Essay: Two Dollar Man

Can anyone tell me who this man is? Anyone, anywhere?

Around four years ago, I found this picture on a shelf in a thrift store in the East Village, with a two dollar price tag stamped on the back. I had no idea who the man was or why it was there, but saw it as a sign that I happened to have exactly two dollars in my pocket. I bought it, thinking that this two dollar man might mean something, if not now, then maybe someday.

I taped the photo to the wall of my then-bedroom, still not entirely sure why I was drawn to it. Some time after that, I moved, tucked the photo away somewhere, and forgot about it. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of history, perhaps as a result of reading Will Durant’s, The Story of Civilization series, but also as a way of processing everything that’s going on in the world right now. You know: Covid, reckoning with racism in America, climate change, percolating authoritarianism,  and a general sense of existential precariousness. I’ve been trying to contextualize this point in time in the grander picture of human history, and trying to reconcile where I fit in. I guess my hope is that having a clearer perspective of my place in the world might provide the insight that I need to truly rise to the life I’ve been gifted. 

A couple of days ago, I woke up with the two dollar man on my mind. I couldn’t tell you why; he just popped into my head, as randomly as the first time I encountered him. I couldn’t remember where I put the original photo, but recalled having taken a picture of the photo on the day I found him. After some digging, I found it. 

I zoomed in, cropped the picture, and conducted a reverse image search, hoping I might find a match and identify him. The search yielded an endless grid of sepia-tinted portraits, men who have come and gone. One was murdered in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Another was a Jamaica-born respiratory therapist who loved helping others, and then there was the Chinese immigrant who moved his family to Kansas to start a successful restaurant. But there was no two dollar man. 

I even used one of those free face-aging apps to approximate what he might look like as an old man, but couldn’t find any matches. There’s a Polish website that contains an archive of millions of faces from publicly-shared photos. I uploaded the picture there and found numerous pictures of young men from all over the world- presumably all still living- many of whom looked a lot like the two dollar man. But the site felt a little ethically dubious, and then it asked for my payment information. I thought: This is creepy, and this is expensive. I also thought that my sense of wonder and curiosity was more satisfying. 

Where was he born, how did he live, and what became of him? What other records are there of his existence and in whose memories does he survive, if anyone? What happened on the day that the photo was taken? What were his values? When did he go astray, and where did he shine? Why did I think it was a good idea to spend two dollars on his picture, and why am I projecting so much of myself onto the two dollar man?

There’s something about his penetrating gaze, I think. It’s serious, but also soft. There’s a pleading in his eyes. Something in his heart told him to look at the camera in that singular way, and then something in that look prompted a person or persons to keep the photo for however many years old it is. And just when it might have begun to lose relevance, someone working in a thrift store found value in his face- exactly two dollars’ worth, which I willingly paid. 

Some form of energy emanated from his look like ripples in a pond until it reached me, and now I’m here, sending the ripples out in a different direction. We all absorb history as a reflection of the ways in which others before us did, and that history passes on endlessly through the prisms of our bodies and back out into the world, transformed by our unique dispositions. 

Think of the faces that have come and gone. All of the lives. And for what? Why aren’t we all working together, building and exploring, inside and out, forever? Isn’t it kind of crazy to live in any mindset other than complete and total gratitude? But, yeah, we’re here. This point in time. The world today. Life as we know it. 

Here’s a picture of me taken a few weeks ago: 

I can’t help but wonder what’s going to become of my face when its context is lost to history. I hope that in the future there are digital thrift stores; you know, places that sell peoples’ old files, “vintage” content that fell by the wayside during its own time, but that somehow finds new value and relevance in a different era. And I hope that this article and my picture make it there, lost and then found on a metaphorical dusty shelf in a far corner of the internet, and sold for two dollars to a curious passerby. That’s one way to find meaning. 

Did the two dollar man struggle to find meaning, to discover his place in the world, in the same ways that I do? Maybe his look is telling me not to worry about my place in the world, though. Maybe he’s saying to let go. Maybe he’s saying that your meaning, your place in this world, will find you.

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