THE TREASURE FROM THE TRASH BIN
Week after week for two and a half years, an American collected what the famous writer John Updike threw away. A breach of privacy? Or a collection of magical objects?
Published in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE
A love letter from Doris Day. A summons for jury duty. More than 3000 slides. A pair of brown loafers, checkered shorts, a wristwatch. A collection of floppy discs, labelled “stories”, “burglar alarm”, “brasil – 3”. Christmas cards from various US Presidents. The manuscript of a short story. Notes on a novel about St. Paul. Over a period of two-and-a-half years, Paul Moran fished all this and much more from the trash of the American writer John Updike, who died in January 2009. Whatever Updike threw away landed in Moran's hands, and much of it he posted on his blog "The Other John Updike Archive" ().
The "other John Updike archive", this strange collection of stolen garbage, caused quite a stir when the magazine "The Atlantic" published the story last August. Updike's biographer Adam Begley called it an "outrageous invasion of privacy", the British "Guardian" reported Moran´s raids under the headline "A trashy pursuit". But others found the archiving of trash bag contents from one of the finest writers in America a curious archaeological adventure. In any case, Moran's indiscretions brought forth a collection that is as weird as it is wonderful. Its genesis could itself be part of a novel.
Paul Moran had never intended to rummage through the garbage of other people. "The whole thing started as a stupid accident," he told us on the phone from his home in New Hamphire, "and at a point in my life where I wasn´t doing real well." Moran, then 48, was struggling with alcoholism, and on long bike rides north of Boston, on the scenic byways between his home in Salem, Massachusetts, and Manchester-by-the-Sea, he was hoping to shake off the devil on his back. One Wednesday in May 2006 he encountered John Updike, who was just putting his blue recycling bin and some trash bags out for garbage collection.
Paul Moran knew that Updike lived in the area, if not exactly where. "At first I thought nothing of it," he says. "But on the way back I stopped to see if I could perhaps take a souvenir home." One of the garbage bag was torn open, and a red leather cover was poking out – one of a total of fourteen framed honorary doctorates, which Updike had discarded. Excitedly, Moran pedaled home and returned with his car, in which he brought Updike´s trash bags home. A few days later he sold ten of the honorary doctorates to a local bookseller. The man gave him a thousand dollars for them: "Wow, I thought, a great find!"
But then it occurred to Moran that Updike was possibly throwing other stuff away: Things which the writer might see as trash, but not Paul Moran. So Moran returned to the crime scene. "And indeed, Updike seemed to clean house. He threw out things he had saved his whole life. Perhaps, I thought, I should make sure that they don´t end up in the landfill. "
His initial impetus, Paul Moran confesses, was purely financial - but soon other considerations crept in. Moran is no uneducated man. He studied first arts, then English, he has met with many interesting intellectuals, and on his blog he runs a fascinating monologue about the meaning of things, interspersed with quotations of Updike and other artists. As he tells his story, his voice does not carry the triumph of the pirate. Paul Moran falters, hesitates, takes deep breaths. He is obviously embarrassed to recount how he ransacked the trash of a stranger - albeit a famous one – for "treasures", week after week, for two and a half years.
"My self-esteem was already low in the face of personal failure," says Moran. "I wanted to pull myself out of this, and here I was presented with something utterly unlikely. It seemed to me that I would be slapping the gods if I did not follow through.” But he had opened a door that he could not close again. Week after week he combed through Updike's household trash, organized appointments and obligations around Wednesday's plunder. "I felt miserable about doing this, I hated it, and I wanted to stop. But even worse was the thought of what could end at the dump - an unpublished manuscript perhaps, which I had not saved? So I resigned myself to a sense of conscription: I would have to do this until one of us died - even if this would earn me the contempt of my peers. "
Moran did not puzzle back together shredded bank statements or restore crumpled or destroyed stuff, as perhaps the detective in a murder mystery would. On the contrary, he says, many of the things he found on Updike's curb looked as if they had been set out with deliberate care – like a sixty by ninety centimeter print of an Updike photograph, which had been placed in a separate bag and was without a crease.
Some of the pictures Moran found seemed to have functioned as visual notes for Updike, a master of detail; a black-and-white picture of youths playing basketball calls to mind the opening scene from “Rabbit, Run”, the first book in Updike´s great series of novels about a former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.
Many findings were totally trivial – polo shirts, a frequent flyer card, a temporary driver´s license- others, very personal, like a stick figure apparently scrawled by Updike himself, marked with several minor ailments.
Of course, it seemed necessary to justify this "sin" (Moran). "When I thought logically about it, I was not totally clear about where the violation was." First of all, Moran says, it was legal - in America, trash sitting curbside is considered public property. Secondly, Updike was a figure of public interest. And thirdly, the writer must have known that his garbage was being searched.
For when the bookseller to whom Moran had sold Updike´s Honorary Doctorates, retailed them, the "Boston Globe" got wind of it in June 2006 and ran a cover story. The bookseller did not give up his source, but Updike and his wife Martha spoke out to dispel the impression that the honors meant nothing to the writer. Moran feared that this would be the end of his treasure hunt in Updike's garbage. But surprisingly, it was a fear that proved to be unfounded. "He knew," says Moran. He maintains that Mrs. Updike herself caught him at least twice. But the writer and his wife did nothing. "Perhaps," Paul Moran surmises about Updike, "he did not care."
Updike was, of course, himself a meticulous archivist of his life. Since the Sixties, he had been bequeathing boxes full of artifacts collected from his literary life to his alma mater Harvard: letters, research material, doodles, golf score cards, chip wrappers, interviews. The University held on to these collections and eventually bought them from the Updike family for three million dollars to form the official John Updike archive. "He gathered and curated scraps of himself and kept them very carefully and neatly ordered,” Updike's biographer Adam Begley is quoted in the "Atlantic"-piece. “He was obviously interested in presenting as full an account of his work and habits as possible” - and one carefully controlled by himself.
Only, Updike assembled so much more - all that, for instance, which Moran intercepted on its way to the garbage dump. "He collected all these things," says Paul Moran, "and it says something that they were important to him." But how could Paul Moran assign meaning to his appropriation of these discarded collections? How could he confirm that he might be doing something impure, yet expedient, possibly even important?
The answer was to be found in Updike's trash bags. One Wednesday Moran pulled from them a book called "The Thing Itself" whose author Richard Todd discusses the transcendent value of objects. In one section Todd refers to the Western Pacific concept of “Kula”, by which things draw their value from the history of their ownership. A simple shell could thus gain quasi-sacred status.
Suddenly the conflicting parts of the story seemed to coalesce into a larger canvas. Did this trash collection possess a meaning which resulted not from the profane existence of its individual components, but rather from its complex history as a collection of the puzzle pieces of an artist´s biography, which was assembled, then discarded, and finally salvaged from annihilation? Moran recalled his catholic childhood: “I was turned on at an early age to the idea that mundane objects could be imbued with an importance that transcends their pedestrian worth,” he says and mentions an alleged splinter of the Christ´s cross which his dad kept in a watchcase. So was this a fulfillment of Updike's claim to “give the mundane its beautiful due”?
Even so, it did not mitigate Moran´s moral conundrum. He even tried to make himself known to Updike. A mutual friend had organized a meeting of Updike and Moran following mass in a church to whose congregation Updike belonged. Moran handed the writer a piece of paper to autograph, and hoped that Updike would turn it over as he usually did - it was a White House invitation which Moran had pulled from Updike´s trash bags. "If he had reclaimed the whole collection, I would have given it to him," says Paul Moran. But Updike did not feel well, and he handed back the autograph without closer inspection: "To Paul. Cheers, John Updike. "
A few months later Updike was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and began to prepare for the end; Paul Moran knew it long before the public. Aside from shame and sorrow, I ask him, did he also feel a kind of relief to be able to put his pilferages to rest? "Probably," says Moran. "I had been wanting to be done with this for a long time."
Two weeks after Updike's death in January 2009, Moran appropriated the last trash bag. It was over. On bad days, he says, he still feels like the parasite he invoked in a very eloquent confession in "Texas Monthly" magazine. "I'm glad that I no longer have to do this. But it was great stroke of luck "
Looking back, says Paul Moran, he maybe should have been sorting more diligently. Aside from the honorary doctorates, a few signed books and a couple of canceled checks the very beginning, he sold none of Updike´s things. But some of them he did finally send to the dump. What remains, a collection of six to seven thousand artifacts, is now available for sale. Paul Moran says he has exhausted his own limited means in dealing with it. May someone else keep the collection of John Updike´s archived trash.