Excavation #6: Dog Tags

In Pittsburgh on June 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world.  Photograph of potted plants made out of construction debris, called “Construction as Canvas,” created by the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

I found the dog tags on a sidewalk. There were two, joined with a beaded chain, and I stuffed them into the pocket of my army-jacket. I couldn’t even read the text etched into their metal. But I kept them for years.

Those first months I walked around Pittsburgh, I found all kinds of stuff on the ground—a hand-written letter, a photograph with burned edges, a bullet casing, a toy soldier, an odd sign. They all seemed significant, in those early days. The flotsam of past lives. Sometimes I picked them up and pocketed them. Other times I invested only a casual glance and moved on.

As the years passed, I collected more significant artifacts. When my college renovated their dormitories, I pulled an entire mattress out of a dumpster. With Fred’s help, we carried this mattress three miles through the inner city, and I slept on it for three years. When I needed a coffee table, I salvaged one from the sidewalk. When Bill spotted a chaise-lounge while driving along, we turned around and negotiated with a woman in the sidewalk—she had noticed the same furniture, and after some discussion, she decided to let Bill have it. We thanked her, stuffed the chaise-lounge into his hatchback, and drove off.

I was an adult now, and I could wander where I liked. I no longer required museum ruins or professional photographs to experience exotic places. I could find them between buildings, behind warehouses, along railroad tracks. Pittsburgh was a rainy city, its neighborhoods empty and ripe for exploration. I found entire murals painted beneath bridges. I could climb from one rooftop to another and never know who lived beneath them. At long last I was exploring, finding the city’s alcoves and garrets without caution or curfew. I shed most of what I found. The coffee table eventually returned to the sidewalk for another broke young writer to inherit. The mattress found itself back in a dumpster, this time for good. The dog tags disappeared to the bottom of a packing crate, or maybe they fell between cracks. But they had their moments of revival. For some years, they found new significance. People wondered about them. And in these minuscule ways, I learned the city inside and out.


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