The Junk Drawer at the Edge of the Universe
I was coming home from a job interview when a woman in a Mercedes ran a stop sign and crumpled poor old Mr. Zoom's bumper, my $75 Nash Rambler. It was the middle of the day, and the woman, in a black suit, reeking of alcohol, gave me $200 (it was the 1970s; our rent was $75/month) if I would just forget it. I was excited to tell my wife, Kathleen. We were broke, and I was looking for a job or at least money to pay the overdue rent. I picked up a filet mignon and a bottle of Almaden wine, discerning wine for a college student or graduate, so we could celebrate our good fortune.
Kathleen and I had been re-negotiating the terms of our relationship since moving back to Portland, after we had dropped off the grid for two years. We had experimented with an open relation. When she got home, I absently asked her where she had been, assuming she had been out with one of her two friends, Peggy or Kay. She glared at me. Shit. Did I forget it was her birthday or our anniversary? Then I remembered she had been on a date either with the ontological firefighter or the suave Native American English professor and poet. "This won't work," she said, "if you don't care where I am," went into the bedroom and slammed the door.
I was torn. I wanted to go to her and apologize. Instead, I went to my study, a tiny room that was littered with books, newspaper clippings, piles of magazines, notes, drafts of chapter one of a dozen start-up novels, old diaries, memorabilia. I even had my parent's bank check stubs I had been examining to see if they contained evidence about the mysteries of my childhood. I took my job as a writer seriously. It was also my experimental mysticism laboratory where I attempted to move items with brain power as outlined in Ouspensky’s New Model of the universe. My one success was tipping a pile of file folders by staring at it like a big dump was on the way. It turned out to be a 3.8 earthquake.
There was a very white, very blank, piece of paper in my typewriter. Exactly where I had left it. One line at the top, The 100th greatest novel written by a white guy, Reed Johnson, Our house was perpetually damp. The paper in the typewriter was limp like a Salvador Dali clock. I went back to the kitchen and made a gin and tonic the size of a glass of lemonade. I was in a different time zone than my neighbors. I went to work when they were coming home from work and often chased a Gin and Tonic with strong coffee or sometimes the other way around. The first sips brought a warm rush to my stomach and fired up my synapses. I wrote six sentences, then pushed junk off my mattress on the floor and collapsed melodramatically. Who was I kidding? I couldn't write. I wanted to fall asleep; the falling that came so completely when I was in a school class. Or pass out after a night of drinking. Sudden and complete oblivion would be nice. But when I laid down and closed my eyes nothing happened. I was wide awake. I couldn't remember if I had too little or too much sleep. My mind was racing like an engine on high idle. Pointless meanderings. Nothing I wanted to be thinking about. I had an alarming thought. What if I couldn't stop thinking? What if I could never sleep again? It wasn't as though I suffered insomnia. I had reasonably good sleeping habits. I could still stay up all night or I could fall asleep at the drop of a hat or mostly whenever I willed it. Whenever I had had difficulties sleeping I had my own equivalents of counting sheep such as trying to remember mile by mile family road trips or trying to remember the exact order of books in my father's gigantic library. I tried several routines but nothing happened. My mind continued to race. There was no off switch.
I went back to the kitchen. I thought I might turn off my brain by reading the Sunday newspaper comics but I begin to examine comic book conventions: different speech clouds, archetypal facial expressions. When Kathleen got up to pee, she found me at the kitchen table circling comic book conventions and taking notes. "You need help," she said shaking her head and went back to bed. I followed her to get a sweater. I looked at her lying on the bed. Her long blonde hair spread out on a maroon afghan; insect bitten lips slightly open. She was beautiful. When she had arrived on the college campus where we met, she had been dubbed Bridget Bardot by a fraternity. There was a bounty fund established for who bagged her first. It remained as one of the major victories of my life. Pay back for the many girls who had rejected me.
She opened her eyes slightly and faintly smiled. Ah, good I was at least partially forgiven. I turned back to the drawer to fetch my sweater and realized I had opened the wrong drawer. It was one of our junk drawers. There were hundreds of items. An image leaped to mind. Every item had string attached to it or most times multiple pieces of string, and these pieces of string eventually ran into other pieces of string from other people's junk drawers. I imagined the entire planet connected through everyone's junk drawers. There were patterns. Low and high density of tangled strong, long and short stretches. If I were God—or maybe that is what God saw when he looked in on us—I would be able to see the meaning of life.
I carefully slide the drawer out so I could carry it to my study. I glanced back to our bed. I didn't want Kathleen to see me removing it; more evidence that I was dancing the light fandango. I was alarmed by what I saw. I was lying next to her. I almost dropped the drawer. I had never had an out-of-body experience, and even though I was having one, I didn't believe they were possible. A mild sense of psychosis. I was beside myself. Ah, that's what that means!
My self in bed begin to wiggle and it turned into Morgan, our six-month-old puppy, who loved being under the covers. Morgan was our baby. He was a dachshund and Alaskan Samoyed who looked more like a medium-sized collie with cocker spaniel ears.
I found index cards in our kitchen junk drawer—avoiding the temptation to merge the two junk drawers, and realizing the floor was covered with stuff, I dumped this new stuff on the living room floor and with a ball of string, I created a maze of interconnected lines between items and story summaries I scribbled on index cards. If hypertext had been invented, I could have created links to links and text to subtext. Using my Rube Goldberg technology, stories emerged. A matchbook from Chico, California triggered a story about 500 pounds of almonds we had received from Kathleen's sister and brother-in-law's farm. There was a business card from the Good Samaritans Association. On the back of it Kathleen had scribbled, "how dad met mom." I had learned something new. If I were to pursue this enterprise there were many important questions, such as if everything was connected to everything then wouldn't the string just get tangled and wouldn't that mean I was no better off than before?
When I was ten years old, I saw a TV show where everyone in a town put one thing, they thought would inform the future about who they were into a time capsule. After watching the show I created my own. I piled stuff in the middle of my bedroom floor. My mother thought I was cleaning up my room, finally. It was difficult because I didn't want to give up things important to me in the now, and how the hell would I know what people would want in the future? Most of the time I thought the planet was going to die soon. That perspective was rooted early and has remained constant. So, what was important to save?
When I was finished with the time capsule, I buried it in our yard. I wish I knew where but I lost the map. The few indicators I did remember were altered. Trees fell. My father planted a garden. Moles and worms moved earth around. The only thing I remember that was in the metal box were baseball cards of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I might have been able to retire by selling the cards. But you don't always know what will be important. My dime store insight: Junk drawers are the best proof that Mark Twain was right—the world is a solipsistic boat load of shit—not an exact quote.
I might have gone on longer but ran out of string and index cards. The living room looked like a gigantic cat’s cradle created by a schizophrenic patient. I had been awake for how many hours? I couldn't remember. My panic attack returned. What if I never slept again? I thought about how it might be a positive thing. If we typically sleep for 1/3 of our life, and I lived to 85 (based on my genetic actuary table. November 23 to be exact) then if I never slept would that mean I would live to be 113?
I couldn't just leave this maze covering the living room floor. When Morgan woke up, he would make a mess of it, the time-space continuum would be disturbed and Einstein might end up being only a postal worker. Ah, a reasonable solution. Using thumbtacks, I moved the maze from the floor to the ceiling and walls. Night turned into dawn by time I completed my task. This was working out fine. Kathleen and Morgan were both still asleep. I had to figure out what my life would be like if I never slept again, but I might talk Kathleen into taking photographs of my collage. She had a dark room in the dry part of the basement.
To understand what happened next, you need to know that one of my favorite books as a kid was How to Get 1001 Things for Free. My parents gave me a new edition every Christmas. They also gave me stamped post cards so I could send away for things. I was indiscriminate. I would send away for brochures about how to polish your silverware or photos of futuristic cars from Detroit. I just liked getting mail. I gave that up as a teenager when I was too busy being a juvenile delinquent but had taken it up again in the 1960s when I discovered the Whole Earth Catalog. It was like a grown-up hippie version of 1001 Free Things. I sent away for catalogs, brochures, books, sample magazines. When I ran out of things to send for in the Whole Earth Catalog, I had expanded my search to include classified ads in magazines I picked up from the local Goodwill donation boxes.
I was just settling down in front of my junk drawer when there was a knock at the
Front door. A rare occurrence. It wasn't easy to get to our house. It was in the small gully of a polluted creek. The house was slowly sliding into the creek. In the winter a stream would form in the driveway and wind its way through our basement. Rather than remedy the flooding we created a Japanese garden: moss, tiny trees, a steam and ponds, a teahouse, and because we didn't have toy monks, we placed wooden toy soldiers. I based it on one of my favorite places, Kyo-Misu Temple in Kyoto It was part of my whole earth ethic: work with rather than overcome nature.
I could see in the rearview mirror we had nailed to a post—the only way we could see who was at the door—a ruddy-faced man who was removing a white cowboy hat and combing back his thin blonde hair. In an Edsel in the driveway there was a platinum blonde staring in her rearview mirror—Humm...I'm looking at a rearview mirror looking at Jayne Mansfield looking in a rearview mirror. An Escher moment. Then the cowboy leaned over the porch rail so we were face to face. He motioned to me to open the door, but I was distracted by someone else arriving on foot. Had he come out of the woods? The new person was dressed up in a black suit. Young and straight. The only people in this neighborhood who wore suits were Jehovah's Witnesses. Kathleen leaned out of bed and, somewhat alarmed, asked me what was going on. "Don't worry," I assured her, "it’s just Avon calling."
Then the phone rang. I opened the door, and not thinking clearly about my next move, I invited my guests in while I answered the phone, "Is Reed there,?" someone at the other end said. What the hell did I sound like? I almost hung up, but the voice sounded vaguely familiar. "Please hang on," I said, politely.
I put the phone receiver on a table, but it fell to the floor. The cowboy turned to me, “Ron Edsel with Miracle Ear. We sell hearing aids. Someone at this address sent away for a sample of our new compact model. Would that be you? Are you hard of hearing?" I avoided saying the obvious. And he added, pointing to the giant Edsel in the driveway, “God’s sign you should buy from me."
The Jehovah's Witness held out a glossy brochure. "Well, can't help you with that" he said as he handed me the brochure, "but I'm a Rosicrucian, here to tell you about ancient secrets of the universe." I could picture the ad I had responded to, something about 500-year-old secrets revealed. How could one pass on that? Mr. Miracle Ear was pleased as punch. He grabbed the witnesses’ hand, "Praise the lord. The president of our company is Jehovah's witness. That's why it’s called miracle ear. I don't believe this. What a great coincidence. The design comes from one of John Smith’s journals when he was in the desert."
Just to round out the party, I could see my neighbor Phil, who was always smiling and thought the gully was the best place to live anywhere on the planet, walking past the Edsel carrying a plant the size of a German Shepherd.
Morgan just then pushed his way into the living room, and for a flash exposed Kathleen, half naked. The guys were so engrossed with the vision of a naked young woman that the Rosicrucian didn't notice Morgan peeing on his shoe until the pee created a small stream that trickled across the floor and descended into a hole in the floor. The hole was clearly marked with a danger sign.
Phil was at the front door, "Oh sorry, didn't know you had company." (He knew. He knew everything we did). "But I have that snowberry bush I was telling you about." "Howdy," he said, turning to the hearing aid salesman and Rosicrucian. I thanked Phil and went to the kitchen to get towels to clean up Morgan’s pee stream.
The Rosicrucian had a flash of brilliance. He got down on his hands and knees and invited us to join him so we could call forth guardians to protect this "humble home.” I kept one eye open, just in case this was a scam. I pictured our homely scene from outer space. We were probably the only place on the planet with this confluence of capitalism, ancient secrets, and Mr. Roger's neighborhood. I could see Kathleen looking at us from the bedroom, now fully clothed. Maybe I wasn't a breadwinner, but I had engaged ancient guardians to pray for our home. I also wondered about future junk drawer items that might mark this day, like the Rosicrucian brochure. But if I started saving things on purpose, then I would enter the arena of the uncertainty principle. I was also surprised that no one seems to notice the entangled cat’s cradle of truth on the walls and ceiling. Did I only see it?
I realized I had forgotten the phone call. They had probably hung up, but it was a good excuse to end the convocation. "This has been very nice," I said, "but there's an important caller on the phone whose been patiently waiting all this time." The three of them went out the front door. I didn’t feel too bad since I knew Phil would invite them to his house. The blonde waved to me cheerily as they moved to his house.
I picked up the receiver and gave a halfhearted hello. It didn't sound like anyone was there but then, a smoker's raspy and deep voice, "I was moved by the invocation. Are the guardians enormous or invisible? I suppose...no worries about making me wait. A phone freak friend set me up with a special hold function. It's like having two lines." He giggled— A funny sound like he was pushing Jell-O through bad fitting dentures. "He can also give me a number to call for free long distance or an inside line to the Israeli secret police." I realized it was Jack Ainsworth.
I wanted to talk with him. I had many questions, but sleep deprivation was catching up with me. The best way I knew how to stay awake was to keep talking. I motor-mouthed my way through my out-of-body experience, my dream of a community laboratorium and my insight about junk drawers. Finally, like the Energizer bunny 1 with cheap batteries, I just stopped.
"You need to copy down this address." Jack said, “and if you have access to a WATS line, this phone number. It's in England. Dr. David Finney. He's studied junk drawers for 30 years. I have a paper he published I'll send you. It's a cross cultural analysis of junk drawers—not that it is always drawers, mind you. You know Eskimos use seal bodies. (Jell-O laugh) He analyzed 5000 junk drawers in America, Canada and England, and found that 78% of the contents had a significant story attached. That's excluding paper clips, rubber bands, etc. which he calls nihilities—although you'd be surprised how many nihilities have stories. He also found that—don't quote me here—but I think it was like 60% of the contents could explain 58% of a person's life. There's a complicated formula I don't completely agree with, but it’s still interesting." From this distant vantage point I wonder why I didn't doubt Jack's story. But at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable that he would know a junk drawer researcher in England.
I wanted to get off the phone. I felt inspired to write. But Jack kept talking—about the Crying of Lot 49, an underground communication system run by twins Thurn and Taxis; Quicksilver (whose real name may have been Michael Shamberg, who I knew as Mr. Gorilla Television) one of many traveling video porta pack troubadours he wanted me to meet. He told me about the Funny Farm, 2 his family's 19th century homestead, now run by Uncle Gus., an anarchistic-techno refuge for vagabonds and rascals. He described the farm, but I was part of my brain was wondering why this, all of it, was happening. I think he described things like a drive-in movie theater on the farm, and part of Spanish sailing vessel on Mossy Brae, the 200-foot-high hill in the middle of the 300-acre farm—"think about it? It would mean the accepted history of this region is all wrong,” he said in a dry academic voice.
He also told me about synergies in our lives. And added—the kind of insight I got used to with Jack—"I know you hate that word." One of his oldest friends (with hints she was more than that), Lilly, a gifted painter and dancer who worked with Ann Halpern and was life partner with the founder of Revolting Librarians in San Francisco. Lilly had been saved from an abusive alcoholic lover by friends of my parents. His aunt lived next door to one of my mother's childhood friends who was murdered by her son. I told him that the son had given me a comic book I buried in my time capsule, a DC Superman that might be worth a lot except I couldn't find it. And how that was related to my important insight I was calling the cat’s cradle. Oh, you mean Kang Sok? Jack said, “the Bhutan name for it.” He also knew about where I had grown up (Southeast Portland) what college I went to (Lewis and Clark College) , where Kathleen grew up, (Palo Alto) where Kathleen and I had homesteaded (Cascadia Oregon). A little weird, like talking to an FBI agent who doubled as a 10-foot-tall pineapple in malls.
He told me about his father, Dr. John Ainsworth, and his framework for finding truth and taking power away from the invisible council of elite rationalists through discovering random knowledge. It might change the world as we know it, he said earnestly. If I had been really listening that day, my life might have turned out differently. Throughout the conversation, I just took what he said for granted; not finding it strange that a stranger would know so much about me or trusting him as though he were my older brother or venerated teacher.
We hung up, But I didn't make it to my study before the phone rang again. It was Jack. With that delightful or irritating Jell-O laugh, he said, "about this junk drawer idea.... it’s a little like counting cards in Vegas. But I think I can help you if you help me. Here's the thing…. We either make up our own rules or the universe makes them up for us, right?" He didn't wait for my answer, which was fine since I wasn't sure what the question was or the answer. "So, here is one thing we will do. I will produce the “Arabian Nights,” just for you. You tell me good stories you live; you tell me shitty ones, you die.” Girlish giggle. "I want you to take all the junk drawer stuff and put it into a banker's box, or however many it takes. It has to be banker's boxes. And another important rule, regardless of how many boxes. You have to stir them up. I mean, don't toss it like a salad or bouillabaisse, just gently stir it. Then once a month we'll get together and one of us will pull out an item and you will tell a story. Who knows, maybe I'll tell a story or two too. It has to be spontaneous and structured, you know, like Kang Sok is. So that's my proposal, what do you think?"
As though we were having a rational conversation, I replied, “So let me get this right. I am Scheherazade and you are the Vizier. Do I have to do the same balance of comedies, tragedies, poems, burlesques and erotica?” And do they all have to end with a cliffhanger?” I Paused to see if Jack was suitably impressed with my knowledge of Arabian Nights.” He was not. Just stared right through me with Jack’s black laser look. So, I continued, “I only want to tell stories about my childhood, I think."
"See," he interrupted, "you don't really know what you want or how to make a choice. But fine then just pick items until you get ones that prompt stories of your childhood. I'll take it to the Junk Drawer Council and request an amendment to the Random Junk Story Handbook” (the council and handbook, I found out later, neither never existed). And the biggie, I promise to get it all published.”
"And what do I have to do for you?" I said, really just hoping to get off the phone.
He described the work of the Gertrude Stein Fellowship Club, which as far as I could tell was whatever he and Uncle Gus wanted to do. They organized events for the traveling minstrels and performing artists who yo-yoed up and down the west Coast from LA to Vancouver. They hosted the events at the Funny Farm, but it was too far out of town and there had been complaints from neighboring farmers. "But, now,” he said, with a barker like zeal, "we can go big time. A female Fatale from the 1920s has donated a warehouse in the neighborhood called Old Town. She funded the Crying of Lot 49 Postal Service. I think because she's a stamp collector."
I agreed to help.
"No, that's not the way I see it" Jack said earnestly, "you are officially on the board of directors. I just created a new position on the board just for you. You will be secretariat, I’ll tell you later what your responsibilities are."
By time we hung up, my ear hurt, and Mr. Sandman had disappeared again. I stared at the cat’s cradle maze on the walls and ceiling, and examined the remaining items in the junk drawer, mostly nihilities. A broken pen. Spent camera flashbulb. A piece of gin fizz chewing gum from Japan (well that might be a story since I got it from the Japanese girl I fell in love with), bobby pins. A plastic clip-on earring. Where was the line between something and nothing? I pulled out a grocery list from six months ago. "granola." I didn't have it in my childhood. But cereal. Reading cereal boxes while my father read the newspaper came to mind. OK, my father. Not good. My father is an entire universe.
If I were going to map out how my story was connected to everyone else's story through their junk drawers, I was going to need a lot of string and a bigger space. Maybe random was just what we didn't have enough collective brainpower to figure out? Once we had a computer bigger than the moon and more powerful than a locomotive, then we could chart out every random event and would see the connections between everything. This was going to be a big enterprise. I would need something the size of a football field or a computer the size of our living room. I closed my eyes and picked items off the wall. I didn't put a white glove on my left hand as Jack had suggested, but I did note the time. The stove clock was blinking 10:00. Not that it was the real time. I then located the junk drawer items on the floor, and with my eyes closed randomly selected a handful of junk and carried it to my study.
Phone again. Guess who? "You know I assume?" He didn't pause long enough for me to respond. "In A New Model of the Universe, the experimental Mysticism chapter, he conducts an experiment on himself. He is never clear about what it amounts to? Meditation? Drug induced? He goes through stages of awareness and the “highest” one he says is mathematical. Past words, images, voices—oh right and down to even one voice, where he says most religions get stuck, you know God, Jesus, Mohammad, etc.-but he says beyond that then there is nothing but mathematical signs. He also observes that infinity is not continuation in one direction but infinite variation at one point. He stares at an ashtray for a long time. Ever do that? And realizes it is connected to everything in the universe. He finds a note to himself the following day, a man can go mad from one ashtray. Isn't that great."
I realized I hadn't told Jack I had already disrupted the scientific rules by creating the maze of strings and index cards. I explained what I had done and told him I would take it all apart and put it into banker boxes. There was no response. I realized there was no one at the other end. I said hello several times, louder each time.
Then suddenly, "Sorry," Jack said, "but Alfred, our 19-year-old cat, can't get into his cat box anymore so I had to help him. What were you saying?"
I decided it didn't matter. "Nothing important."
"Great. I'll see you Friday, right? Oh, one other thing. Would you mind if Uncle Gus is there too? He takes lightning-fast Native American shorthand he learned in World War II."
I went back to pondering my junk drawer. Was it a framework or a metaphor? Is it about all the junk? Just one drawer? What if I found a scrapbook or an old address book in the junk drawer? Those aren't random; it is organized junk. Photographs? Including photos in the inventory seemed like cheating. Cheating what? I was establishing rules for chaos. We had several boxes of photographs. I decided if I found loose photos in a junk drawer that was OK. Then the first photo I pulled out wasn't mine personally but from Life magazine; a famous one from the 1960s of a young woman sliding a flower into a rifle at the 1967 March on the Pentagon. I had the photograph because I was at the march in the front line, close to where the photo was taken.
I made another editorial decision. A rather big one that could skew the outcome. I included the boxes I carried around from house to house as we moved. Same principle, wasn't it? The boxes were filled with stuff I had considered important enough to save but not important for my day-to-day survival. Junk drawers? Junk boxes? I was making up rules in a scientific field that hadn't been born yet.
I walked to my late-night hangout, the Bomber 3 restaurant. I got to the top of our driveway; the vintage World War II bomber on top of the restaurant in clear sight. Turned back. Then turned around again. Cars and trucks hurtling along. If Morgan or I jumped into the traffic chasing a cute collie in heat, we would be dead. I couldn't decide, or was beside myself.
As I made my way back to the house, I realized I was finally feeling sleepy. In fact, it was overcoming me. I was weaving like a drunk. But I didn't want to sleep, not yet. I needed to inaugurate the junk drawer scheme. I could feel the stories of my childhood ready at the gate like greyhounds. I met Kathleen getting into Mr. Zoom. Where was she going? She was glaring again. But for which offense? Junk drawer schema covering our living room walls and ceiling? Inviting invisible guardians into the house? That we didn't have any money? That I had forgotten rules about our new open relation? That we were no longer in love?
"We need to talk," is all she said as she backed the car out.
I wanted to care. I did. But it all felt out of my control except for the junk drawer plot.
That's the last thing I remembered. Out like a light. When I woke up, it was dark and Kathleen was sitting on the floor next to me. I think she was trying to figure out if she still loved me. It hurt to have my eyes open.
She stood up, looked down at me, and matter-of-factly said, "Connie is coming over tomorrow and helping me move some of my stuff to Michael and Linda's. I think it's better if we separate for a while."
I was trying to figure out what day it was and the appropriate thing to say. I said, "Can I help?" She stepped over my piles and left. I tried to follow but fell back to the floor, fast asleep.
The solution to my writer’s block had come about randomly. Right? I just opened the wrong drawer. Was it divine intervention? I had seen a replica of myself in another dimension. And then this random stranger had called, offering me a deal. Do somethings for him and he would turn me into a brilliant writer. The writer’s block defined who I was or was not or who I wanted to be. I was desperate to get past it wherever it took me; jump off the cliff and land in a bog of crocodiles, or vat of jelly, or timeless bliss.