I have learned a little self-control over the past few years. Mostly, I just drive past the piles by the street. Okay, sometimes I stop for a closer look. But almost never does anything follow me home.
I do miss the alleys. It’s not as much fun when there aren’t any alleys to explore, as there were back in Kansas. Always there was something to puzzle about, not as much why certain items were discarded when they were perfectly usable, but how anyone would possess these items in the first place. I never met an old lampshade I wanted for my very own.
All these forays into other people’s discards pale in comparison to the times that I found myself occupying places where people had desks where, over time, each desk became defended territory, marked as such by small personal items. It was the keenest of adventures to see what I could tell about the owners by what they chose to mark their territory with.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I am not nosy. It never was as though I entered as a burglar and pawed through valuables for some kind of thrill. I did have business to be where I was. It is equally true that I am a student of human behavior. We students of human behavior need to stay in practice.
There were three times when desks were mine to explore, where there were multiple desks, all belonging to people I had never met and would never get to know. And because I never took anything at all, and made sure that nothing was left out of place, there was always absolute anonymity.
I supported a couple of years of college as a janitor in an office building. Later, I served a number of years in the National Guard, with duties that required me to travel to other units and to spend the night in the Armory after everyone had left. And I have a lot of experience as a substitute teacher.
Some of you with office jobs are probably wondering what it is you have left in your desk at work that you don’t want anyone to see. I’m sure that most of it is utterly harmless. Besides, my days of urban archeology are over.
Most of what I found were very ordinary items used daily by anyone doing office work. Something to write with, something to write on, a means to correct and eliminate what is written.
I found a lot of erasers. Some were little more than worn out stubs. And what could I learn from that? Much.
The presence of many erasers told me that the person believed in accuracy. The time to correct mistakes is whenever they are made, and for that a nearby implement is crucial. If the erasers were all virtually unused, then the person had only good intentions. If there were signs of wear, and little eraser crumbs nearby, a clearer sign of diligence could not be found.
Sadly, there are few wooden pencils left, thanks to the ravages of the ball point pen industry. Wood is a material that begs to be chewed on. Then it becomes a study of bite marks, showing anything from boredom to ferocity. More of the latter than the former if the pencil is broken. Or bitten in two.
Paper clips tell much about the person in whose domain they are found. In their original configuration, they generally mean nothing. But for many, a paper clip is raw material yearning to be employed in a more sophisticated way. They become tools, often with a small hook on the end for the retrieval of something small from somewhere irretrievable. If there is no apparent use for all these deformed clips, the perhaps the person is giving way to an artistic bent, and has produced in miniature a collection of abstract art.
I did find one once with a tiny sample of what I took to be ear wax. Here was a person who was original in his or her hygiene, and who disregarded what we are so often told about sticking things in our ears. The jury is still out on whether this person had trouble with authority.
Several items implied trust. A few coins might be left for a vending machine. And once I found a hastily scribbled note, of a very personal nature. Naturally I didn’t read it and have no idea what it said.
Finally, there are the kinds of things that only appear rarely. I once found a conductor’s baton, and another time I found a cork from a wine bottle. But the oddest thing I can remember was an unfired round from a deer rifle.
Small tools like screwdrivers, pliers, small flashlights, a magnifying glass, and especially some kind of knife suggested to me a person who strove to be perpetually prepared.
In a way, I’m glad that there was nothing really worth exploring. After all, I did have my own work to do, and not much time to do it. The only dark side of this is that later, when I worked at a desk myself, was a feeling that as soon as I left, someone would be groping around to see what I was like.
Or worse, leave something for me. I once had a whole class of high school juniors, whose world seemed to evolve around pot. And I had a very bad minute one morning when I found someone had left a joint for me. I was very glad that I was the one who found it, and disposed of it. Legally.