Tuesday, October 28, 2008

the things they carried

In the lobby of my building, across from the elevators in an alcove that could only exist because of an architectural mistake, is a zone unofficially recognized as the "free stuff area." Have something you don't want? Drop it in the free stuff area. See something you like on the mottled blue and maroon carpeting? Grab it - it's free.

Almost everyone in the building subscribes to this free exchange of goods. I once scored a pair of bright orange Volkl skis, sans bindings. They worked great as dust collectors for a year and then I put them back down in the free stuff area for the next person. Over the past couple years I have contributed various kitchen appliances, a rug, and a bunch of VHS movies. The VHS movies were snatched up real fast, but every other day or so the movie "Dazed and Confused" kept reappearing. This happened six or seven times and I never could muster the energy to bend down and check, but I fear that while the cover said "Dazed and Confused," the actual tape might have been an early-90's era home movie. It's a good thing I don't have my one side short one side long hair style anymore. I wouldn't want someone to have recognized my from my on-screen appearance.

Every once in a while someone doesn't realize that they shouldn't store things they actually want in the free stuff area. About six months ago Ty came bounding upstairs with a set of brand new golf clubs. Fantastic find! Good things go fast. Unfortunately, he noticed later in the day that there was a large number of nice items in the area again. He tracked down the owners to find out that they were not donating all of their favorite things, they were instead moving out. The golf clubs were returned and a big sign put up: "if you took something from here on Tuesday it wasn't free - we were just moving out!" Soon, it got exciting. Multiple different ink shades appeared under the original note yelling at the miscreants that they should know better than to put their personal items in the free stuff area. "This is the free stuff area, you should know that!" "You're supposed to only put FREE things here." "Idiot!"

Personally, the free stuff area is a dream come true for me. The items that someone chooses to leave for others are amazingly telling. Essentially, I get to imagine the lives of others entirely based on the items they leave behind.

Of course, I am endlessly entertained imagining the reasoning going on in someone's head as they decide to place a 1/4 full gallon vat of sweet relish on the floor in a warm hallway, but lately my interest has moved beyond simple fascination. I have become more and more aware of the trails we leave behind as we move through our day. When I'm present in a space, someone can see me. I take up a certain amount of area. When I leave, what do I leave behind? An artifact? A feeling? A whoosh of air? If you could connect the dots on a trail of what I've left behind, what would you make of me?

As a high school senior I took a class entitled, "Uncovering Lexington's History." Lexington, Massachusetts is a town brimming with history: Paul Revere's ride, "shot heard 'round the world," WWII watch towers, largest mass arrest in US history (Vietnam war), and the list goes on. The class was brand new and was essentially a single research project. We were allowed access to the Historical Society Archives. Complete with white gloves and climate controlled rooms I paged through documents, letters, mementos, eyeglasses, and trinkets left behind by people in the 1700s. This was a primary source lover's oasis, a more authentic version of the items left around in the free stuff area.

When I entered college I fully intended to be a historian. I loved putting together the puzzle pieces that unfolded stories based on limited pieces of information. I left college as a geologist, attempting to unlock the mystery behind the interaction of glacier and its bed by analyzing micro-scale deposits called siltskins that essentially look like cuordoroy pants-textured silt cemented to a bedrock surface.

Now that I'm a designer, what trails am I leaving?

Could you decipher the projects I built during my first year in the design program if you found this pile of my receipts? Yesterday, I accidentally flushed a thin red Sharpee down the toilet. Well, I admit that I accidentally dropped it in, but after an evaluation of the industrial plumbing I decided it would flush. In any event, if someone finds it fifty years from now wherever it gets deposited, what would they think about me? Would they know I feel bad about it?

If I could choose the artifacts I leave behind, what would they be? If I had to go to war tomorrow, what would I carry? How would Tim O'Brien tell my story?

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