Essay: Bound by bulletin board, a neighborhood on the right ‘tack’

"Former journalist seeks writing partner for regular meetings to share work in progress (short stories, memoir) and constructive critique."

 (<a href=''>Yeko Photo Studio</a>/Big Stock Photo)

(Yeko Photo Studio/Big Stock Photo)

I found my life partner on a bulletin board.

I mean the old-school kind of bulletin board, a swath of pitted cork that hung inside a women’s bookstore and from which you could glean a sociological snapshot of the feminist/queer community in Portland, Oregon, circa 1988: A business card for someone who made hand-sewn, organic-cotton futons. A summer solstice gathering on Mt. Tabor — bring your own drum! A household in search of a non-smoking vegan who was not allergic to cats.

Here’s what my index card said: “Former journalist seeks writing partner for regular meetings to share work in progress (short stories, memoir) and constructive critique.” I thumbtacked my note to one of the few available spaces.

Within a couple of days, Elissa called — that is, she phoned the group house I shared with five other people — and we arranged to meet at the Oasis Café on Hawthorne Boulevard. She said she’d be the short one in the leather jacket. I said I’d be the other short one, with curly hair and a notebook.

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When we tell our daughter this story — her origin story, after all, because that meeting led to two years of chaste writing partnership, followed by a kiss in my bedroom (right near the inorganic-cotton futon), followed by a not-so-chaste Scrabble date a few weeks later, followed by, well, the rest of our lives — she smiles indulgently.

Bulletin boards. Index cards. Telephone calls. We are hopeless.

Or maybe not. Because Elissa isn’t the only treasure that came to me through such grass-roots crowd-sourcing. We found one of our first housemates via a flier tacked to the community board at Weaver’s Way Co-op. When our daughter’s bicycle was stolen (from outside of that very co-op), I posted notes all over the neighborhood seeking its return … and that evening, someone called to say she’d found the helmet and kindly hung it on a utility pole a few blocks away.

I’ve used bulletin boards, actual and virtual, to unload a box of cobalt dishware and a plastic play house, to seek pavers for the garden and leftover tile for a mosaic mural. I’ve plied our neighborhood listserv for the name of an affordable electrician; I’ve answered queries about good day trips for young children.

I’ve even — to the chagrin of my daughter — availed myself of the most unabashed exchange of all, the informal swap that happens each Wednesday before the garbage trucks grumble through our streets. I’ve trash-picked wicker furniture for our front porch, a stack of glossy magazines for an art project, a nearly new toy kitchen for the toddler who lives next door. And we’ve watched in delight as others scooped up items we’d cast off: a mauve carpet, an old toaster oven.

I was skeptical when digital networks first threatened to upstage the analog give and take. I clung to the bulletin board’s village-y vibe: DIY fliers with little tabs to tear off and lose in your pocket; the weird juxtaposition that occurred when the page for the gluten-free support group overlapped, literally, with the one for the sourdough bread-baking workshop.

There was something authentic, even artful, about the riot of cards, brochures and fliers that, over the course of a month, climbed the corked walls on both sides of the co-op’s stairs until a staff member stripped it on the 30th or 31st so we could all begin anew.

If I happened to be shopping for broccoli on the first of the month, those bulletin boards stood silent, their pebbly expanse dotted only by thumbtacks. Astonishing: Had our communal needs been met? Had every hopeful child-care worker found her charge, every SAT tutor his student, every homegrown bluegrass band its audience?

Of course not. By the second of the month, the missives would be back, a slow-growing collage that would reach maximum entropy 28 days later, a tide predictable as the moon. I feared that online forums — Philly Freecycle, Craigslist, niche-y neighborhood e-groups — would scrub all the art and serendipity from the process.

I was wrong.

In recent days, my hyper-local neighborhood listserv has included notes from people seeking a graphic designer, a Spanish teacher, and an experienced barista for a new organic cafe. One person lamented that her iron gate was stolen; another had found a dog. Someone (I am not making this up) was seeking a life-sized, stuffed swan.

Most of what’s offered is free — a pile of mulch, a ceiling fan, some lawn furniture “in need of TLC.” There are warnings, too: a popular pizza spot cited for health code violations; a hazardous intersection where cars tend to barrel through the red light on their way to Lincoln Drive.

While the online chatter is a constant stream — unlike the co-op’s surge-and-ebb bulletin board — it is just as quirky, just as rich with the unintentional poetry of offering and desire: “Help! The music has stopped. I lost my wireless ear pod … Please give this armoire a good home … Does anyone know of a lawn mower that’s a little more resilient?”

Reading the lists, I’m struck by their tenderness and tenacity, the vulnerability and universality of need, the largesse of strangers who are not, really, so strange. And then I start to wonder: What if we could post, unashamedly, about all our vacancies and surfeits — not just the material objects, but the intangible ones?

Imagine it: “Seeking lost patience; last seen near exit 341 of the Schuylkill Expressway.” Or “Just moved from Poughkeepsie; would like to make a friend.” Or “Equanimity in excess: Swing by the corner Victorian and take what you can use.”

Soon, in the Wednesday morning darkness while my daughter slumbers, my darling or I will haul several sacks of recyclables and one white plastic bag of trash to the curb. Perhaps we’ll set out that desk lamp Elissa acquired, years ago, from a college pal, or the inline skates I’m unlikely to use again.

And as I walk to the gym for my crack-of-dawn yoga class, I’ll look out for the serendipitous treasure, the thing I didn’t even know I was missing until I spotted it there, a little battered, a little dewy, a reminder of how much we all need, and how much we have to spare.

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