Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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APRIL 25, 2012 7:38PM

In New York

Rate: 21 Flag
My boyfriend bought me the coat for Christmas two years ago.  Its military style and high collar are the embodiment of an aesthetic he loves.  As for me, I liked the coat’s length, and the fabric it’s made of, warm enough to wear in winter, but light enough to serve in other seasons.  It was a good present.

Except for the buttons.  Like rebellious souls, they constantly try to escape the ordered environment they’ve been stuck onto.  Slowly but surely they let their threads unwind, and wait.

The first button I lost was the one on the right shoulder. It probably came off when I was putting on my heavy backpack as we rushed out the door of my in-laws’ house, headed for the train station after a week-long visit.  About an hour later, when we’d settled into our seats on the train, the boyfriend noticed the button was missing, and reproached me for not being more careful. I could tell his reproach came from regret at a thing of such perfect symmetry now being asymmetrical.

Miraculously, my father-in-law found the button hiding in the gravel of their driveway.  He didn’t know what it was at the time, but when my boyfriend mentioned what had happened to my coat, he realized where it had come from.  At our next visit, the slightly battered escapee was sewn back into place, and it’s remained on my shoulder ever since. I’ve been careful with the coat since then. Not obsessively so, but I watch.
The last visit I’d made to New York was shortly after I’d received the coat, but I hadn’t brought it on that trip.  This time, I was wearing it as I got out of the train at Penn Station and walked up Eighth Avenue, the energy of the city around me like the wind, racing through my heart and my blood.  I noticed briefly that one of the buttons near my midsection was starting to hang from its thread. That was surprising, because it hadn’t seemed loose before.  I resolved to be cautious – no sudden movements - and to fix it when I got back to my father’s house.

And then, while taking in the buildings and crowds around me, I shifted my purse slightly forward.  I don’t know how I felt it, but I did, and glanced down to see the button dive down into a convenient gutter.

I didn’t fully come to terms with it until I’d crossed the street. Then, it seemed to register, and I hurried back and gazed down helplessly beyond the thick grate through which it had fallen.  The button didn’t wink up at me.  I saw nothing but masses of cigarette stubs.  I sighed and walked away. 

I feel relieved that the coat’s new asymmetry doesn’t seem too noticeable – it even took the boyfriend a few days to realize something was missing.  And in a way I’m happy:  I lived in New York for three years, so there must be traces of me, strands of hair in some bird’s nest, other elements that can only be seen on a cellular level.  But when I left the city, I took all of my belongings, and while I was a resident, I never grafittied or created any art.  Nothing larger than a few millimeters of me remained behind.  Now there’s this button lying in the midst of the people passing and the tall buildings and the taxis, this button lying just beneath the sidewalk near Penn Station, which has long been my gateway from family to city life and back.  

There’s a somewhat significant trace of me in Manhattan now, just as a part of Manhattan has remained inside of me. 

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Some of my friends and family told me the button is now rat money. I kind of like that idea, too!
Was that the night of the meet-up? I vaguely remember you mentioning it but it could be my imagination.
It was, Cranky! I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't had the meet-up to go to; some part of me was tempted to try to jerry-rig some sort of...uh...I don't reach down into the gutter and try to get the button back. I think the results would only have been disgusting and/or disappointing. So thanks to you and everyone else who was there that night for saving me from a really unpleasant moment!
Ha, I thought the end would be that someone found it and traced it back to the manufacturer and since it was so unique and from such a unique coat, that it would be traced back to your boyfriend's purchase and waiting for you back in Paris. Optimistic. Dreamer. Yeah. That's me.
I like this so much that I think I'm going to start taking extra buttons with me when I travel and leave them in secret places.
Alysa, how frustrating to have such a unique button fall into a catch basin! Had I been present that evening I would have mentioned a store on East 62nd called "Tender Buttons" which has for sale more varieties of buttons than I could have imagined were ever made. Next time you're here you should check out their inventory in the hopes of a match!
Yeah, might as well yank the loose button yourself and control your fate. Rat money? That's a new one to me! A whimsical existentialism peaks up from that grate. I am grateful.
I like this very much. The traces we leave behind whether they be a strand of hair or more significant. Of course, the thing you always leave behind are traces of your creative spirit. Lovely post. R
Rat money. Ha. Or Rat gambling chips.
A fine rendering of a lost button!
Your last sentence is the gold button that closes this story. I was going to say "sad story," but I have a feeling you will be able to replace the button. Penn Station is so close to the trim district! Buttons galore in the west 30s! Next time...or maybe you will find one in Paris?
I really like the idea of leaaving something of us behind.
Good humored and wise, Alysa, and delightfully told.
The last two grafs are sublime.
This was fantastic!!! It goes right along with my theory that there are clues in everything around us. Complete stories that explain the universe if only we would look at the stuff and feel the information it holds.

That button also reminded me of the gold ring Harold gave Maude in the movie 'Harold and Maude'. She took it and threw it way out in the water. "Now Ill always know where it is," she said.
Alysa, I will keep an eye open for your button! love your lovely and wistful serenity about it all. best, libby
ps. I thought your pic was a planet.

you know one of my fave children's stories my mom read me as a kid was about a button drawer and all the different buttons there would share stories about their glory days. One had been on a ballerina's tutu, one was on a train conductor's jacket. I can't remember the others but my brother and I insisted my poor mother read that to us countless times it so inspired our imaginations. thanks for leading me to remember that. best, libby
Just think, someday a team of archaeologists will spend weeks studying the significance of that button in the evolution of the human race. Only you, Alysa, could hang such a delightful tale by a thread. R
I really enjoyed this story. I too like the idea of leaving a little bit of us behind wherever we go. /r
Buttons are patient, malignant characters waiting for their chance to escape, leaving you with an awkward, open space in your apparel. Ask not "Button, button, who has the button?" The button has you.
Alysa, how bout let the lost buttons wander where they will & replace them with "souvenirs" of where they were lost?

I love the way you unbuttoned this story-I think you could add several chapters to it. How many buttons are on that coat? Would love to read more like this-you have a way with buttons.

thankfully not frost's way with button button who's got-the witch of coos. ha
Maybe a magpie picked it up treasures it still. We do leave traces of ourselves wherever we go. At least your trace was a gold-toned buttons. There are worse kinds of traces...
Thank you so much for reading, guys, and for your insightful comments - and advice! If I do replace the button, I'll let you know.

Also, libby -now that you mention it, the button DOES look like a planet! Whoa....
Traces of me remain and reside in the 100+ year old structure of the Russian bathhouse on E. 10th St. My long deceased ancestors reside there, too.

Haters beware.

Great essay, Elisa, hearkening back to millennia, long gone.

When one is posting in the middle of the night, as early a.m. beckons Alysa might evolve into Elisa - sorry about that, Alyza.