The pleasures of collecting broken glass

Commuters driving along the Charles River from Cambridge to Boston may be curious about the behavior of an elderly man walking on the pathways by the road. He carries a small plastic bag. What is he – what am I – collecting, and why? The answer to the first question is simple: broken glass. The answer to the second is more complex.

Everyone collects something, I expect. My wife, Elaine, collects rocks from around the world. She has mementos from the Rockies above Pueblo, Colo., the base of Ayers Rock in Australia, Lake Louise in Canada, a park in Tokyo, a game preserve in Kenya, and more. Her latest addition is more than 2.8 billion years old. It was collected on the Scottish island of Iona by our younger daughter.

My wife and I also collect matchboxes, which we had both done when we were younger. Myth had it if you collected an infinite number of them, you would win a fabulous prize. But, like everyone else, we grew up before we reached infinity.

Collecting matchboxes was accompanied by our accumulating supplies of swizzle sticks and cocktail napkins. All three bring back memories of places we've visited. Today our store of paper napkins is so vast that we actually use them for the purpose intended.

The appetizers that accompany the drinks are a facet of Elaine's culinary talent. She is a fabulous cook and has, over the years, amassed at least 200 cookbooks, 38 of them Chinese. One volume she wrote herself: It contains recipes from around the world using ground meats. Many of the recipes were discovered overseas. It is one of only two items in our collection of collections that is, so to speak, homegrown.

Back to rocks and stones. Because they tend to be on the ground, one tends to look down to find them. That habit led Elaine to look down when walking on beaches. As a result, she began collecting seashells. They come from the Caribbean islands and the Great Barrier Reef, Bali and Bermuda, Sanibel Island and the Jersey Shore, and, her best shelling of all, near Southold on Long Island Sound. At one point, her supply of shells was almost as vast as her store of cocktail napkins. Setting aside a few of her treasures before we moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, she laid out the rest in our backyard – not as a yard sale, but as a backyard giveaway. The shells covered two bed sheets, a single and a double. They all disappeared. The ones she kept continue to appear in summertime centerpieces.

At one point years ago, on one of those Caribbean beaches, I began collecting sea glass, pieces of broken glass whose sharp edges have been worn smooth as the tides tumble them over the sand. On the famous shelling beach on Sanibel Island are millions of shells, but I have yet to see a single piece of sea glass.

That may explain why, one bright morning near Boston, as I walked downstream along Soldiers Field Road, my attention was drawn to pieces of broken glass gleaming in the sun. While the thought of picking them up did not occur to me then, it did a couple of days later. We came upon the remains of a bright blue bottle by the Eliot Bridge. The glass along Soldiers Field Road had been mostly red, brown, green, yellow, and clear. I wondered how the blue would go with them.

It went wonderfully.

And so I came to collect what I call "street glass." Not because doing so helps clean up the environment, although I have been complimented for doing so. In fact, I am so assiduous in my collecting that it takes an accident or someone flinging a bottle out of a car window to provide significant additions to my supply.

I cannot now easily pass up a piece of street glass, however small, anywhere in the neighborhood. And I am a purist. Elaine has saved some colorful bottles that she urges me to smash and add to my treasures. I resist. The only nonlocal entries in my collection are one piece each from Hamilton (Bermuda) and Yarmouth (Maine). Unlike her stones and shells, which are international in scope, my street glass is essentially homegrown.

Why do I do it? Collecting keeps memories alive. We do not travel as much as we used to. Picking up local street glass keeps us connected in myriad ways to our other collections – the stones, the shells, the matchboxes, the cookbooks – reminding us of places we visited, sights we saw, beaches we trod, trails we walked, restaurants we enjoyed, and, most important, wonderful people we met.

The other reason has to do with the redemption of brokenness – the pleasure of taking something broken beyond repair and transforming it into something whole, into art. I display my collection on a window sill in glass cylinders and in a vase. Very colorful, especially when the sun shines on them.

And that's why that elderly man is strolling the banks of the Charles River, picking up broken glass to stow in a little plastic bag.

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