It was a windy day, with patches of rain that came and went as I drove from Bangor, through western Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont on Highway 2 – a rolling ribbon of smooth (mostly) blacktop, dotted with flea markets, farms, campgrounds and more than a few antique stores.
It’s the same road John Steinbeck took 50 years ago with his poodle Charley on the trip that would lead to the book “Travels With Charley” – a book whose place is firmly cemented as a timeless American classic.
The high winds were blowing leaves, at the peak of their color, off the trees, and sending them swirling across the highway like swarms of bees – signaling that nature’s most beautiful and all-too-transitory season would soon be coming to an end.
As I whizzed along through the drizzle, one particular antique store caught my eye — though not in time to stop — because, among the other things its sign advertised, was: “Ephemera.”
As the antique barn disappeared in my rearview mirror, I kept repeating the word aloud, which I tend to do when I confront an unusual word while driving alone with Ace. He responds with head tilts and funny looks, and he did so especially with “ephemera,” probably because it sounds, to him, vaguely like “dinner.”
I had a fair notion of what ephemera was — just as I have a fair notion of what curios, trinkets, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac are. I knew ephemera was not a perfume, though it sounds like one; or a prescription drug, though it sounds like one; or a skin condition, though it sounds like one.
What, I fantasized, if I had stopped at the shop? The door, I’m sure, would have had a bell on it that jingled when I entered, and a friendly proprietor would have approached, who would have reminded me of one of the characters on the Bob Newhart Show (the one where he had an inn).
“Can I help you with anything today?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “I understand you have ephemera.”
“Indeed we do,” the proprietor would say, rubbing his dry, chapped hands together. “What particular type of ephemera are you interested in – what genre?”
“Oh,” I’d say, “I guess some basic ephemera, run of the mill ephemera.”
“What is it you collect?” he’d say.
“It varies,” I’d answer. “Unemployment. Plastic bags to pick up dog poop. Dust. Dog hair. Fast food coupons. My thoughts.”
“I see, but what exactly are you looking for today, ephemera-wise?”
“Well, I’m pretty open,” I’d say. “But I want some good, sturdy ephemera — something that lasts.”
At that point, he’d look puzzled and begin pointing out items on his dusty shelves – defunct board games, old movie posters, paper dolls, airsickness bags, cigar boxes, bookplates, old fashioned Coca-Cola bottles, baseball cards, lunch pails, seed company advertisements, old maps and calendars from years past.
“Do you have any more modern-day ephemera?” I’d question.
“Only this Justin Bieber CD, this Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich that uses slabs of chicken in lieu of bread, and these Kindles – but we’re not totally sure yet they will be ephemeral.”
“I guess we can only hope.”
He would smile only slighty, and it would quickly fade from his face. “Ephemera is tricky stuff,” he’d say.
“But if people are preserving it, is it really ephemeral?” I’d ask. “By collecting it, or selling at high prices, as you do, these things that no longer have much use, does not that run counter to their very ephemerality – taking something intended to be transitory and short term and preserving it for eternity? Isn’t ‘classic ephemera’ a contradiction in terms? For that matter, is ephemera itself contradictory. If people are collecting it, then it hasn’t really faded away, has it?”
“Yes and no,” he’d say.
With that, I would take my leave, more confused than I was when I entered. I’d turn on my wipers to shoo the fallen leaves off my windshield. I’d check my gas tank – gas, now there’s something that’s truly ephemeral – give Ace a pat on the head and keep heading west.