Finding John Updike

And taking his trash.

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The back of John Updike’s White House invitation. (Photographs by Nick Cabrera. View more pieces from The Other John Updike Archive here. Read Francesca Mari’s article on the collection here.)

 

My life is, in a sense, trash, my life is only that of which the residue is my writing.

 –John Updike, Paris Review (1966)

When I lived in Salem, Massachusetts, I used to see John Updike around the area sometimes. In the fall of 2007, I became very interested in meeting him. A mutual friend, a bank industry executive and horse fancier from the English countryside named Prunella, offered to facilitate an introduction. She invited me to a concert at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms, where Updike was a congregant. She knew he would be there.

One of Pru’s friends, who attended the church, once told me that she dared not take communion in proximity to Updike for fear she could become collateral damage when the lightning struck. Updike sat alone a few pews away from where I was surreptitiously staked out. I left before the concert ended and waited like a fox for my rabbit. He came outside within minutes of my departure. I don’t know if Pru had told him about me, but I was surprised when he walked over to where I was standing. He stopped and said hello. We stood awkwardly in the crisp autumn air, former smokers whose conversation might have been lit by the shared social ritual that cigarettes provide. He said that he had left early because he was not feeling well, a persistent chest cold perhaps. It would be the only chance I would ever get to meet him; several months later, his prognosis would be lung cancer.

I had brought something with me for him to sign, and he kindly obliged. I thought this might be a good opportunity to alert the host to its parasite. I had come to the church because there was something I needed to confess. People began to gather as I handed him a card, blank side facing up. I had read that he had a habit of turning over anything he was asked to autograph. He started doing this in the sixties after people had tried to trick him into signing political petitions. I hoped that he would turn the card over, as this would allow me to reveal what I thought he needed to know. He appeared not to notice the feel of the embossed seal touching his fingertips. He wrote “For Paul. Cheers, John Updike” on the back of what was a White House invitation that he’d received years ago. This was just one of the thousands of pieces from what had become my collection (click to view) of his personal effects.

For a collector, the latent mystery embodied in other people’s belongings can ignite a covetous desire—part longing, part fulfillment—of unquantifiable value. In this particular instance, more was at stake than simple egotistical voraciousness. The thrill driving Guerin was not merely that of a collector, but of a savior.

-Lorenza Foschini, Proust’s Overcoat (2010)

My story begins in 2006, on a beautiful New England spring day. I was riding my green touring bicycle to Singing Beach, in Manchester. I took this route almost daily in an attempt to disrupt my downward spiral. I was drinking again. Booze had once given me relief from depression; I just had to navigate with my twisted rudder until I reached the shore of five o’clock. Five o’clock somewhere. But no more. Three trips to detox, graduate school, and many lonely bike rides were pretty much the only interruptions to my drinking schedule. I was sweating out last night’s relapse as the salty sea air blew the saline rivulets that formed upon my stiff upper lip. So how did it fall to me to cravenly capture John Updike’s personal effects? In the words of that controversial literary shaman Carlos Castaneda, I grabbed my “cubic centimeter of chance.”

As I rode along this stretch of historic colonial homes, I spotted John Updike putting out his trash. He was wearing his usual L.L. Bean attire and carrying a blue recycling bin, which he then lowered to the curb. He also had two full trashbags adorned with blue drawstrings. These blue ribbon bags, I learned, were his hallmark, his trash signature. They distinguished his garbage from that of the others who lived within this compound. His neighbors all used bags with red or yellow ties. Biking back later that day, I rolled up to the blue bin to see if I could filch a copy of the New Yorker with Updike’s subscription label as a souvenir, and I was pleased to find exactly that.

Next to the bin, lying out in the open, was a set of colorful leather binders. I picked up a rich-looking red one. It was an honorary degree. There were fourteen of them, all inscribed to him. In the same open bag were more than three thousand perfectly preserved cancelled checks. Some of these checks went back more than fifty years. I could hardly believe my luck.

Next to this painting, scattered about on the pavement, Guerin saw what he realized must have been items from Marcel Proust’s toiletry set, identifying them by their engraved initials. Guerin was well aware that anyone would consider these brushes virtually worthless without the knowledge of whose hair they combed, but knowing to whom these brushes belonged made them virtually priceless.

-Lorenza Foschini, Proust’s Overcoat (2010)

I couldn’t take it all with me on my bicycle, so I pedaled home to Salem to get my car. I rode as fast as my hangover would allow. I sped back to his home and was relieved to see that everything was still there. Another torn trash bag now spilled its contents. The elderly men in their Cadillacs and SUVs had surely ripped the bags open and reached in with their aluminum can–grabbing sticks, looking for supplemental retirement income. All they had found was this junk. Or maybe I should say, this J.U.nk. J.U., now in his seventies, was getting his affairs in order, and these, his most personal effects, were being sent ahead for cremation.

I exploited my newfound treasure for quick cash. I sold ten of the degrees to Thom at the now-defunct Artists and Authors bookstore, in Marblehead. He gave me $1,000. I stepped up my blended whiskey to single malt scotch.

A few days later, I was set back on my heels reading a front-page story in the Boston Globe: “John Updike’s Honorary Degrees Go Up For Sale.”

The story questioned why John Updike would get rid of his honorary degrees and whether commencement awards were losing their academic luster. I had asked Thom to keep our deal on the down low and now here was all of this unwanted attention. Although he denied it, I suspected that the Globe had been alerted by Thom for the attendant publicity for his bookstore. Updike responded with a letter to the Globe, saying that he had intended no disrespect for these awards. Thom said that Mrs. Updike had called and postulated that the degrees must have gotten thrown out when they were housecleaning. He said that she had told him that they were happy to see them go to help support an independent bookstore. Thom had told the Globe that he had acquired the degrees from a rare book dealer. He was, I assume, protecting his source. I feared the article would curb the possibility of any future finds.

I decided to research the market for what I had found. A 1997 autograph reference book at the Salem Library had a single check by John Updike valued at $100. By that measure, I had found a bagful of Benjamins. If that figure was right, I had grabbed $300,000 worth of memorabilia in one haul. I had foolishly sold the degrees for far too little. Thom had priced each one for $750, more than seven times the amount he had paid.

I thought of John Updike. Surely when he dies, somebody will be rifling through his home, looking for things to sell. It was unlikely that his own children, if he had any, would sell his nail clippers, underwear, or ChapStick. But certainly cousins would do this. Nieces and nephews would absolutely offer his pens, unused pads of paper, bookends for sale. Probably other things.

John Updike, legendary American author. For auction: chair cushion, blue toile fabric. Cushion from desk chair, used daily by celebrated author. Distinctive impressions in pillow, from correlating anatomical features of author. Condition is described as “well enjoyed.” Cushion manufactured circa 1940. Believed to be from Sears, Roebuck & Co. This is an authentic piece of Americana, from the personal estate of one of the country’s most famous and widely read authors. Truly a unique collectable. One of a kind. Minimum bid: $3,500.

But that’s what happens when you die. The vultures come. Sometimes even before you die.

-Augusten Burroughs, “Killing John Updike,” Possible Side Effects (2006)

Despite the unwanted attention I went back the following Wednesday around noon. I had to. Just in case. I approached the site with some trepidation. What if the trash police were hiding in the bushes? There were mounds of bags from abutting properties as well as from the more-private domains nestled further back, behind a railroad crossing where the Updikes lived. Instantly, it was apparent to me that the blue-drawstring trash bags held a more cubist bounty than the Claes Oldenburg–shaped bags piled up on this Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I presumed that his bags were filled with objects. I tore one open and was startled to find that along with a collection of autographed books, there were thousands of Kodak slides. I tossed the bags into my Honda Civic and drove off to a secluded spot. With latex gloves and hand sanitizer, I retrieved the contents like a kid with a black plastic Christmas stocking. My hands were shaking from excitement and withdrawal. I was now in possession of John Updike’s life in Kodachrome. I held the slides up to the light, trying to glean something about his existence in miniature. I knew enough about him to realize that he was renown for his visual acuity as well as for his way with words. I purchased a device that uploaded his slides onto my computer. I spent weeks pouring over these images. Here was Updike at a party, at a parade, at the pyramids, in Africa, at a mosque, at a beach, at an art museum, with Kurt Vonnegut or Joyce Carol Oates, and so on. Many of these photographs were beautiful.

I began to feel less manifest shame and more of a sense of manifest destiny. When the newspaper had alerted him to my activity, the gravity of my sin was diminished. And it shifted the onus: it now became incumbent upon him to destroy what he did not want popping up on Ebay. I arranged, as much as possible, any of my commitments around my Wednesday lunchtime pilgrimage.

At the same time, I had the uneasy feeling that I had somehow been conscripted to do this until one of us was dead. I worried that this was becoming another addiction.

Guerin was so moved that tears began to well up and roll down his face. He felt that fate had rewarded him handsomely for his diligence in searching out and seeking to preserve these earthly remains of a literary deity.

-Lorenza Foschini, Proust’s Overcoat (2010)

No matter how hard I tried to spin it, I had the gnawing sense that what I was doing was wrong. I was committing one of the cardinal sins, coveting my neighbor’s trash. I had to stop. But when I missed a pickup, it distressed me more than a dumpster-less dive. What had I lost? It was a feeling as painful as seeing my untouchable status reflected in the eyes of a passing local Brahmin, as I fished through his waste stream. How had I become hostage to this filthy ritual?

I wondered if the items I found were so carefully preserved because it was actually Updike who couldn’t bear to see them destroyed. Very few things were ever torn or damaged. And they continued to appear like regifted presents, packaged with care. A large two-by-three-foot artist proof photograph of Updike would have fit better in the trash if it had been folded or torn. It was, however, placed in its own bag as if to prevent the formation of so much as a crease.

Also intact was one of Updike’s short stories. It was angrily scrawled with his wife’s marginalia. The corrections berated him for mocking the very people with whom they had  been on holiday and for his carnal appreciation of one of the younger women on the trip. Updike was up to his old tricks, fleshing out his own experiences in print and selling them off as purported fiction.

During one of my pickups, an attractive young woman came out of an adjoining home. She got into a small sports car and drove up beside me. I assumed she had used the car to protect herself from me. She told me that she had seen me there repeatedly and would like to know what I was doing. She seemed a bit flustered. I told her the truth. She warmed to the idea and seemed to soften. What had I found? she asked. She said she was a PhD student at Harvard, studying botany. I told her that I had once known a Harvard professor who was one of the world’s leading orchid experts. I didn’t know if he was still alive, but she said, “Of course, I know of Professor Garay!” Often when I returned, she would furtively smile and wave. Mrs. Updike saw me on at least two occasions. She stared for a moment and then continued on her way.

Leslie Morris, the curator of the “official” John Updike Archive at Houghton Library, is quoted in the Atlantic saying that Updike was aware of my activity and “took measures to try and ensure that their trash could not be gone through” and that they were “rather horrified by the idea.” Later, she said she didn’t recall saying this to the Atlantic and that this was something she must have heard from the agent representing Updike’s estate, Andrew Wylie. All I know is that I was there nearly every Wednesday for two and a half years and the Updikes never said anything to me. Nor did they send anyone to say something to me on their behalf. All the while, his things continued to be placed curbside for pickup in pristine condition, and I absconded with my picked up pieces in the broad light of day.

I have received some justifiably harsh criticism for my actions and I am not asking for your approbation, gentle reader. But ask yourself this: What would you do if you had found Warhol’s etchings in the trash? Or Picasso’s? Would you be inclined to respect the wishes of a temperamental artist and let these items go off to the landfill? What about Da Vinci’s trash? Does the passage of time remove the taint of an object’s lowly origin? I knew that, eventually, prestigious institutions would clamor for his things regardless of their icky provenance.

No matter how conflicted I felt about the manner in which I had obtained these objects, I had faith in their inherent worth. Raised a Catholic, I was taught that the Eucharist, a tasteless dry wafer, contained divinity. I was asked to recognize God as present in a base object. Such belief can’t help but prompt a person to consider how unlikely—and how magical—it is that we exist at all. It can be a meaningful ritual regardless of your faith. Who would not benefit from believing that all of creation is holy and that our material lives are worthy of our attention? This was a central theme in Updike’s work as well, “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

And so, as these cherished items continued to fall to me, I extended my damp and unsteady hands to receive them. I had become the catcher on the rye.

Pope Francis confessed Thursday that he took the rosary cross of his late confessor from his casket and wears it to this day in a fabric pouch under his cassock. . . . “And immediately there came to mind the thief we all have inside ourselves, and, while I arranged the flowers, I took the cross and with just a bit of force I removed it,” he said, showing with his hands how he pulled the cross off the rosary. “And in that moment, I looked at him and I said ‘Give me half your mercy. . .”

-NBC News, March 06, 2014

Worried that I might be breaking the law, I consulted a man who works for the FBI about my scatological hobby. He said that trash collecting was perfectly legal. In fact, it was a valuable tool of law enforcement. This meant that its legality was unlikely to be challenged or overturned by the Supreme Court anytime soon. Still, I searched out case law for precedents.

At times I would find nothing but, well, trash. Once, when my abundant harvest lay fallow, I found a rubbing that Updike had made at the wall of a temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Watt. I gave it to my therapist as he had just returned from vacationing there. I asked him if he thought what I was doing was crazy. “Truly crazy people never ask if what they are doing is crazy,” he said, adding that he saw nothing aberrant about my behavior. I asked bartenders and patrons if they thought what I was doing was wrong. They all said no. I’m quite sure some of them said otherwise after I had left the bar. I was told by a few people, that it was more a matter of what I did with these artifacts that determined the morality of my mission. A Manchester bookstore owner who had purchased a barn full of books from Updike said, “You could say that what you’re doing is noble. You are rescuing history.”

I watched my collection grow and develop into a biographical inventory. A time capsule. A Kama Sutra with faded photographs of two different women used as bookmarks. A bit of sophomoric vulgarity from Deliverance author James Dickey. Secret love letters, written in a microscopic scroll and addressed to George Hoyer (Hoyer was Updike’s middle name) at a P.O. box in Georgetown (George in Georgetown, get it?). Here too were his L.L. Bean moccasins, letters from Doris Day, floppy discs, his U.N. press pass, a rosary, and a pair of pink-plaid shorts. His friend Edward Hoagland’s books are here as well. They contain more of Updike’s marginalia than any of the other books that I found.

And then there was this: a sixties hard-core porn paperback. Why, I wondered, would this be in the same assemblage as his religious paraphernalia and a Mickey Mouse flip-book? The story was an Oedipal-themed sex romp whose final climax is with a MILF who just happens to be the narrator’s own mom. The book appeared to be too well-written for the genre of pulp-fiction porn. Had he ghosted it? Did he use it as a manual for writing graphic sexual content? I have no idea. I got rid of it along with the Kama Sutra. I wanted to avoid falling down that rabbit hole.

Let’s face it, I didn’t want to fall any lower than I already had and I hoped—secretly, maybe selfishly—that I could, through Updike’s alchemy, transform myself from this vulture into a cultural phoenix. In college, after all, I had started out as an art major, but I had wrestled with the value of what I was creating and whether it was useful. But with the items I was now collecting, there was no question that they had worth. And when Updike tossed out a galley of The Thing Itself by Richard Todd one Wednesday, I took it as a sign that I was right.

From the moment I flipped it open to the first page, I couldn’t stop reading. This wonderful little book is a series of meditations on art and relics and their indeterminate value. According to Todd, the story of an object is what determines its worth. An item’s value is enhanced primarily by virtue of its history. It was an argument that I had made after last call on more than one occasion.

In the western Pacific, for instance, there is the concept of the Kula, which refers to the way in which objects accumulate value entirely on the basis of who has owned them.  The objects themselves tend to be collections of shells that have little or no intrinsic worth, until they are passed from tribal leader to tribal leader, when they take on the luster of provenance.

-Richard Todd, The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity (2009)

I decided that based upon these ideas, I would transform garbage into art. And so began my online U-seum, The Other John Updike Archive, which displays many of my illicit finds. The central thesis of the blog is that the relic is becoming ascendent at the very moment public interest in art is in decline.

Updike said that the Pop era was the last time that the art world felt so alive. Warhol’s easily replicated Triple Elvis just sold for $82 million at a record-setting Christie’s auction. Cy Twombly’s untitled blackboard painting fetched $69.6 million dollars the same day. Google that and watch your brain explode trying to understand the price of that puerile image. Now try to imagine how much it would be worth without the brilliant marketing campaign and the attachment of a famous artist’s name. Meanwhile, the BBC reported that a South Korean collector paid $2.4 million for a hat worn by Napoleon. The message is clear: it’s the provenance, stupid.

During the summer of 2008 I found printed emails saying that Updike was being checked for possible pneumonia. These were followed by private notifications of potential treatment plans for a lung malignancy. Soon after that came the hospice arrangements. I kept this knowledge to myself. I prayed for Updike. I knew, from one of his discarded letters, that he could not understand how his fellow New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik could be so bolstered by atheism. He could not grasp a well-adjusted man’s contentment with his own impending doom.

“I had my little hand of cards and played them and now I’m folded, I’m through. My husband hates me and I hate him and we don’t even have any money to split up! I’m scared—so scared. And my kids are scared, too. I’m trash and they’re trash and they know it,” [said Pru.]

“Hey, hey,” he has to say. “Come on. Nobody’s trash.”

But even as he says it he knows this is an old-fashioned idea he would have trouble defending. “We’re all trash, really. Without God to lift us up and make us into angels we’re all trash.”

-John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (1990)

At some point in the midst of organizing my archive, I read in the paper that John Updike had died in a hospice in Danvers, Massachusetts. I felt a sense of loss but also relief. I could now finally finish this chapter of my life.

Updike’s wife continued to clean house. I found Updike’s final calendar, marked with appointments for speaking engagements that he didn’t live to attend. I found more of his White House ephemera and a dashiki he had donned while smoking grass and frugging to vinyl. And during my final raid, I found the Lost Ark. Here in my hands were apparently the notes to his final work. It was to be a story based upon the life of Saint Paul and the foundations of Christianity. Updike believed that this once brutal persecutor of Christians had, excuse the expression, nailed it. He wrote of Paul’s calculation regarding religious recruitment and the formation of a new tribe. This would be his last attempt to explain the basis for his Christian faith. According to Harvard University, which maintains his official archive, this work has been embargoed until 2029, the same year that the files on JFK will be opened. Was the estate letting the notes accrue value with time and distance from the life of their creator? Or was it something else?

Most of what others know about Updike comes from his books. He ruthlessly exposed himself and those he knew, yet he was also coy and controlled. He might show a little leg and then quickly recover. Most of what I know about Updike comes from what he deemed unfit for inclusion in his official archive at Harvard. The Updike I know emerged from the thousands of personal photographs he had for so long saved and then curiously discarded, spanning more than seventy years. I found him in his love letters, from the boy and to the man. I found him in the things that still remain too personal for me to share.

Many years after his death, rifling through my bins of Updike’s materials, I feel he is present. Here is Updike in the transcript of one of his television appearances, a supremely eloquent man who  could stammer like a schoolboy. Here is Updike writing voyeuristically of the flesh, even as I found the syringes with which he gave himself routine injections to control his humiliating psoriasis. A man who described himself as “priggish” but could use the pre-feminist version of the word “cunt” in his discarded revisions like some Union Jack–festooned thug. Here are his secret love letters which celebrated the thrill of sexual betrayal in a manner that recalls Hannah Arendt’s line about the banality of evil. Here too are his wife’s shocked notations on his story “Apparition,” about his penetratingly cold descriptions of the people that they knew. Here is Updike’s letter talking about unnerving his mother with an unflattering description of her.

And at some point during the recovery of these things, I began to manage mine. My own mother, who I was living with and caring for during this time, passed away. My drinking receded. I fell in love with a woman and married for the first time. My wife—who incidentally has the same name as Updike’s first wife—and I moved to Texas and started our little business, Maui Wowee Shave Ice. I continue to catalog my Updike findings online, and my musings give me a sense of purpose and relief.

My collecting obsession had become a vocation: T.R.A.S.H. By that I mean Talismans, Relics, Artifacts, Souvenirs, and Heirlooms. In recent months, I have received letters of encouragement and inquiries from scholars who stumble across my website. Where had I gotten these things? The Atlantic wrote a big article and then the Boston Globe. I received a feeler about my collection from a librarian at the University of Pennsylvania. Jim Plath asked if I would like to become an honorary member of the John Updike Society.

I can’t help but feel that in gleaning Updike’s things, I also gleaned a bit of his luck. Perhaps the bacteria that rubbed off on me carried the germ of John Updike’s magic. And so goes the story of the unlikely intersection of two destinies: one, a seemingly charmed life of profound accomplishment, talent, and acclaim; the other, the sorry tale of someone who had lost their way. When the darkness returns, as it inevitably does, I often turn to a yellowing scrap of paper that Updike tossed out with a quote from Fra Giovanni, a fifteenth century friar. The scrap is almost as small as a Chinese fortune cookie message but its impact upon me is large:

There is nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take Heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.

To view photographs of The Other John Updike Archive click here.

Paul Moran (photograph by Nick Cabrera)

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  • Heartflower

    Wow. Very beautifully written. And touching. I am truly stunned. In parts read like a thriller, and in others, a philosophy.

    I do wonder if the man might not have ‘given’ you all the same, and knowingly so, for you to take.

    Good luck to you. May the darkness brill its light onto all of us.