A month ago my wife and I were walking our dogs on the beach. A stiff breeze was raising whitecaps and Connecticut was plainly visible. There are days when you can hardly see the coast and days when it seems to loom. This was one of the clear days.
A man was walking ahead of us, a tall man wearing a cap and black leather jacket. He was walking slowly. From time to time he would stop and pick something up. Then he would stand still and look at what he had found.
We caught up with him. He had a thin face and high-bridged nose, the kind that is called Roman. His hair was gray … I would say he was between 40 and 50. I am inclined not to speak until I am spoken to, so I try to make a point of speaking first and have the reputation of being a sociable, friendly fellow. I said, “Hi.” He turned his head and looked at me as though he had to think about it. He said “Hello” and went back to looking at whatever he had in his hand.
I walked over and said, ‘What did you find?” He didn’t look up but continued looking into his palm. Then he held it out … a round stone about an inch in diameter, flannel-gray in color. He said, “It’s almost perfect.” He put the stone in a pocket of his jacket and took out another. This was oval-shaped, reddish brown. He said, “Look at it.”
I asked if it was his hobby, collecting stones. “No,” he said, “I just collect them.” But he was particular. They had to be a certain size, not too big or too small. They had to go through the mouth of a bottle— a wide mouth, of course. And have a good shape and color. There was a variety of shapes and colors on this beach. You wouldn’t find stones like these in other places.
No, he wasn’t a geologist; finding them just gave him pleasure. He was the manager of a furniture store.
I’ve been reading a story by Chekhov. He says, “All sorts of things are done in the country through boredom. “Why the country? Would he have said that people who live in the city aren’t bored? City people do all sorts of things to relieve their boredom. They create new fashions in clothing, interior decoration, diet, art, you name it. They shoot one another. The newspapers and television are full of the things they do.
Chekhov knew about boredom—he wrote stories and plays about it. In our village we have a way of dealing with this feeling. We just continue doing whatever it is that bores us. After a while the feeling that we ought to do something to relieve it goes away.
Many of the residents have a hobby: gardening, tennis, golf, boating, fishing, cabinet making. But collecting stones can hardly be called a hobby. It’s not something you do with others. There’s probably not a club you could join, or a magazine with articles on the subject and ads in the back by people who want to exchange information. Bending over from time to time to pick up a stone doesn’t give you enough exercise to keep you healthy, and it’s not something you can talk about afterwards … a silver cup, a stuffed fish, a cabinet you made with your own hands.
Filling a bottle with stones isn’t art. If you put it on display people will think you naive, to say the least. It looks childish. You can imagine them on the way home telling each other that you’re “losing it,” and they’ve seen this coming for some time.
You may even find yourself agreeing with them. When other people have reasons for what they do, it’s not easy to say that you don’t. You may try to explain that your bottle can be used as a book-end or a doorstop.
There he is again on the beach in front of me. He stoops, picks up a stone, looks at it, and lets it fall. I’ve tried talking to him, but the only interesting thing about him is what he does, and he seems to have no ideas about it. The last time we talked I said that since he spoke of stones as being “almost perfect,” he must have an idea of the perfect stone. What would it be like? He stared at me as if the idea hadn’t occurred to him. Then he said, “I’d know it if I saw it.”
I could talk to him about the furniture business, but I have no wish to. He seems to have no other interests. All he cares about are his stones.