A late night – went to a birthday party for my wife’s boss, and it’s now about the time when I usually upload. So I’ll be brief.

The downstairs storage project took another turn; I decided that much of the stuff will go in my closet, once I get new tall shelves. (It never stops.) This means I have to haul stuff upstairs, sort through the boxes, and perform triage. Matches, for example. I can’t tell you how many bushels of matches I have. But the quality depends on the lifestyle of the collector – a bag sold for a buck at a flea market might have two dozen pre-50s hotel matches, suggesting a life spent on the road, or it could have 50 matches from Chi-Chis and 50 more from Vegas. Ooh, mid-80s Caesar’s Palace matches. They’re about as hard to come by as a venereal disease. So I dumped out the bins and sorted the dross from the gold, always wondering who had assembled this collection, and why. Well, we know why: to light things with. But why so many of the same? Why save the standard-issue King Edward Relaxor matches? I’m glad they did; people like me are ever grateful of those who saved the commonplace items, because they fill in the details you never would otherwise know. We know how presidents look and how popular TV show themes sounded. But what did gum taste like? Was there something different about the taste of hamburgers? What did soap smell like? What sound was ubiquitous on city streets in 1947, and forgotten completely ten years later? We'll be able to answer these questions for our time, I think. But the past has lost its flesh; the past is a dancing skeleton.

And then I started on the comics. Four big plastic bins from the Tin Age of Marvel, including that ill-fated 1972 title, "Dancing Skeleton." (Kidding.) I was surprised to find about three dozen mid-60s 12-centers, which I found at Dirty Ernie’s Paperback Exchange on 8th street in Fargo, but mostly stuff I got at Johnson’s Drug at Northport. The best stuff is all reprints. In the early 70s Marvel reprinted everything, and that’s the Marvel I grew up with. Unfortunately I also absorbed the krep they threw out in a desperate bid to stay current – monster books, occult shite, heroes like “Master of Kung-Fu” or this guy:

Trust me: Luke Cage he ain’t. But there’s also this:

That's a random cover from my huge collection of post-code monster comics, most by Jack Kirby. They all featured someone like Moomba (an extraterrestrial wood-creature from Africa who used ultrasonic waves to make all wooden statuary come to life and conquer the world, preferably while shouting “Fools!” at anyone who fired a gun at his head) or Magnetor! or Sporrr! or Zutt! or Alors! Same plot, same arc, same conclusion. They’re horrible. But the third story in the book was often a gem by Ditko, and those had a strange mysterious pull I feel to this day. Flipping through these comics, I remembered: I never bought them for the monster stories. I bought them for the Ditko pictures.

I was surprised to find some old Life magazines among the cartoons. Moon-landing stuff. Life had become rather ugly and dull by the late 60s – the magazines just don’t reward the eyes like the incredibly colorful, issues from the fifties. No more hand-drawn ads with innumerable typestyles – everything’s black and white with a big “clever” tagline with very little
variation in fonts. But there was one issue about New York fashion c. 1969 that made me grin. The photos were taken by Vernon Merritt III. Born 1941; died 2000. Not too much about him on the web. Beaten while covering the civil rights movement; shot covering Vietnam. Here’s the picture that made me smile:

Yes, that Howard Stern fellow certainly does have an up-to-date look, doesn’t he? Lennon-Stern with a frickin' ocarina. Groovin'.

Then there’s this little item I found in a box.

I’ve written before about the total mobilization of the culture to fight WW2 – well, here you have it. The V stands for Victory; below, Morse Code for V. (It’s pronounced “dum-dum-dum DUMMM,” as in Beethoven’s 5th first movement. Man, people must have tired of hearing that by 44. Or maybe not – maybe it sounded better as the war went on, and V seemed less like a hope than a certainty.)

This is hotel soap. Literally, Victory Soap. You checked in, you took a shower, and your soap reminded you that we were at war.

The back has the details for the chain: four hotels owned by the very German-sounding Richard Kloeppel. And indeed he was originally from Hun-land, having arrived in America a penniliess immigrant in 1905. Spoke no English. Twenty years later he was rich enough to built this, the Hotel George Washington. He also owned the Flager, the Mayflower, and another GW.

The Flager, for that matter, was named after another moneybags who built a hotel. That’s what those guys did back then. They did it to make money, of course, but it also had the added aspect of Civic Improvement. More than a simple office building, these hotels somehow lifted a town’s spirit and profile. You didn’t have to stay there to go there. You could meet in the lobby; you could have a drink, rent a small hall, shop in the arcade. They were devoted to transience but belonged to the town, not the people who occupied them. People didn’t just work in the buildings, they slept there – and that made them different than office buildings. They were twenty-story machines for dreaming, for eating, making love, sitting in the lobby with a cigar blowing smoke rings at the potted palms while you wait for your wife, for sitting up alone at 2 AM with the radio and your doubts and a pistol. A place to drop your grip and loosen your tie and think: well, now I’m in Jacksonville. I wonder what a fella does in Jacksonville.

If you had a few spare million, why wouldn’t you want to build one?

Gnat just came into my room and looked at the piles of stuff. “This is very messy, Daddy,” she said. “You should clean it up.” Wonder where she got this. Then she said something that surprised me: “You should clean up all these comic books.”

“How did you know what they were?”

“The Powerpuff Gulls. They had comic books at the library.” She peered at a 12-cent X-men from 1966: Ths Super-Adaptoid Strikes!

“These are scary comics. They’re for boys,” she said with a slight note of disdain.

One last note: tonight at the party I had a long discussion with an artist who’d read my column on the general uselessness of most conceptual modern art; that’s another Bleat entirely. I wish him luck with his work. But if you want true immortality, draw something like this:

Who drew this? For all we know he died drunk in a Texas roadhouse in 1971, or is still alive in the Hawaii home he built with his investments. (He was just 19 when he did that drawing; he knew he never had much talent, which is why he went into real estate.) Or he did the work on commission and never saw it in print, because he didn’t read comics. It’s possible there’s a man out there my age whose dad drew the X-Ray Specs picture, and he’s completely unaware how that single image titillated the imaginations of adolescent comic-book readers. Oh sure, they can’t work. But what if they did!

I may post storage-closet ephemera the rest of the week, just for fun.

New matchbook, too. Tomorrow: Fin Fang Foom. Really.

Oh, one more thing: the limitations of the web have been made clear to me tonight. I can show you the Victory Soap. I can point you to the pictures of the hotels where it was offered; I could even post a .wav of the sound of the bar being unwrapped. But I can’t communicate the smell of the soap, and in a way that’s the most important part. This is how people smelled back then, I suppose. It’s floral and spicy. It has a pungent edge people my age recognize from the items our parents had. I don’t know which brand kept that scent around – Dial, maybe Palmolive. But it reminded me how Irish Spring changed EVERYTHING. Man, we couldn’t get enough of Irish Spring. Every guy wanted to buy a bar, get out his knife and carve off a hunk – but that’s another Bleat, again. Later.


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c. 1995-2004 j. lileks