I don't know if I want my office to end up as a repository. It looks like one already: messy, with file folders and notebooks and letters scattered everywhere. Piles of newspaper have found their angle of repose, an uneasy equilibrium on floor and countertop.
But like most journalists, I'm an archival kind of guy, and so when Ruth Diver of Alexandria called and asked if she could send me something that she had collected and was on the verge of throwing out, I said yes. It came last week, in a little box that once had held stationery.
Inside were 160 3-by-5 index cards. Each was a record of a mild obsession that Ruth had cultivated for more than a decade.
It started when a niece in Indiana was involved in a traffic accident while driving with her young son. The two survived, but the niece went through a difficult recuperation that Ruth was determined to cheer up.
She did it by jotting down the vanity license plates and amusing bumper stickers that she saw while driving. When she got home, she would roll two index cards, a slip of carbon paper nestled between them, into her typewriter and type out her findings. She would mail a copy to her niece and keep one for herself.
Ruth's pile of cards is a snapshot of how we view ourselves, articulated through the unforgiving medium of the license plate.
There's what we do: CLOK DOC, DOG WLKR, AVON LDY.
What we drive: HOT ROD, GR8 WGN, FAST TOY.
How we play: GO SURFN, 36 HOLE, LUV2RCK, LUV2SEW.
Where we come from: NU JOIZY, NY BRAT 2.
Our self-perception: 2 FOXY, SO VAIN, FUNLUVN, PAMPURD.
Our perception of others: YOR BAD, RU SOBER.
We may never know the significance of some of the plates: SPINE (a chiropractor?), HED2TOE (a masseuse?), SAW LAW (an attorney specializing in tree surgery malpractice?).
I'll keep the cards safe until some graduate student studying the American automotive culture of the late 20th century needs material.
The box of index cards is on a shelf in my office, next to a Washington guidebook from the 1950s that came from James B. Wantland of Silver Spring. He had seen my column about old guidebooks.
"I found it among my late wife's things and have never been able to decide what to do with it," James wrote. "I couldn't quite bear to throw it out. Feel free to do with it whatever you want; I'm just glad to have someone else see it."
Then there's Richard Miller of Staunton, Va., who collects the slogans inside fortune cookies. He e-mailed me a list he's been compiling.
The three dozen fortunes are mainly of the inspirational variety, designed to get you thinking as you digest your moo goo gai pan or General Tso's chicken. "Don't be afraid to take that big step." "Nothing in the world is accomplished without passion." "Honesty and integrity are some of the best attributes."
My favorite is this one: "Your ability to find the silly in the serious will take you far."
"We have one of the world's most unique yard sales," Dianne Bodeen told me last weekend.
It was hard to argue. Dianne is in charge of the "art corner" at the State Department Bookfair, which for 44 years has raised money for a group known today as the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide.
Around us were wood carvings from Africa, decorated gourds from South America, lacquered spoons from Russia. Indonesian shadow puppets rested near brass tea sets. A sweater from Ecuador could be had for $30, a long orange and black zip-up shirt from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, for $60.
"We had quite a lot of Dutch sabots yesterday," said Lesley Dorman, who was showing me around.
Another Foreign Service spouse, Beryl Blacka, picked up a curved metal container. "Isn't this an Afghan beggar's bowl?"
"I think it is," said Lesley.
The items -- along with used books and collectible stamps -- come from all sorts of sources, not just State Department families. But there's an unmistakably exotic feel to the selection. Where else are you going to find "Memoirs of King Abdullah of Trans Jordan" or "Polish Orders, Medals, Badges and Insignia: Military and Civilian Decorations 1705-1985" by one Zdzislaw P. Wesolowski?
That the sale happens at all -- it's open to the public, right in the heart of the State Department building at 21st and C NW -- is amazing. And, indeed, after Sept. 11, 2001, it looked as if the tradition might end.
"It was the secretary of state who decided we would have it," said the group's Mette Beecroft. "He knew that people had been working hard." (Colin L. Powell himself stopped by to browse last week after his wife, Alma, officially opened the sale. Sources told me he looked only at the political books.)
Money from the sale goes to scholarships for Foreign Service kids as well to raise funds for D.C.-based charities. (The sale continues Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 202-223-5796.)
I wanted to ask Dianne about a weird wooden thing I'd seen. It was about 10 inches long and looked like a nubby grappling hook made from a tree root. Someone said it might have been used for making chocolate milk in Central America, but it was marked "Sweden."
When I went back to look again, it was gone, presumably sold to someone who knew exactly what it was and had been looking for one for years.
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