by Dylan Hicks
On Friday, August 24 or Friday, August 31 of 2001, I came home from a long walk to find Jonathan slumped and puffy-eyed on the couch, his right hand holding a place in the premiere issue of Cast Off magazine. Cast Off magazine publishes reproductions of anonymous, primarily textual garbage found by its editors and readers: to-do lists left on the train; letters dropped mistakenly or angrily on the sidewalk; homework sacrificed to the wind; Polaroids tucked inside of library books; drawings carefully positioned beneath the front passenger-side wheel of the blue Japanese hatchback owned or otherwise in the custody of Michael D'Agostino's girlfriend. Cast Off is now a prosperous, diversified enterprise. It has T-shirts and a network of teenage marketers who are paid in T-shirts. Its editors put on a road show in which garbage is projected onto movie screens, analyzed, and used as source material for songs and playlets. Perhaps you've seen the magazine's charming founder, Michael D'Agostino, on a late-night talk show. Jonathan, ahead of Cast Off's curve, picked up the premiere issue's now collectable first printing and said, "This is the most moving thing I've ever read." The superlative wasn't hard won, Jonathan not being much of a reader. He showed me a note, apparently written by a child and reportedly found inside of a balloon (also pictured), that read, "PLEAZE COME HOME, DADE." Next he paged to a savage, unhinged Dear John letter. After that the shopping list of a forgetful depressive: "booze, razors, unisom." Later, Jonathan argued that Cast Off had made him a better, more empathetic man. "Now when I look at strangers," he said, "I just see all this pain." We broke up a few months later, over other matters that don't concern us here.
That November I left, at accessible points along Jonathan's usual path, four items: a letter, a note, a drawing, and a sex-shop receipt with the words "Kevin, Please return anal beads" written on the top. Precisely as I had hoped, Cast Off's second issue included a submission from Jonathan Quam of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who wrote, "I found this letter [read note], torn in two pieces, in a snow bank [read snowbank] outside my apartment. Absolutely heartbreaking!" The note, scripted to camouflage my hand without appearing labored, read: "Max, Mom and I have talked, and if you really want to (possibly) extend Brownie's life, you can pay the vet with your own money (but not from the college fund). Please decide by tonight. He's an old dog! Love, Dad." I had in mind a child of about nine, but didn't want to tax verisimilitude with too much exposition, especially since the note seemed unlikely to begin with. In retrospect, I probably could have pushed it more.
Encouraged by that success, I set about scattering artifacts all over the Twin Cities, paying special attention to its bohemian enclaves, such as they are, where I thought my efforts might meet the peeled eyes of Cast Off readers. Each week during the spring of 2002 I diffused nine or ten pieces of prepared trash, most of which, presumably, were destroyed in Minneapolis's sinister garbage incinerator or hung by refrigerator curators. It was an anxious wait to see if more of my efforts would be publicly preserved, and I recall how Cast Off #3 seemed to reach my preferred independent bookseller by jinrikisha. Every day it was "If it ain't out there, we don't have it," or "Still nothing" or, "Want us to call you when it comes in?" When the magazine did at last arrive, I laid down my fourteen bucks with some embarrassment and, not wanting to further prolong the suspense, camped at the nearest bus stop, where I sat on the sun-warmed bench for three hours, waving off irritated 6A drivers and discouraging commuter bonhomie. Posted on the bench was a photo of a real-estate agent with whom I went to high school. She was not a real-estate agent then, of course, and had a different surname. It was strange to sit next to her.
It was a triumphant afternoon. I had only to skim six of Cast Off's pages before I got to one of my letters, an excerpt from which follows: "You should know that my heart is broke and if I sound like I'm jujing you its partley becose of that (my heart being broke)..... ..... . ....but what you and Jason are doing is a sin and I think you know it and that means that both of you two will go to hell. I thought you loved me now I know no one loves me and that you were a gay who sins agenst GOD!!!!!" I work a lot with subliteracy. It amplifies the pathos and plays into the classism central to found-text consumption. Also I lean toward sociopolitical significance, stuff that might, in one reporter's words, "say more about this ugly, beautiful, cruel, and absurd country of ours than all the year's novels, editorials, and cultural-studies tombs [read tomes] combined" (Corey L. Grund, "One Man's Trash ... : Michael D'Agostino Picks up the Pieces," Dallas Buzz, 5 Mar. 2004, page 53).
I've worked, though, in a variety of genres, with a variety of techniques. Restlessness inheres in my work, one might argue. I've released several Realistic audio cassettes labeled "band rehearsal," all of which in fact contain commercially issued music by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I have hove two short stories into my southward neighbors' backyard, hoping the pieces will find a steward in the home's adult male representative, an aspiring fictioneer and not, my interactions with him suggest, an ideational font or ethical paragon. A dozen or so of my pieces have employed a cipher. I did a series of erotic dot-to-dot puzzles. I've sketched elephants on paint chips, clowns on coffee-cup sleeves. I was proud of those last pieces, but for whatever reason my pictorial work has not often reached a wider audience, though the scrap found on page sixteen of Cast Off #3, a primitive drawing of a cowboy alongside the words "Would you be an outlaw for my love?" seemed to go over well. I took the words from a song. I never labor over the compositions. I put tenfold the effort into the penmanship.
As it turned out, my two pieces represented two-thirds of Minnesota's contributions to CO3. (Around the same time, my napkin poem "The Handsome Barkeep" made its way to the website Miss Kitty's Litter, one of the found-items publications to spring up following Cast Off's success.) I started to worry about saturating the local market or drawing suspicion too soon. I do hope that my work will someday draw suspicion, and to that end have embedded in it chirographical clues and one rather brazen acrostic (included in a poetic yet unpublished cake recipe). I want these signals and patterns, however, to reveal themselves slowly. Here and there a web poster questions the authenticity of a Cast Off specimen, but to my knowledge no one has fingered one of mine. I suppose some of the magazine's fans, Jonathan for instance, would feel betrayed by my work, but not justifiably. My pieces aren't forgeries; they're minor works of art whose origins are vulnerable to misinterpretation. Never have I submitted my own trash, or anyone else's. If I find potentially publishable garbage while disseminating my own, I bring home the alien piece and let it fend for itself in the backyard fire pit. I read the garbage first, as any curious reader would, as curious readers always have. "I am very fond of reading," wrote Cervantes, "even torn papers in the streets." The fire pit, not really a pit but a bowl, rust-colored and decorated with cut-outs of moose, deer, and other North American mammals, was a gift from Jonathan's parents. I'm glad he left it behind. I especially like standing by the fire in winter, cupping my leather mittens around an oversized mug of black coffee, tensing my muscles against the cold so that the next day my neck and shoulders ache even more than usual. In summer I keep the fire small and wave to my northward neighbor, who for six years has been rebuilding a '71 Plymouth Duster. Once I walked over to admire his work and he said, "I like what you've done to your hair," and I said, "Not wash it?" Besides other people's garbage I feed newspaper to the fire, against civic regulation, because I love to watch the flaming scraps float over the pit and around the yard.
But as I was leading to above, I felt the need, not long after taking on this open-ended project, to expand my reach and disguise my base of operations. So in the spring of 2003 I took a road trip out east, bringing along pens, pencils, crayons, markers, an estate-sale Smith Corona with poorly aligned typebars, paper of sundry styles, and some of the more evocative selections from a family photo album I discovered in the Columbian sense on my mother's bedside table. With these tools I manufactured nearly five hundred pieces and left them in the care of the people of Eau Claire, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, South Bend, Lagrange, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Poughkeepsie, New York City, and spots in between. For the return trip I hit different spots, and some of the same ones. On the road I contemplated geographical differences in automotive preferences, drank diet cola, and listened to Tiny Harris sing, "the endless black ribbon means lonesome." I kept a box of energy bars close at hand, twenty-four bars per "variety pack," with reserves in the trunk, and in this way was able to skip lunch. By the second pass through Ohio I had built an impressive mound of energy wrappers on the passenger floor. I tried to drive no more than five hours a day, so I'd have time to do my work, both the work I've been describing, and the search-engine optimization I do part-time and freelance for a small internet-marketing outfit. I bought a package deal with a discount motel chain and spent a fair amount of time in the room, cross-legged on the bed, hunched over my laptop or a loose leaf while watching cable TV. At night I'd distribute. Occasionally someone would call after me, "Hey, you dropped something," and I'd hasten my pace. Occasionally I was hit on at bars. Occasionally a waitress, cashier, receptionist, or motelier would initiate small talk. Mostly I was left alone, and I enjoyed using my voice so infrequently. I'm not interested in literal seclusion, but I think the trip gave me something of what people get out of monasteries and remote cottages.
Only three pieces from that first tour were published, two of them by online-only publications, not the same honor. Subsequent tours have been more successful, if not as spiritually renewing. Late summer 03's Western expedition yielded seven pubs, four of them print. Six items from Cast Off's best-selling 2004 coffee-table book came from my pen, including one, "Pleas stop beeting me," that you may have seen cited in the third paragraph of the New York Times review.
Recently we had a week of heavy snowfall, our heaviest in twenty-five years. Whenever it snows more than a few inches, I bury pieces on lawns and boulevards. Soon the banks of snow, oil, dirt, and piss will melt and reveal my treasures to happy springtime pedestrians.
In a month I leave on what might be my final tour. It will follow, in Deadhead fashion, the itinerary of Cast Off's editor-performers. I will be in the audience each night, stationed whenever possible at the side of the room, or at whatever vantage seems most conducive to gauging the crowd's response, should one of my magnified leavings be used to illustrate human comedy and mystery. I encourage you to nod or smile if you think you see me. I am tall. If I nod or smile in return, or look at you confusedly as if trying to recall our acquaintance, or make some other ambivalent gesture, such as shifting my weight from my left hip to my right hip, or repositioning my purse, you'll know then that it could not be me.
About the author:
Dylan Hicks is a writer and musician from Minneapolis. His fiction, criticism, journalism, and hack work have appeared in Rake, Village Voice, New York Times, City Pages, and elsewhere.