Are You A Collector?
By Dave Blum.


What have you collected in your life?

When I was a kid—I collected pretty much everything. Most of it was pretty normal: Stamps, Coins, Stickers. That kind of thing.

And then there were the “odder” items.

For example, my friend Mike and I went through a long period when we were crazy about bottle caps.  One of the prime locations to collect them was a place called “Mars”, a dirt parking lot opposite San Francisco International Airport where you could watch the planes take off and land.    All the high school kids would hang out there on a Saturday night to drink and do what big kids do…   Mike and I, however… well, we’d arrive at Mars bright and early Sunday morning in search of discarded treasure:  beer bottle caps from Greece or Scandinavia, soda caps from Canada or Brazil or even Japan. Whatever exotic (and domestic) caps we could find in the area.

Along with bottle caps, I also collected an assortment of different cards, although not of the baseball or football variety.  Oh no, I had a full set of commemorative cards from the Planet of the Apes TV series from the Seventies.  I had a collection of something called “Wacky Packages” — silly fake stickers that spoofed commercial products of the time.  I remember one, for example, that made fun of Fritos corn chips;  it was titled FREETOES and showed an orange bag filled with actual toes.  Yuck, yes, but very fun for a 10-year-old kid like me who read MAD Magazine on a regular basis.

After cards, I got into saving TV guides.  No, I didn’t keep them in mint condition; rather, I just stashed them in a drawer of my desk, all the way until I moved out of my parent’s house for college.   Even now, I imagine how fun it might be to go back and pore through my old TV Guides, reading descriptions of the Waltons, MASH, and Laugh In — all my favorite shows from the 70s and 80s.  Ah, the good old days.

Perhaps my most-prized possession from childhood, however, was my collection of firecracker labels.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in actually lighting firecrackers, not after I had one blow up in my hand.  (I didn’t lose any fingers, thankfully, but I certainly had gun powder etched into my skin for months!)   But I did like the labels firecrackers came wrapped in.   To find these labels, you had to go out early on the morning of July 5th.    That’s when you’d find them scattered around the streets like tumble weeds, a symbol of post-Independence Day delinquency.  I have to admit that firecracker labels were pretty cool.  Not only were they colorful and fanciful like postage stamps, but there was also something illicit, even forbidden about them, with titles like:  Black cat, Superman, Gorilla, Werewolf, etc.  Finding small labels from individual packets was pretty easy, but discovering “Case Labels” was the real prize—the larger wrappers from a whole case of firecrackers.  These babies were about 5×8 inches tall and, I must say, rather gorgeous!   I’ve still got a Superman label, in fact, sitting in a frame on my desk!   The art isn’t museum worthy – it sort of looks like something printed in a Chinatown tattoo shop.   But that’s what made it cool and naughty for a 10-year-old from the suburbs.

Collecting firecracker labels wasn’t just my own private hobby, either; it was actually a big deal in my neighborhood.   Strange, sketchy kids would often ring my doorbell at all hours of the day or night, saying,  “Uh hi, is Dave there;  I hear he has some labels to trade?”  It was like Magic the Gathering, with gunpowder.  These kids weren’t necessarily my friends or my buddies…I imagine them having smudges on their foreheads and patches on their elbows, kind of like the Little Rascals.   They were definitely from the other side of the tracks.  I’d push past my mom and say, “Sure, I’m here” and then take my visitors into the garage, away from the prying eyes of my parents, to conduct our illicit trades.   Although nothing shady was going on, it kind of felt that way, which was part of the allure.    Later I learned you could mail away for “case labels” for a certain price, which I did.   But it wasn’t the same as finding firecracker labels “in the field”, or bargaining for them in a garage.

Sad to say, when I grew up, I stopped collecting things—at least of the tangible variety.  But my collecting mentality certainly continued.  You see, I’ve always loved variety and color.   I love the challenge of making a list, locating missing items, and completing a full set of something.

As I grew up, I started collecting experiences, mostly in the form of travel locations. For example,

–I collected a sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji
–I collected a memory of standing at the base of the Great Pyramid in Cairo
–I collected a view from a Nepalese hilltop at 10,000 feet, looking across a valley at peaks that are all 20,000 feet plus.

It was a bucket list before I’d even thought about one day “kicking” the said bucket.

But was I happy?   Kind of, but not fully, either.    During that travel stage of my life, I always felt like I was running away from something.  It wasn’t until I sat down with my best college friend, Tim, that I really understood was going on.  Tim said:

“Dave, I’ve been listening to you talking about the next travel experience you want to collect, but it seems like you’re looking outward for happiness.  You can hike Macchu Picchu or go jogging on the Great Wall of China, but none of those places will make you happy.  YOU are YOU wherever you are!”

Have you ever had a friend or loved one share such a painful truth with you that you just wanted to kill them– until you realized they were right!   That’s what happened to me.   I WAS looking outside for happiness.  Perhaps I needed to start collecting myself!

What do YOU collect?    Items, people, memories, experiences?  Do they give you joy?   Are they comforting?  Do they connect you to the past, or do they just lead to FOMO (fear of missing out)?  Does collecting take you out of the present, or tie you more closely to it?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think they’re questions worth asking.   Examining our collections is one step towards understanding what’s truly important to us.

Perhaps the only thing we can ever really collect (without running out) is more questions!

Love to hear your thoughts!