Lost and found

I’ve never really experienced the particular compulsion that writers sometimes do, the constant desire—or need, perhaps—to tell the stories of the objects they see lost or discarded, the ubiquitous jetsam of sidewalks and subway stations. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of it, the concept that a whole narrative can be built from a pen cap lying alone in a gutter, from the inherent questions of how it came to be there (where is its other half? Does it miss the pen, the conversations they used to have, their mutual dream of someday being used to draft a Pulitzer-worthy poem or record a groundbreaking interview with a mob boss? What about the owner of that pen—who is she, where was she going when she lost the cap, how long did it take her to notice?), and when I actively try, when I really focus on the world, I can jump-start that kind of storytelling in my head. It’s just not the reflex for me, or the instinct, that it seems to be for other writers. For the most part, my mind is content to let ephemera be ephemera.

But sometimes, I run across something that demands attention, a small convergence of time and space and other people’s garbage that’s just a little too pointed for even my obliviousness to miss. Shopping earlier today in The Best Bookstore Ever, I came across a used copy of a David Sedaris book I didn’t own—Sedaris is, it should be mentioned, an absolute master of the mundane observation himself—and, while I was flipping through it trying to decide whether I could justify buying it for myself (“It’s only eight bucks! When’s the last time you saw a David Sedaris book for only eight bucks? It’s in good shape, too. And reading it will help me become a better writer. And if I get it, I’ll totally go for a run every morning this week. Yeah. That. Sure.”), I came across a ticket stub nestled somewhere in the second chapter. Not just any ticket stub—I’ve found movie and theater stubs as forgotten bookmarks before, and it’s always a fun time trying to reconcile the show with the book, like, okay, a matinee screening of Alien vs. Predator in a Maeve Binchy Lifetime-movie-in-written-form novel, I think this person and I should be friends (…what? I only read them because they’re set in Ireland, okay, jeez)—but this time it was an airline boarding pass, truncated at one end where the ticket agent had ripped it. American Airlines, Denver to Chicago, early last month. Seat 9C.

Ticket stubs have plenty of potential stories wrapped around them already—U2 at Red Rocks, Regina Spektor at The Fillmore, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra pops concert—but there’s something about a ticket for traveling that just packs even more questions into that little piece of paper. Business or pleasure? Solo, or with a family, or a best friend? And the book: a last-minute airport-bookstore purchase, desperate for some reading material because the girlfriend insists on getting to the airport four hours early? The security lines aren’t even that long, Jesus, it’s forever till our flight, I’ve heard this guy’s stuff on “This American Life” and it’s not too bad, I’ll give it a try, what the hell.

Or he grabbed it off his wife’s nightstand before leaving, she said it was good, why not (I know the ticket-holder is a him, because the ticket stub included the guy’s name, printed there in the upper left-hand corner, one Mr. S.L.; I don’t want to print his full name here, because finding the ticket felt a little like being entrusted with a secret, and I don’t want the dude to end up Googling himself and finding that some creeper wrote a whole rambling essay about his old ticket stub), and his macho buddy in Chicago saw him reading it and said, “Dude, Sedaris? That’s so gay,” or something, so he decided to chuck it as soon as he got home. (Fool.) Maybe someone in Chicago gave it to him as a gift, and he loved it, but a week after he got home to Denver, that someone called and told him they needed to stop seeing each other, this long distance thing isn’t working out, I love you but it’s time for both of us to move on, and in the throes of breakup misery, S.L. had to get rid of everything that reminded him of that someone, so When You Are Engulfed in Flames ended up in the Used Books section at the Tattered Cover, still hiding the ticket stub he used as a bookmark when he put the book down to look out the window during takeoff on his flight home, because it was the only scrap of paper he could find in his carry-on, and besides, he didn’t really like the idea of reading a book whose title included the phrase “engulfed in flames” while he was on an airplane, even though he still (at that point) loved the person who gave him the book and would read anything at that person’s recommendation, because that’s what you do when you’re in love, you pretend not to hate Ani DiFranco, you eat the mushrooms even though they’re not your favorite, you read the books the other person likes because it makes you feel closer to him or her, even (or especially) if they’re a time zone away, and after a while you find yourself humming along to “32 Flavors” in the car and, for the first time, you don’t feel like making fun of it, not even a little bit, and that’s when you know you have it bad.

Poor S.L. Where did it all go wrong?

Maybe he lives in my neighborhood. Maybe on my street. In my building, even. Maybe he’s still pining after that someone in Chicago, trying to ignore the empty spaces on his bookshelves from all the books that someone gave him over the years they were together.

…Or maybe the dude just didn’t dig the book all that much and needed to make some room in the apartment. See, that’s the trick with these stories, the Stories Of Things; once you get going, it’s easy to get caught up in the little signs, to look at the bouquet of flowers lying in the street on the morning after a rainstorm and triangulate from there into a veritable Aeneid about the meeting that ran late and the ruined dinner plans and the attempt at reconciliation and the argument in the middle of a rainstorm at night, with all the neighbors opening their windows ostensibly to catch the cool night air but mainly to listen to Unit B ripping her boyfriend a new one, again, because it just never gets old. And then you wonder if you’re just being dramatic, and sometimes the bouquet is just a bouquet, the cigar really is just a cigar, and you think you maybe need to worry a little less about the interpretive significance of litter.

But airline tickets are such semiotic mysteries themselves that it’s hard not to wonder about the backstory, the way they’re printed with all the little boxes and bars and old-school type and the hypnotic wavy-line background so airline folks can tell it’s not a fake—it’s like a computer punch card and a traveler’s check had a love child. What does all that mysterious choppy text mean, anyway? Does anyone, airline employees included, actually know? “PNR code DEITVA/AA”? “Conj. tkt. no.”? “Seq. no. ALLOW ck. wt.”? For heaven’s sake, “PRIORITY AACCESS***********”?  “Access” doesn’t have two As, for starters, but: eleven asterisks. Eleven! What makes those eleven asterisks necessary? At what point during the ticket-design process did someone say, “Okay, and here we’re going to have eleven asterisks,” and someone else nod in agreement and say, “Yep, that’s just the ticket,” then chuckle at the pun? What problem, exactly, did those eleven asterisks solve? What need did they fill?

I used to fly through Chicago all the time, going and coming from school in New York, and standing in the bookstore today, holding this little piece of paper I’d found, I had some wicked flashbacks to O’Hare airport. My layovers were never quite long enough for me to be relaxed about the flight change, so, being the paranoid traveler I am, I always ended up booking it from terminal to terminal, pausing just long enough to grab a meal from the McDonald’s in Terminal C, rushing past the Apatosaurus skeleton, my McD’s bag and drink clutched in one hand and the other supporting my too-heavy messenger bag, booking it through the trippy underwater-Greateful-Dead-concert-light-show tunnel, just wanting to get to the gate and sit down and eat my french fries, my heart in my mouth because I was either anxious about starting school or Done With It and ready to be home, to come up the escalator in Denver and see my parents there, waiting and smiling. That was always the most stressful part of the trip, the between-planes dash, because those forty-five minutes of layover were dictated by people other than me and—being the kind of person who shows up at the airport three hours early for a 9:00 am flight on an off-season weekday at the podunk Syracuse airport, where there will be precisely three people ahead of me in the security line but it was okay because you never know, better safe than sorry, just in case—I really dislike having my timetable so out of my hands.

But then I’d get to the gate with plenty of time to spare and finally start breathing again. I’d sit and eat and wish I’d gotten more napkins, calming down, a book open and ignored in my lap, because I can never really concentrate enough to read in airports; I just end up listening to my iPod and watching the people around me. If a discarded object on the sidewalk, or a lost ticket stub in a book, can generate a whole short story in a writer’s head, the other people waiting for a flight can, without fail, spawn whole novels. And while I’m sitting there making up dialogue for the teenaged goth girl and her mom in a kitten-festooned sweatshirt, I can never help wondering what they might think of me, what stories they themselves must make up about the tall awkward guy with the glasses who’s clinging to that Coke like it’s the only thing left in the world.

…And so, since you just can’t ignore these kinds of things, I took the ticket stub as a sign that the universe wanted me to buy the book and spend an hour sitting in the shade of the bookstore’s patio with an iced coffee, reading Sedaris and giggling to myself. So I did just that.


2 Responses to “Lost and found”

  1. 1 Rachel Fus July 6, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    HOLY SH*T! You’re like James Joyce up in here! I don’t know, I think it would be rather cool to google myself one day and find a blog post from a random stranger about me. (so THAT’S where I left that ticket stub!)

    on the other hand I’m a dork who enjoys those tracker websites on dollar bills.

    on the other hand, S.L. was reading Sedaris 😀

    • 2 Colin July 7, 2010 at 9:48 am

      Well, true. I’d find that cool too, in a sort of “okay, you’re a little creepy, but that’s fun, I guess” way. But then again, what if S.L. is, like, a secret agent or something, and no one was supposed to know that he was in Chicago that week, and if I blab about it, the Forces Of Evil will Google his name and read my blog post and piece together his secret plan and everything will be ruined and then the CIA will have to kill me because I know too much. WHAT IF?

      ‘Course, if he’s a secret agent, he’s kind of a sucky one, to leave a boarding pass lying around in a book. Amateur move.

      …Unless I was MEANT to find it. Maybe it’s one of those tests, you know, the kind where somebody’s watching to see if I’ve got the skillz to be a spy, and if I succeed in tracking down S.L. I can spend the rest of my life driving Aston Martins and jumping out of helicopters and foiling international crime rings. Oh man, sweet. On with the Googling!

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