Hello, Everybody—Nice seeing you again.
The WFMU Record Fair this past weekend was the most fun ever. Everyone had been waiting a year for it, and folks were ready. There were great live acts, and bizarre entertainment in the AV Lounge, and album cover modification procedures, and dancing, and food—and, of course, tons of vinyl, CDs, and stuff. So much stuff. Usually I can’t even buy anything at the Record Fair, because when I’m confronted by that much recorded material the acquisitive part of my brain overloads and shuts down. I walk up and down every aisle, and then I leave. But this year I was on a mission to find a recording that featured washtub bass, and I want to thank that one dealer who came down $5 on the price so I’d have enough money left to get home. But still … there was a lot of stuff.
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a lot of stuff, huge accumulations of pop-cultural detritus: comic books, plastic toys, baseball cards, books, records, CDs, 8-track tapes, shoes, hats, teapots, watches, fountain pens, videos, art, little bits of metal picked up off the street, shopping bags, postcards—anything—everything—all of it at once. I never thought of myself or my friends as being participants in the great American consumer economy, but when I look at our itty-bitty living spaces stuffed full of crap, I have to reconsider.
I think there are various categories of stuff, or that stuff is acquired for several different reasons. There are things that are useful, but I think most stuff is not acquired to be used. One very nice wristwatch is a useful thing, but 37 assorted wacky watches hanging from nails on the wall constitutes stuff. People who collect things may take solitary pleasure from their collection: a philatelist can sit down and leaf through his stamp album and enjoy the collection. But stuff often seems to require an audience. The thing I enjoyed most about my collection of jackalope postcards was the reaction of people who appreciated the humorous aspects of anybody having a jackalope postcard collection in the first place.
Recently I learned about hoarders, which is what a person with a lot of stuff becomes when the stuff-acquisition impulse gets out of hand. I saw part of a TV show that featured a guy whose business is to go clean out crazy people’s apartments. He and his crew take their giant contractor-sized garbage bags and just shovel up the crap—piles of newspapers, magazines, unopened first-class mail, dirty dishes, clean dishes, clothes, the entire door of an old Chevrolet Monte Carlo—all of it indiscriminately hauled off to the dump. The guy’s company is hired by the courts, or by people’s concerned relatives, or sometimes by the people themselves when they suddenly realize they need help. The guy said, “If you can’t find something you own within 30 seconds, you might as well not have it,” and I thought, “Uh-oh.” Then they had a psychologist talking about hoarders and how they can seem perfectly fine and presentable when they go out, but when they get home they live in complete squalor and are often embarrassed to have people see where they live. I immediately went upstairs and threw out about 15 old lipsticks.
I might be right on the borderline of having a stuff problem, but so are a lot of my friends. One friend of mine—the one who picks up little pieces of metal on the street—had so much junk in her tiny apartment that she rented a storage space. Now she buys new stuff and takes it straight to storage, without even bringing it home. One of my best friends seemed to dedicate himself to buying one of everything. By the time he died, he’d constructed a thick carapace of stuff—Happy Meal toys, tiki items, baseball cards, records, books, art, comics, and so on—which had seemed pretty cool while he was still alive. But once he was gone it was very sad, like the abandoned shell of a hermit crab. His stuff was not him.
Even worse was when my sister died and I went out to Colorado to attend to her affairs. I walked into her little cabin in Guffey (population 35), and saw all this stuff from our childhood home. Somehow she’d managed to hold on to all of it—the caned-seat rocking chair, the china plates, the family photos, the Christmas tree skirt, the bargello ottoman that Grammy Carlton made out of tomato juice cans, and everything else—even during the years she lived in an illegal teepee in the national forest, or while she was staying in the abandoned moving van outside of Basalt. Now it was all crammed into this little cabin with no rhyme or reason to it at all, the furniture all chewed by dogs and most of Grammy’s needlework molding in a trunk out in the yard. A lot of it was stuff I’d always thought I’d wanted: the rocking chair with the seat I’d caned by hand, our parents’ wedding rings, the pictures of our mom and dad sitting on Dad’s Indian motorcycle. But when I saw it like that, a massive pile of stuff hoarded over the years by my crazy sister, it horrified me. I couldn’t bring myself to go through it, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at it. I left it—all of it—right where it was, and I went home. I don’t know what happened to it, except I know our Aunt Karen was disappointed about the china.
I told myself I wasn’t going to wind up like my sister, but once I got home I didn’t really change anything. Since I saw that TV show, though, I’ve been trying to throw out at least one item every day. The only piece of stuff I’ve bought in the last few weeks is that washtub bass LP at the Record Fair, but that was a present for Sluggo and it’s his problem now.
Thanks for reading my blog entry this week, and may God bless.