Mugger: The Packrat Pack

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A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with one of my older brothers at a once-fashionable Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, and, as is often the case, after some wine we dispensed with current events—he’s considering, to my chagrin, pulling the lever for Barack Obama as a protest against John McCain’s hypocrisy on campaign finance reform—and got lost in family nostalgia. Our mother passed away 25 years ago, and so the topic of her myriad eccentricities, both endearing and maddening, consumed the two of us, while a half-dozen younger members of the Smith clan nattered on about God knows what.

There’s no scientific research I can cite, but it’s my bet that genetics play a part in not only medical predispositions but also habits. For example, this particular brother and I are both packrats, like Mom, a quirk that eluded the remainder of the immediate family. My oldest brother, to take an extreme case, keeps almost nothing of sentimental value; he probably has about five or six photographs in his personal possession, while I’ve got boxes of them, including a stash of grainy black and whites of my parents from the 1930s when they were impossibly young and vibrant and just starting out as adults in the Bronx.

I made the case that my collection of pictures, coins, old magazines—in my basement there’s a box of very early issues of Rolling Stone, including the back-to-back RIP covers of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix from 1970—and the like wasn’t just a hobby. It was something to pass down to the kids, in the hope that 50 years from now my descendants will be thrilled to explore Americana artifacts from an earlier age.

Unlike many obsessive collectors, I don’t care at all about the monetary value of what’s being stored, thinking that if you’re planning on making a killing of a first edition comic book, say, pristinely shrink-wrapped, a decade or two in the future, it doesn’t point to an abundance of financial acumen. This is a common misconception.

In last week’s Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein, writing about his lack of hobbies, made this observation: “Many [of his peers] saved baseball cards, which, if in later life their wives didn’t insist they pitch them out, may well be worth vast sums today.” I’ve got about 1500 baseball cards, ranging from the late 1940s to today (the combined stash of my brothers and me and my own kids), and it’s likely a dealer wouldn’t even shell out $300 for the lot. And why would he? Most of the cards are bent and beat-up, after being abused (as they should) during childhood games of “up against the wall,” “colors” and “match and de-match.” The fun is in looking at the cards today: how the Topps design changed over the years, the hairstyles of players and goofy uniforms.

My brother, whose own house is splendidly decorated with framed family photos and other mementos from the past, disabused my notion with an exaggerated wave of his hand. “You’re just being naïve,” he said, “when your kids’ children and grandchildren come across your ‘treasures,’ if the stuff even survive various moves around the country, the 1951 Jackie Robinson baseball card you’re passing on will probably get about two seconds of attention. Packrats like us collect and store and pore over what we like and there’s no reason to think you’re compiling a tiny family museum for the benefit of future generations.”

That kind of bummed me out, but he’s undoubtedly correct. My two sons are complete opposites in this regard: Nicky doesn’t give a hoot about a really cool photo of his grandparents and granduncles on the boardwalk at Coney Island from 1940, while Booker sees a curio like that and wants to know the story behind it.

Now, that leads me to a biannual tradition in our household, which consists of emptying about 20 piggy banks of all the loose change that’s been accumulated in the preceding two years. Booker and I did this last week—Nick was off filming a movie and has no patience for sorting through the coins, but he does like his share of the windfall once they’re dumped in the local Coinstar—and had a ball. It’s kind of like eating hard-shell crabs: You pick through a huge pile, chucking all the coins of no curiosity into a bucket, hoping to find a relative rarity. To-
day, that would constitute what Booker nabbed an hour into the process: a 1964 quarter, the last year that those coins were 90 percent silver and didn’t have the copper split down the side.

We also compete to find “wheat” pennies (although Booker calls them pennies with “tails”), the far more attractive coins that on the flipside of Abe Lincoln’s profile features the words “One Cent” prominently, framed by stalks of wheat. The design was changed in 1958, and not many are left in circulation. (Another bonus to this exercise is thinking about how many people have touched the coins, kept them in pockets or jars, what kind of store registers they’ve been in, and how many have been retrieved from the street. As our hands quickly became filthy, there’s no possible speculation about the pass-through rate.) This year was pretty good for “tails,” as we captured pennies from 1919, 1942, 1944, 1948, 1950, 1953, 1955 and 1956. And that’s in addition to nickels from the 1940s and 1950s (sadly, no Buffalo heads—phased out in ‘38—were found this year), one Lady Liberty dime (jettisoned in ’45), and a bunch of new state quarters and coins from India, the Bahamas and Ecuador.

The call for the penny’s abolition gets bandied about in newspaper columns periodically. The last flurry was two years ago when then-Rep. Jim Kolbe wrote a bill that would retire the one-cent piece, since each penny costs the government 1.23 cents to make. The bill died in Congress, although I suppose the penny will eventually be phased out, which sort of sucks. At least to me. In June of 2004, William Safire wrote a column on this topic for the Times, and it at least had the virtue of being kind of funny. He wrote: “The time has come to abolish the outdated, almost worthless, bothersome and wasteful penny. Even President Lincoln, who distrusted the notion of paper money because he thought he would have to sign each greenback, would be ashamed to have his face on this specious specie.”

Hooey. Packrats like me hope that day never comes.

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