93. The Pickle Jar

WHEN I WAS YOUNG I had a friend called Michel. We spent all our spare time together and made each other laugh a lot. I knew Michel really wanted to take me to bed because he kept telling me so. But I didn't like him that way, and I can remember exactly why: he was constantly picking his nose. He was at it all the time, the index finger of his left hand (which was curious, as he was right-handed in just about everything else) stuck knuckle-deep up one nostril, and then the other, in public and in private - he had no self-consciousness about it at all. Naturally enough we spoke about it a few times - I even recall having a couple of arguments about it. To him it was a form of self-expression, of struggle or liberation even, as nakedness is to a naturalist. The idea that it might have been considered impolite or even offensive was a form of collective hypocrisy to be resisted and flouted. In fact Michel believed it was a symptom of something deeper, something connected to a kind of generalised neurosis that in his mind had something to do with the bourgeoisie. Everybody does it, he used to say, so why do we pretend otherwise? It's just a normal part of hygiene. He told me this was something he had been doing since he was nine. It was a kind of experiment he intended to keep up throughout his life. How much snot do you think a human nose produces in a lifetime?, he asked me during one of or fights about it. I have no idea, I replied. Well, don't you think this is something worth knowing?, he said. This is my small contribution to science. To me, it wasn't just that he picked his nose, although that was bad enough, it was what he would do with his pickings. He kept them in an old pickle jar in a cupboard in his room. We were both seventeen at the time, and after nine years the pickle jar - just a regular size jar - was just under half full. If he came up with something away from his room, he went around with a little sealable plastic bag to carry his pickings in until he got home. Eventually we broke up because I wouldn't go to bed with him, because in turn he wouldn't stop picking his nose and storing the old pickings in a pickle jar. He couldn't believe I was prepared to break up with him over such an inconsequential thing. In his mind, that made me a bourgeoise, and therefore part of the problem. In those days that kind of thinking wasn't that uncommon, although obviously not in relation to picking one's nose - even in the most radical leftist circles, openly picking one's nose was frowned on. We dropped out of one another's lives, although I did bump into Michel again several years later, at a three-day academic conference, of all things. I was working in the police force at the time, and at the opening reception he explained to me, with a glass of white wine in his hand, that he was doing a PhD in something or other. I didn't really want to ask about his private life, especially not the pickle jar - it's always a bit awkward running into old boyfriends, as far as I'm concerned. I never stay friends with them, the way some people do. Old boyfriends and lovers belong in the past, and I prefer them to stay there. But I suppose because we were both so young, and we used to laugh so much together, and we never actually slept together, there was something unresolved about the situation for me. All night I watched him out of the corner of my eyes, to the point that a couple of colleagues asked me if something was wrong. Of course, I couldn't watch him the whole time, but as far as I could tell he didn't pick his nose a single time. Throughout the three days of the conference I continued to watch him, and although I saw him scratch his nose a couple of times, and rub his noise a couple of times, and even wipe his nose a couple of times with a handkerchief, which some people do as a subtle way of picking their nose, I never actually saw him pick his nose - not a single time. Eventually, at the closing reception, I couldn't help myself. I approached Michel and point blank asked him if he was still continuing with the pickle jar experiment. He laughed and said no, that he had lost too many girlfriends because of the pickle jar, so he had ceased the experiment. But I've kept the pickle jar, he said, so that it is possible to calculate how much snot a nose produces in a lifetime based on the volume I gathered in fourteen years. I must admit, when Michel told me that, it was hard for me to ignore a surge of resentment pass through me. In fact, at that moment, I hated Michel and his nose and pickle jar, his politics and his thoughts about the bourgeoisie, and if I was to pick a single moment or event when I could truthfully say I changed from being a left-wing person to being a right-wing person, I would say it happened over the course of that three-day conference. In a way, it was a blessing because - I suppose this is an open secret - to be right-wing can do wonders for your career, especially in the police force. But I can assure you, for me there was nothing contrived about it.