My Uncle Paul was a funny, kind man. His friends called him Zip for his vitality and spirit, and I never saw him angry. Still, he’d fought the Germans in his time and successfully managed a Ford dealership for many years, so I tend to believe the family tale that says one day, while picking his way through a minefield of toys left out by his two daughters, he slipped on a Barbie convertible then shouted from the floor that he was going to back a dump truck up to the front door of his own gottverdammt house and shovel everybody’s junk into it with a coal shovel which would be no problem at all because one of his friends owned a dump truck and another ran the city dump so don’t think he wouldn’t do it, rotten kids have everything on god’s green earth they could possibly want and don’t appreciate any of it.
Who hasn’t had the dump truck fantasy? Paul never got his, but mine was fulfilled last week when I had a Mack truck slide a 20-cubic yard dumpster onto my driveway so I could clean out our house. When acquaintances at Little League ask how things are going, I tell them about the dumpster, and they look at me with the kind of admiration and fear they’d show someone who said he was entering the 151-mile Marathon of the Sands across the Sahara.
We love our house, and it should be plenty big for us, but it was built in 1871, for different patterns of use. The Italianate design is enfilade style—rooms interconnected along a path of open doorways from front to back, like a stately shotgun shack—so clutter is even more obvious than in another house of the same size. The small room designated on floor plans as the dining room has a door in every wall and is virtually unusable, by which I mean it now holds a blanket chest, bicycles, collapsible TV tables, vacuum cleaner, dog crates, and an unfinished Morris chair. The few closets in the house are tiny, and the attic is not only unfinished but reached only through a tiny hatch in the 10-foot ceiling. The partially-finished basement is damp and home to all five of the deadliest spiders in the world.
Twenty yards is a big steel box, and I wish it didn’t read “Capt. Hook” in giant letters down the side. At least the open end is turned demurely toward my front door, so neighbors and passersby can’t see our secret shame. How did Mrs. Churm come to have five unopened cannisters of Scottish oats long past their expiration date? Why was I still hoarding the moldy draft of something I wrote, 20 years ago, titled “Scud Juice and Seawater: A Trashy Novel”? It’s finally found a home, right where it belongs.
Of course on a daily basis we do try to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We pay for recycling, don’t drink much soda or bottled water, save used batteries to take to collection sites, use cloth grocery bags, etc. The average trash we produce is, I think, not bad for eight mammals in an American household, which means there’s room for improvement.
With this cleanup I've recycled what I could of the magazines, corrugated, and office papers. Other things aren’t permitted in the dumpster anyway—a previous owner’s air conditioner, 15 paint cans, lawn waste, some broken concrete. Someone came by and took the old pressboard bookcases, a loveseat, and three lightly broken chairs we felt were too ratty to sell. Roving metal-pickers have gone through the dumpster several times, taking everything from a broken steel baby gate to a roll of mangled chicken wire for scrap. I took several hundred books to used bookstores and got (a very little) cash at one and a credit at another, offered friends their picks, and donated the rest to the Friends of the Library sale.
We'll have a yard sale in a week for anything worth selling. Everything else, and there’s plenty of it, goes in the dumpster, which has begun to perfume the neighborhood with a smell like freedom.
Everything, that is, except a pair of ugly candleholders and a circus-colored plastic dresser Mrs. Churm rescued from my pile. She wants to talk about some other things too. It’s hard to be hard, as Uncle Paul found out. Even I couldn’t bring myself to throw out a few books the library didn’t want for its used book sale, including two on etiquette:
The hostess who enjoys her friends should not hesitate to invite them to dinner simply because she lacks someone to do the serving. Naturally she should not attempt large or formal dinner parties, but entertaining small groups at simple, unpretentious dinners can be a most delightful and enjoyable type of hospitality.
One with advice for a woman living alone:
Following one of the good literary and dramatic critics is a good habit, in any case—it keeps you up-to-date on current goings-on and prevents you from wasting time on books and plays that aren’t worth the trouble.
And one that provides “5,000 New Answers to Questions:
Q. What is the proper way to eat corn on the cob?
A. One should be careful to select a piece which does not require the support of both hands. If an entire cob is offered to one, it should be held in the napkin and broken. One places on the corn enough salt, pepper, and butter for one or two morsels.
See? Now that stuff is well worth putting back in storage. It'll bear fruit, you can just tell.