Acquiring new things is one of my least preferred activities; it is a fatal admixture of boredom, despair, frustration and misanthropy. Yesterday, I went to Indigo Books & Junk to see if they had a volume I’m thinking of getting my husband for Festivus (I was going to look at it there, then order it from a nice indie shop). Having determined at one of their handy kiosks that they did not have the book, I found a helpful young sales associate at my elbow who cheerfully asked if I was “Findingeverythingokaytoday?” “No, in fact, I am not,” said I (politely); “Hahaokay,” he responded as he sailed on by.
With books, there can be a certain pleasure in the unhurried browse and the rare find; but shopping for anything else, especially clothes, is generally just pure moral and spiritual catastrophe, so I try to wear things out completely before I replace them.
Also, I am skint and lazy and distracted; I am not ashamed. In spite of all this aversion to collecting, I hold a frank, full and protective affection for certain objects: my bicycle, my books (of course), the kitchen knife my mother-in-law gave me and that fits my hand perfectly, Egon Schiele’s portrait of his wife that made me realize, when I saw it on someone else’s wall sometime around Christmas 1998, that I was utterly, terribly in love with my future husband.
I don’t believe any of us are completely immune to investing some objects with a great deal more meaning than others think we ought to; maybe more than we ourselves think we ought to. But this only really becomes a social problem (or vile tourist attraction of sorts) if it’s very oddball or too extreme–when it becomes a clear sign of exceedingly reckless and bankrupting vanity or literally life-threatening hoarding.
One of our across-the-street neighbours was a hoarder; I say “was” but it may still be “is;” all I know is that she doesn’t live there anymore. Over the years, my interactions with her have been few and awkward; the most recent, which happened perhaps two years ago, involved her trying and failing to cart away the 6-foot cat condo we’d put out on the sidewalk to be collected with the garbage. (Five cats can do a righteous amount of damage to cheap wooden structures covered in even cheaper carpet.)
She tried to take it away but was too frail and small to manage it; as I happened to be outside glamourously placing the cats’ night soil in the compost bin, she asked me to help her carry this useless, destroyed thing away. I declined, honestly citing my bad back; she insisted, a little desperately and rather angrily, saying her daughter had five cats, and what could she possibly do without it?? I still declined. It was a frustrating meeting for both, but I later saw her force some teens slouching home from school to put it into her already over-packed garage; I idly wondered when her house would catch fire.
Earlier this year, I took a nap on a Friday afternoon. For a change, I fell deeply asleep instead of having shallow dreams constantly interrupted by the noise of traffic, my phone buzzing in another room, a cat washing my face, or an ache somewhere. It took me a long time to wake up and I remember sitting up in bed and looking out the window at the hoarder’s house and thinking how much like a cartoon drawing of a pine tree her real pine tree is; I stared stupidly at that ridiculous tree for a bit and then finally got up. When I got downstairs, about five minutes later, I was drawn quickly to the front window because of the screaming and squealing of tires outside: a house across the street was in flames and black smoke had completely filled the sky.
It was the house next to the hoarder’s; as I grabbed my phone to call 911, a bunch of sleepy, pajama-clad teenagers poured out of the burning building (young victims of the afternoon nap), the blare of sirens was coming from every direction, people were already rushing out with coats for those young ones, some of whom were barefoot (it was March, I think, when it could snow or sun-shower at any moment and buds promised much that was yet to be delivered). The professionals were clearly on their way, so I instead called a friend to make sure I could bring all my beasties over should evacuation become necessary; then I set up watch.
And that’s when I saw the hoarder for the last time. The firemen moved in very quickly; they were incredibly focused, very controlled, methodical and reassuring in everything they did. What they did included going door-to-door to make sure the houses on either side of the burning one were evacuated. Two burly men hammered at the hoarder’s door and finally forced it open; they returned with her very shortly, carrying her under her armpits as she roared and struggled against her unwanted rescue; they set her down on the sidewalk and briskly forced shoes onto her feet and a coat over her thin cotton dress; someone held her back as she struggled to return to her home which, because the firemen were so good at their jobs, was never really under threat of going up in flames.
I guess the firemen saw what a firetrap her own house was when they retrieved her; or maybe the shock of being separated, even briefly, from her beloved objects was too much for her. She doesn’t live there anymore and the house went up for sale a few days ago; over the past month or so, people have been coming regularly to empty the place out. More furniture than should be able to fit into five houses has already been set out on the sidewalk for removal, most of it so worn that it remains until garbage day and sometimes longer (most things put out on Toronto sidewalks tend to disappear within the half hour).
The destroyed cat condo reappeared last week, as did a rug we threw away after our Gregory died. He’d peed probably hundreds of times on that cheap IKEA carpet during his decline; we rolled it up and tied it, and affixed a note to it before putting it on the street: “This rug does not have bed bugs BUT it is piss-soaked. Just don’t.” The hoarder took our dead bunny’s pissy rug and kept it for some unimaginable emergency; whatever it was, it either didn’t happen or it didn’t help. If she’s still alive, I worry she’s in constant panic because of all the things that no longer stand sentinel against a world too big and noisy for her.
I’m lucky that when it comes to objects, it’s mostly books rather than furniture that comfort and protect me; I’m lucky as well that my obsession with having them around tends to hover consistently at the level of cozy rather than the buried. We build our forts and our armour, our caves and homes, how best we can and may; and hope that what we gather round us for protection won’t also undo us in the end.