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Postcards from the Museum of Olivia

By
October 1, 2008

In the volume of his memoirs that he calls Flying, Peter Leroy includes an account of a visit to the town of Olivia. He does not specify the location of this town, but it seems to be somewhere in Oklahoma. He makes this visit in the company of his long-suffering wife, Albertine, while they are traveling from New Mexico to New York in an Electro-Flyer, a one-off prototype of an electric car.

In Leroy’s account, a woman named Amanda, who wears a name tag that identifies her as a sales associate at the Museum of Olivia, explains that entering the town requires the payment of an admission fee because, “the Town of Olivia is the Museum of Olivia.”

According to Amanda, as quoted by Leroy, the little town had been shrinking for many years before the eponymous Olivia arrived. As Amanda’s friends and even some members of her family moved away, it became a lonely place, and Amanda herself began to think of leaving.

“We were on the verge of just disappearing,” Amanda explains, “but then one day Olivia drove into town. She was just passing through, like you, but she was enchanted by the prospect that she, a woman named Olivia, might live in a town named Olivia. Of course, at that time the town was named Gadsleyville, but nearly the whole damned place was for sale, so Olivia saw the opportunity and she seized it. She began buying up bits and pieces of us, and pretty soon she petitioned the town council to have the name changed to Olivia, so there she was and here we are.”

If Leroy is to be believed, one of the exhibit spaces in the Museum of Olivia is devoted to the Gallery of Discards—which, he asserts, includes much more than trash. According to the museum brochure, once Olivia decided that someday there would be a Museum of Olivia, she never again threw anything away, throwing it instead into the collection. So it is all there, her personal mountain of discards, categorized, arranged, and displayed. Amanda explains that preservation is a complex issue in a collection so large and diverse, and she asserts that the conservators are breaking new ground in the area of long-term stabilization.

Then there is the Gallery of Bad Thoughts. “What can I say?” Leroy claims that Amanda said of this exhibit. “It’s scary. That’s what I’ll say. I’ve never made it past the first room. That was scary enough for me. You have to ask yourself how a woman like Olivia could come up with such nasty ideas.” The brochure—at least the brochure as quoted by Leroy—offers an explanation: “Like it or not, Olivia was a child of the culture and she is a woman of the world.”

The Gallery of Broken Dreams is, according to the brochure, “profoundly depressing.” Amanda apparently agrees. According to Leroy, she urged him and Albertine to visit the gallery. “You have to see it,” he quotes her as saying. “You have to experience it. I saw it once, and it was—let me tell you—profoundly depressing. An unforgettable experience. Many people return again and again.”

Of all the attractions in the Museum of Olivia that Leroy describes, the most unlikely and unbelievable, for me, is the Gallery of Coins Found on the Sidewalk and Elsewhere. According to the indefatigable Amanda, when Olivia was “just a girl” she found a nickel on the sidewalk. Little Olivia picked up that nickel, and that night she put it under her pillow. While she was lying in bed fingering the nickel, she asked herself how many nickels she might find in her lifetime. Leroy’s account quotes the brochure as saying, “By morning she had formulated a lifelong plan that demonstrated remarkable foresight for one so young: she would save all the coins she found for the rest of her life.”

I dismissed most of the account of Leroy’s visit to the town and museum of Oliva as another example of a memoirist’s exaggeration, his surrender to the siren call of fantasy, an episode in a liar’s life—until a trusted friend who was traveling cross-country on a vintage Indian motorcycle sent me a portfolio of souvenir postcards from the museum. I am now embarrassed by my having doubted its existence. My long-suffering wife and I are planning a visit, perhaps as early as next spring.

ERIC KRAFT is the author of Little Follies, Where Do You Stop?, What a Piece of Work I Am, Herb ‘n’ Lorna, Reservations Recommended, At Home With the Glynns, and Flying, which will be published in March of 2009 by Picador. He and his long-suffering wife live in New York. Online, he can be found on erickraft.com.

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