Humans have an odd obsession with organization. Our science is built on the idea of discovering and evaluating the world so that we can properly quantify, classify, and put nature into little understanding-boxes. Spirituality is bent on finding and filtering philosophical explanations for the absurdity of our existence so we can codify, mollify, and beautify the unknowns of life.
We’re taught from as young as we can remember to be tidy and clean-up after ourselves, and as adults we pity anyone who can’t seem to organize themselves correctly. We have so many things for organization: desks, bookshelves, and libraries; computers, servers, and databases; boxes, closets, and warehouses. We even have organizational tools for highly specific kinds of items like tool chests and jewelry boxes and card catalogs.
My neighbor won this great metal beast at a Prince George’s County fairground estate auction. He’d bought it for his wife (who apparently had always wanted a card catalog, because hey, they’re sweet) and I helped him unload it from his pick-up truck.
First note: card catalogs weigh about 4500 pounds. Second note: when you buy a piece of furniture at an estate sale, you get everything inside of that piece of furniture as well.
Before we carried it inside the house, we riffled through each drawer, looking for trash and treasures and trinkets. From first glances it appeared this catalog belonged to a handyman of sorts; someone who needed a crude filing system for his assorted pieces of string, metal, and wood. We found all kinds of random things inside: old paint brushes, six balls of twine, four small packs of copper rivets, two small boxes of brads (that spilled everywhere), a half-used can of saddle soap, an old manila envelope full of tempered steel nails (slightly rusty), a large timer in a metal case, a very old Honeywell wall-mounted thermostat, and five random, non-matching gloves.
We also found 3 bars of FELS-NAPTHA heavy duty laundry soap (often used as a home remedy to treat poison ivy and oak), each in different states of deterioration.
Fascinated by the cross-section of life that these tidbits represented, I began to wonder who had owned this, filled it with his junk without purpose or reason, left it full of junk to be sold at auction at some random point in the future. After searching all the drawers, we finally came across another envelope – this one filled with other bits of metal – with a name written in stylized pencil: John Stubbs.
Using the age and packaging of the FELS-NAPTHA soap as a rough time marker, public records for Maryland show two John Stubbs this catalog could have possibly belonged to, one living (age 81) and one recently deceased. Both lived close to where the catalog was purchased, and worked in fields (power and tractors) that could have led to the collection and accumulation of so many random pieces of repairbilia.
It is simultaneously creepy and cool to dig through items that belong(ed) to a complete stranger. You get to build whatever stories about their life you want: who they were, what they did, how they did it, why it ended up in your hands. You get a tiny, untainted view of a part of a life, a connection to this person without bias or structure or presupposition. This card catalog contained more that just assorted crap, it contained a microcosm of John Stubbs, an everlasting, undying reminder of the years he spent through the stuff he used.
We’ll all leave behind card catalogs of sorts. An echo in our possessions Boxes of old, unlabeled photos, notes in the margins of our favorite books, tooth marks on the end of a careworn pen. It will be the legacy of who we were to the people we never met. A final footprint that can’t be so easily erased by time. Our final chance to organize the memories of our time on the planet.
What will be in your catalog?