New York, New York, now there’s a helluva town
You know it ain’t no lie and it ain’t no guff
They got five big boroughs chock full of stuff
They got skyscrapers, subways and a sea of humanity.
–Loudon Wainwright III
Chock full of stuff indeed. When you travel around New York, you’re struck with the enormous amount of stuff there: advertisements for stuff, thousands of stores filled with stuff, trucks stuffed with stuff, vendors’ tables piled with stuff, people delivering stuff. And that’s just the stuff they’re keeping. Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill is brimming to capacity with stuff that’s gone by the wayside.
Our focus is usually on things kept, but a year or so ago my brother Bob started to take an interest in things lost. And for someone taking an interest in things discarded, New York is a playground. Bob has now become the owner of New York City’s preeminent collection of stray balls, numbering in the several thousands: tennis balls, Superballs, soccer balls, bowling balls, golf balls, Nerf balls.… Name any kind of ball and chances are Bob has a specimen (or two, or two dozen).
Most of us collect—that’s why moving is such a pain—but some of us take that predilection a step further. When Bob was a toddler, he carried around “the bag of bup” (toddler for “stuff”) and he just filled it with whatever struck his fancy. The habit endured. A few years ago he was collecting ducks, little flat-bottomed multi-colored wooden ducks in the Indonesian style. That collection grew to such impressive proportions that it went on display in the front window of Hunting World, the venerable Fifth Avenue purveyor of safari wear where Hemingway was known to shop. This crowning moment—the enshrinement of the collection—brought the duck thing to an end. There was nowhere else to go with it.
Not long after, a ball rolling forlornly, orphan-like, across a grimy street, picked up in a moment of distraction, became the trigger for a new collection. Now, Bob and the crew that works with him in his cabinet-making business will bring their truck to a dead stop on the Bronx-Queens Expressway (safety be damned, collecting is all!) and run out to retrieve a road-grit-encrusted soccer ball lying limply on the shoulder. It’s an ignominious trophy, not the sort of thing that will elicit oohs and ahs when its price is revealed on the Antiques Road Show, but in this kind of collecting, addition is as important as distinction. Sometimes Bob will park the truck and pause for a meditative walk on the outskirts of a playground and find a half-dozen balls nestled in the ivy. Idle searching calms the mind.
When the truck has made its way back to the shop—tucked away in a Civil-War-era warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront—whatever quarry has been retrieved and tossed in the back will be dropped in a barrel. No inventory is taken, no curatorial effort expended.
It’s not that Bob has no appreciation for the distinctiveness of some of his pieces. There’s mild excitement in finding a new kind of ball. Not long ago, he encountered an errant ball of a type he’d never seen before, one that strained the definition of ball. With accompanying gestures befitting someone who works with his hands, he tells of a ball that is “a sphere of suction cups, so that when you toss it, it sticks to the wall.” Though these are commonly known to parents, and even passé these days, Bob had not yet encountered one, until some child likely let it slip from his hands as his stroller moved on.
Bob’s definition of a ball is pretty inclusive. “It needs to at least approximate a sphere.” Can it have flat faces? “Yes, I came across a polygon sort of a ‘ball’ just the other day.” Are any rejected? “No, we’re equal opportunity. We take all balls.” What’s the most common? “Those baseball-sized rubber balls, some of them with the fake seams. You would not believe the number of those that get loose in this city. I see them right and left.”
I thought Bob’s duck collection was pointless until I saw how big their smallness became in the store window. Likewise, I thought the ball collection was a weird obsession until I saw them all together. The thousands of lost balls taken together become a work of art or archeology. This is the world as the atomists would have seen it. It’s an oddly familiar picture. We want the world to be new, neat, purposeful and organized, but it’s not so terribly different from the balls, starting out shiny and cherished and ending up loose and lost.
We are not only collectors. We are collections. Anything we see, including any grouping of people, is merely a loose collection brought together for a while, before it’s dispersed. It’s like any classroom, bus, waiting room or stadium I’ve ever been in, or any state of mind for that matter. It’s like friends and family: a loose collection of items of various sizes and colors that happened to end up together. When I look at the balls, I see a huge family photo, a picture of the world, multicolored, multifaceted, in different dimensions and states of wear and tear, with one thing in common, a rough approximation of roundness. And above all, it’s not something to take all that seriously. It’s just a collection after all.