If these walls could talk

Moving in to a new place is always a complicated experience. Between the frenzy of moving and lifting and shifting boxes, the complex questions of furniture placement, and the frayed exhaustion that begins to set in at the mere thought of the sheer amount of work to be done, it’s not an experience I ever enjoy. And I hate packing—probably because everything is such a mess for so long before everything is finally packed (or unpacked), but maybe because I just don’t like too much change.

Still, there’s something exciting about the whole process. Whether it’s an office, a classroom, or an apartment, moving to a new place is an opportunity to make it yours—to put your own personal touch on a space, large or small, that was formerly generic or (worse) belonged to someone else.

Then again, while it can be rewarding to make your mark in a new place, it often turns out that a prior owner has left marks of his or her own—some of them indelible.

Already in the past few days, I have made a few interesting discoveries in my own new home. For instance, in the sitting room, there is a very long, very deep gash in the wood floor. I’m really not sure what could have done it, but it looks dark and old—as though it has been varnished and revarnished since sometime during the Eisenhower administration. Perhaps someone wearing particularly penetrating heels engaged in a seriously hazardous dance move in the midst of a debaucherous party fifty years ago. Or perhaps someone simply dragged a heavy trunk with sharp metal corners across the floor.

Then, in the bathroom, there are some curious marks near the toilet. Never fear—no lewd or unsavory remarks here. It’s just that the toilet is quite close to the facing wall, and at roughly knee level (seated, of course) there are a number of what appear to be stray marks from highlighters and pens. It must be that someone holed up and did a great deal of studying there. And what can I say? I suppose we’ve all had days like that.

Whenever you find yourself in a space that was previously used, take the time to look for subtle physical evidence of the past. Even leftover nails in the wall can make you wonder what hung there before. And while many physical marks may be fairly easily interpreted, some are more difficult to fathom.

For example, take the Q-tip I found this morning, wedged into a random corner of the bathroom window, inside the window frame. I have no earthly idea how that got there—or why. Did previous residents engage in a furious Q-tip-throwing extravaganza and one of them just happened to land inside the windowsill? Perhaps I’ll find more in random places throughout the year. Or perhaps a previous resident was just extraordinarily messy and things were always turning up in odd places. I’m sure there’s no extremely interesting reason for the Q-tip’s sudden appearance on my windowsill this morning, but imagining is always fun. Who knows? Maybe one day it was just raining cats and Q-tips.

If these walls could talk, who knows what kind of stories they might tell?

Given the unfortunate fact that the walls where I live happen to be very thin, I’m already anticipating that they’ll do more talking than I’d like. I expect that I’ll end up learning quite a bit about my neighbors just by living next door to them. But that’s the present; I’m talking about the past.

Living in a fairly old building as I do (and long have), it’s almost impossible to escape the desire to know what went on in here before I arrived. The students who previously inhabited my college dorm rooms went on to all walks of life. Some vanished into obscurity, while some became household names. When I was a firstyear college student, one of my good friends lived in a room formerly occupied by a young Robert Lincoln, son of the president.

Of course, even at that age, Lincoln was important because of his father, but Thoreau and Emerson, who lived in the next building over, were not. Those were men who made a name for themselves later, and the places they lived did not become noteworthy until long after they had left.

This is always a great curiosity to me: how can something acquire a significance based on subsequent events that occurred entirely elsewhere? Why do music enthusiasts flock frenziedly to the suite of rooms in which Mozart was born? For so many years, there was nothing special about that room, but renewed appreciations for Mozart’s work made it so.

Meanwhile, the Upper West Side apartment where Barack Obama lived while a student at Columbia University was going for a cool $1,900 per month as of June 2010—really not a bad price for a one-bedroom in New York. (Maybe the rent will rise or fall with Mr. Obama’s job approval rating, though only time will tell.)

I suppose this is ultimately a complex philosophical question of why cultures ascribe importance to certain sites and locations based on historical developments, and the same could (and has) been wondered about art. The average price of a toothbrush might be $1.49, but that number would quickly skyrocket if we were to learn that the toothbrush belonged to Picasso. And yet the object remains the same. So, too, with a painting: until it is determined to be the work of “someone,” it is worth little, and art forgery remains a serious crime. Oddly, while nothing about the painting changes other than its history, the documented touch of the master drastically changes its worth.

And so, before I launch myself into the stratosphere of meandering musings, I’ll leave you with this: while few of us will leave our marks on history to the extent of a Lincoln or a Picasso, all of us leave traces of our presence everywhere we go. I may not know who lived here before me, but I know that someone did.

In light of this, ask yourself: if these walls really could talk, what would they say about you?

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