Man and His Bottle Caps

'My Parents Would Stick a Pen in My Hand and Say, Go Meet Colonel Sanders'

LOCATIONYorkville
RENT$666.19 [rent stabilized]
SQUARE FEET280 [two rooms in 1904, six-floor walk-up, experimental worker housing]
OCCUPANTSHarley Spiller a/k/a Inspector Collector [administrator, Franklin Furnace; itinerant teacher]

It's so safe walking up York in the Seventies—all hospitals and grandmothers. This building had two attacks by the Upper East Side rapist. [I look at him suspiciously.] No, I'm not the rapist. Before this was a German Hungarian neighborhood, it was Irish, very tough. Cagney went to that school on the corner. There still are Irish toughs in the park. A few years ago, the Sopranos kid was arrested for mugging some kids. That was near my block. You had a false sense of security.

You're across from the famous 1912 tuberculosis apartments [Shively Sanitary Tenements], though now they're a regular co-op. There's something so forlorn about those iron balconies.No one sits on them. They were to catch the healthful air from the river.

Harley Spiller in his Yorkville apartment
photo: Brian Kennedy
Harley Spiller in his Yorkville apartment

I guess we can't hold off talking about your collections anymore.I have about 10,000 Chinese menus, 10,000 graffiti stickers, several thousand autographs. My first was Colonel Sanders. I was a little boy at the Waldorf. I'm from Buffalo. We'd visit New York four times a year. We stayed in rooms 15 E and F. I have roughly 6,000 keys. Probably 40 are 15 E and F. [He flips through his autograph album.] Here's "To Harley Spiller. Right on, Marlin Briscoe." Sidney Poitier in Nassau. Buddy Hackett. He went to school with my cousin Lenny.

Let's rest a minute.[In a deep voice like Louis Armstrong] Well, Hello Dolly. I said, Will you write, "Well, Hello Harley"? He was a little blurry. He wrote, "To Hello Harley."

Why did you want to get autographs?My parents would stick a pen in my hand and say, Go meet Colonel Sanders. Today I don't do it. I was on an Eminem tour bus. I didn't ask. But he sent me one. Not Eminem but Eminem's tour manager. I have a chewing gum collection. It's sometimes really hard to sort things.

I expected your apartment to be this jungle of gum and toothpicks.I stopped. Everything is put away. Why? Maturity. [He holds his forehead and looks down.]

You look pained.My fiancée walked out. She left a note on this table that you're writing on. She lived here with me for two years.

Was she a collector?She collected photos of the flower arrangements I gave her. They were gorgeous. I was working at Takashimaya. How did we fit here? It was OK. She was a quiet, slim individual. I never bumped into her. . . . I moved here in 1982, a year out of college. My parents ran an advertising and sales promotion company. In his basement, my dad had little drawers with feathers, dice, chopsticks, name tags.

A chip off the old block!Before I changed, my friends Paul and Joe the Cop, a retired policeman, came over. They were having snacks. Joe said, What is that shit on the wall? I'm also a teacher. Let me show you my calendar: Bottlecaps, Monday. Autographs, Tuesday. Shoes, Wednesday. Bottle caps, Thursday. Tree sap, Friday. I don't collect maple syrup, but I teach a lesson in sap. I teach in schools in all five boroughs.

Collections can be about miniaturization, making a perfectly ordered universe. It is a totally artificial world. Nothing dies. Repetition, vast numbers of the same object, is also about keeping the thing alive.When I go through my seashell collection—I can say when I got this one. It's very pleasurable to have the memory. It's a retrospective of your life.

Why isn't just having one of something OK? You're holding your head. You're so dramatic!I've always loved RCA Victor. We had it on our hi-fi at home. People were throwing out record players in the '80s. I took every cool tone arm I could find. I stopped once people had thrown out all their record players. I locked the collection. It's over. Yes, if I saw another one, I'd take it—the kind that looks like a cobra, with the eyes.

 
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