"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pack Rats vs. Chuckers–The Twain Shall Never Meet

My mother was a chucker.  Everything that did not have an immediate, practical use had been thrown out before dust could gather. There were a few photographs of the grandchildren in the den, but each time I visited there were fewer. I ran across an album of her family that she had somehow missed, and in it were old black-and-whites from the 20s.  I was delighted.  My mother never talked about her family and relatives, and here was a visual record of her youth. “Why do you want those old things?”, she asked. “Everyone in them is dead and gone”. And sure enough, the next time I came back, the album was gone, and the last traces of Great Uncle Guido were now in the Berlin dump.

Rather than stock up on memories of the past, my mother insisted on the here and now.  Perfectly serviceable dishes, utensils, teapots, and warming trays were given the heave-ho.  Cans of peas, corn, and tomatoes were tossed long before their due date.  “If I ever need a can of corn”, she said, “I will buy one.  What, don’t you think I can afford it?”.

The closet in my old room had been emptied.  My old Lefferts blazer, a pair of Docksiders, and the wooden tennis racket that had gotten me into the Junior Club Finals were all gone.  Every drawer of my bureau was empty except for a few pennies and a ticket stub caught in the slats.  The walls were blank.  Awards, framed commendations, pictures of sailboats were gone, the nail holes filled, and the walls repainted. I never existed.  It could have been anyone’s room.

The garage was as clean as a whistle.  My father traded in our cars long before they began to drip oil or shed shavings from the struts, so the floor was white and unspotted. Gardeners mowed, trimmed, and raked so there were no tools, bins, or bags.

The basement was lean and uncluttered.  Only an ice bucket and a few glasses remained on the bar, “Just in case”, mother said, in her only reference, oblique as it was, to the past and the parties she threw in the heyday of the Fifties.

My wife’s uncle and aunt on the other hand threw nothing out. Bill’s study was so crammed with old magazines, newspapers, and ratty files that only a small slalom lane remained to his desk.  The only way to tell if he was at work behind the piles of magazine scraps, yellowed Wall Street Journals, ancient brochures for Bhutan and Cape Verde; flyers and notices from decades ago offering dance lessons, mechanics courses, and free buffet barbecues; was rustle of paper being shifted from one place to another.  The wastebasket was as empty and new as it had been twenty years ago when he bought it. “You never know”, he said when his daughter insisted on a clean up of the fire-hazard room, “When I might want to go to Bhutan”


His workroom was even worse. In the fifty years that they had lived in the house, he had never thrown out so much as a screw.  Old, rusty saws hung from hooks on the rafters.  Nuts, bolts, grommets, and pegs filled buckets and bins.  Engine parts from cars, outboards, airplanes, and party barges were piled in corners. Torn sails and coils of rope were draped over shelves littered with cracked rudders, pieces of broken oars, and lengths of gunwale.  Hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers were buried in old electrical wire, fencing, and burlap. Only a few square feet of workbench was cleared of debris and detritus, and there he worked, re-jiggering the starter motor for the 50s vintage Amana dishwasher that, taped, dented, and badly scratched, groaned its way through cycle after cycle of dirty plates.

His wife, Betty, was as bad, if not worse.  Her sewing room was a yard sale of scraps of fabric, tailor dummies were draped with cloth, half-finished blouses, and coat sleeves.  The corners were stacked high with bolts of upholstery material.  Her sewing table was a tangle of thread, knitting wool, sewing needles, pins, measuring tape and pin cushions with their stuffing half-out.  Balls of yarn were piled on and under the table.  Yard sticks, tent-poles, and fishing line were criss-crossed overhead.

The closets were filled with every dress, toy, and book her daughters had ever read.  There were party favors, dance cards, dried carnations, hair bows; sand pails and shovels, old sneakers and war paint, Halloween costumes, and broken Christmas decorations.

Only the living room had been spared this inconceivable clutter.  It was a bit shabby (all furniture had been repaired, reupholstered, and cleaned many times), but neat; and bright sunlight streamed through the wall-to-wall windows.

The world is divided in many ways – rich and poor, black and white, male and female, children or childless – but perhaps none so visible as pack rats and chuckers. Pack rats are not lazy or indifferent, but condemned to a life of implacable practicality because of the Depression, growing up on a ranch, or struggling upwards in America.  Chuckers are not obsessive-compulsive, but – as in the case of my mother – have something against the past; or an insistent need for order resulting from a childhood spent in jammed and cramped tenements and walk-ups.

Like any social phenomenon, there is weirdness at the margins.  I had a friend whose mother sat in the dark rather than turn on a light, insisted that we take off our shoes before entering the house, stand until our business was done so not to soil, wrinkle, or deface the furniture, and leave by the very footfalls we entered by.  The tables were polished to a high sheen, the sink bright and gleaming, the rugs buffed and perky.  There was not a jot of dirt or a mote of dust anywhere.  The furnishings were as spare as those in a Shaker home.  Our house was a kitschy museum of excess compared to that of Mrs. Carlson.  She herself was bony, spare, and frugal.  One look into the dim light of the living room told you that there was nothing in the upstairs, attic, or basement.  Her only frustration must have been that after scanning the walls, floors, shelves, and furniture, there was nothing more to throw out.

At the other end of the spectrum was Mrs. Bernstein, the mother of a friend who had to be pried out of her house.  The clutter beggared anything that my parents-in-law could even dream of. She had saved absolutely every Hartford Courant and New Brighton Herald from the 30s.  Piles of Life, McCall’s, Vogue, and The Saturday Evening Post blocked the light. Editions of complete encyclopedias bought during the Depression from itinerant salesman were stacked on the kitchen table. Clothes she had worn fifty years ago, now moth-eaten and scraggly were piled over them. Every pipe her husband had smoked, every medical journal he read; every stock prospectus, annual report, and company earnings statement were there, dog-eared, yellowing, and piled high.

Pack rats have existed for millennia as Dara Horn writes in the Washington Post (9.21.13):

In 1897, Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter discovered a trove of medieval documents in a 900-year-old Cairo synagogue. Because of a religious law against destroying texts inscribed with God’s name, this synagogue, like many Jewish communities to this day, had a storage space called a genizah, meaning “hiding place,” to keep damaged or discarded documents before burying them. Unlike most communities, the Jews of Cairo saved not only sacred writings but anything written in Hebrew letters — and they hadn’t cleaned out their genizah in 900 years. When Schechter opened the second-story hatch leading to the 12-by-14-foot space, he looked down into a cloud of dust. Beneath the dust was a well of loose paper more than 20 feet deep.

When British researchers went through the papers, they were in for a surprise:

Some of these were priceless treasures: first drafts of major philosophical works, personal letters from historic figures, forgotten poetry by world-class talents, unknown versions of biblical texts. But most were sales receipts, love notes, children’s schoolwork, business inventories, medical prescriptions and other fragments of daily life.

The old Jews were ordinary pack rats after all.

Perhaps pack rats are on to something – saving, even to the point of compulsion – may be a validation of the past.  We exist because of what we were, not what we are or may be.

Reading through these parchments, [the researcher] claimed, was like “an act of resurrection in miniature. How the past suddenly rushes in upon you with all its joys and woes! And there is a spark of a human soul like yours come to light again after a disappearance of centuries, crying for sympathy and mercy. . . . You dare not neglect the appeal and slay this soul again.”

Horn goes on:

Perhaps [we save because of a] fear of mortality. The Egyptian pharaohs filled their tombs with images and texts representing all they hoped to carry from one world to the next. If we could just save everything, we similarly hope, then all our momentary encounters — the delicious dinner that will become a pile of dirty dishes, the glowing sunset that will fade into darkness, the laughing man or woman who will leave us for someone else, the smiling parent who will pass away, the crawling baby who will grow up faster than we can imagine — will remain unchanging, stored for eternity in some metaphysical space beyond time. No wonder we call it “the cloud.”

Horn worries that in today’s electronic culture where snap-and-save is the rule and where the cloud is filled with billions of bits of information that will never be retrieved, looked at, smiled over, or provide the spark for deeper memories of childhood, the valuation of ‘things’ is being lost.  We cannot sort the wheat from the chaff.

In the case of my wife’s relatives, it took the efforts of their daughters – like the British researchers - to rummage and sift through the piles of junk to see if there were any memories worth saving.  For the children of today’s electronic pack rats, there is no hope of that ever happening.  Nothing has been saved because of any personal motivation – a Depression-era screw or a toy from the 40s – but has been stored indiscriminately. A dog pissing on a baby carriage or a San Francisco bum with his pants half-jacked are equal oddities, meaningless, funny in a temporal way, but with no connection to the photographer.

On the other hand, there is good reason not to worry.  The American consumer culture is alive and well, and most Thirty-somethings beginning a family are surrounded by clutter and junk just like their forbearers.  Endless plastic toys, joggers’ baby buggies, dolls, gadgets; racks of knock-off designer shoes (to mitigate the humdrum of motherhood); tennis rackets, footballs, and fishing rods. 

These families will eventually turn into chuckers or pack rats, and by the time they hit 50 their houses will either resemble the one I grew up in – clean as a whistle and empty – or that of my in-laws, jam-packed and impenetrable.

Eventually future generations of human beings will live in an entirely virtual world, and the brick-and-mortar world of things will be but a distant memory.  Then the problem of selective memory will be real and serious.  Everything will be electronic and stored automatically, impossible to categorize let alone review and retrieve.  The world will be one of an eternal present.  No pack rats or chuckers.  The end of an era.

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