Correspondance des Armees – Or, from Alsace to Brooklyn in one hundred years.
There’s a junk store in Greenpoint called The Thing. When I say junk store, I mean exactly that. It is overflowing with junk. Not pretty junk, not pre-sorted junk, no, this is real junk. A few times a week a truck pulls up in front of The Thing and out come boxes and boxes of junk. Straight from auction houses, estate sales, unpaid storage units, hoarders’ basements and attics, random, filthy, dusty, smelly junk. My kind of junk.
The entire store is filled with random things: kitchen utensils, tools, Christmas ornaments, light bulbs, broken toys, record players, VCRs, baseball cards, bootleg African statues, sewing kits, porn tapes, musty clothes, hundreds of books, thousands of old photos, and millions of vinyls. I hear they have a basement filled with crates and crates of records that you’re welcome to dig through at your own risk. I often see people coming up from the basement wearing dust masks or bandanas around their face and looking not a little dazed. I have yet to go and see it for myself and I won’t lie: I don’t think I’m ready.
I love The Thing, obviously, because it’s cheap and gross and overwhelming. It requires a good hour of rummaging through mysterious boxes and bags like some sort of crazy hoarder with a very selective taste: it’s all about finding that one awesome thing that makes all the grime and dust disappear. On lucky days I’ll find ten amazing things that’ll cost me less than $20 to take home. On less lucky days I know I’ll find at least one precious thing. I’ve been going there for about two years now and only twice have I not found anything at all.
The other day was a not so lucky day. I only found one thing, but it is so special to me: I found a very old and worn postcard of the kind soldiers in World War One would send and receive from their families. This one has a map on it of the Front in Alsace-Lorraine. Small dots and x-es have been inked in fading blue to show where this soldat inconnu was stationed and, presumably, fought.
I have no idea how this card left Alsace in the mid-1910s and arrived at The Thing in Brooklyn a century later. Was it brought over by a soldier after the war? Was he French, American? Was it bought by a collector of historical documents, a History teacher, a World War One scholar? Was it inherited from a great-grandfather who fought in that terrible war? Was it sent to a wife, a mother, a sister? Was the husband, son, brother killed? Did he make it back home?
I found the card in a hat box filled with family photos, baby pictures from the 50s, formal wedding portraits from the 30s, vacation photos from the 70s: a very diverse mix of people, time periods and even social backgrounds, and clearly not from just one family. I looked for more clues but there was nothing. The little postcard was a complete orphan, like a strange piece from another puzzle that ended up in the wrong box. I brought it over to the register. “How much is this?” I asked, waving the card. The guy said: “How much do you want to pay for it?” I held up my other hand, clinging a single dollar bill. The guy nodded and took my money. I took the card home, my heart a little faster, my step a little slower.