Rameau, Couperin, and Others
by Boris Kokotov
“This is my fourth collection,” Rich said. He was a slightly built man in his forties, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt that read “Dig It Hard.”
He had invited Trish to check his bottle collection, and Trish suggested I come with her — to check him out, I guess. We were having a conversation in the basement of his house. He was sitting in a dilapidated chair; Trish and I, on a shabby vinyl couch. Bottles were glowing in the semi-darkness on shelves made out of two-by-fours and plywood.
“What happened to the others?” I asked.
“Because of money?” Trish asked.
“Sure, always need money. But sometimes I also need a fresh start.”
“The bigger a collection, the more eclectic it becomes,” I suggested.
“I focus on antique whiskey bottles. Usually keep a few from my previous collections.”
“Like the seeds for a new beginning?”
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
“Started at twelve. Found a few old jugs in an abandoned shack and got hooked.”
“How’d you come into possession of all these?” Trish asked.
“Dug them out. Plenty of goodies are still underground.”
“No trading, no buying?”
“Nope, never bought a single empty bottle. A dig-only enterprise.”
“How do you know where to dig?” I asked.
“Oh, we know. Old outhouses, privies, barns... We have maps. We know where to dig.”
“How deep down you have to go?”
“It depends. Could be a few feet, or twenty. Or even thirty.”
“A lot of work?”
“You bet. But we have tools. A few shovels, a basket, a rope.”
“So you have a partner.”
“Yeah, I have a mate. We’ve been doing it together for ten years. Told him this is my last collection.”
“What’d he say?”
“He’s younger than me. He wants to continue. He’ll find somebody when I quit.”
“Will you sell this collection as well?” Trish asked.
“Would you buy it?”
“No, no. I’m not a collector!”
“Me neither. I’m a hunter,” Rich said.
“The old whiskey-bottle hunter,” I suggested.
“That’s right,” Rich said with a smile.
“You will probably miss the hunting after you quit,” I said.
“Won’t miss the digging, that’s for sure.”
“Let me take a look,” Trish said.
We stood up and came closer to the shelves.
“I like this one,” Trish said.
“Sure. Old Grand-Dad bourbon, pre-Prohibition period. You can see a tax stamp on its label.”
“How about these two on the upper shelf?” I asked.
“Western Whiskey bottles. The gems I kept from my second collection.”
“Just out of curiosity—”
“About fifteen hundred,” Rich said. “Each.”
“No kidding!” Trish exclaimed.
“In a catalog, a similar Western was priced five times higher. Different vintage though.”
“Wow! For an empty whiskey bottle!”
“Folks pay for the thrill of owning something unique.”
“Same as with paintings or coins,” I said.
“You got it right,” Rich said.
We continued chatting for another ten or fifteen minutes. Then two of us left.
* * *
“And the reason you brought me over there was...?” The road was almost empty; I was driving fast.
“You always look for a reason,” Trish said.
“Only if there is no traffic,” I said, “Otherwise I look at the mirrors.”
“The guy was bragging about his exploits for weeks. He invited me to come to his place and see for myself.”
“Probably not. But things could develop in that direction,” Trish said.
“The couch is strategically placed.”
“Obviously a lot of visitors coming.”
“Old, too. As old as those bottles.”
“He must’ve lifted it from some shithole,” I said.
“With a rope and a basket.”
“So he invited you and—”
“And I said I’d like to come with a friend. He said, ‘Sure’.”
“I see. But—”
“I thought you might find it interesting. You also have a collection, those music recordings.”
“I’m buying them, not retrieving from privies,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter how people got their things. You all hunt for particular items.”
“Still, the object of interest matters.”
“You have shelves filled with those vinyls. And a couch in front of the stereo.”
“True, but my couch is much more comfortable than his, isn’t it?”
“Well, I can’t really compare,” Trish said. “I might have had a chance today but I blew it.”
“So you feel we have something in common, Rich and me.”
“Don’t know much about Rich. Our company hired him a few months ago. He works in production.”
She said “our company” as if both of us still worked there. Well, we did for a couple of years: she, in Sales; I, in Marketing until they let me go last year. Some people in the company thought we were having an affair. We weren’t. Soon after I left, she called me, we chatted a bit. Then she called again and I suggested to get together for lunch. We began seeing each other.
“All right, forget it,” I said. “Are you in the mood for some music tonight?”
“Far earlier than that.”
“What was it the last time? I kind of enjoyed it,” Trish said.
“Prague Philharmonic Orchestra recording, 1964. Baroque composers: Rameau, Couperin.”
“The rare performance?”
“Correct. Besides, the record quality is real good: an original pressing, a Black Label.”
“There is a Black Label whiskey as well.”
“What a striking similarity!”
“I know where these similarities end: you’ve probably never used a shovel in your life,” Trish said.
“That’s right. I quit digging before I started.”
* * *
A few minutes later, I parked the car and we walked into the hall of the building where I owned a condo.
“Listen,” Trish said, “I was just teasing you.”
“I want that recording on tonight.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“And don’t even think about quitting, before or after.”
“All right, we’ll dig it hard,” I said.
She laughed again.
[Author’s note] Part of this story is based on my personal experience. A long time ago, in Moscow, I collected classical music recordings. Like almost everything else in the Soviet Union back then, quality vinyls were in short supply. There were only a couple of places in the city where one had a chance to find anything of value.
I was lucky: my flat was located at walking distance from the best shop, Gramplastinka. Once a week, I was there among a few other crazy people hunting for new arrivals. I was able to amass a sizeable collection over the years. I wish I could have brought it to the States, but it was impractical. I gave everything to my cousin and friends.
I feel no regrets: it was just a minor sacrifice in the quest for a better life. After all, I was only separated from my collection, not from music.
Copyright © 2017 by Boris Kokotov