mad in pursuit notebook


How Crap Becomes Real

I wrote this for a radio piece, but when I recorded it, it turned out to be too long. Rats. It's a theme I've touched upon, but I'm struggling to put it in a 3-minute nutshell. Guess I'll revise it, but I like this version too:

There's an old children's story, "The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real." The gist of this 1922 story is that if toys are loved enough, they become real. I quote:

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to [toys] who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

I'm here to tell you that all things -- not only toys, but tools and kitchen crockery, plaster statues, books, and photographs -- all things become real if they last long enough.

Walk through a second-hand store or an antiques mall on a quiet day. Stand still for a moment. There. Can't you feel all the currents of lives lived? There, after the whiff of lavender, after the rainy-day scent of old paper, comes the swirl of emotion, of longing, an invisible fog, rising, from every old item.

Investment collectors prefer their vintage Barbie dolls in the original, unopened boxes; their baseball cards sealed between two slabs of plastic, untouched. But the Barbies with messed up hair and the baseball cards with bends and fuzzy edges -- these are the objects that have absorbed all the energies of a child at play. Likewise, kitchenware with nicks and rust spots. Books with cracked spines and notes in the margins. Porcelain figurines with arms glued back on, and a chipped nose. These are the items that have absorbed all the passionate enjoyment of long-gone owners.

These are the items that sigh with loneliness under fluorescent lamps of second-hand stores. The dispossessed.  These are the orphans in a refuge camp. Me. Take me. they whisper. To those who stop and listen.

In the Velveteen Rabbit story, at his moment of despair, tossed out with the trash, the Velveteen rabbit thinks this: "Of what use was it to be loved and lose one's beauty and become Real if it all ends like this?

That’s when the magic fairy turns the velveteen rabbit into an actual bunny and sets him free in the garden.

But in my world the once-loved orphan thing is miraculously transported to the back of my hall closet… till one day I pull it out, all dusty in a cloudy plastic bag, and I say, "What the hell is this?" It turns out to be a stack of sheet music so often-played that the pages are all separated and frayed. Or it’s an envelope of postcards from Viola's 1935 world cruise, to her family in Buffalo, with the postage stamps picked off. Or a scrapbook of clippings from 1920s movie magazines. Or a stack of 3-D comic books. Or a hat made from Budweiser cans, crocheted together with red yarn.

They plead with me: "Don't put us back in there. It's dark." I walk them to the wastebasket and then I hear them whisper. "We need a home." Their spirits are neither good nor evil, just persistent. So I turn around and walk them to my work room. Take a picture. Scratch my head about how to describe them and sit down at the computer.

And that's the story of how I started my store on ebay. Since 2005 more than a thousand castoffs, popping up through that secret source in the back of my closet, have found new owners to treasure their lively spirits.


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