Alan sits in the sunroom of his 212-year-old colonial house in Goshen, New York. His recliner is raised high and angled forward to make it easier for him to stand up. His knees are bad. He is a big man with a young, handsome face and a grey handlebar moustache.
The lawn care guys ride mowers alongside the house and the smell of cut grass comes in through the screen door.
“You latched the door, right?” Alan asks.
“I’ll double-check,” I say, knowing I hadn’t. He doesn’t want the cats to get out. “It’s a Dickens of a time getting them back in,” he says. “But I know they’ll come back cause they have it good here.”
I’m a furniture mover for a local auction gallery. Alan and his boyfriend, George, are the only clients who’ve ever invited me back to their home after I delivered their antiques. I typically wouldn’t accept a client’s invitation, but visiting Alan’s house is a privilege. Alan and George are both lifelong collectors and the house is an extension of their collections — a display case with high ceilings — where their whale teeth, altarpieces, bronze figures, ivory, taxidermy, papier-mâché angels, ancestral portraits, Dresden ornaments, and narwhal tusks coexist. Plus, it’s nice to sit among antiques without worrying about moving any.
Each object here is a trapdoor into the past. Like, say, the carved Viking head that hangs over his closet full of antique porcelain dinnerware sets. Alan’s lineage goes all the way back to the Vikings. His parents were from Norway. His dad was a sea captain. Because of his Viking blood, Alan joined the Navy during Vietnam. He’d rather have been at sea than drafted into the front lines. He spent two years on an aircraft carrier as a dental technician. If a sailor had a tooth that proved hard to pull the dentist would cut a flap in the gum and hold a chisel to it as Alan hit the gum with a mallet.
Alan liquidates the contents of a person’s home for a living. It’s similar to what we do at the auction gallery, but he’s a one-man show. He’s been doing this for over thirty years. There’s a law firm in Manhattan that calls Alan when they need help with a difficult or sensitive case. Once, in the city, there was a woman whose father had passed. She had moved into his apartment in the Pierre Hotel to live with him for the last year of his life. When he died, she anchored down in her grief. Refused to leave. Her siblings fought with her. The place had to be vacated and the stuff had to be sold. After six months, the attorneys called Alan. He met with the woman. Held her hand. Went through her father’s closet and helped her pick out tweed jackets, neckties, and scarves. Relics to go back home with. Finally, she left, and Alan was able to liquidate the apartment. He’s done this for friends, nursing homes, and his own relatives.
The night before Thanksgiving, years ago, he received a letter saying his aunt Rebecca passed away and made him executor of her estate in New Orleans. Though she was his aunt through marriage and they had only met a few times in person, they’d had a bond. He’d send her books, flowers, and letters. His mother once asked him why he sent her anything––she had plenty of money and everything she wanted. He’d said, “She hasn’t got anybody. Wouldn’t you feel better knowing you had someone?”
“We loved each other,” he says.
He shows me a portrait that his aunt had left him, of her great-great-grandfather, William J. Minor. He spins off about Aunt Rebecca’s Aunt Charlotte. When he’d met her in New Orleans, Charlotte had shown Alan a jewel box with a lock of Napoleon’s hair. She kept the ashes of eight relatives in eight boxes under her bed because she was too cheap to open the family vault. It wasn’t until she died that all nine boxes were finally interred.
Alan is sure he spent a past life in the South. He feels a deep connection there. Thirty years ago, a psychic once told him he’s lived at least eight past lives.
“I’ve never been afraid of death,” he says. “There’s a ghost in my other house. I had a barbecue there once and my friends said, ‘There’s a man walking back and forth in your bedroom window.’ I said, ‘What does he look like?’ They said, ‘Well, he’s an older man and he’s tall and thin and he’s got glasses.’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s Harry. He used to own this house.’” Alan bought it from Molly, Harry’s wife. Harry and Molly are both dead. He and his family used to visit that neighborhood when he was a boy. It’s an hour north from his house in Goshen. Sixty years ago, Harry and Molly would serve him lemonade and cookies on their porch.
“One night I went to sleep there and felt somebody getting into bed with me,” he says. “I get up, turn the light on, feel the mattress, but there’s no depression.” Alan started to greet Harry’s ghost whenever he felt his presence. He’d say, “Harry, this is Alan, remember me when I was a little boy? I’m taking good care of the house. Molly passed away and you should find her. But you know you’re always welcome here.”
The first thing Alan ever collected was a baroque clock. His mother let him sell her pink stemware, a wedding gift she never used, and with the money he bought the clock. He was sixteen. “All my friends thought I was nuts. They said, ‘What the hell are antiques?’”
One of his largest collections is his Christmas collection — Santas, angels, and Dresden ornaments, which are valuable because the Dresden factories were all destroyed in World War II. Christmas is Alan’s favorite time of year.
“Were you raised religious?” I ask.
“My family wasn’t religious at all.” But he had Scottish neighbors growing up and they belonged to a very musical Presbyterian church. He went to Sunday school with them and sang in choir and into his late teens he considered becoming a minister.
“Is George religious?”
“His mother taught him that ‘religion is the smile on the face of a dog.’ He says religion breeds hate.”
Did you have reservations coming out as a gay man because of your faith?”
“My church was very enlightened. But I was deeply closeted. When I graduated from college there was still this stigma. In my heart of hearts I knew I was gay. I just couldn’t admit it to myself. I felt a part of me was dead until I was thirty-eight. I would go to a funeral and have no emotion.”
“You locked an important part of yourself away.”
“When I decided to come out, the floodgates opened.”
“Did you notice if you were collecting differently?”
He thinks for a moment. “I started collecting homoerotica. I have a devil and he’s hunched over with a huge erection.”
“Is there anything you’re still looking to collect?”
“A gilded concert harp — a playable one. And I want to go to Naples to buy copies of the eighteenth-century Neapolitan crèche figures. I want the shepherds with the sheep and the three wise men and a camel or two. I don’t know where the hell I’d put it, but I’d put it up and leave it up all year long,” he says .
He starts to talk about death. “I have what the 401k people estimate as another twenty-six years.”
His mother died when she was eighty-nine. Her mother’s mother was ninety-nine. And her grandmother was 107. Alan is seventy.
“What would you like to see done with all your stuff when you’re gone?”
“I want to see that George is taken care of.” And he’d be happy if his niece got some of his silverware, because he noticed when he went to her house for a dinner party that she hadn’t any gravy boats or pie servers.
His cats paw at the screen door. I tell Alan he has an amazing house.
“I look at this this way: You don’t own a house like this; you’re a steward. You take care of it for the next generation.”
“Do you feel that way about your antiques?”
“Yes. I hope I can pass these things on to people who’ll love them.” He’d love to see the portrait of William J. Minor go to a good home while he’s still alive. I think that he tells me these stories as part of his duty as a steward — making sure they live on.
He sends me to tour the attic alone. He says he’s made it into a chapel. There’s a portrait of him at the top of the first flight of stairs and a pair of taxidermied lynx. A taxidermied coyote guards the spare bedroom.
The attic is hot and filled with what looks like, but can’t be, ancient sunlight. The light collects on the altarpiece with two kneeling angels. Alan told me that in the attic I could see the bones of the house—the exposed beams and twenty-inch hand-cut floorboards. Where I could appreciate how the house was built.
Before Alan moved in, the house was abandoned for two years. There was a hole in the roof and a tombstone in the basement. Only four families lived in there before him, and one of those families had lived in it for 175 years. A man who’d won the lottery had built the house in 1804. Alan has the blueprints.
The sound of the lawnmowers recede and I hear Alan downstairs winding up a music box. As a member of the International Music Box Society he has nine antique music boxes. The music of music boxes reminds him of the carousels he rode as a boy on Coney Island.
He brings me to his favorite—an orchestral box from 1890. It’s the size of a child’s casket. It took two men from another auction gallery to carry it through the house. Alan lifts the lid and cranks the lever. It plays Chopin’s Funeral Dirge. A large cylinder spins inside and small drums and bells and organs come to life, clicking and whirring and breathing to make the song.
Alan asks me to hold the lid open so he can take a seat as the song plays. The funeral march doesn’t sound as grim as usual. It sounds bright and curious and hopeful. It’s easy to believe in Alan’s past lives, because it seems as though he’s spent this life collecting everything he owned or wanted in all his previous lives. I listen to the music box song and wonder what his next life will be.