GUILTY TREASURES

Published August 19, 2012

          BY GREG WILLIAMS

  It wasn’t the sort of painting that belonged above a sofa.

  Putting it in the kids’ room wouldn’t have been a good answer, either — particularly at bedtime.

  Now and then, I made half-hearted suggestions to display it elsewhere in our house, but my wife had other ideas. (Most of her other ideas involved a Dumpster.)

  So the painting sat, out of sight, just taking up space.

  Why did I keep it?

  I knew it wasn’t some long-lost masterpiece by one of the world’s great painters. It likely was worth even less than when I’d spotted it decades earlier in the window of a thrift shop in Dubuque, Iowa. An atypical thrift store find, this tortured depiction of human anguish was worlds away from paint-by-number kittens and windmills. It was Vincent van Gogh meets Vincent Price. It was Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.

  I had to own it.

  Checking the back for a price tag, I was astounded to learn that the artist was someone I actually had known: my previous boss, a soft-spoken family man named Sid.

  I really had to own it.

  The best thing about the painting was its title: “HEY WORLD, LOOK AT ME.” (It seems that Sid may have had some issues.)

  As much as I appreciated the irony of its origins, I had no good reason to keep the painting. I lost touch with Sid long ago, and it seemed unlikely that I’d ever find a suitable place to display his handiwork; Very few homes have dungeons these days. I thought about tracking Sid down, to return the painting to him. But, knowing he’d managed to rid himself of it once already, I presumed he might not be thrilled to see it again after so many years.

  Which raised a serious question: If Sid could get rid of the painting, why couldn’t I?

  It’s easy to understand why we hang onto old photographs and love letters. They often evoke warm memories of good times. Our reasons for clinging to dusty fondue sets and gum wrapper chains are a bit more obscure.

  When possessions become obsessions, it’s time to face the situation squarely — which is what I did with Sid’s painting.

  I wrote about it for the newspaper, as the central focus of a story about completely useless possessions. “Guilty Treasures,” we called them. At the end of the story, we invited readers to submit stories and photos of their own worthless junk. “If your item is the weirdest of the weird,” I wrote, “Sid’s painting will be yours.”

  I promised to personally deliver Sid’s painting to the lucky winner’s doorstep, with a single stipulation: “Just promise me you’ll keep it away from the Dumpster.”

  A number of people wrote in to describe their most dubious belongings. One guy talked about his hobby of collecting chunks of roadside debris — car parts, bolts and other pieces of heavy metal — which he then recycled into paperweights. One of his favorite pieces was the logo plate from the front of a discarded Gibson Frost Clear refrigerator.

  Another reader told us about a collection of artifacts from her days as an employee at Heritage USA, a defunct North Carolina tourist site started by TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: tapes, books, pins, dolls, puppets, and a Tammy Faye Cosmetics emery board imprinted with her signature.

  We also heard from a teacher who had snagged a somewhat unusual memento during a 1973 trip to Moscow — her first time out of the United States: “the strip that they put around a toilet seat to let you know that it was cleaned.” The paper strip was from the Hotel Rossiya, just steps from the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral.

  “They didn’t have a lot of souvenirs over there.”

  Our prize-winning submission came from a young woman named Lucie, who confessed her abiding fondness for ’80s New Wave pop star Adam Ant.

  “I was in love with him when I was 13,” Lucie told us. “Everything about him. The look, the music, the pirate uniform …”

  Lucie collected anything she could find that pertained to the British singer who had given us the song “Goody Two Shoes.” His albums adorned her walls, and his music played from home-recorded CD compilations. Although Lucie’s husband, Barry, wasn’t much of an Adam Ant fan, he never tried too hard to contain his wife’s Ant-thusiasm. “He lets me have my little crushes,” Lucie said with a laugh.

  What was it, exactly, that put Lucie’s Adam Ant collection at the top of our “Guilty Treasures” heap? How did her Ant pile enter the guilt-ridden realm of utter uselessness?

  “I have a bunch of movies he made,” Lucie told us, “but I have never been able to make myself watch them.”

  At the time, the Internet Movie Database listed dozens of Adam Ant’s movie roles and “notable TV appearances.” Lucie faithfully collected the videos, but hadn’t yet found the nerve to watch one — fearing her idol might be a horrible actor. “I’m scared that I’ll feel less for him, that I’ll be real unimpressed.”

  Which brings to mind Lucie’s then-five-year-old son, Michael, another fan of Adam Ant. Lucie told us that Michael would dance around the house whenever he heard old ’80s music.

  His favorite song? “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

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