Permanence of the Ephemeral

by Don Friedman on July 7, 2016

An interesting essay about very old graffiti: here. We’ve occasionally seen similar, if newer, graffiti in church attics and other rarely-visited spaces; I’ve found 100-year-old newspapers and green Lucky Strike packs and other random things. Whether those finds are history or garbage is in the eye of the beholder; there’s no reason to say that they can’t be both.

Leave anything alone long enough and it becomes history. It may become trite, banal, and meaningless history but it inevitably is a remnant of the past. In 1997, I did a survey on a four-story office building built as a bank. The first floor was still a bank, and was quite modern. The upper floors were abandoned*, and as I wandered around them it became clear that the building had been abandoned floor by floor from the top down. The fourth floor was full of varnished oak desks, and the only visible lights were big globe fixtures hanging from the ceiling. The third floor was full of steel desks, with steel gooseneck lamps on the desks. There were a few rotary phones sitting around. The second floor had melamine-topped desks, and some big-key calculators, and a newspaper taped to the wall celebrating Reggie Jackson’s feat in the World Series. Did this mean anything other than the obvious conclusion about lessening needs for space over time? I don’t know. I didn’t take or disturb anything, but given the changes in Brooklyn real estate in the last twenty years, I’m sure those upper floors have been renovated or the whole building demolished and replaced.

So much of our physical context is meant to be ephemeral: from newspapers that are meant for one day only, to the laptop I’m typing on which (at three years old) is getting near geriatric, to the documents that consume our attention at work. All of these things tell stories other than their obvious meaning. They tell stories about how they were made and how they were used and how they were valued. If they survive, they tell those stories to the future.


*And rather incredibly filthy. The dust was thick enough that I had to be careful to lift my feet high as I walked because any hint of shuffling raised a cloud that had me coughing.

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