Since my Johnny Angel post, I’m more aware of things that are presaged or connected in some way to other things. Or could it be they’re happening more often?
There’s a drawer in the kitchen that holds various items, like tape, rulers, pens, pins, picture hooks, sticky notes, pliers, tape measures, screw drivers, etc. A couple of days ago I was in it because I needed a paperclip that I was going to straighten and use its tip as a probe to clean some built-up minerals from one of the drip holes in the coffee maker.
As I rummaged, I came across a box of staples, which I picked up and examined. The box was almost full. It’s there to supply the stapler that’s on the small counter above the drawer. I returned the box to the clutter, found a paperclip and went to work on the coffee maker. As it turned out, what I thought was blockage was just the reflection off a water droplet.
I walked upstairs to my office and started doing some work, which involves reading and writing emails. I still print out some of this correspondence, and occasionally staple related items together. I inserted a couple of papers into my Swingline stapler and gave it the light punch that’s necessary to seat a staple. When I withdrew the paper, however, I didn’t see a staple in the upper left-hand corner. I was not overly surprised, as a staple is a pretty small thing. Maybe my eyesight was at a point where I just wasn’t able to see it.
But that was not the reason. I didn’t see it because it was not there. I had run out of staples — no more than an hour after handling the box from the junk drawer.
This is not the kind of coincidence that elicits cries of, “No way,” or “Hey, Martha, you’re not going to believe this!” For those, the tying together of incidents has to bridge greater degrees of separation.
Still, the events are more than casually connected because they happened in close chronological proximity. To illustrate the value of time to coincidence, imagine I go to the refrigerator and have an apple and a month later I read a report that refrigerated apples are not as good as ones left at room temperature. Chances are, I wouldn’t even make a connection between the two events. If, however, I see the same report while eating that apple, now it’s noteworthy, yes?
Skirting a cairn of cat turd
Yesterday morning I was reading a book review in the New York Times on my Kindle. The book was “Orfeo,” which was written by Richard Powers and reviewed by Jim Holt. In the course of the review, the following quote was called out: “skirting a cairn of cat turd.” The great thing about Kindles is that when you come to a word you don’t know, you can look it up by just highlighting it. I didn’t know what the word “cairn” meant, and went to it’s definition.
The definition is: “n. A mound of rough stones built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline.” Okay, so I learned a new word, but I also noted that — uncharacteristically — the Oxford Dictionary of English did not include the pronunciation. I briefly held this thought: “It would be nice to know how to say it.”
I hit the screen to make the definition go away and continued reading from where I left off. The review continued as follows: ” — the full horror of which is apparent only if you realize that cairn is pronounced kern.”
Mmm. Do you think that’s a little stranger? I think it is, but I know a cynic would say that because of the great, untapped powers of the human mind, I had somehow “read” those words without being consciously aware that I had, and that is why I thought about it’s pronunciation. Maybe, but if I saw it on a subliminal level, then I would have known how to say it, so I hereby reject that possibility, especially since it is improvable either way.
What does it mean?
Whenever I think of this question, I’m reminded of the Underground comic by R. Crumb: Mr. Natural. In it, someone asks the bearded wise man what “it” all means, and he says that it doesn’t mean shit. Since this sardonic and cynical observation can be made about almost anything, it’s best not to give it too much weight, lest it drain life of all its joys.
So maybe in isolation these little things don’t mean you-know-what, but when taken together, I see them as evidence that something unseen is at work, and there exists connections and associations between events and people that no one understands.
Maybe that’s another way of saying they don’t mean shit, but I hope not.
Everything Reminds me of something else
When I was growing up on Long Island, occasionally I would take the Long Island Railroad to New York City. The train ride took us through Brooklyn and Queens, which were once huge manufacturing centers.
One of the building we passed was the Swingline Stapler Company, which had a gigantic neon sign with a stapler where the neon was rigged to make the stapler look like it was opening and closing. I was fascinated by this sign, and if you like such things, there’s a cool website called New York Neon, that catalogs it and other such signs.
Anyone who traveled between Long Island and New York saw the sign many, many times, but it doesn’t seem like they took a lot of pictures. The only depiction of it that I could find was this old newspaper article from the New York Neon Website. The sign was put up in 1952, the year I was born. I mention this as an example of a low grade coincidence that I would have remained unaware of hadn’t I started this article. While the two incidents have a small, imprecise measure of chronological proximity, there is nothing more that connects them. While I was fascinated by the sign, so too were millions of other people. If my research uncovered that the sign was formally dedicated on my birthday, or that my uncle helped build it, I’d feel differently (and curious about when it would be decommissioned).
I was familiar with their product because every teacher in our school had one on their desk, which in my easy-to-impress view, were really rather remarkable pieces of equipment. I suppose that if you took care of a stapler, it would probably perform its function forever — as long as you could keep getting the right sized staplers.
For a while, the sign’s superstructure on top of the building was changed to advertise a bank. In 1999, ACCO Brands (the company that owns Swingline) decided to stop making staplers in Long Island City (and move production to Mexico). In preparation for the shutdown, the superstructure was dismantled.
Between 2002 and 2005, the factory housed the Museum of Modern Art, whose normal home in Manhattan was being renovated. After MOMA moved out, it was reported that the building’s new owners were successful in finding new tenants.