Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Whose list?

Here is a puzzling piece of paper, 3 9/16" x 4", found in a 1967 paperback, The Olympia Reader, a sampler of works published by the Olympia Press. I no longer know how I acquired this book — most likely at a library sale.

This list is almost certainly a preparation for a short trip — I can't invent another context in which these items fit. Whoever composed the list is an orderly person: five groups, checkmarks for almost all items, long lines through the groups. The red checkmarks might suggest the hand of a teacher.

The drugs and remedies on the list — more items of this sort than of any other — suggest a difficult life. These are the items the listmaker is careful to get down first and, I suspect, cannot imagine leaving home without. The first item, Unicap, might suggest what used to be called a health nut: not many packing lists begin with vitamins. It's the second item that startles: codeine. But there's a red line through it: has it been checked off, or crossed off? Is the listmaker now resolving to do without it?

Most of the medicinal items that follow suggest everyday woes: headaches, colds, stomach ills. Perhaps this traveler wants to be prepared for anything. I cannot make out the third item — xtreno? But look at the middle column: Isoniazid is used in the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis. Marax (evidently no longer available) relieves the symptoms of bronchial asthma.

The toiletries group makes me think that this list belongs to a man: razor, "foam," no makeup. (Cf. Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window: "Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take makeup, perfume, and jewelry.") Scissors are a puzzling addition — to trim a mustache? to cut fingernails? Those are tasks one could take care of before a trip. Wherever the listmaker is traveling, there must be toothpaste and deodorant, which seem conspicuously missing from the list. But there won't be shaving cream.

The books — everyone packs a paperback or two, no? — suggest a listmaker familiar with literary culture, as does The Olympia Reader itself, with work by Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, and Henry Miller. I take Vietnam to be shorthand for Norman Mailer's 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? Chaillot can only be The Madwoman of Chaillot, an English translation of Jean Giraudoux's play La folle de Chaillot. The play was made into a film in 1969, and a paperback translation was published that year. (An aside: the first English translation, from 1947, is by Maurice Valency, who taught one of my professors, Paul Memmo, at Columbia, and, much later, my wife Elaine, at Juilliard.)

The most puzzling part of this list comes last. It's conceivable that a man might wear one pair of pants for three or four days. But where are his t-shirts? Where are his boxers, or briefs? These omissions seem odd with a traveler finicky enough to pack slippers and handkerchiefs (and scissors).

For a long time I thought of this list as a hypochondriacal prelude to a summer weekend trip. But there's no suntan lotion, no tennis racket, no camera. More recently I've wondered if the writer might have been preparing for a stay in a hospital or sanitarium. But the pullover and shirts don't fit that scenario.

On the other side of this piece of paper appear three phone numbers, with letters designating their exchanges: Jef, OR, VI. Each number has a notation to its right, and together these notations suggest a life that has begun to frazzle. They also suggest to me what it feels like to pose questions about this list:



No one's home, or at least no one who can answer my questions.
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comments: 4

John Guzlowski said...

I don't know a thing about this list but I think that it sounds like you were going on a camping trip to make the adirondacks. Maybe some place north of Lake George.

But I'm not hear to respond to the list. I just wanted to tell you that I added your blog to MY list of links everybody should go to.

Elaine Fine said...

Could it be a shopping list with the three "sub lists" being things that you would find at different stores?

Could it be a list made by someone who has just found his way to a new city for s short stay without basic necessities?

Maybe he (and I do agree that the listmaker seems to be a "he") couldn't get codeine at the drugstore because he needed a prescription for it (hence the item is crossed out).

Scissors is not checked on the list. Could this be because back "in the day" you would buy your sissors at a sewing store or a knife store.

Michael Leddy said...

I thought about the possibility of a shopping list, Elaine, but several things decided me against it. One is that the checkmarks are pretty uniform, as though they were made all at once, by someone taking inventory (not by someone keeping track while shopping). Another is the extra line through each group, which also makes me think that someone is taking stock of his stuff.

Scissors: You would have been able to get nail scissors in a drug store back in the day, perhaps larger scissors too.

What about a shopping list for a trip, a shopping list that became a packing list? That would account for both the feeling of a packing list and for the things that seem conspicuously missing. But "white pull" and "3 shirts" still sound to me like references to things already owned.

John: Thanks.

Granny J said...

Miscellaneous ephemera -- one of the delights when I go walking. Perhaps you might have an explanation for the curious "I'm not Arabic" frame...