January 31, 2016

Erasing History


In the late Eighties and early Nineties, I got into kind of a habit whenever I moved to a new city. Before heading off to Minneapolis or Philly or Brooklyn or wherever, before locking up the old apartment for the last time, I would do my best to deliberately and consciously destroy any evidence at all I had ever been there. I shredded, burned, or just bagged up and tossed all my personal correspondence, phone bills, medical records, bank statements, anything at all that could provide any proof I had been there at all at that particular moment in history. Needless to say, I also never, ever left a forwarding address with the post office. Back in those pre-Internet days, this was much easier to do, considering the paper trails we left behind really were paper trails. It was an act of simple, nihilistic youthful hubris, undertaken as a stab at cheap melodramatic mysteriosity. Full of big ideas in my late teens and early twenties, I had somehow reached the silly conclusion someone down the line would give a good goddamn where and how I was living at some particular time, and by destroying all those records I was convinced I was giving them the ol’ B. Traven runaround. It was futile, of course, but it made me feel good. Stupidest thing of all, at the time I had absolutely no proof (let alone the vaguest hint) anyone down the pike would give a toss about my youthful comings and goings after I died.

            The early newspaper days at the Welcomat and New York Press, in an odd way, were merely an extension of this idea. What I was publishing was very autobiographical and very public, but in those fanciful days before everything was posted online forever, newspaper stories were eternally disposable. Each week was a new beginning, a new story that would hit the streets, be thrown away and forgotten a day or two later, only to be replaced by whatever was written the next week, which itself would be forgotten almost immediately. I didn’t have to go to the effort of erasing my past, as my chosen field itself did it for me. All was still going according to plan, and I was still a Man With No Past, a mere shadow drifting across pages and disappearing again.

            Over time, though, especially after the books started coming out, things changed. It was still stupid hubris, but from a different angle. The books and Internet content, unlike the newspapers, weren’t nearly so disposable. These things were out there now, and they were sticking around. Even if the books went out of print (which some of them did faster than you can spit), they were still out there and people could still find them if they looked hard enough. As with everything and everyone, it became nearly impossible to erase the past  (though ironically everyone seemed to be forgetting it anyway). Maybe realizing this, I finally started keeping things instead of throwing them away.

            Now instead of trying to thwart anyone down the line who might want to find out what I’d been doing and where and how I’d been doing it, I was keeping complete records of my publishing history—early drafts of books, editorial notes, copy-edited proofs, correspondence, different proposed cover designs, everything. At the time the entire publishing industry still conducted all its business on paper, so it left me with crates and crates worth of detailed material. It was the Knipfel Archives, the thinking went, and would be of invaluable use to someone somewhere who wanted to do an in-depth study of my collected works, see?

            Yes, it was foolishness, just more useless hubris to think anyone would ever care, but there you go. The ironic thing is, as meticulous as my personal literary archives were, my other files—all those things I used to shred or burn in an effort to become invisible—were a complete mess. A couple of closet shelves in my office were jammed with file folders exploding with haphazardly collected bank statements, tax returns, medical records, credit card bills, contracts, all the supposedly important and necessary flotsam of adult life, most of it going back way too far. When I first started using the folders I think I was pretty good about getting the right files in the right place. In recent years, though, things became a bit more random. Whatever folder my hand landed on first was good enough for me.

            Taking note of this, Morgan suggested a little file cabinet might be in order, rather than leaving everything teetering precariously there on the shelves. Now that we were married and everything and our individual records were becoming intertwined, it might be useful, just for efficiency’s sake.

            Actually her first notion was to use the file cabinet to organize and store the archives, just so we could get rid of all those crates and clear a little space. But when she mentioned this I had two ideas. First, it made a hell of a lot more sense to use the cabinet for the real records and tax returns and the like, just to be ready when the feds show up on the doorstep.

            I also got to thinking about the archives again. I hadn’t thought about them in years, couldn’t make any use of them any more even if I wanted to, and seriously doubted anyone else would have any use for them either. I mean, who the fuck was I kidding? I wasn’t exactly James Thurber or Nelson Algren, despite what I may have once hoped. I wasn’t even Marty Matz, for godsakes, and that’s really saying something. So what the hell good were they? Just another waste of space when I’d been striving to live as sparely as possible.

            So I bagged them all up and tossed them, this time without the fear anyone would be digging them up to glean any personal information. If someone wanted a printout of that first (and pretty good, I must say) draft of Noogie’s Time to Shine, the one that was so radically different from the final published book, well, it was theirs. If they wanted to dig through about three hundred pounds of paper to find it, that is.

            So I guess I’m back to the beginning again, as with everything everywhere eventually. Apart from all the crap that’s online, my life previous to that simply no longer exists in any official form. And I gotta say it feels pretty good.


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