the weekly deposits of the Dubba Land Corp. to the bank. It was a scorcher of a day, and I was filthy and sweaty and couldn't wait to get home so I could change and go for a swim. Soon, summer would be over and I wouldn't be able to go swimming in a handy lake. Of course, I wouldn't be covered with garbage either, but somehow that prospect made me sad. I was glad to be freed from my job as trash collector. Glad, but sad too.

Aunt Barbara had brought me some iced tea when I finished hosing the truck down. So I was sitting in the cab, thinking long-range thoughts about my upcoming return to school, when David pulled up in his pickup truck. He just shook his head.

"If I had a nickel for every time I found you sitting on your dead ass this summer, drinking my tea, I could hire me a full-time garbage assistant, by gorry!" he called. But I was used to this ribbing by now and just played along.

"Well," I said. "If I'd known you were gonna be back so soon, I'd have gone up to your rocking chair and propped my feet up, so you could get really annoyed at my laziness."

He pointed at the passenger door of his truck. "No time for rocking today, ol' fella. Go get them newspapers and get em in here," he instructed.

I drained my cup and headed for the barn. That morning, we had hauled a full load of debris from Sam Howard's place. Sam had torn off the whole front porch of his house and so we were hauling huge chunks of plaster and wood lath to the landfill. Sam's great-grandfather, when he built the porch, didn't have the benefit of fiberglas insulation, so he had insulated the porch walls with layer upon layer of old newspapers, which Sam had pulled out of the walls in great sheets. I separated as many of these papers from the debris as I could and we had three boxes of various newspapers from 1858 to 1898, including Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. I had been sneaking quick reads of the stories all morning, and was particularly fascinated by an ongoing serial in the back of Harper's, written by some English fellow named Dickens.

I loaded the boxes in the back of the pickup, then climbed in with my uncle. Normally, our business took us south of town, away from the post office. This time, David drove north, past the post office, up the hill into the tiny town center, and then made a quick right onto a dirt road whose sign identified it as "Bog Road." And my pulse quickened.

We banged along down past the marsh and up into hill country where we passed several old Cape Cod style houses and a few trailer homes. At last we came to an access road with a chain across it. David reached into the glove compartment and extracted a long rope loop from which dangled about 40,000 keys. He expertly picked out the padlock key and sent me out to open the lock on the chain. Then we drove onto an old logging road for about a quarter-mile, before finally coming to a quiet wooded lot where stood the old stone foundation of a farmhouse longed burned to the ground, and a rather well-maintained old red barn.

I humped the boxes of papers to the barn door while David hunted for the key to the door's padlock. Considering how quickly he found the first key, I was surprised at how long it was taking him to find the key to the shed. Minutes passed, while my uncle muttered--either to himself or someone I couldn't see. "Let me see. I know I must have that key somewhere. By Jeezuz, I thought it was on this ring. Mebbe we might have to go back to the house and look for another one." He gave me a quick glance, checking my reaction, but I wasn't biting. I knew he was just drawing this out, yanking my chain. And I knew how to play this now.

"Well, that's fine," I drawled, playing it as cool as I thought I was at 13. "If we don't get in here this summer, I guess you can just pay me cash for my work instead."

David straightened suddenly as if I'd kicked him in a sensitive spot (and, of course, I had). "You gone soft in the head?" he cried. "I ain't paying you one goddamn penny. We had us a bargain." And then suddenly, miraculously, he had the key in his hand and snapped open the padlock.

I'm sure you all have certain smells that you associate with childhood. For many, I've read, it's the smell of crayons or Play-Doh that takes people back to childhood, that gives them a certain sense of peace and serenity. For me, it will always be the smell that came wafting out of that barn. The high, sweet, slightly musty smell of pulpy old paper.

The barn was full of it. Whole shelves of books, hardbacks, mostly. Stacks and stacks of newspapers (including two covering the assassination of the president. Not Kennedy, but Lincoln). David had boxes of old Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs, bundles of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Look. He had magazines I had never seen before, too, pulp magazines from the 20s and 30s.

In a daze, I followed my uncle as we wove through the stacks and piles of paper, trying not to sneeze from the sheer weight of dust and mildew as we plodded through this haphazard museum of paper.

At the back of the barn, on an old work bench, David suddenly stopped and looked at two old cardboard boxes. He peeked in both of them, then with a flourish that was both clumsy and dramatic, he tipped one of the boxes over and its contents cascaded across the work bench in a riffle of paper and a gaudy flash of color.

"Shit," I whispered unselfconsciously.

"Not here," David retorted. "That's the one kinda paper I haven't got in this place."

The joke went right over my head. For a moment, my uncle and the rest of the world grayed out around me and all I could see was this:


In all, I earned some 300 comic books that day, none more recent than the mid 1960s. The oldest was one from August 1938. The best were the copies of Batman and Detective Comics, many of which were coverless, but some, as you can see, were not. I still have them all.

"By gorry, the ol' fella has found his muthaloade," David cackled, as I sifted through the books. Batman. Action Comics. More Fun Comics. There were classic EC titles here. Early Ditko Spider-Mans. World War II-era work by Simon and Kirby. They were the sweetest, nicest bunch of old comics I had ever seen, certainly far better than anything I could have ever hoped to have, many still showing a good amount of cover gloss, even after 40 or 50 years.

Of course, almost none were in what a die-hard collector would consider mint condition or even close to it. But as I started reading them on the drive back from the barn, I already knew that the comics--and everything I had done while earning them--constituted a treasure beyond calculation.

"Thanks," I said to David at some point on our drive. "Thanks a lot. They're just--wow. Thanks."

David affected a sour look, but couldn't quite pull it off. "I thought they was all crap. All Bugs Bunny and what-not. Didn't know they was that good. Guess I got the shit-end of the stick this time." He gave a dramatic huff. "Aw hell. Guess we'll just have to work you that much harder next summer."

And boy, you better believe he did.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


Heavy, heavy sigh...and ahhhhhhhhh..... the sound of relief.

Although I know they are priceless, have you ever determined their true monetary value?
Great story. Glad you finally got your treasure trove!

We moved when I was little, and the new neighbor across the street owned a small store with a comics section. His daughter got all the free comics she wanted. My parents would never (well, rarely) buy me comics.

Not long after we moved in, she gave me a box of her old ones. I can still remember how that felt... to suddenly have a huge box of unread comics.

(They were mostly Archies and such, but we were a lot younger.)

I spent the rest of my childhood trying to weasel more free comics out of her. I think the only other friend I annoyed more was the one who had the horses. :)

P.S. If your headache was yesterday, then I think it's YOU who sent it to ME.
Little boys' treasures.

Worth the wait, I'm sure!

How incredible that trove must have been at first site. You obviously understood the magic of them at the time if you still have them now. Good for you. :)
Awesome..simply awesome. Both the story and the comics.
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