Friday, May 21, 2010

On spring cleaning...

HALLIE: The weather has turned gorgeous in New England, and this morning my 80-year-old neighbor is up on a step ladder, washing the eight windows that surround her porch. After that, she vacuums her sidewalk, the cord snaked like an umbilicus up the steps and through the front door.

Then, as she does every year, she puts stuff out on the street--this year it's a tidy row of paint cans, pieces of lumber, and plumbing innards. Beside these, she plants a hand-lettered sign: “FREE.”

Just watching her inspires me. Suddenly I’m ready to tackle that walk-in clothes closet I haven’t been able to walk into for months.

I know my husband will be inspired as well – inspired to clean the gutters and rake the lawn so he'll be in position to grab off any of the neat stuff she throws out.

Every spring, he and I play this zero-sum game. I cheerfully make my way from room to room, measuring my progress by the heft in a black plastic garbage bag, while he just as cheerfully cruises the neighborhood looking for castoff treasures. While I’m sneaking away, carting stuff off to the dump or Goodwill, he’s sneaking his finds into the basement.

Just for example, last spring I got rid of an old television that only got channel 4, two tired kitchen chairs, and a floor lamp that sizzled and smelled like vomit when you turned it on. He dragged home a set of World Book Encyclopedia (every volume except one), most of the interior of an old piano, and a bench with an enormous mushroom growing out of it.

My husband, the scientist, claims this demonstrates some basic principle of conservation of mass.

Uh oh. A couple of local kids are carrying a washing machine out of my neighbor’s garage. She’s telling them to put it out on the street. It’s pale green and black with a clothes ringer attached -- the perfect addition to my husband’s collection of vintage appliances.

Sure enough, a little while later my husband hollers, “Gotta mow the lawn,” and heads outside.
I feel strangely exhilarated. Two bags full of stuff we don't need should more than offset what he's about to acquire.

It will be a challenge but I'm up to it. After all, it’s spring.

Are you the dragger-in or the dragger-out in your household, and is it a zero-sum game?


  1. Great images, Hallie! I have definitely have the packrat gene ("I'm going to need this someday!"), but work hard to overcome it. Every June my church has a big yard sale, and it's especially pleasing to cart stuff to that, knowing the proceeds will help support a refugee. (Unfortunately I usually bring several items home with me, too.)

    But the bag of cloth scraps for that quilt I might make, or the lovely Brazilian wallet that has sat in my desk drawer for 30 years, or the Bedouin dress my sister brought me that I haven't worn in decades? I just can't part with them.


  2. Ooooh, Edith, a Bedouin dress? I want it!

    Maybe we all need a 'memory closet' instead of a memory book.

  3. I am absolutely the thrower-outer in my family. My husband saves EVERYTHING. He is, however, in NC this weekend golfing with a buddy so I will head down into his basement lair and dispose of several years worth of magazines which he will never look at again. Then I might do his closet and get rid of the t-shirts that were tired when Carter was President. (In case you're wondering why I'm only disposing of HIS stuff, it's because I get rid of my own on a regular basis.) :-)

  4. Thrower outer, but you have to be in the stealth mode always. Wait till everyone leaves then go on a rampage. That's my MO.

  5. Keeper AND thrower outer! I'm the Sybil of housekeeping.

    I'm a big "I might need that" kind of person--until one day, wham. Out it all goes.

    And this weekend is an OUT IT ALL GOES!! Very exciting.

    Except for the box of WWI vintage newspapers the previous owner of our house left in the basement. I might need those.

  6. Me too, I'm both, packrat and thrower-outer. But since we have a big wedding coming up with many relatives descending, I've been on a clear-out binge.

    Oh, big excitement today--the damn squirrel who's been trapped in our chimney for two weeks was finally released. he was as happy to get out as we were to see his furry tail go!

  7. I'm with Sybil (or was that Hank and Roberta?)

    I'm definitely not a dragger in. I can't shop at yard sales or used clothing stores because I don't trust my ability to discern junk from treasure.

    And I hate the idea of collecting anyone else's junk.

    But I'm not particularly good with parting with things either. I always think, I might just need that someday. Or maybe, just maybe I'll start selling this stuff on E-BAY (fat chance)

    Like Hank I even have a collection left from the previous owners. Vintage National Geographics.

  8. And Rose. I admire your stealthiness.

  9. We do this with books. I walk around taking books from shelf sayingk, "Won't read again," and he walks three steps behind me saying, "Might read again" and putting them back.
    But then he'sa real horder--rubber bands, glass jars--if I didn't sneak stuff into the recycling we'd be up to our necks in glass jars!

  10. I confess, I try not to sneak things out. Poor husband has never recovered from when his mother threw out his baseball cards which he insists would have sent our kidlets to college.

  11. Hallie--Aack! My hubby says the exact same thing about his mom and baseball cards and funding the kids' college expenses. Too funny!

    Rhys--Hubby and I do the same thing with books. He has college textbooks that say the earth is flat and still insists he might read them again one day.

  12. I'm both. I've been known to pick up things at Goodwill while I'm dropping stuff off.
    But I haven't brought anything into the house except for books since before Christmas. The prospect of subletting our apartment in NYC has terrified me. Where will I put all the stuff that will have to move to CT?
    Every couple of years I rent a Dumpster. It's kind of fun to fling things in there and watch them disappear. One year two women came by and asked if they could go Dumpster diving.

    (That washing machine is fabulous. And it does sort of go with your blender.)

  13. Your post reminds me of myself, Rhys! Every time I go through a "throw-away" period, I promise myself that my bookshelves will be my first victim. But just like at your house, I may set the books out to be donated, but in the end, back on my shelves they go. I'm a hopeless case. :)

  14. Great post, Hallie! I'm a dragger-in and must resist the impulse regularly. My most unusual (temporary) triumph was a heavy, vinyl-uphostered hair dryer/chair, like you'd see at an old-school salon. Only it was left out by one of our neighbors. I didn't know people had those in their homes, and it seemed like an avant-garde furniture choice at the time - late 1980s. I dragged it down our 300 foot driveway, and when I put it in the perfect spot in our living room - hubby looking on with mild disgust - I realized it smelled like cigarette smoke. Ugh. I dragged it back down the driveway, and gave up and left it in front of our property - for my neighbor to wonder about - until a scavenger made off with it. Now I only scarf up tables and lamps that I can easily load into my car!

    A dumpster is a recurring fantasy...

  15. Sue, love that dryer chair - I'd have been tempted, too. I do have an old Deco-style ashtray on legs that must have once been in a movie theater.

    Things that smell bad...I draw the line at that.

  16. Had to leave a comment after seeing that old washing machine. We had one like that in the basement when I was a kid and I remember running the clothes through that wringer on top before we trudged the basket up the steps to hang everything outside. What a great memory.

    To answer your question. I am a real pack rat. I hate to throw anything away.