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  • Emmett Grogan

The Museum of Garbage


I hadn’t heard from Booger in almost fifteen years when he called me up out of the blue, just after midnight on a Thursday: how he got my home phone number in Toronto, I don’t know.


We had worked together for a couple of summers at Kochan’s Grocery in Nipigon, as stock boys. By the time I left town, Booger was a hard-core alcoholic, living in a van underneath the Nipigon River Bridge, bagging groceries between drinking binges. That couldn’t have lasted too long, not in a small town, not even as a high school drop-out with a withered arm.


One day he’d just rolled over in bed, and found his left arm had gone dead.


That was Thanksgiving, 1989: he never finished grade thirteen with the rest of us.


Before he went off the deep end, we’d had some good times together. He was an artist. He painted abstract figures. His heritage was Japanese-Ukrainian, but his canvasses could have passed for Native Canadian, influenced by Norval Morrisseau. I suppose that’s why I agreed to meet him, curious if he still painted ‘woodland’ art. He’d had a real talent for colours, back then.


But mostly I was curious if he still drank, or had graduated to pills. He had always been a burn-out, even in grade school. The guy’s nickname was Plutoman, before we started calling him Booger in high school. He was the type of kid, he came to school an hour late the first week after the clocks sprang forward each March, every single day. And he lived right across the street from St. Mary’s: how did he not hear the school bell, even while watching Bozo the Clown on WGN?


Booger had a collection of fine artwork he’d inherited from his grandparents: that was the reason for his late-night phone call, plain and simple. He needed my help selling the stuff.


Most of the artwork had been brought over from Japan, pre-World War I folk art. It had been confiscated from his grandparents during World War II, then returned in the 1950s. Booger told me there were thousands of pieces in storage: calligraphy; paintings; sculptures; even masks, body armour, and samurai swords; material from the 16th century right up to the early 1900s.


That was a little out of my area of expertise, but still interesting to look at, if true.


Despite the midnight phone call, I was excited to see the guy, talk about old times.


He met me at the airport in Thunder Bay, Ontario: I was on my way to Sioux Lookout on business, hoping to represent a young native artist whose work I’d recently discovered, but I took the opportunity to schedule a three-hour layover in Thunder Bay, before continuing west.


Booger was nursing a tea from Robin’s Donuts when I stuck out my hand to greet him.


“Hey, Boogs: long time, no see. How you doing? Thanks for inviting me up here.”


His left arm was in a sling strapped to his chest, fingers all curled up. He braced himself with his right hand on the table as he stood to welcome me, looking incredibly tired.


“Grow-gan,” he’d been sitting in a fog. “Wow: you’re really here. Thanks for coming.”


“No problem: anything for an old friend. We had some good times together, back in the day. Do you remember that morning Pear took the shit the janitor had to lift out of the toilet and bury behind the high school with a shovel? Did they ever figure out who stole the flag?”


“Yeah,” he hesitated, “I don’t think about the past so much anymore. I’m focussed on the day-to-day, just getting by. I’ve got enough problems, as it is.”


“Well,” I glanced around the airport cafeteria, “I’ve got three hours until my next flight, so let’s get started. We can talk in the car. Where are you parked? Are we meeting anyone else?”


“I don’t have a car; I took a cab to get here. We can grab another cab outside.”


In the taxi, we made small talk, without wallowing in the past. Then I slipped up.


“So…are you still working at Kochan’s?”


I don’t know why I asked about that.


“Nah…I left the grocery business quite some time ago.”


“What happened?” I couldn’t help myself, staring at his baby arm.


“Ah, Old Man Kochan brought in a couple of clients from the Life Skills program as a cost-cutting measure during the recession. You remember the Puzzle Factory, on Eighth Street? Turk Morgan arranged the funding from the government. This was years before cashiers bagged the groceries themselves. They couldn’t replace me with a machine, so the store had to get free labour. But I don’t blame Turk. He was just doing his job.”


“Turk still works for Old Man Kochan?” I had quit Kochan’s long before Turk got hired.


“Last I heard. I haven’t been down to Nipigon since before Christmas.”


“You living in Thunder Bay, now?” I asked, genuinely concerned about his well-being.


“Yep. Here we are now,” he gestured out the window of the cab, “This is the place.”


The storage facility had a sign that read NO DRUGS, NO ALCOHOL, NO SMOKING, NO PETS. I thought that was kind of unusual, but I didn’t say anything as Booger buzzed us into the compound. As we hiked past the main office, I noticed the snack vending machine out in the parking lot, beside the payphone and newspaper boxes, just like in a motel courtyard.


At the far end of the lot, Booger took a set of keys out of his pocket, and proceeded to unlock the padlocks on three separate storage units. Before he rolled up the first gate, he turned to me and explained: “I have a pile of money tied up in this collection, but my parents gave me an ultimatum: either auction off a few of the pieces to finance storing the rest, or just get rid of the entire lot. My grandparents willed this collection to me because they always wanted me to be an artist. But it costs $240 a month to store this stuff, so the rubber has hit the road.”


Right up until that moment, I was flattered that Booger had turned to me, asking for my help as an experienced art dealer. Maybe we weren’t going to sit around talking about Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the other formative experiences of our childhood in Northwestern Ontario, but at least the guy trusted my judgment. He just wanted my opinion about the best path forward for unlocking some value from his grandparents’ estate. We could reminisce about old times on another day. The clock was ticking, that afternoon.


But then I stepped into the first storage locker, and had my heart broken.


Booger had completely misrepresented the contents of all three storage lockers.


It was a bunch of crap. There were frames without canvasses, and canvasses covered in finger-paint. There was thrift shop junk, and artwork that had obviously been scavenged from the dumpster out behind a furniture store. Some of it was paint-by-numbers, but none of it was more than 50 years old. I’m not talking clowns-on-velvet; I’m talking imitation clowns-on-velvet, like something the volunteers would throw away at the end of a church sale, rather than put in storage for the next fundraiser. And most of it was damaged: covered in bird-droppings (how?), cobwebs and mould, not stored properly; never stored properly. It was the type of rubbish a hoarder would have collected; a lifetime spent finding garbage on the sidewalk, and taking it home for free.


I could believe that at some point Booger’s grandparents had owned a nice collection of original Japanese folk art, brought over from the old country, but the likeliest scenario was, after the government confiscated the material during World War II, they never returned it to Booger’s grandparents. And so, Booger’s grandparents had spent their remaining years replacing their lost collection with street trash, just picking up whatever they could get their hands on: a very strange hobby, right up there with collecting books and magazines discarded by the public library.


Booger thought the collection worth a lot of cash, but the material was actually draining money out of his parents’ pockets. Over the last decade, they had spent more than $30000 storing garbage that should have been tossed out, the day they found out about the storage lockers. Even Booger’s grandparents must have known, on some level, that the stuff was worthless.


But how could Booger have been so delusional? Was he an idiot?


Maybe he had never really bothered to go through the stuff, preferring the family legend: the fantastic stories he would have heard growing up around his grandparents; their stories about the priceless collection of artwork he would one day inherit, just sitting in a storage locker.


“Jesus, Booger: when’s the last time you were here?” I picked up a samurai sword with a broken blade: the hilt of the sword was coming unbraided, but a MADE IN INDONESIA sticker was still attached to the remaining threads of ribbon glued to the bamboo grip.


“What do you mean? I was here just this morning,” Booger looked spooked.


That’s when I spotted the cot in the corner of the third unit.


There was a TV and VCR plugged into a power bar attached to a bright green extension cord, beside a space heater, a bar fridge, a microwave oven, and a coffee-maker: all the comforts of home. But what really knocked me for a loop was the set of nunchucks, underneath his pillow.


When I turned around, there was a dwarf in a Vikings toque, on a golf cart, smiling at me.


“Heya, Booger: who’s this?” the kid wore mirrored sunglasses, and a Minnesota football jersey that fit him like a nightgown, underneath his NFL warm-up jacket. The kid wouldn’t have looked more ridiculous if he was carrying a riding crop. Was he the team mascot?


“Uh, this is my friend, Emmett, from Toronto. Emmett, this is Dart,” Booger introduced us, scratching his nose, “Emmett’s an art dealer. He has his own gallery, down south. He’s gonna sell my art collection for me. Clear everything out, except my furniture. I need the cash.”


As junior manager of the storage facility, the dwarf paused to consider this development. Then he said, “Why don’t you just use some of your Star Wars money?”


“What’s that?” my ears perked up. I didn’t like where the conversation was heading.


“How long have you known this guy, Emmett? Didn’t he ever tell you? His family owns two minutes of Star Wars: the part with the Jawas,” the wee man drew quotation marks in the air, twisting Booger’s words to mock the guy. “That’s how they can afford the monthly fee on these units,” the dwarf laughed at the situation Booger was in, living in a heated storage locker, fucked up on OxyContin and fentanyl patches, yet telling his landlord his family owned a percentage of the most successful movie franchise in history: it was ludicrous. That was flat-out junkie talk, the type of bullshit you could only get away with if you were fifteen, and trying to dazzle a crowd of 12-year-olds, but not something you put on an apartment rental application.


“They were early investors in George Lucas, so George Lucas gave them the rights to two minutes of the first movie. Booger’s family is worth a fortune: they still get a big, fat royalty cheque direct from Skywalker Ranch, four times a year.” As Dart piled on the sarcasm, smirking, I glanced at Booger, hoping he didn’t shit his pants. But I shouldn’t have been worried.


Booger could have just laughed it off, but instead he doubled-down.


“Gee, Dart: I told you that information in confidence,” he became evasive, eyes turning inward. “My family’s Star Wars money isn’t supposed to be used for day-to-day expenses. That part with the Jawas is worth a lot of cash. We even got merchandise rights on some of the toys.”


“Whatever, Booger: you keep telling yourself that. Just make sure anything you pull out of one of your lockers is back in there before we close the gate tonight, at lights out. I don’t want any more complaints,” the dwarf slammed his golf cart in reverse, and drove away abruptly.


When the golf cart was out of earshot, I asked Booger: “Has anybody else looked through this material?” I picked up a figurine of the Flying Dutchman, inspecting it for cracks. I knew the answer to my question, but still wanted to hear the details from Booger himself.


“What do you mean?” Booger avoided the question, suddenly sweating, “Why is that important?”


“How many other people have already looked through this material?” I nudged him.


He gazed at me blankly, before admitting the truth.


“OK, yeah: you’re not the first person to go through these lockers. But just look at that figurine in your hand: I’ve seen stuff like that in the glass display cabinets at the China Gardens.”


In that moment, if his idea was to sell his collection to a buffet restaurant, it would have been a more realistic plan for Booger to have opened his own art gallery in Toronto, without me.


Next, Booger would be asking me for an advance on the consignment sale, or some other flaky arrangement. But the Flying Dutchman wasn’t going to be making it into port, not that day.


I couldn’t get pissed at the guy. I didn’t even know how to begin letting him down gently, he was so far gone. Booger might as well have spent 45 minutes letting me watch him talk sports with Dart, for all it mattered. After fifteen years without contact, we had nothing in common.


“I better get back to the airport,” I looked at my wristwatch, bringing things to a close.


XXX

Back at the airport, in the washroom, I dusted off my jacket, combed some cobwebs out of my hair, washed my hands, dried them. In the mirror, checking myself, I made the sign of the cross: fresh haircut, flat belly, prepaid cellphone, business cards: all the tools of my trade were in order, the tricks any good salesman used to get his foot in the door. My car keys were in my back pocket; a slip of paper with Booger’s phone number in the front sleeve of my address book.


The kid I was going to see in Sioux Lookout, he was a prodigy. Twenty years old, and he had been throwing colour on canvasses since he was twelve, gifted beyond his years. I wanted to show his gift to the world. The world needed his canvasses, and I could earn him a fortune as his representative. All he had to do was sign an exclusive contract with my gallery.


I took Booger’s phone number out of my address book, and threw it in the trash.


I made it through security, and boarded my connecting flight to Sioux Lookout, with ten minutes to spare. In that gap, I put Booger and the Museum of Garbage out of my mind for good.


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