In praise of the present

When you live in town and work from home, people randomly appear at your house surprisingly often. The other day, for instance: the doorbell rang, and after a fleeting temptation to pretend not to be home, I opened it. Older fellow, pickup truck, hearty smile. I ran through a brief mental checklist of people who might be expected to appear at my front door, but nothing helpful came to mind.

“Hi!” he said cheerfully. “Got a pot?” 

“Um,” I said, with some trepidation. “Yes?” 

I’ve got a touch of prosopagnosia — a fancy word for having a weird blind spot for faces, and also an unfortunate affliction for a reporter, although somewhat balanced out by my equally unlikely photographic recall for information delivered in word form. I cope by asking, humiliation be damned, and by making a lot of vaguely friendly facial expressions when encountering people out of context. It definitely doesn’t help that most people around here seem to answer to the general description of “white, old but not old old, wearing some sort of rumply earth tones probably.” 

The older I get myself, the less I stress about not being able to dredge up names to match faces. Social awkwardness hasn’t killed me yet. Anyway, sometimes, if you just wait for them to talk, people will spontaneously provide you with helpful context. Like this gentleman, who helpfully volunteered that he had some lobsters for me. 

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“Ohhhhhhh,” I said. All was suddenly clear. This was a man who was pleased to be one of my town councilmember wife’s constituents, a weekender who spent a good deal of time in New England, and who has a history of pressing parboiled lobsters fresh from the New Hampshire coast into her hands, by way of saying thanks for being in local politics. I sincerely hope I didn’t run afoul of Middletown’s ethics policy by grabbing a huge stock pot and letting him dump four gorgeous scarlet-red sea bugs into it. I mean, somebody was going to have to eat them, and soon.

The local gift economy is really something. I’ve lived in a lot of places, large and small, and nowhere is the tradition of handing off random stuff to your friends and neighbors so strong and vital. Among the things I’ve been given spontaneously just by virtue of being there to receive them: a Zip-loc baggie full of venison medallions, a beautiful kitchen faucet, several bags of children’s clothes, a grocery bag full of uprooted irises, a very recently-alive Pepacton trout too big to fit into my largest cast-iron skillet. Some of these were from friends who delivered them with a hug and a smile. Some just…appeared on the porch. 

If you’re new in town, you might not appreciate that encounters that would be ominous in the city sometimes turn out to be presents in disguise. For instance: if, on a beautiful summer afternoon while you are out walking alone, an oldish white rumply fellow drives up behind you very very slowly in a red pickup truck, leans out the window, and mutters “Got something for ya in the back,” please be advised that it is probably zucchini. 

Inarguably, the best place to give and to receive strange presents around here is the dump. I no longer spend quality time at the Andes dump, being a Middletown resident now, and one of those posh village people who gets trash pickup to boot. I miss it, though. Dump guys are the best. The ones who watch over Andes’s trash are especially conscientious. They’re forever saving cast-off things they think their patrons might like: in our case, toys for our toddler, random furniture (hello, entire set of mid-century diner-style chairs), and once, a brand-new-in-the-wrapper set of inexplicable bath products. 

The only problem with the dump: If you decide you no longer enjoy the present that has been given to you by the Dump Guys, you must then find a different dump to take it to, so as not to injure their feelings. I’m sure Emily Post never addressed this conundrum directly, but it seems just common decency.

I’ve been feeling a lot of gratitude for the many strange gifts that have washed up on my doorstep this year, it being the season for giving. I am resolved to step up my own personal random gift game. And I’d very much like to thank someone for the best mystery present of 2018: all three volumes of acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin’s new Broken Earth trilogy, unceremoniously bound with a rubber band and deposited anonymously in my mud room, probably on a day I’d left the front door unlocked so Hugo-winning books could drift in. 

I devoured them whole that same week. God, they were so good. I wish I knew who to pin them on. If you’re reading this: thanks for breaking into my house armed with science fiction, pal.

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