In my travels I've run across more than my share of sports esoterica. I once shook the hand of the owner of the world's largest collection of golf tees. I've visited the Pennsylvania home of James Ridpath, which he shares with approximately 221,000 marbles. In an Omaha basement I inspected what is undoubtedly the foremost assemblage of Big Eight swizzle sticks in existence. The most perverse sports souvenir I've seen belonged to a Dallas Cowboys fan. She kept a cyst carved out of Bob Lilly's shoulder in a mason jar on her mantel.
My sentimental favorite, however, remains the shoelace collection of my Uncle Arthur, an elderly eccentric who lives in Brooklyn. The first memory I have of Uncle Arthur is the time he arrived on our doorstep with a grocery cart full of dog-eared comic books, sprung toasters and old bathtub stoppers. My mother wouldn't let me touch any of the stuff. She didn't want Uncle Arthur to become a role model.
But laces are Uncle Arthur's passion—and not just any old ones. He specializes in those threaded through old running shoes. Over the years he has amassed dozens of shopping bags full of musty shoestrings. "You would be surprised at all the colors sneaker laces come in," says Uncle Arthur. "Green, blue, red....I haven't seen too many yellows."
Uncle Arthur dresses Goodwill, in layers of overcoats kept closed with rusty safety pins. He has gentle brown eyes and twin dikes of silver hair that have blackened around the edges like the tinfoil on a TV dinner left too long in the oven. On his scavenger hunts he stalks Pumas in gutters, nicks Nikes from dumpsters and rescues Adidases from incinerators. He saves the laces the way elephant hunters save tusks—as valued trophies.
Uncle Arthur's living room is honeycombed with tunnels through hills of newspapers and towering mounds of cereal boxes. "I'm a collector of everything," he says. He even collects his dreams. A cardboard box at his bedside catalogs 30 years of them, all written down and alphabetized. If he has a dream about laces, he files it under F, for foot. "I got at least A to Y," he says. "I don't know if there's any Z's in there. I had a dream about a zebra, but I got that under Animals." The last W dream that Uncle Arthur had was about Wagging, his cat. Wagging, a collector of cellophane and mice, sometimes sleeps in the dream box.
"If I didn't collect," says Uncle Arthur, "I'd be in a nuthouse by now. It takes away the stress. It gives me patience, and that's what a person needs. Collecting is just a matter of patience."
By patience Uncle Arthur may be trying to say the hardest part of collecting is waiting for joggers to wear out their shoes. Or he may mean that unknotting laces is about as tedious as collecting them. "It's a hell of a job," he says. "Sometimes the laces have no tips and six different knots to untangle." It's not that he wears the laces, either. He only wears loafers. "Laced shoes make my feet swell," he explains.
My distant cousin Theodore, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale, has his own ideas. He calls collecting "anally retentive," theoretically a fastidious compulsion to hoard that is rooted in the severe repression of early toilet training. If collectors lose any of their collection, they lose a part of their identity. "Sports collecting." Theodore adds, "is a way to channel aggression and sublimate it into a hobby."
There is perhaps a kind of defensiveness behind Uncle Arthur's hobby, but there probably isn't much aggression. The tiny folds that line his pale forehead are merely the result of squinting down at the sidewalk. The only time Uncle Arthur really gets angry is when a fire-safety-conscious relative tells him to give it up.
He probably never will. The beauty of Uncle Arthur's collection is that it will never be completed. The number of shoelaces walking the streets, after all, is infinite.
Like most true collectors Uncle Arthur doesn't understand the idiosyncrasies of other collectors. Three years ago, after returning from a prizefight in Puerto Rico, I reported to him that the combatants collected knobs of garlic and strung them over their doors to keep out evil spirits.
Uncle Arthur appeared surprised. "What's the matter?" he asked innocently. "Don't they have screens?"