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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hoarders vs. Chuckers–A Tale of Things

The Daily Mail (3.9.14) reports that a Japanese man lives in a 15’x15’ apartment surrounded by junk that he can’t bear to throw out.

Cosy: The flat's occupant, who has not been named, can just about squeeze in space to sleep

The mother of a close friend of mine died recently, and he and his sister, estranged from her for many years, still had to sort out her affairs. When they entered her tidy-looking suburban rambler in Gaithersburg, they saw that she had been hoarding for years. Although she had tended her rose garden and petunias, had the picket fence painted, and trimmed the yews, she had not touched anything inside the house.  The entrance hallway had become an allée of Washington Posts and New York Times that dated back to Kennedy’s assassination. The stairs were piled with biographies, histories, and Greek and Roman mythology.  The kitchen was impassable because packages of Spaghetti O’s, cans of tuna fish, and ancient boxes of Frosted Flakes barred the way.  The living room was a repository for the leavings of rummage sales.  There were ratty fox stoles from the Forties, card tables from the Fifties, pillbox hats from the Sixties, and bits and pieces of every decade until the day she died.

Her medicine cabinet was stacked three-deep with pillboxes, depilatory creams, hemorrhoid suppositories, toothpaste, and ear wax removers, all thirty years past their pull dates.  Hardened, cracked bars of soap were stacked in the corners of her shower, and molded rolls of toilet paper which had gotten soaked from some ancient sink leak still were piled on the floor.  Her bedroom was festooned with plumed hats, fake boas,and flapper dresses, and her closet was jammed to overflowing with shoes.  There were flats, pumps, spiked heels, lace-ups, slip-ons, and elegant gold lamé slippers.  The clothes racks were tight with dresses, coats, bathrobes, and jumpers.

She had hoarded for all of her 87 years and never thrown out anything. When some fevered nightmare awakened her and terrified her of something in her house – one night she awoke in a panic deathly afraid of silk stockings – she kicked the thing down the basement stairs and locked the door.  When Robert and his sister Frederique managed to open the door, they found even more refuse from their mother’s life, but in the dark, dank recesses of the cellar, there was only stench and mold. Years of high water, a cracked foundation, and no concern turned the storage areas into fetid, stinking piles of crinoline, felt, and J.C. Penney seconds.

It took Robert and his sister two months to clear the debris.  It would have taken less if they hadn’t found some old photograph albums and 8mm films of their childhood.  They thought that perhaps more mementos and souvenirs would surface from beneath the piles of discards. After a month of work, they abandoned all hope of discovering bits of their past and simply shoveled their mother’s belongings into a garbage truck specially hired for the occasion.

Esther Perkins, on the other hand, was a chucker, and her house was as uncluttered and Spartan as a monastery.  As soon as she finished reading the Hartford Courant, it was rolled up and thrown in the trash.  Magazines once read were tossed. Her living room had been untouched since her husband had died in 1974.  The Buddhist head that he had bought in Bangkok was still on the mantelpiece, the uncomfortable Victorian petit point chairs inherited from her mother still stood by the picture window.  The sconces and Venetian mirror bought for her by her sister still adorned the room; but nothing else was permitted. There was not a trace of anything new, temporary, or incidental.  She vacuumed once her son and his wife left.  She angrily picked up toll receipts, pennies, and gum wrappers from his dresser.

While her husband was alive she dusted the family albums that he had treasured – pictures of his mother and father at their wedding; their trips to Niagara Falls; faded portraits of old Italian relatives from the Old Country – but as soon as he died, she threw them all out, dumped them in the trash along with the dust devils and old spaghetti strands tossed by Mrs. Ruziicka, the maid.

One day on a visit to his mother, Brad Perkins decided to collect some old photographs that had been kept in the bureau drawer of his old room.  Most were from his first wedding which he had decided to leave at home for safekeeping after he re-married. When he went up to his old room to collect them, they were gone.  His mother claimed ignorance.  He must be mistaken, she said, and taken them with him on another visit. He was upset, for although he had moved on to a new wife and family, he still loved his first wife and secretly hoped that they might get back together.

After turning the house upside down and looking in every closet, drawer, and crawl space, he realized that his mother had chucked his memories in the trash along with the meat loaf.  He was angry at his mother, but when he looked around the bare house, as spare and ascetic as a Shaker’s, he knew that it was unfair to judge.  For some reason his mother wanted nothing to do with the past. Perhaps it had something to do with her Sicilian father, his marrying her off to Harry Perkins without her consent, her life in the Connecticut rustbelt with no romance, few prospects, and nosy neighbors. Or perhaps because she was simply neat, practical, and uninteresting.

Brad, despite himself, was a chucker; and every time he went into the basement to put the clothes into the dryer, he couldn’t help noticing the junk that was piling up.  There were old vinyl records, mismatched skis, headless dolls, rusted spades, and boxes of plates, cutlery, silverware, and tarnished silver that would never be used. Every time he looked at the disorganized piles and wanted to toss them in the alley, he thought angrily about his mother.  She had passed on her compulsive orderliness to him, and he didn’t like it.

The world is divided in many ways.  Those who have children and those who don’t. Gay-straight, rich-poor, urban-rural, liberal-conservative; but the most significant and overlooked distinction is between hoarders and chuckers.  Every hoarder is obsessively attached to the past, mortally afraid of giving up memories and the most insignificant events.  Every chucker is just as compelled to jettison history, bad memories, and stale recollections.

I am a chucker, although not a compulsive one.  I, like Brad, ignore the basement pile-up until something clicks in my genetic code; and I manically throw everything out. But I, like the hoarding mother of my friends, cannot throw out my dance card from my Senior Prom or my Lester Lanin beanie. I have the key to my room at the Dorchester where I met my Pakistani lover in London; the menu from the Viennese restaurant where I broke up with the Swiss woman who had loved me through my worst of times.

Things are important, no matter how insignificant they may seem. For all our pretense about higher meaning, purpose, and relevance, only the dance cards matter. 

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