Monkey See
10:40 am
Thu November 8, 2012

The Love You Save: Lessons On Water And Stuff

On Monday morning at about 5:30 (I'm an early riser), I woke up, swung my legs out of bed, and stepped into water.

I live in a basement apartment where I've been for four years, and almost exactly a week after I was blessedly lucky to avoid the superstorm — and at a time when some of my New York and New Jersey friends were still in the dark — a freaky plumbing/heating mishap wound up filling my entire apartment with about an inch of water.

An inch does not sound like very much. And if you've ever had three feet of water in your house, it obviously isn't very much. And before I tell you the rest of this story, I will tell you that I have either apologized for or qualified almost everything negative I have said about my apartment full of water in the last four days. I have acknowledged my extraordinary luck both writ large (I am a very fortunate person) and writ small (I have an enormously helpful and kind landlady and a friend who's putting me up), and I have incessantly compared the relative not-bad-ness of the situation with everyone everywhere who is actually suffering. There is nothing you can tell me about how much it doesn't matter that this happened that I haven't already thought of, declared, and very nearly painted on my face like a football fan rooting for the University Of Well Obviously It Could Have Been Worse. (Go Fight Win, Mighty Fightin' Chins Up!)

On Monday, I had a vision of myself doing a lot of loads of wet laundry (I tend to have clothes on the floor, sue me), blowing fans, running the dehumidifier, and waiting for everything to dry out. After all, it's a basement — so much concrete! It's not like it's wood floors, right?

What has actually happened is that everything I own has since been packed off and locked away in storage, except for the things that the flood damage team left in the driveway, pronouncing that they couldn't — or shouldn't — be saved. Too much risk of mold, too much risk of splitting or smelling or maybe harboring parasitic beasties that will one day awake, come find my lungs, and reenact the Ugly Bug Ball in there. That would be bad.

People ask you smart, kind questions when they know your place got wet. Whether you had insurance, whether you lost anything very expensive, whether you're basically fundamentally actually going to come out on the other side of it fine. (Yes. I don't think so. Yes.)

Today, I went over to survey what was in the black trash bags and stacked up around them — the wet stuff, the stuff that I was being told couldn't be saved.

I have to backtrack for a minute. When I moved from Minnesota to Brooklyn in 2007, I had a scale back my stuff a lot. The percentage of the superfluous flotsam and jetsam of your life that you can afford to pay to store drops precipitously when you move from a complex on a suburban byway in the Mall Of America neighborhood to a shared 1 1/2-bedroom (did you know there was such a thing?) apartment near the BQE. I threw out a tremendous amount of junk before that move. The stuff I didn't really want — really want — I parted with, employing a lack of sentimentality about which I was fairly cocky. Books, artifacts, extras of this and that, I just ... didn't keep. "I don't care! I don't really care about stuff!" I would tell people.

And when I moved from Brooklyn down to D.C. a year later, I cut back again, because money was so tight and my willingness to ask people to help me was so minimal that I did the entire move myself. I packed every box and piece of furniture that I ended up keeping (I was planning to get a new bed and took great pleasure in demolishing my crummy sofa with my bare hands, so that took the big stuff out of the way). I put every single thing on the truck with my own two hands, and I got the internet to tell me the easiest way to drive it out of Brooklyn and down I-95. At the end of the road, I took every box out and — because, through a timing quirk, my apartment wasn't ready yet — I loaded it into the living room and kitchen of a friend who was on vacation.

Then I went back to Brooklyn on the bus to finish cleaning the apartment, which I hadn't been able to manage when I left the first time. At the end of the day, I took the things that I had left in the apartment because I was throwing them out and I moved them to the curb. And then I noticed that behind the bedroom door, I had stashed a framed collage my mom made for me of some of my clips from when I was first doing a lot of writing. This was before NPR, so there were TV Guide clips and MSNBC stuff, and there were pieces of reality-show recapping. I'd loved it not only because it was such a Mom gesture — I could totally imagine how she got the idea, dug out the TV Guides she'd saved, printed off the other stuff — but because it was an expression of excitement and confidence about what I was doing that I didn't always have myself.

But there was no way to take that big framed thing on the bus — to drag it from Brooklyn to midtown, and then onto the bus, and then all the way to where I was staying? I couldn't see it. (And in fairness, I was blinded by exhaustion, I think.) So I gritted my teeth and put it on the curb. Mom still loved me, after all.

Then I looked out the window and saw the guys who had almost immediately shown up to start picking over the pile. From the window of the empty apartment, I saw one of them pick it up. I ran out of the apartment, threw the building's big door open, hopped down the steps, and went over to him. "You can have the frame if you want," I told him. "My mom made this." I slid the collage out of the frame, and while it didn't roll easily (posterboard!), I rolled it up. At least I could take it with me, and maybe I could straighten it out later and get it reframed.

Later, when the Maryland apartment was ready, I took every single item back out of my friend's house, loaded it into a rented car, and drove it over to my new place in shifts. So in short, anything I didn't want to (1) pack in a box, (2) put on a truck, (3) move into a house, (4) move out of a house, (5) put in a car, and (6) move into an apartment, had been weeded out by now.

What that meant was that the stuff in the apartment — especially the stuff that would be, say, in cardboard boxes on the floor of the closet — was only the stuff I absolutely couldn't stand to part with. Stuff that, even if I didn't put it out in my living room on shelves, I couldn't leave Minnesota without, and couldn't leave Brooklyn without, even if I had no active use for it.

That's the real explanation — and not the random cruelty of the universe — for the fact that the first box I came across in the driveway was full of wet books. Specifically, wet high-school yearbooks, a wet Bible I got as a gift when I was a kid, and a wet book called "Our Family History" that I'd bought as probably a ten-year-old and gone around the family bugging everybody else to help me fill in with my neat printed handwriting. This was when my parents told me about the different places they'd lived, the times they'd moved from house to house, and all the jobs their parents had had, which you somehow don't know until you ask. This was when I learned how many sisters and brothers my grandparents had and approximately when everyone had died. All wet, all gross. Unsalvageable.

And inside one of the black garbage bags in the driveway was the poster I'd saved on the sidewalk in Brooklyn four years earlier. Because the Maryland apartment has cement walls, hanging anything sizeable is a challenge, so I've decorated mostly with 8x10s — including one of my younger nephew that I'll have to replace because it had apparently fallen onto the floor at some point — and bigger things had waited. The poster had been neatly stashed behind the bookcase in my bedroom, on the theory that one day, I'd buy a new frame for it and flatten it out and put it up again. It had been a disadvantaged item to begin with, let's say, and now it was all brown water stains and damp paper.

Also in the driveway, on top of an easily replaceable cheap ottoman that I probably got at Target, was a red plaid wool blanket with fringe. When I was 12 or 13, my family vacationed in the summer at a rental house in Maine where, even in August, you could easily wake up in the morning and want a cover for your legs or a fire in the fireplace. I'd dug a similar plaid blanket out of a trunk, and it had been my constant companion for the entire vacation that year. I dragged it around like Linus, from the living room to the bedroom to the porch where I would watch the lobster boats out the picture windows, and where we had a telescope set up so we could write down all the boat names, kind of like birdwatchers making our life list.

I'd been so obsessed with this blanket — this one wool blanket — that my parents remembered and they got me one for Christmas just like it. And when I tell you that certain kinds of movies are ones I reserve for rainy or snowy Sundays with a cup of tea and a blanket, that's the blanket I'm talking about, invariably. It has been flung over the backs of chairs and draped over the arms of sofas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon, Minnesota, New York and Maryland; I have crawled under it during snowstorms and dismantled a lot of the braided fringe by idly twirling it apart with my fingers. It had been on the floor because I probably left it next to whatever chair I'd last sat in as fall rolled in for real in the last few weeks. It smelled like a wet dog this morning; they don't see a future for it.

It's only stuff. It really is. It's so small in the grand scheme of things. (Apologize; qualify.) I doubt that the actual hard value of the things I've lost will even make a claim on my insurance worthwhile. The claims lady told me that I should keep an inventory, and I should write down three things for each item that can't be saved: Description, Age, and Replacement Cost.

Red wool blanket with unwound fringe and moth holes. 28 years old. N/A.

High school yearbook. Weird note from guy I liked. Senior page quote I thought was deep and find really embarrassing now. 24 years old. N/A.

Posterboard with old TV Guide pages taped to it. 8 years old. N/A.

It's dumb, it really is. It's just stuff. I can get another blanket. Nothing is contained in these things; they are not imbued with anyone's level of care for me or pride in my work; they do not contain my childhood or my baffled adolescence or my meandering twenties or my slowly-coming-into-focus thirties.

I walked away from that driveway focusing hard on these philosophical points. After all, think of all the people who (apologize, qualify). I will be home in days. I am perfectly safe and warm and fed and I have electricity and water and (apologize, qualify).

Waiting for the bus to work after I'd checked everything out, I sat on the curb across the street from my house. I said reassuring things to myself. And then I got up, ran across the street, and took the poster off the pile in the driveway, stashing it in the laundry room until it dries so I can figure out what to do. I've now let it go twice and saved it twice. So — good job, Mom. Apparently a pretty good gift.

I mean, I can save one thing, right? I can still throw it out if someone convinces me it will grow mold. It's only one thing.

Well, okay. It's two things. Because after I got the poster and returned to the curb, I sat for a minute. And I thought, "Um, miracles of dry cleaning? Maybe?" And I reclaimed the blanket, which I hung up to dry in the same laundry room. Surely, someone can clean a wool blanket. Surely, it's better than nothing.

I was so relieved that the things it would actually be challenging to replace from a limited-resource perspective were up off the ground. My computer, my TV, the stuff that, financially speaking, would really put me — no pun intended — up a creek.

It's just all this other stuff. It's the way that even as an unsentimental person with stripped-down possessions, you live among the things you've decided you need or want, plus the irreducible two percent of everything you've ever owned that you don't exactly need and aren't exactly using but still carry from one home to another, whether it's different places or the same place at different stages of your life, as if it's the presence of those things that make it your home and no one else's. I don't need my yearbooks, but it's like losing a piece of the archeological record. It's embarrassing to find out I apparently care whether a complete survey of my belongings would prove that everything that's ever happened to me has actually happened. I really went there, I really did that, I really bought that ugly painting of ducks in flight that it's probably okay to throw away since it was leaning against a wall in my bedroom closet instead of hanging anywhere.

I'll be home soon. I'll probably even get new carpeting out of the deal. I'm very lucky. I'm very lucky. I'm very lucky.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.