Saved in the lost and found

Jan 13, 2010 at 6:00 am

As I endeavored to do anything but write a column the other day, I was completely overcome by the need to hear a demo tape I recorded about eight years ago.

Resistance is useless when I get into these moods, so I started dragging boxes out of the closet. What I got for my efforts was an existentially perilous trip down memory lane that took two days and an allergy attack of the same duration. The former, I now realize, is what I was actually looking for.

I’m a faithful devotee of a unique filing system, which is sometimes confused with untidiness or actual chaos of the type only speculated about in “NOVA” documentaries.

It’s neither, and I choose it.

While it does lead directly to things like unpaid speeding tickets, polite queries from the IRS, and elusive old demo tapes, it also unfailingly succeeds in the task for which it was actually designed — namely to lose things so that they might later be found.

It’s a nuanced arrangement whose success is three-fold.

Primarily, it just feels good to find something that should, by any reasonable expectation, be lost forever. It’s a singular, fitful pleasure. It’s a small joy, and it can be cultivated.

But when something is actually lost for good, one must face the simple, blunt fact that things carry only as much importance as we place upon them. To lose something is to confront the transient and the inconstant. It’s unpleasant, important and, one hopes, leads us to a greater appreciation of what we have right in front of us.

Finally, and most glorious, is the library effect. You just don’t know what’ll find you when you set out looking. Remember roaming through the stacks in school, half looking for the boring-ass tome you were meant to be reading only to happen upon a book you’ve never forgotten and possibly never returned? So too the instant, unexpected joy and wondrous sadness that’s found every time you rifle through the boxes on the top shelf in the hall closet.

Ten years ago, I met a young man my age in Yemen named Walid-Abdala Mulaygi. Our conversations lasted about five minutes apiece every day for a week and consisted mostly of pointing at things and repeating the words to each other in Arabic, then in English. It was as endearing and funny as that type of conversation should be, and we became friends. On my last day in his town, he gave me a tape of Arabic pop music with his name scrawled on a white label. I found it in a box the other day. I hope he thinks of me, too, every time he finds the Dire Straits tape I gave him.

I also found a tape that a girl I dated around the same time gave me when she moved away. I sat down to eat a bowl of soup the other night, put in the tape and started reading an article about the CIA’s unmanned aircraft strikes in Afghanistan. It was an absolutely miserable combination. I barely blubbered through half of my dinner listening to Cat Stevens sing “Trouble,” missing my friend who I simply don’t know anymore, and also thinking of Walid in Yemen, knowing that neither of us will be able to make sense of what will probably happen in his country next. God I hope he still has that tape.

Thankfully, the song “I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates” by Melanie Safka eventually came on, providing me with a more-than-suitable reason to get up and press stop. I just couldn’t take much more.

I found a Tom Waits bootleg that I’ve been missing for years in which he strings the most glorious, flawless yarn of his career. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my God-given life, and every time I listen to it, I remember why storytelling is so important, and hysterical, and humane.

I also listened to a pile of my old demo tapes, including the one I went looking for to begin with. Black cassette, no label, bottom of the box. It’s a song I recorded in the garage one summer night when I couldn’t sleep. It sounded like a 23-year-old warning his older self not to be a flake, to be present, and to stay focused. I’m listening, and I hope not to disappoint him.