A Commons of Unwanted Things

The 2014 Urban Omnibus writing competition, entitled Common Shares, invited writers to respond to the overlapping themes of common ownership, private property, and the sharing economy. We sought submissions that would probe diverse notions of the commons – in historical, economic, spatial, digital, and political contexts – in light of a contemporary reality in which pretty much everything can be bought, sold, or rented. The winning entry, however, does not reflect on collaborative consumption or privatization, but rather on the unintended value of private, personal keepsakes abandoned to the semi-public realm of a New York City basement.

Today, we are pleased to present “A Commons of Unwanted Things” by Frederica Hill, selected from out of 96 entries from around the world. What begins as a confession of furtive curiosity about what her neighbors discard gradually transforms into awareness of the complex interplay between self-creation and self-discovery. The site of her investigation, a Manhattan apartment building, inflects her story with a particular reading of urban density and isolation, the peculiar loneliness of a New York adolescence, and the singular way this city casts the relationship between self and stranger.

In the coming weeks, we will publish the two runners-up from the Common Shares writing competition, accompanied by original illustrations by George Bates. All three are collected in a printed volume available for purchase at McNally Jackson Books. —C.S.

 

Illustration by George Bates

1.
Thursday is trash day. On New York curbs, people leave behind gnarled lamps, paintings of sailboats, or sad-eyed kids; a velvety, hump-backed couch with a sign taped on: “No Bed Bugs, Perfectly Good!”

As a kid, I find a flaking silver swan, a mistreated aristocrat stretching its long, glittering neck against black garbage bags. When I am twelve, I drag home a metal typing desk and dig out a brittle clutch of letters and carbon copies. The letters are in German, so I label them “Nazi Spy Documents” and keep them in a safe place.

My mother banishes the swan and the desk, although she lets me keep the spy documents. “No room,” she tells me, and as an apartment kid, I know this is fair. But my mother loves the curbside hunt too. She has her own detritus crushes. A mahogany mantelpiece left on Riverside. A packing crate with stamps from, I swear, everywhere. We’re lucky she’s too slight to lug all her finds home.

I rarely glimpse my neighbor’s lives. I am not given the opportunity to compliment their decor, appreciate their vacation snapshots, eat their family recipes. But their leftovers are scrutinized and adored. Our apartment absorbs curb leftovers, beautifully molded bricks, a mirror with carved panels, a doughty rocking horse.

The curb on Thursdays is an index of change, the residue of decisions too trivial to be recognized unless as tributaries of a broader current of urban transformation. People are kicking out boyfriends and armchairs, reconsidering the ironic, fake-polar-bear rug, moving to Brooklyn because the Upper West Side is square. My unseen neighbors are real, and they’re getting rid of their stuff.

I try to decipher the scratches on the German writing desk with a Morse code book borrowed from the library. My mother ignores her reflection in a speckled mirror, squinting instead for traces of whatever loneliness it used to field.

 

2.
Here’s one way to inhabit a city. You are the protagonist, and the quirky neighborhood characters are a backdrop: the diligently practicing opera singer across the block, the beautiful redhead casually walking a bear-sized dog. Maybe you fall in love and now there are two fully real people in the neighborhood: two of you on a stoop with bodega coffees, impressing each other with clever observations about the weird world passing by.

It’s easy to believe that other people disintegrate when they leave your attention. The only way to respond to the challenge of dense human difference is to evaluate and discard; find your scene and treat its particular rules as though they were absolute.

When young people from elsewhere come to a city, they prove they belong by complying with its conditions of anonymity and autonomy. But I grew up in New York, and these conditions were not the entry fare to a magical city; they were the status quo of my hometown. Sneaky and lonely, like all teenagers, I rebelled against them.

3.
My apartment building’s basement has a space for unwanted things next to the recycling, offering up junky bestsellers, baby-name books, towers of slick, ponderous fashion magazines. Many people grab the occasional mystery novel or Vogue. My mother takes yesterday’s unfilled crossword puzzles. But for me, it is a jumping-off point for further scavenging. I slip down to the basement daily, gray fingertips sweeping through weeks of Arts & Leisure, surreptitiously glancing at the elevator doors, because I am sixteen and, as much as I like going through the trash, I don’t want anyone to see me do it.

Upper West Siders are conscientious recyclers, and there’s no danger of gunk. The real danger is the addictive thrill of — at last — brushing up against my neighbors’ lives.

 

In the beginning, vague clues suffice. A flurry of preschool application brochures or wedding magazines. In mid-January, an outbreak of Season’s Greetings from families in striped shirts on beaches. But odder offerings float up: ancient advertising magazines asking if “The Negro” represents an exciting new market. A slim volume by ETHAN AGE SIX, who is DEDICATING THIS BOOK TO MY FAMILY BECAUSE I WANT THEM TO KNOW MY THOUGHTS.

Comic books. Playbills for premieres of long-forgotten Broadway shows. A receipt for 126 dollars worth of library fines. A thank-you list for wedding gifts: “Ugly china — Aunt Kathy.” A cross-examination from a divorce hearing.

My high school boyfriend told me a story about a woman who lived alone. When she died, no one knew until insects crawling under her door disturbed the family in the next apartment over. That story gave me the creeps. A dark tableau of urban alienation, where absence is recognized only by a contamination of the common space.

My basement-hunting inverts the ghoulish tale. To affirm presence, I immerse myself in spillover. High school poetry. Fifty-year-old, experimental theater magazines — naked, nubile girls with center-parted hair and leather straps around their necks, declaiming cryptic poetry to pieces of fruit. Kindergarten crayon family trees: small mothers, small fathers, enormous MEs.

Friends are skeptical. “Aren’t you just looking through people’s trash?” Well, yes. But I excuse it. I’m not some small-town snoop sniffing for dirt on the lives of folk I knew. There’s no way to connect the stories I imagine with the people I nod to in the elevator.

 

4.
My first year away at college, my building renovated its roof, tearing up the tar garden of minor transgression where we snuck beers in high school. They put up tables with flickering fake candles, planted trellises to grow roses and video cameras to catch bad teens smoking weed.

Our building now had a common space. Young families brought up bottles of wine and Zabar’s cheese plates, snapping sunsets over the Hudson on iPhones, while the older folk quietly debated the value of charter schools. There was rarely a conversation whose speakers wouldn’t mind being overheard. I ignored this Upper West Side paradise, burrowing deeper into the underworld of trash.

Cultivating my relationship with trash, I was struck by the reciprocal relationship between self-imagining and discarding. Reimagining the self means cutting away what does not belong. My neighbors wanted their lives to have a certain heft and shape. They were good at throwing away.

As my mother filled in salvaged crossword puzzles, I gathered what my neighbors tossed, finding a puzzle of my own. I tried to fill in the blank spaces of the apartment building. I dreamed up answers, names. Erased them. Tried again. Did anything other than proximity connect us? The only answers the basement gave me: pleas for money from Greenpeace, respect for the Ivy League, L.L. Bean catalogs. These didn’t satisfy me.

Then I met Estelle Steinberg, and my puzzle metaphor collapsed.

 

5.
My encounter with Estelle Steinberg began when three cardboard boxes heaped with papers showed up in my basement, the summer after they redid the roof garden. Before I found Estelle’s boxes, my curiosity had stretched indifferent as a doctor’s fingers over the peripheral residue of unknown neighbors. These three boxes weren’t the day-to-day spillage of a diffuse mass of strangers. They were the accumulation of one life.

Estelle Steinberg was a nice Jewish girl who discovered her sexuality after her first, brief marriage ended. She wanted to help others learn to accept themselves. She wanted to be a therapist. She went to grad school.

She graduated – barely. I’ll sign my name to this — but Estelle, I have some things to say. Her advisor was disappointed in the subjective tone of her final project. He chastised her, but let her obtain her degree. Her advisor wrote her several contemptuous letters, especially regarding her participation in “Flower Studies,” a form of psychotherapy where you stared thoughtfully at a flower for forty-five minutes to mirror its coherence and self-acceptance. (This was the ‘60s.)

She married again. A daughter. She thought it was important to let kids make their own mistakes. She was divorced a second time. They sent cordial letters about the kid. The kid put Snoopy stickers on letters from camp.

This was a new kind of basement hunt, an invasive one, squirreling into a stranger’s past. But I couldn’t stop. Eleanor Roosevelt said that only small minds linger on people. My small mind clung like a burr to Estelle’s life. My small heart burnt with indignation at that sneering snob of an advisor. My small mind considered Estelle’s chosen mode of therapy. Perhaps if I looked long enough at a flower, my small heart might become calm.

 

Estelle was a gatherer, like me. She gathered and kept with the packrat’s optimism: that someday patterns will emerge and tell me who I am. At first, I was sure that she had died. What other reason for the boxes to show up? But I couldn’t find an obituary online. Was this Estelle Steinberg’s courageous decision to let go, to be free?

I knew that it was wrong: sifting through Estelle’s story, kneading it and rolling it out with grubby hands. I was troubled by the feeling that holding onto the bins tainted her freedom. I put the boxes back in the basement, wondering only briefly whether anyone would find them.

6.
The mundane, cruel solution to the mystery of the boxes came when I realized that Estelle Steinberg’s obituary was under her ex-husband’s name. Death, not epiphany, set me on the paper trail of her life.

Death answers another riddle. She was gathering until the end. Collecting objects, hoping they would explain her. But the objects don’t. When you grasp only bits and pieces, you can assemble them into whatever story you want, a spy story or a silver swan romance.

Estelle faced me with not only her reality, but her specificity. Her story defines its own bounds and ends; knit together by motives I can’t understand. My affection doesn’t delude me into thinking I understand her. I don’t know the sound of her voice. The New York she photographed when she was young. The fear of failing as a mother.

 

7.
Systems of sharing seek to connect with other like-minded folk and maybe with the common good. To me, the objects I find, on the curb or the basement, fracture any singular vision of the future. The room I might be happy in has a silver swan, or a mahogany mantelpiece, or a lamp with an aggressively bent stem like a swan’s neck. This unsystematic and accidental urban sharing suggests a city wired together and sparking with endless conversions of trash-to-treasure, even though that treasure is not equitably distributed.

My mother grew up in the suburbs of Nashville. She says, “It’s easier to get rid of books here, I can always pretend someone else will take it.” You let go of something, it crashes into someone else. What’s a city but a place where you can never know all the implications of a loss? You lose umbrellas and you lose scraps of paper with important telephone numbers and you leave a brand-new pair of Nikes under a seat on the M96. You wait by the bus stop all day, timidly asking every bus driver if you can check, but by the twentieth bus you accept that those beautiful sneakers are gone.

There’s no reciprocity in the habit of losing. You may lose a dozen umbrellas and still it’s unlikely you will find one in the crease of the banquette at your favorite diner, just at the moment the sky darkens. Still, one day you take out a library book from the Grand Army Plaza branch, and there’s a postcard, a picture of a German forest: “Dear Adam. I found a cuckoo clock for Jonathan. He won’t appreciate it until he’s older. I don’t want to paint anymore. All day I walk around just looking at bridges.”

 

On the long walk home, you cross the Brooklyn Bridge and recall the cramps and lunacy suffered by the workers setting its foundations. You think, sure, why not look at bridges, their guileless promise of suspension, of crossing to elsewhere. You’re a sucker for easy metaphors, so you’re stuck on bridges. A different reader might begin calculating how old Jonathan is now, considering one of many parental balancing acts: the hope that a child will resemble you, the contradictory hope that he will expand far beyond you. I leave the postcard in the book. In a year, in a month, I could find the same postcard, but I would be moved by another line.

When I was younger, I poked through junk thinking I was finding true mysteries and that the stories I told would solve them. I am still a garbage prowler, but now recognize that my garbage habit was not a hunt for truth, but a scavenging for the raw material to stitch together the sort of city worth living in, full of clues and marvels and Nazi spy villains.

A city thrives on projects of self-creation. But live in a city long enough and you find yourself drawn to the residue of those projects: bits of life shed in common space or leaking from under shut doors. If living in a city gives you the right to shape yourself, it also leaves you the obligation to funnel shards of your life — the plastic-eyed troupe of your old stuffed animals waiting for disposal curbside, the tragicomic scene of you being dumped holding a large houseplant on a stoop on Broadway — into the urban commons. They drift into the public domain, stock images to be picked up, misread, incorporated into the story a passerby wants to tell.

Unless otherwise noted, all images provided by the author.

Frederica Hill grew up in New York and graduated from Kenyon College in 2013. She is currently a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow in Penang, Malaysia.

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Urban Omnibus Writing Competition

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