Found Objects (March 19, 2003)

Found objects — objets trouvés, if you opt for high-toned Gallic terminology — have always appealed to artists. Recently read about a scavenger who’s harvested bushels of discarded paper shards, selections from which will be exhibited at a prestigious gallery.

Personally, I haven't picked up all that much, but while walking, I’m forever scanning gutters, crosswalks, and curbs. Species of debris seem to appear with random, or perhaps cyclical, rhythms.

For example, during a given week, there may be disproportionate abundances of shed leaden weights, the kind first tapped into place by mechanics when balancing auto-tires. Or else, scofflaws’ ignored parking citations, take-out menus, and twist-off caps, conspire to litter every block.

Many citizens, nowadays, elect to purge pennies from their pocket-change, which is understandable. Rarely will pedestrians pause and pluck less than a quarter-dollar. So, dropped copper’s on the rise.

Abandoned footwear is also curiously prevalent. Could be a solitary wing-tip, scuffed raw and white around the toe, curled as a Turkish slipper. Could be a gilded pair of clapped-out Cleopatra mules. Could be flat-soled nylon running shoes, looking to have barely a lap or two left in them.

Various over and under garments show up as well. Tormented trousers, polyester panties, stiffened sweat-socks.

Makes one wonder. Intimate accessories aren't thoughtlessly tossed, like butts from an emptied ashtray, are they?

Foil and plastic and cellophane. Wrappers torn off Juicy Fruit sticks, Winston packs, clustered AA batteries. In sorrier neighborhoods, used condoms, shattered pints, disposable syringes (not as many crack-vials, at any rate).

Certain items that captured my eye, but ultimately stayed in place: dull, firing-pin-stamped brass shell-casing, probably ejected from a high-caliber automatic; an accordioned, silver/black houndstooth cummerbund, latch undone; bent, laminated, alligator-clasped employee ID card; oversized, detached belt-buckle, plating worn away, promoting the Atlanta Falcons.

Other forlorn fragments were too alluring to pass by. Came upon a leather billfold, while descending Fort Mason's meadow. Stripped of cash; still holding valid driver’s license (New Hampshire, 32-year-old, brown-haired, green-eyed, 115-pound female), snapshots, parking permit, and membership cards.

Legged over to Chestnut Street, approaching the first uniform I encountered. He bristled, backing up when I held the wallet out, not making any move to reach for it.

“Officer,” I began. “Found this over at Fort Mason.”

“Found it?,” he challenged, giving me the patented fish-eye. “Found it how, exactly?”

“By accident. It was lying in the grass.”

“So, then, you accidentally took possession of it?”

“Well, yeah. You could say that.”

“Any local ID? Contact information?”

“For me?”

“We'll get to that. I meant in the wallet.”

“I don’t think so. Seems like it belongs to a young woman from New Hampshire.”

“How did you determine that?”

“There’s her driver’s license. I assumed…”

“So you went through the wallet. Find any cash?” He gave me the heavy-lidded, up-and-down, perpetrator glance.

“No. No credit cards either.”

“Right. Any case, I’m not allowed to accept that from you.”

“I’m sorry? You can’t? What should I do with it, then? She’d probably be happy to get it back. The license, at least.”

“You’ll want to bring the property to North Division station on Green Street. Front desk’ll give you a form.”

“You’re kidding, right? I mean, all’s I’m trying to do is someone a favor here.”

“Course you are. And all I’m telling you is how to follow the law.” Hostile scowl, tense body-language, now.

I ended up choosing the one option he’d specifically warned me against, namely dropping my find into the nearest mailbox.

Two or three days afterward, still smarting from the beat cop’s rebuff, spied a shimmer within a pile of decaying leaves. Removed a narrow, well-crafted bracelet. I’m no specialist, but to my eye, gold gleamed closer to 18 than 10 carat, and the dozen tiny, shiny bezeled stones weren’t cubic zirconia, or glass.

At home, I dish-soaped the slender strand. Each link merged expertly with its neighbors. Clumsily designed clasp, no doubt leading to wrist-slippage and tumble to the pavement.

Again, a range of approaches. Take out a “found” ad in the local daily, anticipating hordes of fraudulent “owners.” Present a unique gift, assuming there’d soon be a woman I sought to impress. Drop by the cop-shop, and complete multiply-carboned documents. Determine value, and sell for a low percentage of that. Last one seemed by far the most promising.

Leading auction-house, which offered free appraisals, confirmed 12 (“competently cut”) mini-diamonds were surrounded by 18-carat gold. Should bring $800, as much as $1,200; man with the loupe said he’d purchase immediately for $400 cash. I declined, thanked him, and to his conspicuous surprise, threw down a Jackson.

Next stop: a fetid, third-floor gem and jewelry dealer’s den, foot of Post. A hairless, stooped, skeptical personage cast a cursory, magnified look, straightened, snorted.

“This is not something of use to us,” he told me.

“Well, you wouldn’t have to use it,” he replied. “If you buy it for a discount price, you should have no problems reselling.”

“You would never tell me whether this is stolen property, and we do not operate a pawn shop, so I will not ask.”

“How civilized. I found it on the sidewalk, underneath some leaves. Believe whatever you want, but that’s the truth.”

“Nonetheless, a piece of costume jewelry, decently made.”

“One level higher, I’d say. The gold, 18-carat, and even if they’re small, all those are diamonds.”

His expression changed. Petty calculations, you imagined, were getting underway inside that skull.

“Might fall within the $250 range,” he conceded.

“No, it's worth around $1,200. You could easily ask $900.”

“In a perfect world, perhaps. A perfect world.”

“In this world, be reasonable. I'll take $600.”

“Three. At the most.”

“Let's save time, split the difference: $450, over and out.”

He opened a drawer, wordlessly, counting out 22 twenties and adding one ten, tapping the wilted stack.

I pocketed the bills, gave him a finger-to-forehead salute, departing via an ancient, shuddering elevator.

It was a productive period. Fewer than 10 days later, a woman's phases-of-the-moon wristwatch revealed itself (gap in a bed of ornamental ivy). Next, molded from spongy plastic, a charming scale-model llama or alpaca awaited me, just outside my office. Retrieved an upside-down “Fast Pass” — good for trips on public transit — two weeks prior to its expiration date.

Feeling lucky, deviated from established practice, snagging a crumpled ball of ruled paper. Unfolded sheets comprised the heart of a sloppily-scrawled, erratically-spelled, emotionally-unhinged missive, midway between love-letter and suicide-note. Were its cribbed, ball-point lamentations ever read? Who dismissed those childish entreaties and consigned them to the street?

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