Personal Best: A Paper Trail

AARP magazine, September 2018

"Why don’t you throw it out?” my 14-year-old asks. “Or digitize it or something?”

He’s referring to my address book, which is quite a few years older than he is. A dowdy, floppy thing, it was originally bought at a museum bookstore. Its front cover is a faded reproduction of The Scream, and its back cover is very close to coming off. At five by four inches, it is small enough to be chewed up by the dog or tossed out with the newspaper or simply stuffed into the back of some drawer, never to be seen again.

It is, in short, a terrible way to store important data. If I had any sense, I would long ago have wafted these names and coordinates up to the virtual cloud. Yet the book lingers, and my affection for it mysteriously grows. With each passing year, in fact, I find that what matters more to me than any address is the book itself.

If you opened it at random, you’d find mostly chaos. Out of every 10 addresses, nine have been edited. Sometimes there’s a zip code without a city; sometimes, the reverse. Here and there, in a burst of archival fervor, I’ve inked in the names of children whose parents I’ve long since lost touch with.

A few of my addressees I haven’t laid eyes on in more than 20 years. One I’ve never met: my late father’s first wife, who may still be living on the Via San Leonardo in Florence.

And some have their own peculiar narrative. The women friends who, upon marriage, traded in their last names and then, a few years later, reclaimed them. The couples who separated and then, after a pause, reunited. The straggling arc of my aging parents, from the four-bedroom suburban home in Dunn Loring, Virginia, to the ranch house in Arlington to the two-bedroom apartment in Falls Church. Next, a brief caesura, after which my mother reemerges as a solitary figure, soldiering from a Sunrise facility in Ballston to addresses in Alameda, California, and—ultimately, it would seem—Chicago.

In this sea of strike-throughs, the only thing that halts my pen is death. If you were to judge by my address book, my dear friend Bob is still alive and well in Atlanta. Pat, the funniest man I’ve ever met, is still camped in his Northern Virginia apartment. My beloved editor Marjorie is still gardening in upstate New York.

None of this is exactly a lie, because everyone who was ever added to these heavily thumbed pages is still with me—on paper that is as perishable as we are. I’m not throwing it out; I’m sure as hell not digitizing it. I’m only hoping to pass it on.

Louis Bayard, 54, writes historical novels, including the upcoming Courting Mr. Lincoln.