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Of Costumes and Consequences

The Fairfield County Weekly"s sidewalk box—in a rare state of tidiness.

A few years back, a newspaper monster wandered into a Halloween party at our house, caused a stir, and left without ever identifying himself. Vampires, werewolves, Harry Potter characters, superheroes and schoolgirls were gathered around a fire pit, draining beers, reluctant to leave that tiny warm perimeter on a particularly frigid night. And this person, in a homemade costume that was head to toe overlapping strips of newsprint, carefully layered for buoyant fullness, came in like an apparition. It was fascinating to watch him walk—the air catching the individual paper flaps like wind through leaves, like leaves breathing.

(I have looked through a hole in the blinds in the middle of the night at a neighbor's tree, illuminated by streetlight, and watched this very motion: the leaves undulating slowly, bottom to top, and am always left with a sense of wonder.)

We could only see his eyes—kind, mischievous. We watched him drink a beer. We marveled at his creative genius and laughed at his silence, certain he'd reveal himself before the night was through.

He left when we weren't looking. Left us with just one photograph that we studied at length, staring at the eyes between the paper strips, studying his height, his build, eliminating possibilities among friends, and friends of friends, and random acquaintances.

Surely someone would call or email wanting to take credit for such a costume. Such a stunt. No one ever did.

For weeks afterward, we found stray flaps of newsprint hidden in the corners of our yard. They were wide enough to be identified as desiccated remains of the Fairfield County Weekly, the free alternative paper where I was working. I felt a small gut-punch, the same one I felt when I ordered fish and chips from a local restaurant and it came wrapped in a page of the Weekly. This is just free paper to someone. Free paper with words and pictures printed on it.

I had seen our free weekly countless times piled haphazardly in shop corners, sections pulled out, covers bent back. Sometimes, slightly ashamed, I tried to set the piles right. Or they were stuffed inside the plastic sidewalk boxes, looking sloppy and discolored, along with a stray McDonald's cup or a crumpled bag. The front issue, the one displaying the paper to passersby, was invariably missing.

Other times I would see a stack of Weeklies left outside a shop that didn't want the alternative paper, and these papers had become untethered and the pages—whole pages—were blowing down streets and sidewalks, clinging to buildings and sticking in gutters. Becoming dirty and trampled and a public nuisance, and who was going to pick that up?

I have been reading a lot lately about the death of newspapers. People are nostalgic already for the smell of newsprint and the former heft of old Sunday editions. I used to buy the Sunday New York Times before I had a child. I liked taking it to the beach on a summer morning, turning idly through the sections; the huge pages lifting like sails whenever a corner came loose. The Sunday Times was, for me, the very definition of luxury—the luxury of time, of mornings that stretched into afternoons, of stories about Manhattan power couples buying second homes, of lengthy reviews of books I would never read, of pictures of people walking in the park looking more stylish than I ever would. How much of that Times went unread? Two-thirds? How long before that impressive heft became a nuisance in my cluttered Corolla? How long before I was filling said Corolla at a gas station and dumped the whole mess?

What if we had before us every newspaper we've ever bought and partially-or-even-barely read? Those papers are out there, still. Those papers have a material content and a lifecycle that has nothing to do with their intellectual content.

Others recognized this first—the chef wrapping fried fish; the man in the newspaper costume. It's just paper, after all, and ink, and why should it be wasted just because nobody wants to read it?

BRITA BELLI is the editor of E.