Excess baggage--the only kind worth carrying
By John Bridges
DECEMBER 7, 1998: I do not need a new briefcase, no matter what anybody says. My briefcase's leather has been worn to filaments in a couple of places. On one corner it has been stained red by a loose-capped Magic Marker. Sometimes, on particularly soggy days, the ink still comes off on my hand. It has been a long time since I've really looked inside my briefcase, but I've figured it is full of lint nubbies, among other things. At least I've liked to think the nubbies are lint.
I have no interest in getting rid of my briefcase. I bought it for myself, years ago, at a crafts fair in a public park. I paid something like $12.95 for it. I do not believe any sales tax was charged. Because it was the late 1970s, and because I was working for the state government, I was wearing a three-piece suit and a pair of Earth Shoes. I was wearing hairspray. I was also wearing an 18-karat-gold neck chain.
It was the sort of look that wanted a brown leather zip-up briefcase with a large side pocket. A briefcase that looked just right for a man who could handle his Cold Duck. It was the more-than-appropriate briefcase for a man who knew his way around a Billy Joel album. It was the perfect briefcase for a man who had been known to eat a little yogurt, wear a dab of British Sterling, smoke a little dope.
It did not look unprofessional at all. It was obviously just the sort of briefcase for a state employee who made his own granola but also, on occasion, did poppers. It was the ultimate briefcase for a man who had just discovered ficus plants.
I had no trouble making the $12.95 decision, despite the fact that, in the late 1970s, $12.95 would buy more than a few rounds of Southern Comfort and Coke. I looked at that briefcase and said, "This is going to be the purchase of a lifetime. This thing is leather. It could be going with me to the grave."
The guy behind the counter pushed his bandanna up on his forehead and said, "Man, that briefcase is speaking to you."
I said, "You feeling it too?"
He said, "Yeah, man, I'm feeling it."
I handed him $13. Because he had called me "man," I said, "Hey, don't worry. Keep the change."
That is the way a man is supposed to meet his briefcase. He is not supposed to find it under the Christmas tree. He is not supposed to carry it simply because his wife picked it out for him. He is not supposed to use it simply because it was a gift from his parents, who were glad he finally got an M.B.A. And he certainly is not supposed to be carrying it because it was a going-away present from his former co-workers, the ones who wished him well, whatever his "next adventure" might be.
I would not trust any man who carried that kind of briefcase, not because it was monogrammed, not because it had a combination lock, not because it had a detachable shoulder strap. The reason I would never trust a man like that is because he would dare to carry a briefcase that was new.
A man like that actually figures he can put his life in order. In his briefcase there is a space specifically designed for his Day-Timer. There is a special pocket for his calculator. There is a compartment for his cellular phone. The work he takes home from the office is the work he needs to do before the next morning's 7:45 meeting. When he opens his briefcase the next morning, the first report he needs is the one that is stacked on top, directly beneath that morning's Wall Street Journal. If he needs a pen, it is always exactly where he expects it to be, neatly and handily available in its own little leather pocket. In a snap-closure leather pouch, he carries an extra set of car keys.
He is a man prepared for any eventuality, and yet he is a man given to appropriateness and orderliness in all things. If he brings his own lunch, he carries it in a separate bag.
He would not, after all, want to get a low-fat mayonnaise stain on the silk-satin lining of his briefcase, which was given to him as a symbol of love or some other form of admiration. If he should happen to scratch the gleaming mahogany-toned surface of his briefcase, he makes sure, that very night, to treat it with mink oil. In moments of true desperation, he takes it to a shoe shop and has the whole thing re-dyed.
He would not, after all, want anyone to think that he was other than grateful for his briefcase. He would never want it to look like it was anything other than perfect and new.
Aside from the lint nubbies, here's what I've found, just now, in the bottom of my own briefcase. There are seventeen-year-old business cards that I meant to file but could not figure out where to file them. There is a car-insurance bill that I have never paid. (Because it dates from 1987, I figure it does not really matter that much any more.) There are a couple of old peppermints, still in their wrappers, picked up on the way out of a restaurant. There is a toothbrush in a plastic container. There is toothpaste. There is dental floss. There is a legal pad, on which, at some time or other, I started a Christmas list. There are a number of cocktail napkins on which people have written their telephone numbers. I have never called these numbers because I forgot to ask the people their names.
In the side pocket of my briefcase is a handful of pages torn from past issues of The New York Times. Each of them includes an article I think might be of interest to another person; I do not plan to throw away any of those articles, since I have no way of knowing when certain people might stumble back into my life.
Along with the Times articles, my briefcase's side pocket also contains a pick-up receipt from the laundry and a discount coupon from the car wash. They share space with a pair of nail clippers, a take-out menu faxed from an Italian restaurant, and a paperback copy of Cold Mountain, of which I have only read the first chapter. I have read it 17 times.
I cannot think what I would do if somebody gave me a new briefcase. I cannot think what it would be like to be forced, on a daily basis, to sort through my business cards and my collection of loose rubber bands and my perfectly good three-year-old peppermints. I cannot think what it would be like to open a briefcase and not find any lint nubbies.
I would hate to think that, at this point in my life, I would have to get a new briefcase and actually start over. I would hate not to have to worry about the red ink stains. I would hate to think that, every day, I would be expected to clean out the laundry chits. I would hate to think that, after all I have been through with my briefcase, I would have to wake up in the morning and face a day that was actually, God help me, new.
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