“Emptiness Filled with Insistence”

by mdjb

This afternoon, I was reading a biography of Gertrude Stein, and when I came to a section that told about her brother Leo, the critic and art collector, my mind started to wander and I recalled my odd relationship with Sally Leonard.
Five years ago I was intimidated by Sally. Well, I respected her superior intellect. She was almost ready to retire then. I think she told me she was fifty-eight, a psychiatrist, and a member of the American Philatelic Society and at that time I think her stamp collection numbered in the 60,000s.
The way I met her was by talking to the doorman and mentioning having just renewed my interest in stamp collecting, something I had done as a kid. He told me someone in the building was also a collector and he would give her my apartment number if I wanted. I told him go ahead, why not, I wanted to meet other people who were into it. That evening, she rang my bell. I invited her in and we talked for an hour or so.
She sat on my dining room floor explaining things to me like how I could always tell stamps that belonged to republics of the Soviet Union because they had letters on them in the Cyrillic alphabet that looked like CCCP and NOYTA and how stamps from Taiwan differed from those from mainland China because those from the Peoples Republic had an ideogram resembling a wishbone, the symbol for man, pronounced ren, but I only had to concern myself with that on the earlier issues because the later stamps now said China in the English alphabet and the sets were numbered. She was a free spirit and her hair was unkempt and she reminded of nothing so much as a wilted flower child, but she sounded very intelligent.
She told me I should join the APS and I would get circuits on approval. It was a good way to fill up my collection cheaply and it was a very secure procedure.

The difference in our ages precluded us becoming very friendly but every once in a while I would see her in the lobby on my way out to work or coming home, and I remember when she told me she had officially retired. She was looking forward to more time at home and not having to see patients. They all had so many problems. She said at times she felt like she might bug out.

About a year ago I had a problem with the APS. Someone from the Society called me and told me the next person on the Peoples’ Republic of China circuit did not receive the booklets I had looked at and sent on. He was a Chinese with a post office box for an address and I had my suspicions. The stamps were valuable. I called Sally and asked her advice, because whenever I received a circuit from PRC she was always the prior recipient and this particular time I had foolishly forgotten to save the priority mail insurance receipt.
She told me in her soft-spoken solicitous way, “It’s a test. To teach you to follow the instructions. Why don’t you call the APS and tell them the number and maybe they can track it down without the actual receipt?”
“And if they can’t?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “It couldn’t cost you more than a hundred dollars. That’s all it was insured for.”
I felt like one of her patients. It was not what I wanted to hear.
I was able to clear my responsibility with the APS with a phone call, but after that I asked them not to send me anymore stamps from China. My collection was pretty full and I didn’t want to be responsible for something that expensive again.
As I say, that was a year ago.

I closed the Stein book and went downstairs to buy some lunch in the new Garden of Eden gourmet food shop that recently opened in our building’s ground floor. It is filled with the delicious aromas of all kinds of exotic foods, fruits and baked items, meats and poultry, cooked and ready to go. I bought some three potato salad and some roast beef and when I entered the lobby I ran into Sally Leonard. I was a little taken back by how she looked. Her teeth were all discolored and her hair was still unkempt but now it was completely gray. It looked dirty and she had put on quite a bit of weight. She was wearing an ill-fitting down jacket with food stains on it.
“You cost me five dollars,” she said, and it sounded like an accusation.
“How’s that?” I asked. I really didn’t want to stand there and talk. I wanted to come upstairs and have my roast beef.
She went on to explain since I wasn’t on the Chinese circuit anymore, she had to walk all the way over to Fourth Avenue to the Post Office to insure her package and send it on to the next person on the list instead of leaving it with the doorman for me.
I asked her how many stamps she had now and she told me she had stopped counting when she went over 100,000.
“How do you catalog them all?” I asked.
“Well, I haven’t gotten around to doing that,” she said. “They’re all in shoeboxes. Some of my friends who are dealers tell me I should, especially if I want to sell them, and I may have to soon. I’m running out of money. I guess I was just bored and looking for something to do when I started collecting them, but it’s like an addiction, you know?”
All I came up with was, “Oh?”
“Yes,” she said, “I just paid October’s rent.”
That really surprised me. It was not the kind of thing I expected from her.

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