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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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The key to a man's soul is his wallet
Unfolding majesty

Open a man's wallet and peek into his soul. Or at least an earthly corner of it. Mine unfolds to reveal two card compartments. The left side is the boring side. Driver's license, library card, staff ID and, like Barney Fife's one bullet, my one credit card.

Stranger treasures peek out from the right. A spent pass from the Paris subway. Some concert ticket stubs. An expired Hawaii driver's license. A green plastic business card from Blair's Bail Bonding on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans.

Why did I need Blair's services? That's for another day. The larger question is, why do I still carry his card? The answer is, I have no idea. But it's in there along with other random stuff that packs and stacks my wallet to the size of a corned beef sandwich at a New York deli.

As fat as it is, it's a microchip compared to the valise my father carried in his back pocket. Made of one-third of a cow, the leather behemoth took him a good 15 seconds to extract. In a furious display of human motion, he'd pitch to one side, rock to the other, do a little Elvis thing, then shake like a dog fresh from a swim in the lake. Boom. The wallet appeared.

It looked like he was about to search for a word in a giant, shaggy dictionary. When he cracked it open to pay for his cigarettes, small animals leaped from it. Silverware sprang out and clattered to the floor. Birds released themselves and flapped away through the pharmacy aisles toward the daylight of the electric doors.

Dad would then wade through the pocket menagerie and, amazingly, find bills to pay for his pack of Viceroys. Transaction complete, he performed the wallet dance in reverse.

My mother called it his billfold, just like she called her purse her pocketbook. Once home, he placed the billfold in the exact same spot. On the corner of his dresser. What a wonder it was. My dad in a soft, brown package, right next to his ring of approximately 400 keys, the cellophaned Viceroy soft-pack, and a half-gone sleeve of Juicy Fruit. The wallet was so stuffed that it would open itself up and lay out lengthwise, threatening to move on its own again at any second, a horseshoe crab skittering across a field of cufflinks.

I've been thinking about wallets because it's time to replace mine. The first one I ever carried. From the manufacturer's website:

"Rainbow of California is the manufacturer of the world's first Velcro closure Nylon wallet. Our original fabric wallet first took the world by storm in 1977."

A friend brought my Rainbow to me from Oceanside, Calif., in 1978. It's no big deal now, but back then a Velcro wallet was freaky-deaky. At least in Kentucky. "What was that?" clerks would ask when they heard the sharp rip of my wallet tearing open.

That was thousands of sharp rips ago. The Velcro is toothless now, and the faded green nylon shell is so soft, so flimsy and tattered, it looks like it was eaten and excreted by a snake.

Most people would have ditched it years ago, but it's centered my life in strange ways, like a pocket GPS, since it's been drawn and dispatched in virtually all my life's transactions for 32 years.

It still has a smooch of a red stain inside from a Valentine I carried from my first serious girlfriend. In 1978 it held the bills I drew to pay a dude for a miracle ticket in a DeKalb parking lot for a Grateful Dead show. A few years later it was in my rain pants when I tumbled 40 feet off a dock in Alaska into Resurrection Bay. It rode along in my rented tux on our wedding day, and paid for takeout food to bring to the hospital on the night of all three of our children's births.

I should be sued in the court of sentimentality, but instead of throwing it away I want to place it in a glass box and rope it off in the living room. A shrine to high times and low.

On the day I filed this essay, I called the Rainbow company's toll-free number and ordered a new wallet, same model. I had to pull my credit card from my old one to make the transaction, and that felt a bit cruel. It was a bargain, though, only $7, which makes me think it must have only cost a buck in 1978.

When it comes in the mail and I make the wallet-to-wallet transfer, it'll be like moving out of a house. Call me what you will, but dang, is it a crime to identify with the thing that carries your identity?

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