I recently took a bus from Boston to New York. I was returning from a work-related trip trying to get some documents for a worker’s permit in proper order, and for a brief second I thought I might try to bring a postcard back for a friend of mine who is kinda into that stuff. Postcards are wholesome. They remind me of maple syrup and of Granny Kline’s Midwestern insistence on paying each great-grandchild two whole dollars on their birthday. I like the little notes that I get from friends who send me Gudetama postcards from Japan, or lesbian pulp postcards from small town Wisconsin. But when I sat down in South Station across from the vendor trying to hawk Harvard sweatshirts on every passerby to write my friend a note, I found that I couldn’t really think of anything to say. I couldn’t quite seem to make the souvenir into a gift.
Let’s be clear. A gift is different from a souvenir. A souvenir can be a gift, and a gift can be a souvenir, but the overlap here is the first ripple of a devastating slap in the face; contrary to the very definition of the word “souvenir,” giving a souvenir as a gift is a surefire way to tell someone that you weren’t thinking about them at all. A souvenir, a memento…it’s a physical placeholder for your memories of a specific time and place. A conduit through which you can attempt to remember and recollect your experiences, like that time you went to China and took a toboggan down the Great Wall for only sixty yuan, or that time you went to London for the 2012 Olympics and had a brief but passionate fling with a horse jockey whose day job is working as a car mechanic in Manchester. A paperweight and a poor man’s bookend. A weak contender against the waves of Funko Pop! figurines that simply will not die.
Mass-produced souvenirs do little to aid in the act of recollection. The writer Stendhal once wrote of his attempts to recollect marching with the French army through the Alps during the Napoleonic Wars, and recounted a splendid view of the valley before him — only to discover that the image of the valley in his mind actually came straight from a commemorative engraving he had purchased during his travels. When I think of Mt. Rushmore, which I have been to multiple times (not by choice), the first thing that comes to my mind is not the texture of those ruined, sacred mountains, nor of the goats that you can occasionally see on the outcrop of Roosevelt’s nose. Usually I think of a fridge magnet one of my relatives had, squished between a magnet from a trip to Puerto Rico and an inexplicably crayonized Sonic the Hedgehog magnet that probably came out of a cereal box. I guess, in a way, these corrupted conduits of memory kind of feel like they’ve been turned from animals into robots by an angry scientist who just wants to collect some chaos emeralds.
Giving your mother a Statue of Liberty figurine that you got in the Port Authority Bus Terminal Hudson News/Dunkin’ (Donuts? Is it still kosher to say that? Mommy, I’m afraid of change!) is worse than never calling her. Never calling her demonstrates that you don’t think about her. Getting her an item that can really only be used as a gourmet Monopoly game piece shows her that you know that she exists and is another person — you just don’t think about who that person is to the point of actively erasing the context in which they exist in your life. Unless your mom is a weirdo who collects Statue of Liberty figurines. Like, collects them. Then, by all means, buy her like fifty of them.
The effect of gifting a mass-produced souvenir to someone without taking them into account is a bit more devastating than if you simply (and lazily) fed into their hobby of collecting Tinkerbell dolls, blankets, lamps, wallets, bags, jean jackets from Walmart, rugs, slippers, necklaces, necklaces again, nose rings, DVD collections, “Embrace the Magic” rings, notebooks, light-up wands, Tinkerbell Precious Moments Figurine, Tinkerbell Emoji water bottle, Tinkerbell signet ring by Jostens, Tinkerbell Jeweled Figurine by Arribas Brothers, Tinkerbell Ferrari paint job, Tinkerbell Nuclear warh — No, Mom, I’m not buying that off Amazon, they just did a really shitty thing to their employees and I think we should boycott them again. Yes, I know that my groceries will be delivered on this date and time to this address, yes, I did see The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and I thought it was a very funny show. My friend ran into Michael Zegen at a bar downtown once and apparently he’s more handsome in person. Okay, Mom, I’ll call Aunt Gillian some time this weekend and wish Tommy a happy tenth birthday. I hated changing his diapers while you and Aunt Gillian went to the Sturgis Motorcycle rally. I can’t believe he’s already in fifth grade. Take pictures of him and Joey together so that I can show my friends how tall my little brother is, no one believes me. Yes, I miss you, too. Tell everyone I said hi. I’ve got to go, I have a thing to go to in like fifteen minutes. Yes, I’ll call you again on Sunday, like always. I’m wearing a coat right now, don’t worry. Okay. Okay. Sure. Love you, bye.
Mass-produced mementos present an idealization of the modern world to the people born into it, who grow up in the context of pervasive capitalism and then have to choose between continuing to live in that context or trying to escape from it. I worry about the manipulative aspects of attaching nostalgia to a Las Vegas keychain, not because kitsch and camp are inherently evil, but because of the impersonal coolness with which these spermatozoan Mnemosynes are given license to prey on the ways in which we take the ephemeral moments of our lives and tell stories about them. Statue of Liberty figurines infest the vision behind my eyes when I try to go to sleep, and at the tiny bases of these statuettes I see stacks of DVD cases for the moderately decent 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow. I see Times Square Elmos huddled with their backs to the cold outside one of the subway entrances on 42nd and 7th, the tiny people inside them who need money to live mutinying against the instinct that tells them to eject themselves from the tattered red fur and leave the Not-Muppet skin to rot on the dirty street of that bright, bright hellhole. Those figurines don’t give me the image of Therese Patricia Okoumou climbing up the statue, defiant and surrounded, protesting the injustices that have been present in the legal, social, and economic fabric of this country from the very beginning.
Those statues can’t be climbed up, nor toppled. They can only be made, bought, sold, cheaply given as afterthoughts. They’re just constant reminders of what you know this country really is, which is something that doesn’t, that has never, had you in mind. This country? It knows you exist. But for some reason, when it was going through the Port Authority Bus Terminal Hudson News/Dunkin’ getting an iced coffee, it suddenly remembered that it hadn’t gotten you a birthday/Christmas present (you’re a Capricorn sun, Taurus moon, Virgo rising! A triple threat! You have a knack for organization and you work an office job at a nonprofit and volunteer on the weekends with an organization that helps feed the elderly. Go you!), and decided that to save face for erasing the context of your experiences together, it would get you a shitty Statue of Liberty figurine and send it to you for the holidays before going to a comedy show and heckling the only female comedian performing that night.
I lied about the postcard. Kinda sorta. I didn’t buy a postcard when I was in South Station recently. I bought one two years ago, a sort of 80s number with the Boston skyline at night and the place name teased up in teal and violet, with fun yellow accents. I bought this postcard with the intention to send it to one of my friends, because he had sent me a postcard and I felt like I should reciprocate the act. And when I sat down to write, I did think of things to say, but they were empty things, because neither of us had been to Boston until my trip there, and because I was actually a bit angry with him. So the note read something like, “Hi there Elliott! It was nice to get your postcard from Paraguay. I’m surprised you managed to get my mailing address. I hope it’s cool down there, isn’t Paraguay the place where the president decided that he didn’t want to live in the presidential palace? Pretty fuckin’ revolutionary, amirite? As you can probably tell from the front of the postcard I’m sending you, I’m in Boston!!!! I found a cactus growing in an urban garden near Chinatown. I don’t like it here. I haven’t heard from you in like three years. How come you never reached out? What’s the deal with how you didn’t stick up for me when we had that argument with Dan and Sam C. and Jean-Baptiste? How come you left so soon even though all we wanted to do was be there for you? When you left you left everything behind and we had to clean up all your shit so that a new person could move in. Your old sweater that shrank in the dryer that we laughed at until we cried because it made you look like a three year old about to start pre-K on the Upper East Side. Your guitar, my God you wanted to be Jeff Buckley so bad but you fucking left it there. Your books, your cell phone. Your cell phone had a cracked screen.”
And then I ran out of room on the postcard.
I ran out of room on the postcard and decided against sending it, because I couldn’t express what I wanted to say with a Boston postcard. Maybe I could if it was a postcard from Barcelona or Prague, or even somewhere exotic, like Missoula. Boston? That would give him the idea that I worked a desk job as an admissions counselor for a private high school whose main worry was telling seniors that people who graduate from Emerson with a degree in Theatre actually end up working mostly in performing arts centers for schools like Oberlin, where puppet theatre is all the rage.
I could go on about my love-hate relationship with puppet theatre for days, but I won’t. Elliott, if you’re out there and you read this, I’m sorry I never sent you that postcard, or a letter of some sort. I got really busy with life. I was actually in Boston recently trying to take care of some paperwork so that I could move to China. After you went away I actually went to China. I went to China, and France, and Spain, and Ireland, and Pennsylvania. I climbed a lot of mountains, and now my knees hate me and I have arthritis at the age of twenty-three, but I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen so much. I’ve seen the ruins of a tourist-trap Yunnanese town on the Tibetan border after it burned down because someone left an iron running or forgot to unplug a hairdryer. I’ve seen a the corpse of a dead sheep floating in a shallow creek in the Pyrenees. I’ve seen someone get their genitals pierced in an Amish part of Ohio on a manic dare.
How can I tell you all the things I’ve seen in just a postcard? I’d need all the Boston postcards in the world to tell you all the things I’ve seen. Tobin Family of Boston Souvenir Distributors, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for what I said about souvenirs essentially being arsenic and poisoning nostalgia, and not just because I’m secretly hoping to receive a free lifetime supply of Boston postcards. See, part of me wonders, about postcards and about Statue of Liberty figurines, part of me wonders, “What if I sound too much like Banksy for criticizing mass-produced mementos? Will I ever get around to actually reading David Foster Wallace or will people just keep recommending that I read him until finally I snap, buy an entire tank of lobsters at the grocery store, and set them loose on every creative writing student in the Hudson Valley? What if the easiest way to get people to think about their memories in a critical but altruistic way is to write them endless postcards and send them pint-sized Lady Liberty’s for holidays like Easter or Memorial Day or Sukkot? After all, nothing says, ‘Hey, you’re part of something more than just yourself and your version of how you experience things,’ than ‘I was at the airport in Dallas and thought it would be funny if I got you a fridge magnet in the shape of a cowboy boot that reads DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS on it,’ right?”
The truth is, getting that postcard a couple of years ago caught me off guard. It made me angry because, up to that point, I hadn’t really realized that my words and actions actually had a consequence. I mean, I obviously knew that I couldn’t just go into the Burger King on Hamilton Parkway and tell them that I needed all of their chicken tenders for the ghosts across the street, but, I hadn’t realized that I could be remembered. And that scared me, to think that someone else had an image of me that didn’t line up with my own image of myself. If I loved someone and told them that, verbally or nonverbally, they would know that I felt that way about them and they would have their own experience of my love for them. They would have their own words for my love, and those words might not be, “I love you, too.”
And it did feel like a slap in the face, a little bit dissociative, to receive a souvenir. An object of remembrance. As if I’d been caught in the act of forgetting, when really I have been wishing to be forgotten. As if suddenly I’d been re-exposed as someone’s friend, someone else’s lover, someone else’s child, when I wasn’t quite sure on the finer details of all these things, and wasn’t quite sure how I got to be in these situations. To have my friendship with Elliott, who had not reached out to me in three years, attached inexplicably to an object that could not properly convey the context of that friendship or its history, irked me in such a way that I actively put the postcards out of my mind for two whole years.
Until it came time to sort through my things, when I accepted this offer to move to China. In the bottom of one of the six plastic crates that, at that time, housed everything in the world that verifiably belonged to me, except for the stolen Vermeer that I have tucked away in a Scottish graveyard because I’m holding it for ransom so that I can pay off my student loan debt, I found that old Boston postcard from two years ago. And I remembered all of the good times I had with Elliott, and some of the bad ones, too. And I picked the postcard up and threw it away, and sat down to write a letter.