Written by P.R. O’Leary, 2005.
Photography by Nicole Holovinsky of Drawing with Lights.
Antique stores, garage sales, flea markets. Anywhere you find collectables trading hands you will find me. I’m the guy searching through the bargain bins, studying the damaged toys and the dusty cracked lamps and the chipped pottery. These I buy. These I add to my collection.
From a young age we are taught that things have worth only if they are perfect. But perfection only means something is exactly the same as the mold that it came from. The truth is that a chip on a Chinese brush pot makes it unique. A plastic Darth Vader toy missing his arms is one of a kind. They have broken the mold, graduated beyond their show room condition.
My collection takes up my whole house now. Rooms full of dolls without limbs. Books burned or missing half their pages. Necklaces and bracelets with holes where precious stones used to be. Damaged goods. Cookie-cutter antiques made one of a kind.
Sometimes I sit and stare at a Russian Niello Snuff Box with the lid cracked in half, or a steel Rolex watch missing one strap and wonder how it happened. The event that elevated it from one in a thousand to one in a million. I call this moment its birth.
The 1908 Steiff Teddy bear was born the moment he lost his leg and half the stuffing leaked out. He now sits there, sewn up and thin on one side like a stroke victim. Now he’s one of a kind.
The white and blue 1750 Worchester porcelain mustard spoon was born the moment it lost its handle. Now it’s just a small empty bowl with a shard sticking out. Now it’s one of a kind.
The Lefton Ceramic Easter Egg Trinket was born the moment it cracked in half. It sits there in two pieces like someone tried to make an omelet out of it. Now, this broken porcelain egg, it’s one of a kind.
Of course, these births have to be natural occurrences. I don’t go out and buy vintage Beatles records and melt them in my oven. That takes the life out of them. It’s like ripping a premature baby from the womb, too young to survive in the real world. I wait until they make themselves. These things, these damaged goods. These to me are unique and wonderful.
My dog, Lou, I got three years ago. He was born when he had his leg removed. Tumors. He was abandoned, wandering the streets, and the tumors just kept growing. When the pound got him his leg was almost as big as the rest of his body. There was nothing they could do but amputate.
After that, I took him home from the pound. Lou, the three-legged dog. His imperfection makes him unique. One of a kind. Special.
I started my collection ten years ago. A year after I was born.
It happened in a factory. My job was to glue razor sharp knives to pieces of plywood to make cutting dies. The accident wasn’t painful. One minute I was working, the next I was in the hospital. I was told later a forklift had hit the plywood I was working on, shoving it into me and driving the knives and razors into my arms and legs. Unconsciousness, loss of blood, but I was going to be fine.
Until the infection. It started in my leg and threatened to rise up towards my groin and into the rest of my body. The doctors tried but in the end they had to amputate. Right above the knee.
Next came a lawsuit, then a monthly allowance and the ability to sit at home and feel sorry for myself. Oh, my friends tried to make me get out of the house but there really wasn’t any place you could take a cripple without him seeing people walking around on two legs.
That’s when I found the doll. Sitting in the back of my closet. A remnant of a life before the accident when I had nieces and nephews over to play. Before they were scared of the shadowy uncle missing a leg.
She was a little girl doll. And yes, she was also missing a leg. A little schoolgirl, with hair made of yarn and a plastic face with painted-on freckles. This perfect little girl, missing a leg.
Then it snowballed. I went out and got other dolls. Other dolls missing limbs and eyes. Then I branched out and got other things. Toys, pottery, porcelain. And now here I am. A unique man with a unique dog and a unique collection of unique items. No two alike. All imperfect, all just right.
My friends were scared. Troubled. They told me to sell all this junk and get a desk job. Meet new people. Get a fake limb and get my life going again. They gave me the card of an antique dealer they knew. Someone who would give me a good price for my collection.
Eventually, they stopped showing up. I wasn’t in mint condition anymore. I refused to conform to the two-legged walking society. They felt that it was time for us to part ways. They didn’t say that of course, but I knew.
The card for that antique dealer sat on an old English occasional side table. The table was missing one leg and was propped up against the wall. The card gathered dust.
Not having friends for a while, that changed me a bit. Is there something wrong with me? They call my collection junk. I call my collection unique. Each and every item is special. I tell myself this. Then I call the antique dealer.
Oh yes, he says. He would definitely want to check out my collection of Chinese nesting dolls. My Mother of Pearl flatware and my Persian carpets. I don’t tell him they are broken. That they are damaged. He is coming tonight. He sounds excited.
When he knocks on my door even his knock sounds excited. I wheel over and let him in. An older man, all suit and glasses. He vigorously shakes my hand and walks in before I ask him to. My collection is everywhere and he immediately zooms towards a shelf. His eyes and fingers move over the items, touching each one slightly and continuing on, muttering to himself all the while. In less time than it takes me to turn my wheelchair around he is onto another shelf. Then another. Then into the next room. He is halfway around it before I get there, and as I watch he finishes and turns towards me.
“Do you have anything that’s not broken?”
I tell him no. Everything here is broken. Everything is missing a piece or has a crack or a dent. Everything is unique.
“Unique?” he says. “Worthless more like it. Those are defects. Nothing in here is in perfect condition.”
He speaks quickly and angrily.
“For a thing to have value. It has to be mint. Nothing can be wrong with it. All its pieces must be there. No dents, no scratches, no cracks.”
He picks up a turn of the century Santa Claus Bisque doll, missing an arm. “This,” he says, “would be worth about one thousand dollars. Now, defective, it’s worthless.”
Exasperated, he puts it down, almost throws it down. I try to talk to him as he walks towards the door. I tell him how the damage makes them special. How something has happened to everything in my collection that makes them unique. How being perfect is not that important.
“Worthless.” He says again as he walks towards the door.
He opens it and walks out. I stop at the doorframe and look outside. I scream at him. There is nothing wrong with these things! They are not worthless! Tell me they are not worthless!
He walks on, turns the corner and is gone.
I am talking to myself.
They are not worthless. Right?