One of the things people like to ask is “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had donated?” I usually murmur something about that rubber squeaky toy in the shape of Michelangelo’s David, but when I’m being honest, I’ll say, “I have no idea.” People like me better when I’m dishonest. That’s always the way.
The problem is that weirdness is so thoroughly in the eye of the beholder. I’ve mentioned the volunteer who was stunned by the title “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance”, which I’ve always thought of as part of the canon of 20th century literature. Who am I to say that somebody else won’t feel that way about my amazement at “Injuries to the Extremities in Military Surgery”?
Right now I’m going through an amazing collection of records, which keeps turning up wonders I’ve just never run into before. To someone else, Eddie Cantor’s plaintive tune “If I Give Up the Saxophone, Would You Come Back to Me?” might be completely mundane. That old 12-inch shellac 78 on which Jean Cocteau reads six poems might be as common as The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to people who have led less poetry-free lives than mine.
I just had a large number of items—records from this collection and documents from another one—dealing with the Civil Rights movement of the 1940s. This is something I was not taught about in my history classes. There’s an entire album of songs for schoolchildren, teaching that being an American calls for racial and religious tolerance, and there’s a folder of documents dealing with a Presidential candidate who was suspected of being a Buddhist. Lemme repeat: this was in the 1940s, not the 1960s. It’s like something fell out of an alternate time-stream science fiction novel into a banana box of books.
Remember last year, when I had the tango record with the label in Yiddish? I need some unit of measurement in weirdness to compare that to a swing record called “62 Ladies in Sea-Green Pajamas”. How many weirdness units would you give a 78 labeled “Comedienne With Orchestra” which turns out to be Ethel Waters backed by Duke Ellington? There are records in this collections by no fewer than five comedians who were big names in the New York cabaret scene in the early 1930s, each labeled “For Home Use Only”. How do they rate, weirdness-wise, against each other or against this record here, which is by a singer whose most amazing claim to fame is that he added 70 new verses to Cole Porter’s immortal song, “Let’s Do It”?
I had a copy of Gone With the Wind come in once with four tissues taped inside the back, with a note that these were the ones the owner cried into while watching the movie. Is that weirder than this instructional two-record set called “Old-Time Acting Styles?” Or this album which teaches you ventriloquism? (I could’ve been a great ventriloquist on a record; no one ever gave me the break I needed.)
What WAS the weirdest thing I ever had come in? That bag where the lady had kept every free food sample she’d been offered on the streets of Chicago for six years? The needlepoint divorce announcement? The name badge for the convention of the Association for Gravestone Studies? The videotape of two people driving down the road discussing Gary Hart’s presidential run? Maybe it was the banana box of romances that had not a single book about vampires in it. Or the player piano that had been painted pink.
I’ll work on the question and get back to you, but really, it’s hopeless. It just occurred to me that if the question is about the ‘weirdest thing that ever came in”, why, the customers and donors would qualify. And maybe it’s really the person who BOUGHT the rubber queaky toy of Michelangelo’s David we should be talking about.