Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pieces Of My Past

A couple of weeks after my mom passed away three large boxes arrived at my front door. I had been expecting these boxes—two of them I’d packed myself while I was back in New York and the third was packed by my brother and sister-in-law after I’d left. When my sons saw the large boxes they thought that Chanukah and Christmas had miraculously conspired to arrive three months early, but I knew the truth—these boxes were really time capsules; windows into my former life.

In the days following my mom’s passing I spent a great deal of time cleaning out her apartment with my two brothers. Somehow it seemed her three-bedroom apartment contained six bedrooms worth of stuff. A lot of things got thrown out, a lot of things got boxed up, and a lot of things simply went untouched. Although I never lived in this particular apartment, it was on the same block as the apartment that I occupied from about ages seven through 22 in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. About a year after I moved out on my own, my mom moved two doors down and all the stuff I’d left behind moved with her. Now, two decades and 2,500 miles removed from my childhood haunts, I found myself sifting through the minutia that made me “me.”

After opening up all the boxes, my Chandler, Arizona living room was awash with paraphernalia from Brooklyn, New York. As I surveyed the items before me, I noticed that one section of the living room happened to have a particularly interesting assortment of nostalgia, which prompted me to snap the photo that you see above. Shall we take a walk down memory lane?

The oldest item in the photo is my bronzed baby shoe (circa 1969-1970). You don’t really hear about people bronzing baby shoes anymore—at least it’s not something we ever did with our kids’ shoes. In fact, when I showed the shoe to my boys and told them it was by first baby shoe, they were equal parts amused and perplexed. “How did you get it on?” “It seems like it would be really heavy for a baby to walk around in.” “That’s an ugly color for a shoe.” I had to explain the concept of bronzing to them.  Personally, I think there’s something vaguely creepy about bronzing a shoe. I grew up with the shoe in my room and while I wasn’t actively scared of it, I always looked at it a bit askance. I think in my mind shoe-bronzing is not that far removed from taxidermy, which is not one of my favorite arts.

The next oldest item in the photo is the blue baseball card album. While there are certainly cards within the album that are actually older than my bronzed baby shoe, I was actively collecting cards from about 1980 to 1986. Indeed, the vast majority of my allowance during my junior high and early high school years went to the purchase of baseball cards. The album in this photo is only one of many I used to neatly store the hundreds of 2-1/2” by 3-1/2” pieces of cardboard that I coveted. The very first card in this particular album is a 1978 Don Sutton Topps card. I was curious about how much it might be worth, so I looked it up on eBay and saw that sellers were generally asking anywhere between $1 and $20. I noticed that one seller was asking $154.99. Why the huge difference? Perhaps it was autographed (or maybe even bronzed!), but it just turns out that the seller is insane.

The next item chronologically is my Bar Mitzvah portrait from 1982. While I wasn’t raised in the most religious of families, my Bar Mitzvah was something I’d been looking forward to pretty much my whole life. It was a lavish affair with hundreds of guests all there to celebrate my becoming a man in the eyes of Judaism (although in the eyes of biology it would be almost another year before I technically became a man). The framed portrait of me that you see above is probably the most serious, somber photo of me that exists. This is quite a juxtaposition from the rest of the pictures in my Bar Mitzvah photo album, which includes shots of me dancing like Robert Hayes in Airplane!, lying across the laps of my female guests, and using a fake cigar handed to me by the photographer to strike a Groucho Marx pose. Yes, I remember my Bar Mitzvah fondly.

Moving forward two years to 1984, we have my Lafayette H.S. v-neck sweater. I was given the sweater because I was a member of my high school’s Academic Olympics team. It was the only team I ever belonged to throughout my entire scholastic career, so that sweater was the closest thing I ever had to a uniform. It made me feel like hot stuff. I thought if the school’s jocks could impress girls by scoring touchdowns and hitting homeruns, maybe I could impress girls by saying, “James Joyce” when someone asked, “Who wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?” I thought wrong.

The next item in the nostalgia parade is the Dallas Cowboys jacket (circa 1986) at the top of the photo, which I got as a present from my parents on my 17th birthday. While the Cowboys are my favorite football team (and I can finally admit that again this year), the jacket’s real value to me is that it’s the last present my dad got me before he passed away. He actually passed away a little over a month before my birthday, but my mom had told me they had already picked it out together prior to that.  Okay, take a deep breath, wipe your eyes, and let’s move on.

Do you see the gold pouch leaning against the MAD Magazine? (Don’t worry we’ll get to the MAD stuff in a minute.) That gold pouch was a souvenir purchased in Alaska in the summer of 1987. You probably can’t see it, but the writing says “I Struck Gold in Alaska.” Inside the pouch were a few rocks painted gold, to appear like gold nuggets. I went to Alaska with my mom, “Uncle” Murray and “Aunt” Sally. They weren’t actually my uncle and aunt, but they were my parents’ best friends so I often referred to them as such. The trip was a high school graduation gift from my mom. She had told me six months earlier that she would take me anywhere I wanted to go for my graduation. At 17 years old the prospect of traveling with my middle-aged mom and her middle-aged friends was not high on my wish list, so I told her I wanted to go to Alaska, because, although I really did want to go there, I assumed she’d have no interest and the trip wouldn’t actually happen. Well the trip did happen. The majority of the pictures from that trip show me as the quintessential brooding, dissatisfied teen, but the truth is I really did have a good time.

Okay, now to the MAD stuff. As a kid, I was an avid collector of MAD magazines, as were my brothers before me, but the two items here are from my work life at MAD. At some point I’ll write a separate piece about my time as a MAD staffer from 1990 to 1995, but for now I’ll just point out that one of the great perks of working there was all the free magazines and paraphernalia I got. (I gave my kids a couple of Spy vs. Spy pens out of one of the boxes, which they seemed to enjoy even though they were no longer working.) Not sure what year the watch is from, but it’s fun because Alfred E. Neuman is wearing a straightjacket and the hands of the watch go backwards. As for the magazine, it’s from January 1996, which was about six months after I moved to Arizona. My guess is I mailed a copy to my mom, because I had an article in there (“You Know America’s Been Nuked When…”) and I always sent her my published works. (Like how I use the phrase “my published works” as though I’m Ernest Hemingway? The most literary line I had in the aforementioned article was “You know America’s been nuked when the weatherman is drawing little cartoon mushroom clouds on the weather map.” Send me a freaking Pulitzer!)

Well, that’s pretty much it for the nostalgia tour. Although if I start taking pictures of the thousands of old photos I took from my mom’s apartment and blogging about them, the Nostalgia Tour Part 2 might be coming to a blog near you. Stay tuned!