I bought an old photo album at a yard sale a few years ago hoping to discover something unusual mixed in with the standard black-and-white Brownie shots of men in out-of-date suits standing next to women in astoundingly dowdy-looking dresses, as they all stare at the camera looking like they had just caught Junior dipping snuff down at the pool hall. What is it about old photographs that makes everyone look as if they are members of the Carter Family about to eat sushi for the first time?
When I flipped through the pages at home, it turned out to contain no photographs at all. Carefully attached to each page was a blank piece of hotel stationery from the ‘30s, the era of steamer trunks and boaters.
The Bedford Hotel, Southampton Row, London. The Cecil Hotel, Bruxelles. The American Hotel, Amsterdam. The Grand Royal Hotel, Sorrento. The Darmstadter-Hof, Heidelberg. The Grand Hotel Suisse Terminus, Turin. The Hotel Rossli, Luzern. Hotel Metropole, Nice. The S.S. De Grasse, French Line.
It was a diary without words, mysterious and telling at the same time. Was it the memorabilia of a Grand Tour or a spy’s scrapbook? Not a word about life aboard the De Grasse in the days when it took seven days simply to cross the ocean. Today, seven days aboard a ship would be the vacation, then it was simply the start of one.
A few envelopes addressed in that wonderfully vague, pre-Zip Code, party line way - “Miss Evelyn C____, Spruce Street, Oneonta, N.Y.” -- written in a beautiful, rounded script with a fountain pen were also preserved. There was also a charming hand-written note on Hotel Royal Grande Bretagne & Arno stationery in Florence that reads:
“My dear Miss C____
I met the Rutherfords who said you were here. I am at the Grand, a few blocks up the Arno. Seeing your hotel as I was passing, I stopped to say ‘How-do-you-do?’
It was hard for me to flip through the pages and not find myself making up stories about Miss Evelyn and Miss Anna -- “A Room with a View” meets “Nancy Drew.”
“The Rutherfords! At the Grand. Hardly the place for our set, now is it? Why, they’re little more than tradesmen putting on airs. I hear her brother had to get a job! Can you imagine? What on earth can they expect to get out of a visit to Florence? As they say in India, ‘The spoon cannot taste the soup!’”
Soon after I bought the scrapbook, I started adding stationery from every hotel or motel where I stayed. My pages, too, are blank but the story they tell is so much less fascinating. Seventy years from now I doubt any garage sale scavengers will find it interesting. It is full of blank stationery from Holiday Inns, Hampton Inns, Quality Courts and La Quintas. For every mildly interesting scrap from a four star hotel I’ve been lucky enough to stay in, there are 30 mean little miniature desk pads from cookie cutter chains. There will be no great mysteries to solve about my travels except “why was he such a cheapskate?” and “where is Chloride, Ariz.?”
The scrapbook is starting to bulge. I’ve started throwing in the plastic keys hotels pass off as keys now, figuring they will look quaint and old-fashioned in the coming days of thumbprint locks and retina scanners. At some distant (I hope) estate sale, pawing through the piles of antique CDs, DVDs, laptops, and iPods, I can almost hear a collector say, “Wow, plastic keys. How quaint. What kind of nut would save these?”
Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.