Last winter, before my mom moved out of the house she’d lived in for the past 40 years, my sister and I found ourselves in her basement opening a box on which someone had scrawled “CREEPY DOLLS.” They weren’t lying.
Over the course of several long afternoons we opened many more boxes. What a waste! All these useful doilies, lapel pins, letter openers, broken pairs of glasses, magazines saved for unspecified reasons, and pewter pitchers had been down here all these years without us ever knowing it.
We found the weird (a broken gold tooth), the humorous (my grocer grandpa’s copy of Profitable Meat Cutting and a manual on packaging iceberg lettuce), the scandalous (a program from a Sally Rand fan dance show), and the heartbreaking (wedding dresses and commemorative plaques, of such moment to their former owners, which now no one argued to keep).
We found more than one set of silver plated flatware, which had signified to my great-grandparents, most of whom were born in other countries, that they had become somebody in America. A few generations later and my sister and I didn’t even have room for their stuff in our own homes.
Veteran radio and tv broadcaster Alison Stewart chronicles, in amusing detail, our national struggle to come to terms with our possessions in Junk: Digging through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, a book which begins with Stewart’s experience of clearing out her own parents’ basement. Overwhelmed, she realizes that letting go of such an accumulation requires passage through each stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous grief model, and sums up the experience with an invocation of comedian George Carlin’s classic stand-up routine “A Place for My Stuff,” in which he concludes that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”
I ended up taking home more from my mom’s house than I should have, which is too bad, since my New Year’s resolution was to empty out the stuff from my own basement. I made some headway before I took in the huge metal grocery scale from my grandpa’s store that I’ll never use. And the large box of my old report cards and school art work my mom saved over the years, but which I may never work up the emotional fortitude to look through. And the shelves of books inscribed to one another by people who died before I was even born. Luckily I don’t collect anything in particular. Unluckily, that means I collect everything.
But I was able to unburden my household of a few weighty artifacts before the tsunami from my mom’s basement hit. To wit: the two plastic potties from which my kids graduated, which I put out on the curb as a social experiment (or just to embarrass everyone else who lives in my house, and all the neighbors).
Would someone “adopt” those? We all wondered, and waited the week in suspense, until, at the 11th hour, early on the morning of trash day, common sense and shamelessness triumphed, and my kids and I cheered from our hiding place behind the curtains as we watched a guy hop out of his car and toss both into his trunk.
This would have been a valuable lesson to my kids about the riches to be acquired off the curb, but they had already learned that long ago. Or maybe they just inherited the gene from me (my wife has left no doubt as to its not being a part of her DNA). Born kid pickers, their eyes are keener than mine. One of the great unsung benefits of having kids is that they are an excuse to stop the car and back up when someone says, “What was that?!”
It just so happens to be high season for this endeavor, as KU grads shed their skins and get out of town in cars packed to capacity with stuff. Now they must confront the first great decisions of adulthood, such as: Do I take the microwave, or this homemade disco ball I constructed out of 250 plastic cups and a string of Christmas lights last winter on a night I don’t remember very well?
So to celebrate this bountiful time of year, here are our personal top five treasures retrieved from a Lawrence curb:
#5: The Chalkboard. Great for keeping score in the imaginary backyard baseball games of 6-year old boys.
#4: This thing. I don’t know what it is, but it was love at first sight. My kids sit in it, stand on it, roll it around, throw stuff into it, and just stare at it. So do I.
#3: The Cup Light. Held together in a wondrous feat of engineering by thousands of mere staples. Everyone hates this one but me. The kids didn’t like it because of all the spiderwebs and dead bugs hung up in the cups. I don’t know why my wife doesn’t like it. Seems like it would be a real easy thing to store, right? I found a great spot for it in the garage, on top of the toolbox, so whenever anyone needs a tool, it rolls off onto the floor with a clatter that can only be produced by 250 tightly bound, outward facing plastic cups falling on a hard surface.
#2: The Hi-Fi. Aka Don Draper’s boom box. I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted this baby on one of Lawrence’s busiest streets. It works, and only weighs 500 pounds! Now I can set up swanky room in my basement and listen to the Herb Alpert records from my mom’s house. After I clear out all the stuff down there.
#1: The Giant Stuffed Bears. A panda for my daughter (who just happens to love pandas), and a bear for my son (who just happens to love stuff that’s way bigger than it should be). I can’t take credit for this one. Apparently my kids come by their curb diving DNA from both sides of the family. Or maybe they just have a mom who loves to make them smile. Looks like we could stand for an upgrade from that rusted out Radio Flyer left over my own wagon pulling days, though. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.
–Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library