What’s in the sack? That’s all they care about.
Is it a rock or a rolled-up giraffe?
Is it pickles or nickels or busted bicycles?
And if we guess it, will you give us half?
Do they ask where I’ve been, or how long I’ll be stayin’,
Where I’ll be goin’, or when I’ll be back,
Or “How do?” or “What’s new?” or “Hey, why are you blue?”
No, all they keep asking is “What’s in the sack?”
“What’s in the sack?” I’m blowin’ my stack
At the next one who asks me, “What’s in the sack?”
Oh no. Not you, too!
— From “What’s in the Sack?” by Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Harper & Row)
Yep, us too. Come on, open up. What’s in that backpack? Nothing tells us who you are quite like what you’re willing to haul around with you, and we do so want to know who you are, San Diego. Come on, just a peek…
The chief advantage of a backpack, of course, is that it frees the hands. This is essential when you are a parent of a baby or toddler. Babies need hands for attending and carrying. Toddlers need hands for restraint. Backpacks are the easiest way of handling the masses of stuff that children require for care, feeding, and entertainment. Mother of an 18-month-old, speaking as if this conversation is not on the schedule, “Diapers. Food, her drinks. Drinks, food, and diapers for her. And my wallet. Take my photo? You’re kidding. Well, the diapers are clean, so…Wipes are important. Food. Her magazine [Animals All Around].”
Another mom, her pack jutting out like a snail shell behind her, gestures to her two children. “This is the reason why I have a backpack. I wouldn’t survive without one. Diapers. Money. Extra clothes. That’s the whole backpack.”
The bright side is that when children get older, they can carry their own backpacks and often take a fierce pride in doing so. Carl is a shy, towheaded three-year-old who nonetheless shoots a look of secret delight when asked about his pack.
“What’s in there, Carl?”
“Clothes. I got this pants. Stickers,” he hoots, beaming. When he poses for a photo, he peers over his shoulder, smiling coyly.
Any account of backpacking types must include students. Vashon, an upbeat African American clad in primary colors, assumes a narrative distance as he goes through the essentials. “A Walkman. You can’t have a backpack without a Walkman. The tape is Marvin Gaye. You’ve got to have some old school, and you’ve got to have some new school. The new school would be Mary J. Blige. Then, if you’re a student, of course, you’ve got to have some books. And if you’re in college, one has an organizer. If you work, you have a uniform, very tight fit.” He also carries the obligatory condom, highlighters, White-Out, and name tags.
The first I see of student number two, Jennie, is a Bad Religion patch stitched onto her black backpack. When I catch up to her, I see that besides the heavy, straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and retro outfit, she wears tortoiseshell glasses, a dead giveaway. Artist. Her description of her pack’s contents builds to the revelation, “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got my brush, my psychology book, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury, all my writing. I want to be a writer. I’ve got all these poems and stuff.” It’s quite a collection.
“Do you carry all of them everywhere?”
“Pretty much, because at home, I don’t know, I don’t trust the people there; they always go through my stuff. I don’t want anyone else to read it until it’s ready. The Sound and the Fury is for my English class, but I’m a psychology major. I’d like to be a psychologist, a clinical psychologist, so that I’ll be able to afford publishing my own books. Because I’m not sure; I write really controversial stuff, and I don’t want to have to depend on the publisher’s taste. And also, then I could edit my own things, and I wouldn’t have to bend to an editor.”
Curious about what could be called “controversial” in today’s literary climate, I ask about her themes. “I write about everything I see. Pretty much everything. I’ll probably write about this incident, for instance. I write about a lot of things which I think people just totally ignore and aren’t even aware of, just even everyday things. I have a lot of stuff from when I was riding on the bus. There’s always good material there.”
Some of that good material may come in the form of Mike, an open-faced stalk of a man wrapped in black, beret to boots. “I ride the bus,” he states. “I have a lot of time to read.” His backpack is empty except for one book, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. “It’s a little bit difficult to get through on the bus, I’ve been finding, with all the conversations and stuff going on, especially late at night, coming back from the bars. A lot of people go downtown. You know.” (Downtown partygoer lament: “It’s hard to let go on the bus at the end of an evening with these Freud-reading people in black casting a pall over everything. I mean, geez.”)
“What do you think? Is Freud on to something?”
“Yeah, I think so, because of his theory of wish fulfillment. It seems to hold up pretty well. When you dream something, it’s because the unconscious is expressing a wish fulfillment, and even if a dream seems mundane, the most mundane elements of a dream generally are symbols or an aversion to the actual underlying subject of the dream. Every symbol is connected with other events in your life; it’s like a chain of similarities.”
Mike isn’t swallowing Freud whole. “I wonder about the theory, though, because it seems when you make a statement that ‘it’s always this,’ you run into trouble. And I wonder about his analysis sometimes, whether he could analyze a dream into meaning anything. But just from my own experiences, after reading, when I have a dream and I remember it, I think of it in terms of wish fulfillment, and generally, it makes sense.” Discontented with pop psychology’s summation and dismissal of Freud, a late-night bus rider seeks to understand his darkly symbolic dreams through a return to the original writings of the master. Jennie could have a field day. I’m stuck with backpacks.