My Favorite ThingsNovember 22nd, 2008
by David Breithaupt
Dozens of books, boxes of correspondence (including a post card from Charlie Manson), a 200 lb sculpture by my mother, an assortment of dogs, volumes of journals, my own student paintings and a slow parade of forgotten furniture, make up the life-long assortment you might call my three dimensional autobiography. You could look at it when I’m dead and judge me by my vapor trail then say, this is the kind of guy Dave was, he had all kinds of shit. We are a nation of consumers and what we hoard is as unique as our own intricately coded DNA. I have been a pack rat, loose in America for decades. The baggage is now heavy.
My assemblage has taken hits over the years as I’ve moved, losing pieces like tiles from a space shuttle as items are forgotten, taken by State and Federal agents, left behind, traded or sold but the core has always remained. The nucleus of my collection is intact, items so personal and unique and infused with my own personal aura that no insurance policy could ever redeem them. Books inscribed by writer friends, Grateful Dead ticket stubs, old love letters from Ming Dynasty girl friends, artifacts from my family - I often wonder, what the boiled down essence of this rambling collection would be if I could condense it into one small back pack. What would be the object I hold most dear and would grab if my house were on fire and I had to run out into the street?
I don’t know.
And probably won’t until it happens.
Sometime back Esquire Magazine asked several writers to name such an object, a talisman they held most dear. A tome they would no sooner part with than a limb. I can’t remember what all the writers decided upon except for one, a large, weighty, bronze antique Roman coin that writer Nick Tosches chose as his center piece. I remember because I have the article in front of me. “…this thing isn’t so much a coin as a palpable emanation, embodiment and evocation, symbol of something impressive,” he wrote. “I think of the countless unknown hands that held it in days of different gods. It’s from a time before Caesar or Christ.”
My own version of Nick’s coin is a beat up book, a bit warped and tainted by my travels, weary from box packing and heavily fingered over the years not just from past readers but my own oily digits. It’s a frail ex-library copy of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The dust jacket is still intact and clings desperately to its host. Inside are inked library stamps, the mysterious location of “Sachem Public Library” marked inside the front cover and dates from deadlines past for former readers are in the back. This book has seen some things and been around. It’s a first edition, a story that was later made into the movie Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. As an object, it’s not all that aesthetic but like that ancient bronze coin coveted by Nick, I treasure the book for its history rather than its mere existence. This is how the book came into my life.
Years ago when I lived in NYC, I knew a writer named Paul Nelson who made an impact in my life during my early years. He wrote for Rolling Stone and was a regular visitor to a bookshop where I myself spent time and was later employed. The shop was on East 84th street between 2nd and 3rd or 3rd and Lex, I can’t remember. It was called The Brazenhead and was run by my good friend Michael Seidenberg who was also an important influence on my life.
Paul was the type of mentor every young person should have. I was wide eyed and my brain was still forming back then (it’s kind of a hardened mass these days). Paul introduced me to a world of books and movies previously unknown to me. We spoke quietly for hours in that small, basement bookshop, it was like consulting a living Google. We talked about Orson Welles, Vietnam novels, Graham Greene and of course Phillip K. Dick. I can still see him, endlessly smoking beneath his beret and behind his shades, neither of which I ever saw him remove. His head nodded ever so slightly, as if in a constant act of recalling a certain title or about to offer an opinion. He was the most laid back person I ever met, yet you could sense the energy of mental gears turning inside of him, knowing for certain that something interesting and great was churning. I was suspended in time and space as he talked, his speech was hypnotic and when the trance was finally broken, I felt as though I had just undergone some intensive mental journey the transition from which left me a bit stunned. Between Paul, Michael and his then girl friend Nicky, I was gaining an education you could never receive from state tax dollars.
Paul and I were sometimes between jobs and poor and always trying to scrounge enough money for a cheeseburger at the Jackson Hole, Manhattan’s premier cheeseburger restaurant. At the time, Paul was moving from one illegal sublet to another and I was often the only one helping him move. Sometimes Michael helped when available and together we carted Paul’s belongings (mostly books) from apartment to apartment. I can’t remember all the places he moved to and fro from but I do recall one hot Fourth of July when I helped him move from his pad on 2nd Avenue to new digs on 9th Avenue, all the way over on the other side of Manhattan. We were both so cash poor that we could only afford to move a load of belongings via taxi over to 9th Avenue and then walk back to cart yet another taxi load over. It was a humid day, the kind of hot weather that made you breath moisture mixed with exhaust fumes and sweat grease. Most of Manhattan had fled for the holiday and the streets had a sort of deserted, post-apocalyptic quality to them. It was not one of our better holidays.
Our big problem came when we had to move Paul’s cat. There wasn’t a taxi to be had that would stop for us and the cat. One look at the cat and they would speed off. Our situation looked bleak. It dawned on us that we might have to carry the boxed up cat all the way over to the west side by ourselves. Just as this grim realization was sinking us into a new depth of despair, a taxi suddenly pulled over and offered us a lift. It was almost enough to make me believe in God. We were so tired we became giddy.
The driver was a portly woman, like the one on the old Purina cat chow commercial and was a self-proclaimed cat lover. She immediately began to favor us with classic cat stories from her past, including the time when her apartment flooded one Thanksgiving Day. She was out on an errand that morning and when she returned, her place was covered with a couple of feet of water from a broken pipe. She quickly looked for her cat to see if it had survived the flood. It had. She found it sailing across the living room on her silver turkey platter. The driver blathered on with other ridiculous tales while we slowly realized she was mad. The woman was insane but she was our savior that day. She got us to our west side destination when all others had failed us. Bless you crazy woman wherever you may be.
I knew Paul felt bad that he couldn’t pay me for my efforts although I told him time and time again that I didn’t want his money. Someday, I was sure, he could help me move a train of my own possessions. I thought it was settled until one day when he quietly handed me a book, the Phillip K. Dick novel. “I wanted to give this to you, for all your help.”
I was a bit stunned. I knew this was a tremendous gift from Paul who loved and collected Phillip K’s books and for me who also cherished his writings. I solemnly accepted it after telling him he didn’t need to but he insisted. I knew he sincerely wanted me to have it. I accepted with gratitude.
No matter where I have lived since that day many years ago, I have made sure that book came with me. It followed me across state lines, waited for me while I’ve been in hospitals and prison, lived in a bevy of temporary dwellings as if replicating the very existence of the Paul Nelson lifestyle. It sits quietly on the mantel in my current apartment, with the company of others on that shelf. I take it out from time to time, leaf through the pages and remember that hellish and bone wearying day of moving and the greatness of this gift, from whence it was born. It’s a bit ratty but like the bronze coin, it is so much more. This book is loaded. It has karma squared.
Paul died a couple of summers ago. It wasn’t a graceful exit as he slipped into dementia and died alone in yet another hot, run down lower east side apartment. I want to remember instead, when I pick up the book, the man who taught me well as he was in his prime, sharing his wisdom and moving his cat. That’s how I will recall him, living inside those pages. The guy is immortal. Perhaps I will be too one day.