I really thought I was going to need that toothbrush.
I had to dump the contents of my pockets into a tray on Saturday, but I didn’t do it for Homeland Security.
I did it for art.
I had joined other members of the Meetup group “Everything Brooklyn” to attend the annual Gowanus Open Studios event in Park Slope.
We hiked in and around old warehouses in Park Slope that have been converted into art studios.
One of the artists, Joana Ricou, was working on a fantastic project where she asked people to take whatever they had out of their pockets, put it all in a tray, and allow her to photograph it.
Joana explained that the contents of our pockets tell us who we are at a given moment in time. The photos are a freeze frame of our lives, particularly in this age of the smart phone, where we carry personal computers packed with all our vital information.
I usually leave my house with my front pockets brimming with all manner of stuff—bloated wallet, I-phone, house keys, and a business card holder that also contains my parents’ prayer cards as well as one for Mary, the woman who took care of my dad up until his death.
Mary’s card is inscribed with “The Prayer of St. Francis,” my choice for the most beautiful prayer ever, and I like to keep it handy.
On this day I also was carrying a traveler’s toothbrush. I had thought that perhaps I’d go to a story-telling show in Manhattan after the art tour and, if so, I intended to stop at one of the New York Sports Club’s outlets to take to a sauna, a shower, and brush the old chompers.
What can I say? I wasn’t a Boy Scout for very long, but I do like to be prepared.
I stepped back when the call for volunteers went out. I wasn’t going to allow someone to take a mug shot of all this personal material so total strangers could gawk and snicker at it.
But the concept fascinated me; it’s so simple, yet so brilliant. What we carry says so much about us that I thought I might learn something if I joined in.
One of the people in our group went first and, annoyed at myself for holding back, I stepped up behind him and grabbed an empty tray.
“I might need two of these,” I said.
I must say it took a while to dig out all of my possessions. I thought I heard somebody chuckle when I removed the toothbrush, but it didn’t bother me. I wanted to share.
I told Joana about the prayer cards and she plucked Mary’s out of the folder and set it on top of the pile so the camera could capture it.
Then I stepped back and I looked at my life in a tray. Jesus, the only things missing here were a pack of condoms and a flare gun.
Clearly I don’t like to be caught short, and I’m a virtual slave to my dad’s rule of “better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it.”
My life often feels as crammed as my pockets. Before meeting up with the group on Saturday afternoon, I had gone to my gym, dry cleaners and fruit store. And I seriously thought I’d go to another event in Manhattan? Ultimately, I scraped that last bit, deciding that the day had been long enough.
I felt strange looking at my all stuff; it was liberating in a way, a kind of out-of-body experience. I belonged to no one.
Yes, at the moment I had no identity, no way of calling the outside world, and no place to live. But I also felt free to be somebody else—or a better version of who I am now.
I could be someone who is not so cautious and uptight. I could stop obsessing about planning things and actually start doing them. Even my parents’ prayer cards, which mean so much to me, are symbols of the love that I carry for them in my heart every waking moment.
I had a sudden flashback to Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets,” a short story I read as a freshman at Brooklyn Tech in 1971 and which I probably haven’t thought about since.
The story concerns a young man who risks his life to retrieve an important business document that has blown out the window of his high rise apartment and come to rest on a ledge.
The guy gets into some very serious trouble and at one point he wonders what people will think when they scrape his corpse from the sidewalk and look through his pockets.
All of a sudden that vitally important document wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
Joana’s project really got me thinking, which is the greatest compliment I can pay to any artist. Thanks to her I was recalling my past, examining my present and reconsidering my future.
I gathered up my belongings and made way for another one of my companions to take the plunge. My pockets were full again, but nothing could weigh me down.