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Tag: belongings

Serendipity: The curious routes stuff takes

A rolling stone gathers no moss. We’re not rolling stones anymore.

During our year of travel, Ace I and I gathered few things that we did not immediately consume – simply because, living out of a Jeep Liberty, the bulk of it being occupied by a big dog, there was no space for them (though we did get that cowboy hat).

Once we came to a stop – for now, at least, settling into the home I was born in 57 years ago – we have again fallen under the tyranny of stuff.

For nine months, free of stuff’s burden, we bounced around the country, going to a new town every day or two, and during that time accumulated virtually nothing except friends and stories. After that, during our month-long stops – dwelling in a trailer park in the Arizona desert, an unfurnished house in Baltimore and the basement of a mansion in North Carolina – we slowly started to get new things. Now that we plan to stay put, for six months or more, in Winston Salem – and have hauled the contents of my storage unit down south – we are inundated.

Sorting through it all is equal parts joy and hassle, and it has led me to this conclusion: The more still you stay, the more stuff you need — or think you do.

But there’s something else I’ve come to realize, sifting through my personal effects, about stuff: Inanimate as it may be, it has a life of its own, and it often goes on a journey of its own, down a path different than ours. That’s how I end up with your stuff, and you end up with my stuff.

I’m amazed at how much of “my stuff” wasn’t originally my stuff, at how perhaps even the majority of my belongings – furniture in particular – was handed down, recycled, procured through Craigslist, yard sales, thrift stores, or rescued from Dumpsters into which, in my view, it had been disposed of prematurely.

Our stuff, like people, like dogs, comes and goes from our lives. It moves on to the homes of friends, relatives, or complete strangers, via Goodwill, eBay or Craigslist (a good place to get stuff, just not dogs). It ends up, or so I like to think, where it’s most needed.

I told you last week about my mother’s desk, which became a home furnishing about the same time I did. It was in this house when I was born. I grew up with it in New York and, later, Texas. After my parents’ divorce, my mother kept it until she moved into a retirement community, and I hauled it up to Baltimore. Now, it has circled back to the first home it was ever in.

In my new place, the bed and coffee table I’m using are my cousin’s; the book I’m reading belongs to a Baltimore friend; the dining table I eat on was purchased, via Craigslist, from a local couple who started life together with it, but couldn’t take the fact that it only had three, not four, matching chairs. My clothes are in a dresser that I think once belonged to my father’s parents.

But most of my furniture — not counting that which came from Ikea or WalMart — came from my mother.

She revisited it all last week, coming over for dinner. My sofa, loveseat actually (though rarely used for that purpose, if you don’t count Ace), is one of two matching ones she had. When she moved into a retirement community, she only had room for one. The other went with me to Baltimore, but now sits in my new place, less than a mile away from its mate. In my place, too, are, among her former possessions,  some marble egg-shaped bookends, a wingback chair and an old rocking chair she made a point of trying out one more time.

There’s also a large amount of stuff from my ex-girlfriend/still goodfriend, including five of her artworks, now prominently displayed. During my travels she kept some of my stuff.  In my recent move, I got some of it back, left some with her, and took a few things she was looking to get rid of, including two bedside tables, some decorative pillows and this tray-like accessory that really pops, which I further like because the blue part reminds me of Ace’s tail.

I reclaimed my blender, for instance, but she kept my grill, my fire pit and, though I could never understand why she wanted it,  a sad looking little platform I once built out of three pieces of plywood to make my computer monitor sit higher.

A few weeks ago, it became, with some slight modifications, a hutch for a group of new born bunnies found in her neighborhood.

Our stuff passes from parent to child, from brother to sister, from neighbor to neighbor, from friend to friend, and sometimes even makes it way from home office to animal kingdom.

About three months ago, I gave my friend Arnie in Baltimore my old, then in storage, bookcases. Just last week I sent him the hardware needed to put them together, found in the very last box I unpacked. The couple that moved into the Baltimore rowhouse I rented now has my entertainment center — solely because it was too darned heavy to move.

I guess we all go through life simultaneously shedding and gathering. I turn to Goodwill for both. It has lots of my stuff, and I have lots of their’s, because sometimes we part with stuff that, shortly thereafter, we find ourselves needing again. While staying for a month in an unfurnished rowhouse in Baltimore, I bought this lamp. If I sell it again, it will have to be for five dollars, because the price drawn on its silver base with black marker, I’ve found, is impossible to remove.

During my mother’s visit last week — and we’ll give you the full “reveal” of my new place next week – she also recognized a footstool that once belonged to her. It’s the only item that did not really fit in with my new color scheme — color schemes, though the phrase sounds nefarious,  being another thing, like accessories that pop, I learned the importance of during my unfortunate addiction to HGTV.

My mother had re-covered the footstool decades ago with a shiny striped fabric of mauve and blue, so it would match a chair she had re-covered in the same material.

She agreed that, given my color scheme, I should re-cover it again.

“What’s underneath this cover?” I asked. She had no idea.

Removing a few tacks, I pulled it off to reveal the original cushion cover — a handmade needlepoint by her aunt “Tan,” whose grave we had visited and put flowers on the day before Easter.

At the time, not remembering her that well, I attempted to learn more about Tan, whose real name was Kathleen Hall. There’s a school named after her in Winston-Salem, but I could find little information about her on the Internet, as she died in 1983. Leaving a potted delphinium on her grave, I regretted that — even supplied some memories by my brother and my mother — I could reconnect with her only superficially.

It was a little eerie  — her handiwork turning up in my house a week after I visited her grave. But it added a little more heritage to my new place, a link (real, not the Internet kind) to another family member, not to mention, though I’m no expert on it, what appears to be some damn good needlepoint.

And, in an added touch of serendipity, it matches my color scheme.

Highway Haiku: Adventures in unpacking

 

Pieces of my past

Freed from their dark cardboard jails

What the hell is this?

We’re at that point in our unpacking now where there are just a few lingering boxes, and they all contain what I will loosely call junk — items that I’ve hung onto for reasons sentimental, hopeful and, more often, unclear and irrational.

All those 34-inch waist blue jeans? Hoarding those paid off. After decades of wishful thinking, they suddenly fit now, after our near year on the road. My baseball autographed by Willie Mays? It — though his name is fading — still falls into the category of forever keeper.

But what of all the rest — the five unpacked boxes that remain: a jumble of shoelaces; matchbooks; cables, cords and adaptors that I have no idea what they go to; marbles; sea shells; little green plastic toy soldiers; a doggie Christmas stocking; old dog collars; artwork by my son; artwork by my self; unlabeled VHS tapes that contain who knows what and I have no way of finding out; cassette tapes of which the same can be said; old sunglasses; remote controls with nothing to control; owner’s manuals for things I haven’t owned for a decade or more, old keychains, some of them with mystery keys; a set of large plastic ears that fit over your real ears; a fake severed finger in a pool of blood; balls of all kinds; musky smelling pipes; business cards for people I can’t remember ever meeting, mysterious names and numbers scrawled on bits of paper?

All, mostly, things that served a purpose, things that were important, once; and at least one item that, as mentioned in our poetry above — it has been some time since our last Highway Haiku — we’ve never been able to figure out.

Mixed in with these are souvenirs accumulated during my travels as a writer — some Korean money; two stuffed dogs from a company that clones dogs; chips of wood from the woodpile outside the Unabomber’s isolated cabin in Montana, a framed get-out-of-jail-free Monopoly card; a matchbook from the Mustang Ranch in Nevada, a no-longer-greasy stone from the Exxon-soiled shores of Alaska; a photo of a twenty-something me swilling Thunderbird wine with two hoboes on a dirty mattress in Lexington, Kentucky.

They, too, occupy the boxes of items not essential to everyday life — boxes labeled “junk,” though not all fall under that rubric. (Speaking of which, where did I put my rubric? I thought I packed it away with my milieu, under my ephemera.)

I remember a time in my life when I only had one junk box. How did I get up to five? It seems once we outgrow and leave behind our childhood toys — hey, there’s my squirtgun! — we find other stuff to squirrel away, in my case enough to fill a box every five years or so.

In these boxes — oh look, a yo-yo! — are items of great sentimental value, nestled with items of questionable value (plastic vomit, anyone?), nestled with items of no apparent value and, sometimes, no clear purpose.

Which brings me to these wooden things — pictured atop this entry.

I’ve probably had them for a couple of decades at least, and I believe they came from the home of grandparents. I haven’t a clue what they are, yet I’ve held on to them, moved them from home to home, and packed and repacked them away in junk boxes.

Maybe you can help me out.

Allow me to describe them. They are made of wood, polished on one side, grooved wood on the other. They interlock. They have a brand name, “Blitz” emblazoned on one side. They are slightly bigger than your average blackboard eraser, about the size of a telephone receiver, or what used to be size of telephone receiver.

What they do — or ever did — I don’t know. My best guess, given the grandparents I think they came from were once in the laundry busines, is that they have something to do with the maintenance of garments.

If you know, I’d love to hear. If you just wish to hazard a guess, I’d love to hear that too — for often there can be more fun in the guessing than the knowing. (The first person to provide the correct answer will receive some slightly used plastic ears; I won’t just lend you an ear, I will give you two.)

We are nearing the last of our boxes, and have made five trips now to the Goodwill donation center down the street. I love that place. One can drop off unwanted items with such ease — you pull in, drive over one of those gas station hose bell ringer things, and a smiling man comes out with a cart to help you unload. Then you’re off. It all goes so smoothly — unlike much else in life — that I’m tempted to start dropping off items I actually need.

Need, of course, being a relative term. If we learned anything during our travels it’s that so much of what we think we “need” is really just what we want, or are convinced we must have by advertising and the media. In our 11 nomadic months, food, water, coffee, something to sleep on, a roof when the weather’s yucky, an electrical outlet and, of course, each other, sufficed nicely. Not until Ace and I moved into a structure of our own did I start feeling the need to accumulate things — even as I’m doing the opposite of that, getting rid of the junk.

I really shouldn’t call it that. It’s an overly broad term that’s unfair to some of those items that reside in the boxes so classified. “Accessories,” or “accoutrements,” would be a kinder label, but those are too easily misspelled, and take too long to write on the side of a box.

And, in truth, they have value. In a way, these items — your junk, my junk — are like life’s loose change: However seemingly trivial they appear, taken together they amount to something. We keep them because, even when packed away, they are pieces of our identity, they’re what makes us us, and throwing them away is like throwing pieces of ourselves away.

That, in my case, those pieces include yellowing newspaper clippings, whorehouse matchbooks, big plastic ears and a severed thumb in a pool of blood, says something.

I’m just not sure what.

My life in a box

It occured to me, when I heaved open the heavy metal door to the storage unit that has held most of my possessions for the past eight months — unveiling disarray, peppered with mouse poop — that what was revealed wasn’t just a metaphor for my life.

It was my life — up to now — in a box.

Virtually all my worldly possessions, except my dog — and, though he’s worldly, I don’t really possess him — are in there.

Cash value? Not much. Emotional value? Depends on which box you open. Overall importance? Given the fact that I didn’t miss any of it in eight months, next to nothing.

But when I moved out of my house in Baltimore to hit the road with my dog last May, I packed it all, and hauled it all, and stacked it all and secured it all with big strong lock.

Because, for me to be truly liberated, all my stuff had to be incarcerated.

We in the free world are slaves to our stuff. We are slaves to our jobs, which allow us to get more stuff. We are slaves to our mortgages, and utility bills, and the Internet and other technology we grow to depend on. Most of all, we are slaves to health insurance.

That, maybe more than anything — especially for those 40 and above — is why we stay in jobs we hate. Sometimes we hate them so much it makes us physically sick — especially when our workload quadruples so that stockholders can get a second yacht. But that’s OK because we have health insurance.

I gave up my regular job — with a salary and health insurance — more than two years ago at the age of 55. It was scary then. It’s scary now.

Unable to afford both health insurance and housing, I’ve opted to go with an alternative health plan whose protocol will be followed in the event of serious illness. It’s known as CIACAD (Crawl Into A Corner And Die.)

For my dental plan, I’ve chosen LTARAFO (Let Them All Rot And Fall Out).

For vision — it being more important than to me than life or chewing — I’ll likely pay my own way, as opposed to going with SAGAMG (Shutup And Get A Magnifying Glass).

I need to check into all these health insurance reforms, but my guess is whatever Obama-care benefits might apply to me probably, with my luck, are scheduled to kick in the day after I die.

But this post isn’t about death. It’s about life, and how we choose to live it — and how that, for most of us, is in a really big box, divided up into smaller boxes, some with plumbing and appliances, and all, of course, filled with stuff.

All my stuff, when it wasn’t scattered from room to room, fit nicely into a one-car-garage-sized storage compartment.

I started off loading it in a very organized manner, but running out of time, sped up to the point that much of it isn’t organized at all. Some boxes are labeled; others are mysteries. There are many boxes that say books, but there are only four or five books I need right now, and going through 20 boxes to find them — all of course trapped back at the very rear of the unit — would be a real time absorber.

So how is my storage unit a metaphor for my life?

First, it’s in disarray. I’m guessing an x-ray of my brain would look a lot like the inside of my storage unit. My stuff is not organized, not immediately locatable. My stuff is in limbo. My stuff, like me, has no idea where it will be a year from now.

There are some treasures in there. A baseball with Willie Mays’ autograph; photos of my son arriving from Korea; the goofy white cap I had to wear at my first job, selling burgers; my Pulitzer Prize (it’s just a sheet of paper); yellowed newspaper stories written nearly 35-plus years ago.

There are four or five boxes of strictly sentimental value. They contain memories. But I don’t remember where they are.

The stuff I need — certain books, forks, long underwear — are all buried somewhere at the back of the unit. The stuff I have no use for right now — my bicycle, golf clubs, tennis rackets — are all right at the front.

Part of me thinks it would be nice to have a place of my own, where I could unpack my stuff and organize it and live amongst it. Part of me thinks that would again make me a slave to my stuff, and all those previously mentioned other things that tie us down.

Here is what I am wondering — after the eight months Ace and I lived in a boat, trailer, tent, my car, cheap motel rooms, and the homes of friends and strangers as we traversed the U.S.:

Is what’s stuffed in that big metal box my life? Or, is my life over there, down that road winding into the horizon?

Do we treasure our past and present to the point that we shortchange our future? Is it possible, for those eking out an existence — as opposed to rolling in money — to have both security and adventure? Is it possible to properly nourish relationships with friends and family — in more than a superficial Facebook kind of way — without living right where they live?

In a way, it should be less complicated for me, having no “partner,” except for my big fuzzy one; having not just an empty nest, but no nest at all.

I should be able to figure this out.

If you’re wondering who that woman is in the back of the storage unit, that’s my beer sign lady — a cardboard cut-out, who, like much of my furniture, I rescued from a Dumpster. I picked her up last winter, but, in the months that followed, found her a bit one-dimensional and not at all good at conversation.

When I moved my stuff into storage, I assigned her the task of watching over it all.

She did a lousy job.

Somehow, all my (mostly) neatly stacked boxes started leaning, and teetering, and falling. She did nothing, and apparently wasn’t much help in scaring visiting mice away.

I think, when I finally do locate myself, I will get rid of her.

The bigger decision, though, is where I belong — warmly ensconced in a home of my own, or among the realm of vagabonds, like those RV nomads who kept their wanderlust in check until retirement kicked in and have been happily rolling along ever since?

When the road calls again, and I’m sure it will, will I answer?

Baltimore: A refreshing slap in the face

 

Of all the oddball places Ace and I passed through in our recently completed 22,000 miles of travels across the U.S., none came close, in that particular category, to Baltimore.

In other words, there’s no place like home.

Sure, there may be some small pockets of pretentiousness in Baltimore, but all in all it’s a city that doesn’t put on airs. And that is what I like about it — its honesty.

On Friday, during my first full week back in the city, I kept running into that theme — “yes I have warts, would you like to see them?” — as I checked in at the old storage unit, dropping off a few unneeded things and picking up some others to spartanly furnish the housing I have finagled for the month ahead.

I’ll tell you  more about that next week; for now suffice to say: Federal Hill, rooftop deck, downtown view … from the hot tub.

It’s a much more well-heeled area than the part of town my stuff is in, but then my stuff isn’t too choosy, having come from humble origins. Much of it was discarded on a sidewalk, thrown in Dumpsters or donated to Goodwill before finding a forever home with me.

For the past eight months, as Ace and I criss-crossed the U.S., it has sat in a unit at one of those self-storage places — visited, it appears, only by mice, whose droppings were everywhere.

It was in my stuff’s neighborhood that I ran into the well-bundled-up fellow above, at Patapsco and Potee, a highly alliterative intersection in Brooklyn frequented by people seeking handouts, most of whom carry a piece of cardboard briefly explaining the dilemma they allegedly are in and what they are willing to do to get out of it.

Rather than bore drivers with his life story, this guy drafted a sign listing only his short term goal. I’m not sure how much his “transparency,” as we like to call it nowadays, paid off, but it worked on me. I forked over a buck.

I found that same sort of refreshing honesty at my next stop, Blue Crab Xpress, next door to the storage lot where my stuff is.

It’s an interesting little place — half liquor store, half seafood deli. I’m not sure if the warning sign on their front door was meant for mice or people. It gave me some second thoughts about getting lunch there, but I proceeded to order a crab sandwich, anyway.

As I waited for my order, I visited with some of the blue crabs, piled up in bushel baskets, partly covered with towels, almost as if they’d been tucked in.

Tempted as I was to lift their blanket for a better look, I didn’t want to wake them. Besides, another sign warned against it: “Please do not play with crabs. May be crabs get stress + die earleier. You might get bit also.”

I also learned that at the Blue Crab Xpress, credit cards aren’t honored.

I ate my crab cake sandwich — quite exceptional — in the car, parked next to an Utz potato chip truck whose driver was slumped over the steering wheel taking a nap.

Fortified, I went next door to the storage lot — something I’d been putting off doing partly because it has been so cold, partly because I knew I wouldn’t be able to find what I was mainly looking for, some warmer clothes.

I made a few withdrawls from it — my futon mattress, some chairs and tables and one unmarked box, chosen at random. I decided it would be fun to open it up later and see what was inside.

Since I need to go back to the storage unit, anyway — for it is in major need of some reorganization and, perhaps, a warning sign telling mice to stay away — I thought if the box turned out to contain useless stuff, I could always bring it back or toss it.

Into my storage unit I tossed by rooftop carrier and its contents, some stinky tennis shoes that need a month off (and might drive away the mice) and other things, like camping gear, I won’t be needing anytime soon.

Back at my temporary quarters, I opened the box and discovered I had made a lucky pick. It contained two jackets, a spatula, a can opener, a coffee cup and my winter coat.

I will wear it today when — taking a break from decorating my house (think early college student) — I go over to the Lighthouse Tavern to watch the Baltimore Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mainly, though, I am going there to renew my bonds with old friends, because friends are so important, and such relationships should be … Oh the heck with it.

Why lie? I need a beer.