Hurrah! The fall has arrived, so let’s all leap into slug-infested leaf piles and squirm through thick mounds of trash! It is a collegiate rite of passage: to break fingernails and scratch arms against defunct chair legs in hopes of finding the mystical object that will complete the circle of the soul. Or, at least, to find that object which will fill that terribly awkward space between the desk and the couch.
Each student must inevitably solve the riddle: what is economical, attractive interior design? Surely there was never a concept as oxymoronic. And surely that Belushi poster is not the solution. Better to throw it to the Sphinx, I say. She’s hungry, and it might help keep the endowment on the upswing.
But let’s not mix mysticisms. The interior design quandary produces stories of suffering and salvation that could fill volumes of Biblical supplements. The sibling strife that sprang from Joseph’s coat of many colors is but a short leap from last week’s Salvation Army scream-fest, in which rival suites faced off for the possession of a musty, blue love seat. You consider ark-building a feat? Noah and his sons would stand in awe of my petite Southern friend, who spent weeks collecting bedding parts from New Haven dumpsters to construct a veritable slumber-palace. And, of course, the miracle of the forest loaves could hardly rival the multiplication and dissemination of tri-lamp stands across the face of the campus. Will the lampshade ever come into vogue again? Is there no one left who prefers truth filtered through imitation holy-of-the-holies?
In my search for exciting decorative wares, I somehow stumbled upon such a spiritual experience. And it happened on the Long Wharf Harbor path. This strip runs alongside an awkward stretch of gravel frequently inhabited by vendors. They pull up in white mini-trucks and stake out their usual spots, at times leaving the caverns of their vehicles to converse with neighbors, at others dipping strips of cloth into freezer ice and drawing the dampness across their foreheads. One can find Puerto Rican eats, the “Something’s Fishy” seafood van and the ineffable “Sweeney’s Hotdogs,” with a truckside presumably painted during the Warhol-Basquiat collaborative era. Sweeney does little wrong in popular opinion, except to sell stinky, pre-packaged apple pies.
Further down the street are the two “alternative” vendors. The first truck is plastered with the name, “Fresh Long Stem Roses,” set in a gridiron font that calls to mind Monday Night Football, bulging biceps and the discus. Yet even these masculine allusions cannot efface the fact that this is, after all, a flower cart. The second vendor has strung his flags up on ropes that criss-cross between his truck and neighboring trees. Many of them are decorated with state and country seals, but deep within this nest, one discovers select treasures: Flags emblazoned with beer ads! Confederate Flags! Festive flags that entreat us to dance because it’s “Party Time!”
Anticipating my friend’s birthday (and seriously in need of some transcendental, get-down dancing), I bought “Party Time!” This will make her interior design day, I proudly thought. But some part of me could not shake the feeling that I had missed out, that there was a perfect object somewhere just waiting to beautify my chamber, and that it certainly wasn’t at the flag vendor’s.
I began to walk home and followed the path as it curved down towards the shore. A two-liter plastic soda bottle was tossing about at the break. At first it was indiscernable from the junk that perennially populates the beach. But as I stepped closer I noticed a paper curling along the bottle’s interior. It was covered with the shaky scrawl of a 12-year old: “Whoever finds this — May these words change your life. Jesus loves you. Love, Alexandra.”
I turned the bottle upside-down and two pamphlets fell to its neck. With no small effort (and with an abundance of durable twigs), I extracted the pamphlets. The first was a comic book that proclaimed, “This could be your life!” and proceeded to tell me that my life could involve drinking, drugs, judgment and eternal damnation. A purple font zigzagged across the cover of the other pamphlet. “Depression!” it cried! Beneath it was a photograph of a girl, doctored to early-’90s perfection. She donned a black leather jacket and had a mean mess of curls that obscured the strained lines of her face. Not a far cry from Jessie Spano in her most laden state, crushed under the weight of caffeine pills, SATs and fighting the feminist fight. Yet the pamphlet did not preach salvation as found in Cut Day, milkshakes at The Max, and the burly arms of A.C. Slater; it talked about The Big Guy.
This was not exactly what I expected from a message in a bottle. Try as I might, grand romance could not be projected upon a plastic object. Nor could I deceive myself into believing that its contents were actually the tragic tale of a shipwrecked Countess or an exiled Archduke, stranded on a nearby island (or within a factory complex). But I did have to give little Alexandra some credit. Though perhaps not as dramatically charged as a glass bottle, the plastic bottle did protect its contents from the hazards of water, barnacles and miniscule sea creatures. So the soda bottle, Jesus and a dirty harbor are the new glass bottle, lost love and desert island. For some reason, I felt a bit gypped by post-industrial society.
I carried the bottle back to my room and placed it on the sill. I had no TV, no futon, and only one tri-lamp stand. I stretched out on my floor and stared at the bottle. It was still as plastic as possible. But I’ll take my miracles as they come.
T. S. Coburn is a fine man.