the secret life of objects
For the first time in twelve years, I was living on my own, in a new apartment. I arrived at Casgrain Avenue with very few possessions — one bowl, a couple of plates, some cooking essentials, a kitchen table and chair, a small dresser, a few boxes filled with books and a Sia CD that played on repeat the better part of those first few months. The two-bedroom apartment echoed in its emptiness, a constant reminder of the “fresh start” that I hadn’t asked for. I hit the yard sales hard every weekend that summer, driven as much by necessity as a need to keep busy. In short order, I scavenged vintage yellow glasses, a cast iron skillet, mismatched silverware, a bookshelf, a bed and a Poang chair.
All that was missing was a couch.
I’m not picky. How hard can it be to find a couch? After scouring flyers and furniture stores, my search for a couch began to seem like an endless, circling odyssey. If it wasn’t too leathery, it was too beige, too small, or too L-shaped. It was too plain, too patterned, too poofy, too rigid, too soft, too flowery, too shiny, too upholstered, too IKEA, too fancy, too cheap, too something my family had in the 80s, too someone else’s basement. In short, either I was more discerning (read: picky) than I thought, or finding a great couch was something of a Holy Grail hunt.
Turns out I simply had something specific in mind because the moment I laid eyes on the green velvet couch, I knew we were meant to be.
How to describe the sofa that stole my heart? Massive, for starters. And characterful in a retro meets chic kind of way, meaning that it could have just as easily fit into a pot-smoking hippy’s shack as in Marie-Antoinette’s parlour. Born in Montreal, sometime in the late 1960s, this funky Chesterfield was covered in bright velour, the colour of unripe olives. It was perfect — and if you can believe it, free.
Its current owners were moving back to Germany and they couldn’t afford to ship it home, plus at seven feet long, it was too much of a challenge for anyone less than an intrepid soul. I may be picky, but back down from a few logistical obstacles? Never.
Fortunately for me, the two movers who blithely replied, “No problem,” when I told them of the size of the sofa, were not quitters either because if finding the couch had been an odyssey, getting it home into my new apartment was positively epic.
It took the movers forty minutes and knocking on three tenants’ doors to gain access to a few feet of space just to get the couch down four flights of stairs and out onto the street. Traveling the three kilometres between apartments was the easy part; getting this baby into her new digs, however, was another hour-long feat. Sixty minutes filled with blood, sweat, scratches, bruises, one broken light bulb, some wall damage and no shortage of French curses and piss-takes, one mover going so far as calling the other a tilapia fish, which to this day remains the strangest insult I’ve ever heard. But, by 10 pm that Saturday night, the movers were gone and I blissfully sank into the velvet queen’s plush cushions.
As I lay there, replaying the last two harrowing hours in my head, I started to think about all the other stories woven into this couch. I couldn’t help but wonder who else had struggled to bring it into their home? What other adventures in narrow staircases had this wild child survived? What kinds of conversations had it been privy to? Was it witness to kisses? What dreams were dreamed on it? Did it see many cocktail parties; was it wiped clean of spilled martinis? How many coins and remote controls and socks had it swallowed?
I felt this irresistible urge to know. I started my research the very next day.
I began with Eric Bodden, the German doctoral student who had posted it on Craigslist. When he and his girlfriend moved into the apartment on Durocher in the summer of 2008, there was a hole in the hallway ceiling and a giant green couch in the living room. Inbal, the previous owner, had donated the couch to them, very much aware of the logistics of moving the beast.
“At first,” Eric said, “We didn’t really like the couch. It was green! What a dreadful colour!” But as the months passed, they grew quite fond of its cozy cushions, so perfect for snuggling and watching movies on long winter nights.
With Eric’s help, I was able to find Inbal Itzhak, who moved to Montreal from Israel in the summer of 2005 to start a PhD program at McGill. Inbal inherited the couch through an organisation that helps to connect newcomers with people who wish to give away old furniture. When she and a mover came to pick it up from a young family in the city’s West End, Inbal recalls: “It was very difficult to load it onto the truck. It was even harder to get it up to the fourth floor apartment.” The mover paid a toothless homeless man to help him cart the couch upstairs, a slow and painstaking affair. To get it into the apartment, they had to disassemble the door, and the couch ended up making a gaping hole in the vestibule ceiling. “It was never fixed during the three years I lived there,” said Inbal.
Of the couch, Inbal says: “As magical as this couch was, it wasn’t the coziest. My boyfriend and I always laughed that it was made to prevent people from being naughty because it was simply not comfortable for making out. But I really loved this couch. Everyone who saw it loved it, it was special and had character and a funky colour. I used to tell people as a joke that I got it from Buckingham place.”
When asked if she remembered who the previous owners were, Inbal was able to find a faded name and phone number on an old calendar and from there, it wasn’t difficult to track down Mike Deutsh. “My wife and I got the couch as a gift from her great-aunt Sylvia, who was the original owner,” he said. “Before we got it, it had been sitting her a basement in Cote-St-Luc, probably untouched for 40 years. The whole room was in a vintage state: wood paneling, thick carpet, matching 60’s coffee table (which we still have).”
“Eventually, the springs started to give out (I like to think it just hadn’t been used for so long, rather than my body being exceptionally dense). So my dad and I did one of our weekend special projects and added a layer of plywood or wood beams, you should be able to tell by looking underneath. I still have a jar full of the original tack nails that were holding the thing together.”
According to Deutsh, great-aunt Sylvia had the couch custom-made in the 1950s by an upholsterer on Park Avenue named Patak. It was their main living-room sofa for many years. When the kids moved out and she and her husband were able to afford it, they purchased a new cream-coloured couch, and the green one was moved to the basement. “It didn’t get much use down there, which explains why it seemed musty when I got it,” said Mike.
Now sitting on that same couch, years later, I started to look at the secondhand objects around my apartment with renewed curiosity. What secret lives had they lived before moving into my home? Have you ever picked up a mug at a yard sale and wondered where it came from? Did it make the long journey from Taiwan, did it ride the conveyor belt in a factory in Wisconsin or did a potter shape it in a studio by the sea? How many people enjoyed their morning coffee in that mug before you brought it home? How did it get chipped? What’s the story behind it?
That summer, I sold most of my belongings and boxed the rest and moved to London. The vintage yellow glasses — I chipped one of them one night when a friend came to visit from Vermont and we opened the whiskey and before I knew it the bottle was empty and she and I were having a dance party in my kitchen — the Poang chair, the mismatched silverware found new homes. The couch was the last thing to go.
I miss my giant green couch. It was good to me at a time when I needed goodness. Set against an aubergine and cream wall, it gave life to my living room. It took care of me in times of sickness and loneliness when all I could do was watch reruns of Grey’s Anatomy. It served as a scratching post for a friend’s cat on numerous occasions. It overheard some of my deepest secrets. I curled up and fell asleep on my love’s lap while he read The Wind in the Willows to me on that couch. I spent mornings lounging on it with friends, in pyjamas, drinking bottomless cups of coffee.
My chapter in this couch’s story may have come to a close, but its story isn’t finished yet. It now sits in my friend’s yoga studio in Montreal’s Old Port. I often wonder how it is doing in these new incense and Om-filled surroundings. I hope it provides comfort and inspiration to new visitors every day. I hope it beckons animated conversations. My old couch is ageing, entering its 60th year, but it still has a good 40 years left and many more chapters to fill and I’m curious to see where it goes next.
They say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. What distinguishes rubbish from gold depends, partly, on personal taste. But when an object also comes with a great story, it becomes imbued with emotional significance and therein lies the treasure. So don’t be afraid to ask questions next time you hit the yard sales. Invested with meaning, the objects you buy may be worth more than you bargained for.