The Man saved Everything
The man saved everything. There were theatre programs and airplane tickets, postcards with brightly coloured stamps and letters in envelopes with foreign postmarks. There were snapshots, of course, also larger photographs. Along with these were drawings, some in pencil, some pen and ink, some watercolour. Some weren’t bad. But even the poorly done ones had been made by hand and must have had some value, either for the maker or the receiver. These were all items anyone might keep. Then there were frayed shopping lists, receipts for quarts of milk and butter, bus schedules years out of date items few people hold on to for more than a week or two, other than for possible tax receipts or, more likely, by mistake in the bottom of an overcoat one hadn’t put on for ages, so finding them, years later, provides a brief, almost self-archeological, moment of pleasure. Then there were even torn scraps of paper with an illegible word or two scrawled across them. Some were large enough to preserve all or part of a sentence, others so small only an incomprehensible syllable remained, like half an echo or a possibly important greeting truncated by the slamming of a door. Anything with writing, printing or an image on it had been preserved. The tangible shadows of a life were everywhere, almost staining the shelves, tables, cabinets, and desks where they lay, as if waiting for rediscovery or redemption or merely company.
So it was with considerable surprise I happened to notice a large envelope lying among a stack of other envelopes. It struck my eye because, while all the other envelopes were piled carefully so their longer sides were perpendicular to the edge of the shelf that held them, this one envelope was angled, its corner jutting out like the tip of an iceberg. My surprise was due not to the angle of the envelope although that was what had initially caught my eye but to what I found written on it when I’d extracted it from the pile. The envelope was large and dull grey in colour, the kind in which one might store legal papers. It was fairly thick, evidently containing a number of items. I think I thought that at last I’d found something one thing that might fully explain the man who saved everything. Then I saw what was written on it.
“These are not worth saving,” were the words, written carefully in black ink. Such care had been taken in writing them that a light horizontal line had been put down in pencil, clearly with the use of a ruler, for the words were perched perfectly on top of the faint but precise line, like tightrope walkers on a taut wire.
But I was wrong. The envelope contained neither legal papers nor a long letter of explanation. It contained photographs. At odd moments I’m a fairly methodical person so I counted them. There were sixteen. All were black and white, so I presumed perhaps incorrectly that they must be fairly old. Almost none were the same size as another, except for a series of three small ones that belonged together. Some had a slight sepia tinge, which can imbue even the dullest picture with a nostalgic sweetness. All but one were of people, mostly of a person alone. I initially thought they must all have to do with one individual, someone with whom the man who saved everything had fallen out, so in his spleen he had written “These are not worth saving” on the envelope containing them. If you look hard enough, you can see connections anywhere, so for a few moments I had myself convinced that a small photograph of a handsome young man with blond hair, light-coloured (presumably blue) eyes, and an earnest expression, wearing a tie, a white shirt, and a tweed jacket and a larger more recent one of an older man, grey-haired but perhaps once blond, also wearing a jacket and tie, but now with tired bags under his light-coloured eyes and a disturbing expression, cheerful but not happy, were of the same person, taken years apart. I was even widening the circle, telling myself that a dour bald man, in a slightly torn photograph with tape and brown bits of paper sticking out from its back, might be an uncle. Perhaps it was his light-coloured eyes that led me down that alley. But it was a dead end. The bald man really bore no resemblance to the young man, and though I held out hope for the scarily smiling older man, I finally had to admit he in all probability had no connection to the young man in the tweed jacket. This was actually something of a relief; the younger man looked likable, the older man much less so. I next tried to connect a sepia-toned and somewhat faded picture of a young boy, wearing a matching hat, coat, and pants, and leading a Shetland pony, as being a very young version of the tweed-jacketed man the shape of the mouth and nose were not dissimilar - until closer examination showed me the eyes of the child in this picture were dark. I don’t know why I was so anxious for there to be a connection, perhaps it had something to do with that methodical streak I mentioned earlier. And perhaps it would make it easier to understand why the photographs of all these people were “not worth saving.”
Next I examined a series of three small square photographs. The first showed a young girl with braids holding a striped cat, the second showed her again, this time with a younger brother as well as the cat, and the third was of the brother and the cat, joined by a man I took to be the children’s father. Considering they were playing with a cat, no one in any of the photographs looked to be gaining any pleasure from the experience. In the first, the girl, who was seated on the ground and leaning up against a white picket fence, had her right arm covering her face. She seems to have been reaching up so as to dangle her braid to amuse the cat, but it makes her look like a criminal entering a courthouse attempting to thwart the press by shielding his face. In the second, the one of the two children, they are standing, facing each another. The girl is holding the cat and the smaller boy has his arms stretched out to touch its head. I know it’s unlikely, but his grim expression makes it seem as though he were strangling the poor animal. In both these pictures, the shadow of the photographer I imagine the father falls across the pictures, almost like an ill omen. In the third, the one of the father and the son, there is no shadow, but the boy’s uncomfortable expression as he looks at the cat seems to be an ill omen in and of itself. Of course I tried connecting the blond boy in these photographs with the blond young man until it dawned on me that the ones with the cat were taken later than the one of the young man.
My next step of inquiry was to examine the back of the photographs. Surely they’d be labeled. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of this sooner. Only one had anything written on the back. This was a small portrait of a young woman, perhaps Indian or Hispanic. Her dark eyes were gazing directly into the camera, a half smile was on her lips, and her left hand was resting on her bare right shoulder. Bright circular earrings dangled and loops of thick black hair were piled high on her head with the rest tumbling down her back. On the back, written in French, were the words “Celle que ne cessera de t’aimer.” It was signed, but in such a way one could only guess at the name. My guess was Guilanin but that hardly seems likely. I suppose Giuliana is more probable; it just doesn’t look like that, though. But whatever her name, she, evidently, was not worth saving.
I then thought that the one image not of a person might provide some sort of clue. It was one of the smaller photographs, oddly positioned on the page (with a large margin on the top but a slimmer one on the bottom), and dirty, as though it had fallen on the ground and been stepped on. I was so busy examining it I didn’t stop to think about this. It was of the floor of a room, leading up to a wall which revealed the lower portion of a window.
The room was filthy, the floor and the wall facing the photographer covered with what looked to be a combination of graffiti, mold, and crumbling plaster. Small rectangular black objects were laid out on the floor, evenly spaced but not touching. No view could be discerned through the large window, just blank whiteness. I then noticed a small hole made by a thumbtack on the left side of the picture and realized I’d been looking at it sideways. I tilted it. It was still of a room with a window, of course, but now all the markings were on the walls; the floor was bare of either ornamentation or dirt. It somehow looked even emptier from this angle. I couldn’t help but hope that the blond man in tweed, the girl in braids, nor the young woman with earrings had never set foot here. (You can see I was still attempting to weave connections.)
One more picture caught my eye, only because I knew where it had been taken. I don’t mean the precise location of course, but under what circumstances. I had done it myself. This was a sturdy sheet with four identical pictures on it the sort you take in an automated photo booth, the kind they used to have in train stations. It was of a blowzy woman, perhaps in her twenties, wearing enormous sunglasses with white rims, teased up hair, and a lot of cheap-looking jewelry. Her lips were parted in enough of a smile to show gaps where teeth were missing. She was holding a child, either bemused or astonished by the flash, whose head was almost the size of the woman’s own. The child was a light-skinned black, the woman white. They both looked happy the only happy faces in the entire collection. (The long-haired woman I described before was smiling, but she looked more posed than happy.)
I suppose, looking back, I should have figured it out long before, why these photographs were not worth saving, but you have to remember I was surrounded by the papers of the man who saved everything, so I of course presumed these photographs, too, were his to save.
As it was, I decided to keep these photographs apart, to take them home to ponder, and to that end was replacing them in the envelope. I did this carefully, as a number such as the one of the bald man were dog-eared and others were creased and starting to tear from the sides. It was, I guess, a good thing I took such care, for doing so involved placing my left hand in the grey envelope, to puff it out a bit. It was then I noticed, tucked by time not intent into a flap in the bottom, another piece of paper. It was not a photograph one that in my imagination would contain all the people in the collection gathered together but a scrap of paper, much like the many scraps that filled my surroundings and, evidently, the life of the man who saved everything.
“These are not mine,” he had written (I recognised his handwriting by now); “I only found them.”
Now I understood. I myself had seen photographs lying on sidewalks, fallen and forgotten or perhaps discarded, and had come across them tucked into used books I’d bought. It made sense that a man who saved everything would attempt to save these too, these scraps of memory from other people’s lives. Yet he had kept them separate, even labeling them as not worth keeping. This made sense, too. These photographs were like unwelcome immigrants, stealing across borders in darkness, unwanted in their native lands, strangers in their new homes second-class citizens as it were, due for deportment if apprehended. They were not worthy of taking their place among all the items he had safeguarded not being his, not being cherished by their original owners and, though he had labeled them as not worth saving, and very carefully too, as I have said, he could not quite bring himself to discard them.
This task was up to me. I had no qualms in removing the sixteen photographs from the rest of the man’s possessions he himself had not kept them willingly but, like him, neither could I condemn them to the trash, much less drop them on the sidewalks where he had evidently found some (which explained why the photograph of the room had looked as though it had been trod upon).
So I kept them. In fact, I not only kept them, but I began to seek out more. I, who was not always sure the mementos of my own life were worth preserving, became almost obsessed with saving discarded mementos of strangers’ lives. I would walk with downcast head, scanning the sidewalk for dropped photographs, even learning to distinguish the paper photographs were printed on from other sorts of paper. (And why, I wondered, did fallen photographs so often land picture side down; were these inanimate objects somehow ashamed of their fallen, unwanted state?) So my collection grew. Occasionally I would find entire series of pictures trips to Paris, a sweet sixteen party, a christening. One was of a fat, half-naked hairy old man in bed with a small girl I hoped was his grand-daughter.
Then, gradually but steadily, the pictures stopped coming. Now I find two or three a year, at most. Of course this has to do with the rise of digital photography: few people (other than myself) use old-fashioned cameras, bring their rolls of film to the developer, then return later for the prints. This all takes work and effort, effort people seem less likely to expend these days. In my mind, this ties in with the discarded photographs, these disposable, tangible fragments of a life. Even though care and energy had been spent in buying the film, taking the picture, ordering and procuring the prints, with all the anticipation this implies, keeping them was apparently not an option and even disposing of them properly not worth the effort to the people who had taken them. These people had once cared enough to care, but then no longer did.