Sometime, at least half a year ago, someone dropped a wristwatch on 11th Street NW. Passing traffic pummeled the timepiece into fragments—most consisting of a few links of the wristband—and strewed them the length of a block. At the north end, the watch back came to a rest. Tires and footsteps packed its pieces into the warm, spongy asphalt, where they hang suspended in plain sight. They are deep enough to stay embedded, yet still bare a polished steel edge to the constant barrage of tires.

Their gleam keeps the question of their provenance alive. Was the owner in too much of a hurry running for a bus to notice when the watch fell off? Was staying on schedule more important than the watch itself? Or was the watch broken, the street a convenient means of disposal?

All over the city, similarly embedded objects catch the sun, beckoning to be noticed. Bottle caps are ubiquitous, but there are also hood ornaments, bolts, radio knobs, door hinges, cans, and innumerable chunks of unidentifiable metal, plastic, and glass. Two halves of a utility knife can be found on U Street NW, each half permanently moored about a foot from the other. And there are discarded personal effects: keys, lighters, jewelry, money, trinkets.

You could stock a car-parts shop with just the pieces found in the city’s pavement. These leftovers from collisions and poorly maintained vehicles testify to our constant need to move on. Lose a chunk of your Honda in a fender-bender but need to get to work? Leave it in the road. Forget to tighten that loose license-plate screw? Don’t worry—the street will give it a home.

The pavement has become a curator of our daily detritus. What gets ground into the surface and what gets kicked onto the sidewalk is a matter of chance, determined by the pattern of passing traffic, the weather, and the material of the object itself. Those items that remain suspended below us reveal our drive for speed and efficiency, and, as a byproduct, our recklessness. Our hurried nature dictates that a lost object—an earring, a box of screws, an oil pan—can be sacrificed in order to make our appointments.

But the streets have a way of suspending time. Every year, under the summer sun, they digest our castoffs and combine them with others from the past. And the process grinds on, creating geological strata of our lively existence. —Pete Morelewicz

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Stephen Crowley, Charles Steck, and Pete Morelewicz.