04 Jun Salvaging & Hoarding Dead People’s Stuff

Monday I went to an auction that was selling the books and paintings of a local artist who died recently. She owned an antique shop and, apparently, was a hoarder. Someone at the auction, who knew the deceased, said, “She had great stuff [in her shop] but I got tired of going in there, asking the price, and then hearing her say, ‘Let me get back to you on that,’ and she never did. She wouldn’t let anything go.” The hoarding impulse—to save anything and everything in case you might need it– isn’t so wrong, it’s just impractical.

I understand the impulse. One year, for some reason, I got out of the habit of reading the New York Times Sunday book review and so I let them pile up, thinking I’d have time to read them later. Two years later, I had accumulated a huge stack of unread reviews and it was disturbingly clear that I’d never read them. So, reluctantly, I recycled them. But I could see how a vague hope might have kept me collecting the unread reviews for many years, maybe till the end of my days. Now I give a review two weeks: if I don’t read it, I dump it. Magazines get four weeks. I don’t even TRY to read the New Yorker from cover to cover every week. Mind you, it’s taken me years to train myself to LET GO like this.

If you feel guilty for recycling still-readable magazines, there are lots of good places to dump them. Start with your local gym. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never enough reading material at gyms. Also waiting rooms of every sort. The next time you visit your dentist, take in about five magazines, then “forget” them on one of the coffee tables. Remember to peel off the address label. At your next yard sale, sell your magazines ten for a dollar. (People love a bargain.)

Jill and I hold a yard sale about once a year to off-load much of the stuff we accumulate as we upgrade furniture and fixtures in our old house. Still, we have a lot of stuff—because we have a big house. It’s the goldfish phenomenon: you will grow as big as your bowl allows. Hoarders forget the limits of their bowl and keep collecting. The collecting impulse itself is actually a healthy one and probably rooted in our distant past, when we were hunters and gatherers. Gathering helped us make it through hard times. Nowadays, in an overly prosperous world (that is, for most of us in this nation), gathering isn’t so important. But we can see the necessity of it when we witness a homeless man wheeling his rusty shopping cart piled high with scavenged things.

As one who has done his share of Dumpster diving, I must observe that it is tremendously gratifying to salvage something that someone else has thrown away. It’s not only getting something for nothing, it’s a kind of triumph because the scavenger has bested the previous owner, who apparently was too blind (or stupid) to see the value of the thing he threw away. Salvaging also makes the scavenger feel mildly heroic, for she has rescued something that would otherwise have been buried and left to rot. Finally, scavenging is eco-friendly. It is the most basic form of recycling.

These are some of the reasons Jill and I scavenge and flea market and visit auctions. Often, the goods and atmosphere of a flea market are just one step removed from a refuse dump and some auctions are not far removed from flea markets. All three offer us the opportunity to salvage, collect, and hoard. At Monday’s auction, I bought mostly art work that belonged to the dead painter—who did really good stuff, I think, but got little recognition because she couldn’t bring herself to sell any of it. I bought boxes of it, which I’ll be sorting and framing for years to come. Or until I’ve decided enough is enough and I set the rest out at our next garage sale.