Saturday, July 21, 2012

It Only Hurts When I Smirk: Collecting and Nothingness

The wake-up call came in the late-eighties when the Fantastic Funnybook Shack of Power, the 100-year old farmhouse turned duplex I lived in, was burgled. It was my comic collecting compadre, Weezo, who dubbed the ramshackle house the FFBSOP, once he saw how packed to the gills it was.
From the age of 10 on, I’d amassed a cornucopia of cardboard boxes and peach crates, each filled to the max with comics, art books, vintage paperbacks, and jazz vinyl. I wasn’t a Collier Brothers-styled hoarder, but I’d sure had a boatload of “pop culture treasures.” Gabe, from next door, once blurted out with concern, “Jesus Christ, Don -- you’re crowdin’ yourself outta here.”
My landlord, Gabe, a septuagenarian, lived in the other half of the Frankenstein-ish duplex, but only part-time, as he and Grace, his wife, made a biannual circuit, driving from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas to Fort Collins, and back again.
The FFBSOP was tucked away in a mostly forgotten, tree-shaded half-lot, screened off from the well-traveled McKinney Avenue by a low-rise, low-rent apartment. One of the Shack’s whopperjawed doors faced an urban decayed alley. When I was at work, the Shack stood as mute and vacant as Chernobyl. Back in those days, there were no trigger-happy “neighborhood watch” volunteers to put a cap in the ass of any trespasser brazen enough to sniff around the perimeter of the FFBSOP.
One weekday, while I was blithely earning next month’s rent, my half of the duplex was burglarized in broad daylight. The perp kicked in the side door, exploding the deadbolt receiver from its door frame. Chunks of molding lay splattered across the dingy linoleum of my kitchen. The sight of the gaping portal nearly sent an embolism speeding to my brain. I swooned. My state-of-the-art Sony Trinitron TV, and Sanyo Betacord had been ripped-off. Dustless shapes on tabletops served as sad reminders of where they once sat. 
My Panasonic stereo receiver was turned 180 degrees as if to be disconnected. Eerily, its cables were still attached. The perp must have been spooked mid-snatch and settled for a quick video score.
Frantically inventorying the crime scene for loss, I saw that my queen-sized mattress had been tossed, but little else had been taken except for my Swiss Army knife --- and all of my underpants.
What the? -- Why boost my skivvies? This absurd discovery frayed my already unraveling calm -- the loss of the tighty-whiteys served as nothing less than a metaphorical Pit Bull tugging at the tire swing of my composure. Was the thief a “Will Break and Enter for Briefs” mendicant who so badly needed underwear that he stole mine? Was he was a freak who felt compelled to wear his victims’ “souvenirs” over his face so as to savor a snootful of any lingering bio-essence? Or was this his clever ploy to make the rip-off seem less suspicious, casual even? As in, “Naw, man, I’m not ripping off these home entertainment electronics. I’m just taking them, along with these dirty undies, to the washateria, so I can watch The Thomas Crown Affair while I launder.”
Cognitive relief came at last when my buddy, the mordant Dunco, pointed out a unifying logic behind the whole crime. “Mango,” he says, “Somewhere in Dallas, during these 100 degree days, there’s a sweat-soaked loser sacked out in a sweltering, hardly-air-conditioned-at-all efficiency, watching almost-impossible-to-find Beta tapes on your TV, while guzzling Pearl Light in your limp Fruit-of-the-Looms.” Dunco had brilliantly reframed the puzzle of the purloined panties in a satisfying gestalt, bringing a sense of closure to the whole unhappy affair.
Still, now that I’d been traumatized by this shocking smash-and-grab, powerful “checking obsessions” set in. What if the thief returns and breaks down the new door after I’ve replaced the electronics --- and rips them off again? What if, this? What if? What? Peat and repeat. The uncertainty was crushing.
Try as I might, I couldn’t stifle my ruminations about checking on the collectibles. All day long, I’d suffer over-the-top compulsions to rush home from work early -- to get there before another deadbeat struck. Such relentless obsessions are an exhausting buzz kill. After two weeks, I formulated my counter-strategy to silence this imp of the mind -- downsize my collection to “the empty set.
Were Rod Serling, the front man of the Twilight Zone, to intone (ominously) an introduction for my plan, he'd say, “You are about to discover what lies beyond the fifth dimension, beyond the deepest, darkest corner of the imagination – of one Obsessed Collecting Dope’s struggle to prevent the loss of his most important treasure -- his inner-peace.”
In my gedankenexperiment, the FFBSOP is burglarized again (as feared). But after the thief hunts high and low for swag, he soon realizes that the joint is as hollow as Bernie Madoff’s claim on fiduciary duty. There’s nothing in the Funny Book Shack of Power except a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
Later, my bemused pal, Kenno, added his own topper to the thought experiment, “Yeah -- yeah, -- and not only that -- the spine’s split, with the last chapter missing.”
You see, I’d created my very own Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers’ Textbook tip -- on a paraphrased lyric from Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to steal.
Fully embracing this paradigm shift of collecting an “empty set,” I sold all of my mid-sixties issues of The Amazing Spider-Man to a delighted Weezo.
Everyone knows the aphorism: “I can’t take it with me when I'm gone.” To which I add: “If I don’t have it, it can’t be stolen.” So now, there's nothing left to steal.
Unless of course, the thieves of the world are foolish enough to rip off a hunk of my uncertainty in the form of a hammered copy of Being and Nothingness.

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