I’m fascinated by wear.
Years ago, back in the ’80s, I rescued a tall wooden stool from a downtown dumpster, one of many stools that had come out of a small factory that either was changing over to new furniture or that had shut down.
It was hard to tell just what the business made. It was on a side street, in a brick building with a steel front door and narrow, high windows covered with heavy metal mesh. I always assumed that it must be some kind of jewelry manufacturer, even though there were no outside signs for the business whatsoever.
In any event, it had scores of workers judging by the number of stools that were being thrown away. One of them became mine. I wish now that I had rescued a few more.
Because the one I did bring home had a fascinating feature: it had cross-braces, level with and about a foot above the floor. They ran between the four legs, holding the legs together. And all along the top of each of the cross-braces was worn flat by the soles of someone’s shoes; they had bent their knees, set their feet on the braces and gotten to work.
And month by month, year by year, those unknown feet had ground down the wood from round doweling to half-circle.
Things like that just seem ripe for the workings of human imagination: who were they? What were they doing? What were they thinking while they did it?
Get a silver dime from the forties in your change, heads and tails both worn almost away, and imagine the hands and pockets and cash registers and banks that one coin has seen in its travels.
If you look hard enough, those signs are everywhere. Buy a used axe at a yard sale, a well-used axe, and you can find the places on the handle where a previous user regularly put their hands and the handle varnish has worn away. Use the axe yourself, with its particular weight and heft and balance, and eventually you’ll realize that your hands have migrated to exactly the same spots as the former owner’s. That the varnish was worn because that’s where hands had found they were supposed to go.
Inherit a much-loved and oft-sharpened kitchen knife, and you can compare it to a newer one and see how much of the knife blade the regular sharpening has carried away, and imagine the sound of the whetstone whispering across the steel.
Get a silver dime from the ’40s in your change, heads and tails both worn almost away, and imagine the hands and pockets and cash registers and banks that one coin has seen in its travels.
It can be as personal as finding a letter that slipped behind a dresser drawer with an unknown person’s handwriting on it; looking at it, you try to imagine who they were, what their life was like, where they came from. As if you could reach into the ink and read beyond the words.
At the same time, the grooves and wear of stone and wood and metal are far more permanent; you can put your hand exactly where you know for certain another hand once was. There’s a comfort in that, especially if you know the hand that made that mark.
What does it matter? I think it’s the continuity, in the way that — put in the same place — our bodies all react in similar, familiar ways. When I would sit on the now-gone Toronto stool, I would look down in amazement sometimes and realize I’d bent my knees and drawn my feet up, too, and that my feet were now contributing to the ongoing flattening that someone else’s feet had begun.
I think it’s also the idea that something as inherently, well, as soft as human flesh or our clothing or shoes, can actually leave a permanent mark that fascinates me.
That we, through our everyday lives, make small but significant marks upon this world — marks that will outlive each and every one of us.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.