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The Garage from H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks
A funny short story about clutter, antiques and neighbors.
What can I say? I'm a collector

My next-door neighbor, Russell, used to be an antique dealer, buying at auction and reselling in his little shop downtown. The objects he bought for resale required a lot of work, cleaning, repairing, replacing parts, repainting and researching, before they were ready to go into his shop. So he was accustomed to keep his purchases close at hand in the garage, until he had time to work on them.

Other antiques came to him from his family, along with a lot of family memories attached to them. He wasn't ready to part with these treasures yet, so he filled his home with old stuff. And when the rooms were full, Russell began filling the garage.

After his dad passed away, the relatives all said, "Why don't you pack up everything from Dad's place and keep it in your garage?" So Russell did just that. It's been a long time since he could park his car in the garage.

All this inventory sat in his garage, sometimes for years, before he found time to work on it. Most of the antiques were not very valuable, if you get my drift. Eventually, the good stuff was sold off piece by piece, the customers in town moved away, he closed his shop, and he was left with a garage full of... well, full of leftovers. Full of junk.

As the years passed, Russell found more stuff, which he kept in the garage. He let his beard grow and he kind of dropped out of things. Over time he became attached to his stuff. He thought he was sharp-eyed, even clever, finding value in other people's castoffs and waste. Sometimes he laughingly referring to himself as the junk collector, but he truly didn't think of it as junk. What you would call trash, he thought of as his hoard, his stockpile, his treasures.

Unexpectedly, Russell invited me to see the garage one day. It was my first time inside, although I had peeked through the garage window once or twice in a neighborly way to see what was going on.

When he switched on the overhead light, I was stunned. The space was packed wall to wall and floor to ceiling. The junk was mounded in huge pyramids. Paths were kept open so you could get around the edifices of junk. And it was truly junk, the kind of stuff that junkyards are created for. Broken furniture that was stacked three layers high wobbled when I brushed against it. Cardboard boxes bursting with stuff were piled up like totem poles.

There were things like a mangy rug all chewed up, old yard tools, broken chairs, rusty chains, canning jars, the insides of a vacuum tube radio, heaped together topsy turvy. The air in the garage, what air there was space for, was full of dust and a stale odor. It was all remarkable, in a weird, psychotic sort of way. I took note of things: a folding card table, a dozen pieces of pottery that used to be a vase, a wooden crutch, a box of old doorknobs, three shabby upholstered chairs stacked one upon the other, an enamel bedpan, a ratty old suitcase, empty whiskey bottles. These objects had once been the stuff of life in another place and time. People had lived with these items, needed them, wanted them, spent good hard-earned money for them. Now they were just so much junk. His garage was a museum of tenament life. A decaying sort of museum, I thought.

"What can I say," Russell said. "I'm a collector."

I looked in one of the boxes. It was full of old stained bed sheets. "Get rid of this," I said. He shrugged his shoulders.

We walked along narrow aisles browsing through the stacks of stuff. I saw a microwave oven with a broken door. I saw a one-of-a-kind arrangement of melted plastic flowers. As for the portable typewriter in the lawn chair, "What are the chances it even works?" I thought to myself. Moldy newspapers were stacked against one wall, not very far away from the gas can for his lawnmower. "Wow, you're lucky this doesn't start a fire." I said.

There was no reason to hurry. As I sifted through a box of old rubber bands, the rubber disintegrated in my hands. A tabby cat came out from behind a broken mirror and brushed against my leg. I never knew Russell had a cat.

It seemed endless. Where would you start working on something like this?

And still he brought more to show me. "I don't go out looking for stuff," he said. "The stuff just finds me." He was carrying an metal light fixture with a broken glass shade. "Someone left this sitting in the rain by the side of the road."

"That has to be a treasure," I remarked skeptically.

I looked around some more. Old boards and a piece of Formica kitchen counter were resting on the rafters, along with a broken window frame under layers of alligatored paint. You could call the place a dump, but that would hardly describe it.

Burnt out fluorescent bulbs were stacked in a corner. "I've often thought the bulbs could be used in a work of art. You know how sculptors use found objects very creatively," he said. "And a burnt out bulb has a lot of creative meaning, from an artistic point of view."

"It's not as if there's a shortage of old light bulbs," I reminded him. I brushed a cobweb out of my hair.

He had been in the business. He had to know this stuff was worthless. Nowhere on the face of the planet was there a customer with ready money who would pay for anything in this garage.

"What's the scrap value of all this stuff?" I asked.

Russell seemed surprised. Then he looked around the garage carefully, as if he were pricing out each item. He was quiet a long time. Maybe he was looking at his hoard as I might see it, as an outsider might see it, as the building inspector might see it.

"It really is all garbage, isn't it?" he finally replied. He kicked a cast iron radiator with his foot. There's a lot of my life wrapped up in this. In this garbage," he said.

I just waited, watching a fly buzz against the window.

"Time to let it go?" I asked. I think he mumbled yes.

"Want to call for a dumpster?" I asked. I think he mumbled yes again.

We cleaned out the garage together, although I did more than my share of the work. Russell spent a lot of time musing and reflecting about stuff. We filled up three dumpsters over the course of a week. Now, I'm happy to say, the garage is clean and roomy. Russell keeps his car inside. He seems to walk taller, too.

Yesterday, he called me over to show me his bike. "Just bought it at the police auction," he told me. "Got it for two bucks."

The bike frame is bent and the color is pink. But he plans on riding it every weekend, so I guess it's allowed in the garage. Old habits die hard.

I hope life brings you much success. I wish you a very happy day.
-----     Surfer Sam  

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