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What's the deal with collecting?

When I heard that story, I marveled at how different it was from my own collecting genesis tale, which ends on a distinctly different note. It begins on a spring afternoon in 1975, when I walked past an appliance-repair shop in my suburban New York hometown and saw, sitting in the picture window, an old radio—really, really old, the kind with vacuum tubes and grille cloth, older than television, older even than my parents.

Immediately the old set caught my eye. But my curiosity—my attraction—had nothing to do with technology or design. You see, I was only eight years old at the time and hadn’t quite mastered electron theory yet; I figured that old-time radios received old-time radio programs. And I had a keen interest in hearing these programs, because my father, who was not ordinarily a sentimental man, recalled them with great fondness. He never tired of telling me about Gangbusters and Fibber McGee and The Goldbergs and Amos ’n’ Andy—or of asserting, with perfect confidence, that television was just garbage in comparison. Now, I perceived a chance to see (or hear) for myself.

I told my mother about my desire to own an old radio, leaving out the part about listening to old-time radio programs. My mother, ever supportive, took me down to Queens to see her father, who descended into his cellar and emerged carrying a large wooden box: a 1936 RCA Model 5-T, the old family table radio from my mother’s childhood. Its tall wooden case looked a bit scratched up but still very dignified.

We got home late that night, and I was sent straight to bed. But I was too excited to sleep; all I could think about was the possibility of catching Orson Welles’s “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. Maybe I would hear Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world” homer. Maybe even…the crash of the Hindenburg. Oh, the humanity!

Finally, it was morning. I raced downstairs to plug in the radio. The switch crackled when I turned it on; the dial lit up and glowed softly, as if it were shyly introducing itself to me. After a few seconds the tubes started glowing and humming in a comforting way. The pleasantly mild burning smell they emitted was, I imagined, the smell of history. I was filled with childish glee.

But as I turned the dial and closed in on the sound of words, the resonant male voice I heard was not that of The Shadow or The Green Hornet or Henry Higgins or Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.

It was…Don Imus.

Years would pass before I found the right metaphor to explain what I felt at that moment. That happened in college, when I allowed myself to be set up on a blind date with a woman who was pitched to me as some kind of Aphrodite but who turned out to be more like Medusa. At some point during the evening, I found myself thinking back to that morning, a decade or so earlier, when I had been expecting the arrival of The Shadow and the original shock jock showed up instead. Sometimes I think that moment marked the end of my childhood.

And yet…and yet, disillusioned as I was, I didn’t throw out that RCA Model 5-T or ask my mother to give it back to my grandfather. I kept it. I still have it, in fact; it sits today atop a bookshelf in my living room, surrounded by other such sets, part of a collection that continues to grow some 30 years later. In the end, it seems, it didn’t matter what voice came out of that old radio. I loved it anyway.

That, you see, is the real reason that people collect things: because they love them. It doesn’t matter why, if they even know why; it doesn’t matter if these things are obsolete or ungainly or ugly, that they cost far too much and take up a ridiculous amount of space and serve absolutely no practical purpose whatsoever. In love, as in collecting, irrationality reigns supreme. Sometimes you end up happily married to that blind date who was not all that you’d expected or hoped for, the one who didn’t possess a single trait on that long list you were always carrying around, of qualities your potential mate absolutely had to have, and when the two of you walk down the street with your arms around each other, people just stare open-mouthed and scratch their heads in wonder. Good for you.

New York City writer Richard Rubin is the author of Confederacy of Silence (Simon and Schuster, 2003).

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