It all started with the can of hairspray in Istanbul.
Understand that I don’t use a lot of hairspray, being what is politely referred to as “thin” on top. So a can of spray will last me for quite some time. This particular can had traveled with me to Australia a couple of times, as well as to other exotic places when I was making a film about meat processing plants. (It’s a living.) So, when the hairspray ran out during a cruise with my wife and daughter, I tossed the can into the garbage on the ship which was at the time in Istanbul harbor.
A month after we got back, I said to Rebecca, my patient, long-suffering and loving wife, “I wonder what happened to that can of hairspray?”
“What can of hairspray?”
“The empty can I threw away in Istanbul. It’s the same one I took to Australia.”
“I wonder where it is …”
“Where the empty can of hairspray is?”
She made the kind of throat-clearing noise mothers make when they want the kids to go play with their toys.
I care about things like empty hairspray cans in Turkey. In fact, it fascinates me to think about where that can is. I mean, it still exists somewhere, but where? In a Turkish garbage? At the bottom of the sea? In a recycling plant in Ankara?
Empty hairspray cans are just the latest example of my fascination with things like the well traveled hairspray can.
This all started with my grandmother. A retired school principal, she traveled all over Europe, and always brought me back souvenirs like little boxes, or plates.
I would sit for hours looking at those kitschy little plates, lost in thought about where they had been. One time, I gave her one of my school pencils to take with her on a trip. The pencil came back to me, having been all over England and Scotland, and it was a source of wonder for years.
Fascinations with foreign lands are not unusual for an eight-year-old boy I’ve been told, but I have been advised by my psychiatrist and my family that an adult over 50 with a fixation on an empty can of hairspray borders on the loony. I have also been advised by Rebecca that it is OK to lovingly look at my camera and think about where the Japanese technicians who put it together are at that moment, but she would prefer I not share that fascination with guests in the middle of a dinner party.
I have also been warned that there would be severe and slow-to-heal penalties if I brought up my curiosity about what happens to certain garbage like empty hairspray cans, soda bottles and coat hangers left in hotel rooms.
I have been told in no uncertain terms that I was never again to write my initials and the date on the underside of the desk in an Amsterdam hotel room and then get that same room a year later to see if the initials are still there.
And, if that’s not enough, she says she has never been curious about who the next guests will be in a hotel room we just vacated.
When I was nine, my dad had a bedroom added on to the back of our house. As the carpenter was putting down the sub flooring in what was to become the new bedroom’s closet, I raced into my room, and put several of my “treasures” into a cigar box — a police whistle, a picture of me, a comb and a bottle of ink — sealed it, and put the box under the sub flooring of that closet before the hardwood went down.
I’m sure it’s still there.
Just as it seems perfectly reasonable to wonder about empty hairspray cans or if my initials are still hidden in an Amsterdam hotel room, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that I could drive out to Southwest Atlanta, knock on the door at 1026 Mount Airy Drive, and ask the current owners if I could take up the floor in their master bedroom closet to see if a cigar box is still there. That’s not an unusual request, is it? I’d put everything back – except the box – just like I found it. I promise.
I have pictures of my daughter Paige in Moscow, daughter Joanna in Warsaw and Paris, and my son Hamilton in Singapore. These framed snapshots border on the sacred. Like the little plates from Germany my grandmother brought me, I can look at these pictures and see so much more than what’s on the surface.
I hold on to Mount Airy Drive and the excitement of my childhood with the box. I’ve seen Europe, but it had been part of my world long before my first trip because of a pencil that went to Scotland. I’ve never been to Poland, but Joanna has, and that gives me a connection as well as a continuing fascination. I’ll never forget Amsterdam and room 19 at the Ambassade, or those unseen Japanese workers in a camera factory. And I can bring back a flood of memories of Australia and Turkey with the memory of an empty can I tossed in Istanbul.
Yes, I’ve been told that my fascination is crazy, that it’s childish, that there are better things to think about. I’ve been told not to clutter my mind. I don’t agree. I think it is perfectly fine to clutter our minds, if clutter is what it is, with the constant reminders of where we’ve been and what we’ve done, of how big the world is, and that the world is full of interesting people we will never meet. What could possibly be crazy about a sense of wonder?
Try this: Spend a couple of minutes with a bottle of olive oil. Most likely it’s from Italy. And we know for a fact that the people who made it, bottled it, and shipped it are still in Italy right now. Don’t you wonder what they’re doing?
And, then, if you get curious about other things, you can go with me to get the box.