Thursday, November 19, 2009
When I was a kid, my mom once told me I had an obsessive personality. That wording always bothered me, because it sounds like a psychological condition, and I don’t think I’m that obsessive. But I did go through numerous fads and stages as a young person.
Even now, you could say that my interest in graffiti and photography is somewhat obsessive, I suppose. Where’s the line between an interest and an obsession? Darned if I know.
Most of my childhood obsessions involved an impulse to collect. Here are a few:
-- Stamp collecting. This was the single most dominant, enduring interest of my childhood. I loved stamps and the exotic places they helped me imagine: the jungles of the Congo, the mountains of Eritrea, the plantations of Brazil, the snowy onion domes of Russia. I mowed the lawn each week in the summer and saved the money for stamps, which I bought a few times a year at a store in Tampa called “The Perf Gauge.” (A perf gauge is a tool used by hardcore stamp collectors to measure the perforations of some stamps, which can affect value and collectability.) I traded stamps with my brother and boys in my neighborhood; I counted them, organized them and mounted them in increasingly large and elaborate albums. I still have my stamp collection and I’d never part with it, though these days I don’t look at it much.
-- Recording music. When I got to be a teenager, I became obsessed with taping music off the radio. I bought cassettes at Radio Shack and taped songs I liked, and then eventually songs I sort of liked, and finally songs I didn't much like at all. I just wanted them all. I imagined shelves of cassettes, carefully archived, a library of every song I might ever want to hear. I taped things off the television, even. I drove my family crazy.
-- Beer cans. Around 1980, my stepbrother introduced me to the hobby of beer can collecting. I became fascinated by beer cans -- the graphics, the typography, the sprays of wheat, the various types of pull tabs and tops. Who knew cans could be so interesting? We collected hundreds of them by slogging through marshy mounds of trash in a local dump and looking for rusty empties under trees in sandy orange groves. We joined the Beer Can Collectors of America (aka the BCCA) and went to trading sessions, lugging flats of cans to and fro. We traded cans by mail with collectors from other parts of the country. We amassed a huge collection, then split it between us, and then my interest slowly waned. I sold my collection in 1983 for about $100, just before the fad of beer can collecting collapsed altogether, making similar collections essentially worthless. (My brother collected soda cans at the same time, and still has his, stored in flats in a closet at my mother's house -- much to her chagrin.)
-- Seashells. My siblings and I spent a week at the beach every year and during that time we scoured the shore for shells. I had a seashell guide that helped us identify them all, and we typed up notecards for each specimen, noting where it had been collected and under what circumstances. We bought shells at baskety craft store World Bazaar and, on one glorious trip, at the Shell Factory in Fort Myers. I still have my shells, but now they're all mixed together in a big glass jug and the notecards are long gone.
What is it about collecting that people find so fascinating? Even my street art photos are a collection of sorts -- one that happily requires no space and no dusting. It's funny how acquiring is such a strong human impulse.
(Photo: Fall, Hell's Kitchen, last week.)