following the crumbs I’ve left behind me, and getting all
the more confused. My paper trail, rather than edifying, eddies
around me muddily as I push back against its current.
And I wonder, what “mind-rotting swill” did I pay an ex-girlfriend
$12.39 for, by check, back in October of 1994? I know that
I did—I’ve got the returned check right here—but for the life
of me, I can’t guess what might have occasioned the payment.
Right there on the note line it says, “mind-rotting swill.”
I flip through the other checks of that era, hoping for some
contextual clue, and think, “Just who the hell is this guy?”
Suddenly, I’m an auto-archeologist baffled by my own artifacts
and their implied rituals.
I have really got to be more organized in the future; if not
to stave off the bureaucratic nightmares attendant to my heretofore
slipshod filing system, then to spare myself another existential
crisis like that brought on by combing through the garbage
bag of outdated documents I’d been lugging around for a decade.
That was exactly my intention when, last weekend, I dragged
the bulky thing out from under my bed: to sift and sort through
every old bank statement, W-2, notice of default, birthday
card, MFA-program catalog, recommended-reading list, Xeroxed
Harper’s article, ancient Day Runner and/or address
book, ATM receipt, packet of submission guidelines, eerily
accurate horoscope clipping, Mapquest printout, Dear John
letter and/or Dear Jane letter draft, and college blue book—to
finally get it together.
At first, the prospect was daunting, almost overwhelming.
I’d procrastinated for so long—moving the accreting bundle
from apartment to apartment over the years—that the collection
seemed more institutional than accidental. It seemed, I don’t
know, necessary. An archive, not an eyesore. It made me historical,
well- documented—or something. What other subconscious motivation
could I have had to cling to such trash? Did I have a vision
of a future re-creation of my life in some modestly funded
small-town museum? Did I picture well-intentioned parents
dragging their bored and sullen tykes between the velvet ropes
of my reconstituted life: “Gee, kids, isn’t that an awful
lot of CDs? No, Bobby, in the past skulls didn’t have USB
Well, no, that wasn’t it.
Then maybe some buried-but- surfacing fear of an impending
totalitarian government: “My papers? Oh, I’ve got my papers,
Jack.” Whuummp. “Here are my freakin’ papers.”
I doubt it.
Maybe just incipient pack-rat tendencies; maybe I’m destined
to be one of those people who dies days before anyone is aware.
When the stench finally discomfits the neighbors they’ll find
my shriveled husk at the heart of a maze of bundled alternative
weeklies, gently nibbled by the dozens of cats who now rule
That doesn’t make sense either. But, whatever the psychological
roots of this pathology, it was an effort of will to begin
threshing through the mass—at first. As I grouped and stacked
the stuff by kind—bank-related stuff here, automobile- related
stuff here, grants and residencies I’ll never actually apply
for, here—it became clear to me how little I cared about whole
subsections of my past life. If it wasn’t important enough
to open when it was conceivably relevant, what use is an 8-year-old
correspondence from a financial institution now? If they need
me, they’ve got the lawyers to find me, I figure.
A tiny fraction of the accumulation went into a newly purchased
hanging-file box, and the garbage bag started to look like
a garbage bag again—rather than luggage.
Then I hit the stack of returned checks.
It should have been a no-brainer. But the first one I looked
at snagged me, like finding a page of someone’s diary in the
park. It was a check from Dec. 31, 1994, made out to an expensive
hair salon (not a barber, a hair salon—they cut my
hair in French), with the note “New Year’s hair.” The next
check in the pile was made out to an old acquaintance who
ran a small catering company, whom my girlfriend-of-the-time
and I hired for that very same party at which I debuted my
newly continental hair. I couldn’t look away.
I flipped through the checks, piecing together a consumerist
caricature of myself. Individual checks were funny—the one
made out to the Parking Violations Bureau, the one with the
snottily scrawled “crooks” on the note line made me laugh
at my own juvenile indignation—but the overall effect was
disorienting. Imagine finding a stack of photographs of yourself,
all of which are individually recognizable but when thumbed
rapidly reveal a cartoon of you doing something you think
you could never have done. That was the effect.
I bounced checks to various landlords, universities and department
stores and yet threw catered parties and subscribed to every
magazine imaginable. I borrowed money from my parents, but
spent recklessly in chain bookstores, record shops and warehouse
liquor distributors (check No. 250, for example, made out
in early December of ’95 for $115.41, went to “booze”). I
paid off friends, who apparently had cash for concert tickets
(Colette, I now recall, fronted the $35 that brought me to
the Lollapalooza at which I got my nose pierced—my nose
pierced); I bought used musical equipment from people
on the edges of my social circle; and, once, I got something
at Home Depot.
That last one’s a riddle.
But not so strange, so persistently gnawing, as that one check
for $12.39. What on earth costs $12.39? It’s check No. 154,
Oct. 14, 1994. Between drunken book-buying sprees, with the
money I didn’t owe my parents, my friends, my landlord, or
my college, I paid my girlfriend $12.39 for “mind-rotting
Who the hell is this guy?