An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.
Seven years ago, on the curb in front of a furniture store in East Harlem, I stood next to a couple of upholstered dining chairs I had just bought for my new apartment. They were patterned with rainbow-colored chickens and didn’t really go with anything in my apartment at the time—which meant, of course, that I had to have them.
I don’t know why I bought two chairs: I was moving into a 150–square foot shoebox studio in Morningside Heights, by myself. The apartment had barely enough room for a twin bed, let alone dining chairs (or a dining table). If I had bought just one chair, I could’ve hauled it across town by myself. But for some reason I bought two, which is why I called my big brother to help me carry the second one. As I stood on that curb guarding the chairs, Kevin was standing in the street hailing a cab for us.
At the time Kevin, four years my senior, lived downtown, having moved to New York years before I had. When it finally came time for me to pick colleges, it felt natural for me to apply to schools where he lived, because that was just the way we were: Everything he did, I did, too, four years later. My first few years in New York were made significantly easier because I had a brother in the city. This was a great comfort to my parents, as well, who lived in Atlanta, where we grew up. No matter what happened, they’d say, miles away from the nest, living our sin-filled lives, at least we had each other.
They were right, in many ways. My proximity to Kevin meant that I had a security blanket while navigating New York City as a broke twenty-something, somewhere to crash whenever I messed up or felt lost. If my brother was the rock, I was the recurrent tidal wave crashing into it. One time I had bedbugs, so he helped me lug all my clothes and linens to the Laundromat several blocks away. Another time, when my apartment flooded the day before a big exam, I studied at his place and he made me coffee. The day I decided to quit my job in academia and called him in tears, terrified about my future, he said, “You’re always talking about food, Eric; you should write about food.”
In those days, sometimes, I’d stay out late drinking with my friends downtown. Instead of making the trek back to my apartment uptown, I’d stop at Kevin's place and sober up on his couch. I’d wake up to black coffee and scrambled eggs in the morning, and he’d hail me a cab when I was ready to go home. That image of my brother hailing a cab is so ingrained in my brain, years later. Even now that he lives in Los Angeles.
It took my brother leaving the city for me to finally come into my own. No longer did I have a second apartment to use as storage, a nice bathtub to soak in on the weekends because mine was old and gross, a safe haven to flee to whenever I wanted to get away from myself.
If my brother was the rock, I was the recurrent tidal wave crashing into it.
Over the years, as I learned to exist without my brother as a crutch, I gained my own footing, my own sense of security, and eventually my own unbridled self-confidence—which Kevin always seemed to possess by default. I started dating boys and meeting people outside of his circle of friends. That second chair, now empty, meant that there was finally room in my life to let others in.
But in many ways—some conscious, some not—that second chair I bought was, and will always be, his seat first. Back then I didn’t have much to offer my brother, but the rare moments when he would come over for coffee, cake, or dinner, at least I could give him a chair to sit in.
Three apartments later, I still have those chairs. I mostly use them as racks for clothes that are too dirty for the closet but too clean for the laundry. One chair has water stains all over its cushion because I keep it in the bathroom next to the tub. It’s nice to sit in a cool chair after a hot bath (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). The chairs couldn't be more beat up and less taken care of, and yet they still have their tags. I never cut them off in case I ever wanted to return them.
With each move, I’ve thrown things out and replaced them with new pieces of furniture. Now I have huge white shelves filled with all my favorite novels and cookbooks; a stainless steel kitchen island where I develop recipes and entertain friends; a full-sized bed where my dog and I can spread out.
I still don’t have a dining table, but I do have a little white desk, where I sit on a chicken chair and write about food.
Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.