The man who’s looking at me circumspectly from under a black ‘Subway Q&A’ baseball cap has, it seems, lived in every single apartment in New York City. “I moved to the YMCA in 1989,” he remembers, touching the tips of his fingers together. “I lived there for a few weeks. Then I lived on—” and here he starts to enumerate, using his fingers to count—“15th Street, 16th Street, 2nd Avenue in a huuuge place, West Broadway, Avenue A, I was paying less than $500 a month then, and two different apartments on Mott Street. Every time I heard about a better apartment, I’d move. Then I found a place on Perry Street. I’ve been there for years now, it’s got two fireplaces and I look south across the city.” He smiles. “But I’m thinking about moving to Park Slope.”
I know how Todd feels. In the six months I’ve been here, my suitcases have worn themselves out migrating from Carroll Gardens to Chinatown and the Upper West Side to Red Hook. Because New York looks different from every angle, it actually feels like I’ve lived in four different cities. “No matter how big a city,” Todd corroborates, “you only live in a small part of it. You make your own small town.”
New York has been letting him down lately, though—according to Todd, the Big Apple ain’t as good as it used to be. “When young people can’t afford to move to an area…” he grumbles. I kind of agree. Pathetic as it makes me sound, I came here looking for la vie bohème, and unless it’s really hiding, its closest relations are Williamsburg hipsters, which are in fact not close relations at all.
When he first moved to New York from Chicago (to which he’d moved from a part of Louisville that’s “like a Jewish Westchester with a Southern drawl”), Todd worked as an outreach worker with the junkies on Bowery. “Bowery was the last stop,” he says. “By that time, they’d cut all ties, they lived in flop houses in beds separated only by chicken wire. My efforts mostly failed. Junkies are self-absorbed and selfish; that’s the nature of addiction.” The Bowery wore him out, so he studied international affairs at NYU and did archival research on architects, artists and designer furniture. He worked as a stockbroker for a while, then wrote for men’s magazines about cool things like free shit, survivors of tiger shark attacks, absinthe, Funkmaster Flex, and what happens when you go to New Jersey and put plastic explosives inside a pair of hiking boots. In short, he was a real New Yorker. “I like going to buffets,” he says. “Eating a little of this, a little of that.” But it was the advent of September 11th, the retelling of which still makes him tear up, that really turned him into a New Yorker. It galvanized him into becoming a paramedic.
Todd would rather I not write about that, so I won’t, except to say that I learned three things from our conversation: 1.) Starbucks locations in New York are tremendous junkie hotspots, due to the individual bathrooms; 2.) there actually is a drug out there that can turn you instantaneously sober if you’re extremely fucked up—where was that when I was in college?—and 3.) damn, I promised not to write about it. Oh yeah, here’s one: 3.) “skell” is another word for bum.
There are so many things that Todd says and then retracts (“I’d appreciate it if you could keep that off the record,”) that by the end of our conversation, more of my notes are crossed out than not. My theory about this, like most of my other theories on Todd, attributes it to his being a New Yorker; being so short on personal space makes us gluttons for it. Here are conversations that actually happened:
Todd: “So there’s this unconscious guy on the floor with a fucking hypo in his arm, his girlfriend is frantic, we’re giving him CPR, I’m with these medics I’ll call Janie and Jack**. Oh shit [pause]. Those are their real names. Uh. Can you keep those off the record?”
Todd: “So I belong to a skeptics group that meets on a regular basis.”
Nathalie: “Really? So…you sit around and doubt together?”
Todd: “No. [withering look.] But I’d rather not talk about it. The world is a little too small these days.”
Todd: “So I have a political blog, an art collecting blog, and a skepticism blog.”
Nathalie [very interested]: “Really? Where can I find them?”
Todd: “I’d rather not say. All good blogs are anonymous, I hate the whole cult-of-personality thing. I like that the Internet divorces people from their opinions. Besides, by remaining unidentified you avoid the whole Theo Van Gogh situation.”
The man is moved to tears by a personal story he shares at one point, but he thinks giving me his web address makes him a candidate for assassination? “Sounds like a New Yorker,” a friend of mine confirmed.
The admission of skepticism intrigued me. Unbeknownst to me, one among the Internet’s abundance of highly developed microcosms is an active skeptics community, which, besides Todd’s secret blog, is populated with the likes of 95% Of You Are Morons (Seriously. Here’s Why), The Conspiracy Factory, Denialism.com, Everything Is Pointless, and God is For Suckers, which is actually more of an atheist blog. “You don’t have to be an atheist to be a skeptic,” says Todd. “But it helps.”
Here’s another thing about Todd: he’s crazy for collecting. Glass, ephemera, boxes, and especially books. “My apartment is stuffed,” he says, satisfiedly. “There are no more gaps in the walls.” He scrawls a diagram into my notebook showing his divergent book collecting interests: first editions, aesthetics books, fine press books (where an effort has been made in the book’s design), and artist books (where an artist contributes to the book’s production, like Matisse illustrating Ulysses). And with this I’m led down another rabbit hole, a micro-world of layers that spiral, onionlike, ever more tightly.
Why do people collect? The Internet is a fount of speculation. “A collection gives the collector a sense of mastery of a given subject—specifications, dates, serial numbers, relative rarity, value. Furthermore, people who collect may find that their self-concept becomes sturdier; their passionate interest helps coalesce their sense of who they are and they feel a part of a community of similar-minded people,” says John Sweeney, who collects cars, Tiffany studio lamps, vintage motorcycles, antique wrist watches, and mechanical ice-cream scoops. George Willard Benson, collector of antique crosses, believes rather bombastically that “The collector has the true sportsman’s spirit—the thrill, the confident anticipation and the uncertain realization of the fisherman.” On a kids’ collectors website, youngster Sara Morgenthaler expounds: “I think it’s cool to collect things because it’s like a way to express yourself without damaging your body.” And psychologist Alexandra Helper weighs in Psychiatric Times: “Developmental scholars postulate that the collector may have been burdened during the anal phase of development, with difficulty in knowing when to hold on and when to let go.”
As a kid, Todd collected coins, covering the whole floor with them until he’d made a mosaic. “It’s not about being covetous,” he says. “It’s that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps we’re back to Todd just being a New Yorker: the tension of urban living fuels an acute need for a personally tailored sanctuary. Maybe I’m saying this because I can attest keenly to it myself; couch-surfing in New York City is far more exhausting than couch-surfing anywhere else, after a few weeks one practically cries for four walls of one’s own.
So maybe it’s this being a New Yorker now that underlies my five-hour-stint on an ephemera collectors’ site (or maybe I’m just anal). I wish-list books on Amazon like it’s going out of business: “Orange Crate Art,” “Some Early American Lottery Tickets,” “Old Sheet Music: A Pictorial History,” “Visiting Cards and Cases,” and “Collecting Playing Cards.” Every passion, according to essayist Walter Benjamin, borders on chaos—but the passion of the collector borders on the chaos of memory. Bad genes and pot smoke shot my memory dead; maybe this spurs my urge to collect, too.
Collecting is about accretion, ingestion; Benjamin writes that it’s not that the collector’s possessions come alive in him, it’s that he lives in them—which is why object divorce is so hard for Todd, who refers to the recent gifting of a decorative box to his father as “breaking up with my box.” There are collectors and dealers, and never the twain shall meet. Once, Todd bought a $7 Chagall book from an artist moving to Germany. He sold it for $4500, but despite the 600-fold return, it’s an action he regrets so deeply that the story comes up several times in the conversation. “Hey, there’s a history to every object in my apartment. Selling a piece is like cutting off a fucking finger,” says Todd grimly. Even worse is selling lithographs or chapters out of books. “I’m Jewish. We don’t cut books up.”
Todd’s Holy Grail—and that of countless other book hunters—is a forty-page, paper-bound book, “Tamarlane and Other Poems,” whose author is listed only as “A Bostonian.” It’s Edgar Allen Poe’s first published work, and the print run is estimated to have been between 40 and 200. Only 12 copies officially exist anymore (allegedly, Poe himself didn’t even keep a copy), but tabs on them are kept pretty tightly, and for good reason; in 1988, a private collector paid Sotheby’s $198,000 for a copy. Todd hopes that if he keeps trawling through thrift stores, consignment houses, or Craigslist, he might some day strike gold.
Now that I know, I’m might start looking...
* Does anyone know how to make a MacBook turn this picture 90 degrees to the right? I used to be able to! And now I can't anymore. John? Help, please?
** Those are no longer their real names, obviously.