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Messy Drawers

November 13, 2011

I live in a really small place. This, coupled with my tendency through my twenties and early thirties to move at least annually, curbed a youth of collecting, keeping, and having no idea what to do with tonnes of junk. I wasn’t a hoarder, stashing triple copies of a single magazine issue beneath thousands of other useless periodicals. Nor did I officially collect. I didn’t have shelves lined with dolls or salt and pepper shakers, special issues of comic books, or every concert t-shirt from every show I had ever attended all stacked neatly and never worn. I didn’t make impulse purchases or bring pocketfuls of shells and stones home from beach strolls and nature hikes. Yet, somehow, I always had too much shit lying around. Cupboards were jammed, I had fifteen pairs of shoes and an entire sector of the kitchen was lined with mugs. I’d leave a small nest of coffee cups at the curb and swipe my palms together…slap slap slap…there, that’s better, so much space freed up! And, the moment I dropped my guard, the Mug Clones would stop by and behold, a hundred new mugs to replace the five I just chucked.

For about five years, I’ve lived in an apartment with only three rooms. Short, narrow foyer with bathroom to the left, opening into kitchen and divided by a half-wall, this lets onto The Other Room, the space that does quadruple duty as bedroom, office, yoga studio and entertaining space. Anything that is not cooking, eating, bathing or peeing takes place in there. (Ok, for the literal-minded, Number Two also does not take place in there.) In summer, the balcony off the kitchen nearly doubles my space, with room for a container garden, maple tree, barbecue and table that seats eight. It’s a modest space, and when I inherited it from a friend, she cautioned me, “it’s a refrigerator in winter, but that’s what the bathtub is for. And, you won’t really want to have people over except for summertime, but imagine you live in the coolest place in New York City, and it’ll all come together for you.” She also shared that during the two years she lived here, the apartment had become her sanctuary, the place she laid low, worked, rested, wound down, and took time to herself. It wasn’t big enough for entertaining, but this was perfect because if she wanted to see people, she simply went out. This struck an excellent balance between remaining too isolated during chilly winter months (when the icy-cold apartment drove her out into the warmer world to socialise), and the dreamy stretch of summer months when she stuck close to home, gardened and cooked and languished outdoors, and took stock during quiet evenings when she neither extended invitations nor accepted ones to go out.

I was a bit concerned when I signed the lease and moved in. Would I end up a winter shut-in, declining valuable invitations to go out and instead burrowing into a cold apartment during the long, dark months that often do my heart wrong? Would I love the personal sanctuary, or go a bit weird around the edges, forgetting to clock enough hours in the company of others, instead prowling my three tiny rooms and developing freaky habits like eating off my lap six inches from the TV and scratching the tip of my nose absentmindedly with my fork? When I was small, my mother often had to make me put down my book and go out to play. “Go see some other children,” she would say. “Playing with people is good for you.” I’d argue that I was playing, I had a perfectly grand game of whatever going on already and couldn’t she see she was breaking it up at a critical point in the action? “Bullshit. Go outside, go meet the girl who lives behind us. Cheryl down the block said she spoke with her mother, and she really wants to play with you.” Thirty years hasn’t made me any more proficient or eager a social butterfly, and a modest apartment built like a cozy warren seemed like hermit fodder. Nonetheless, I moved in. If questioned, my friends might present a different account of things, but I think me and my apartment and my social skills are getting along just fine.

The place is too tiny to house a collection of anything extra, and I like to believe my possessions are minimal, if not flirting with sparse. The first handful of times I moved house, I railroaded hungover friends into lugging 45 crates of books, a dozen boxes of random crap, and 15 sacks of clothes up and down and up and down stairs and elevators and moving van ramps. By the fifth or sixth move, I began to embrace the pre-move purge, and by move number twenty, I’d just plain stopped buying shit. Partly, I learned, like most people do, to be more critical about items and objects, only buying a frying pan that looked sturdy enough to survive a decade or longer, and thinking really hard about how practical (or not) an end table might prove, before claiming it from someone’s trash and dragging it home by bike. Earning better wages also had the curious effect of dropping my spending habits, since the better the quality I could afford to purchase in the first place, the less often things needed to be replaced. Picking up a new set of curtains to replace the old, worn, bacon-stinking ones in the kitchen, I’d hang them, step back and admire my handiwork, then launder the bacon out of the old ones and carefully fold them and pack them away in the closet “just in case”, alongside the pot with a handle, the jeans that tore after a single wearing, and the sneakers with cracked soles that might come in handy if I painted my walls and needed shoes that I didn’t mind ruining with paint dribbles. Now, I accept that if something needed replacing, then it warrants discarding once its successor is hired.

This past summer, a local corner shop/ restaurant/ cafe went into a space down the block formerly occupied by a convenience store, and the owner hosted a kitchen drive a couple weeks before they opened for business, offering coffee and snacks in exchange for household goods. They posted signs asking for utensils, pans, dishes, and small appliances people might have hogging space in their own homes and which could save the shop from making unnecessary purchases while trying to open on a modest budget. I liked the environmental spin of this approach—asking for things people aren’t using, rather than buying brand new stuff for no good reason. Anything people donated that the restaurant didn’t want or couldn’t use, they donated to a local shelter, if it seemed like something practical and in good enough condition to pass along.

that magic way “timing” sometimes has, I’d already put a cardboard box on my table, intending to fill it in a passive way. Anytime I rummaged through a cupboard for something I wanted and came up with something useless instead, into the box it would go. The shop’s call for donations stepped up this process and after an aggressive pantry raid, I had a carton too heavy to carry that far. I balanced it on my bicycle seat and escorted my excess stuff to its new home. In exchange for a cup of coffee, I passed along a half-dozen cake pans, baking trays, some bowls and cutlery, baskets, and things that seemed good for stirring when I bought them but which hadn’t been dipped into a pot in years. I loved the lightness of giving things away, and took a a humbling moment to contemplate just how I’d come to own this much “too much” stuff in the first place.

Despite reflection, contemplation, austerity measures, and grown-up resistance to owning unnecessary things, my apartment, my tiny three-room home, harbours pockets of curious debris. Nostalgic, wasteful, bobbing like the island of plastic and garbage floating in the Pacific. It congregates in unexpected places, hiding behind seemingly practical, essential stuff, things I use almost every day, things I move and shift about. Things I pull off the shelf or push aside so frequently, it should give up the concealed things like a kid who’s really crummy at hide-and-seek. You know, the one who’d pick a bad spot, try to win by yelling ollie-ollie, stand corrected on how that clause works, then turn you in to “It” with a pointing fingers and “she’s totally over there in the hamper!” before running away to have snacks.

But somehow, a single kitchen drawer, one of the narrow ones that jams if you stack the tin foil atop the plastic wrap, ended up harbouring a whole nest of stowaways. A cache of junk so large and so charming that I must admit, after pulling it all out, appreciating and documenting its variety and bizarreness, I carefully put it all back again.

Behold, the walkie talkie purchased seven years ago for a party my housemates and I planned to coordinate using three sets of these babies. We were subletting an incredible, three-storey Victorian in Parkdale, and imagined the hilarity of communicating from floor to floor about cocktail service, ice supplies, the coat-check room, and DJ duties. Instead, we played with them all afternoon and by fifteen minutes into the party, the batteries were dead. By an hour into the party, one of us was barfing in the bushes after chugging a vodka cooler someone had buried in the garden as a joke two years prior during a summer blackout (city-wide electrical, not personal and alcohol-induced). And, by midnight, someone else was discovered hiding beneath my bedroom rug, claiming it made her feel way better just lying tucked in there. It’s probably for the best that our communication powers were limited to a ten-metre radius, rather than spanning the three kilometres promised by the walkie-talkie user manual.

Binding the walkie-talkie antenna to the spaetzle maker was a tangle of ribbons saved from parcels, packages, gifts, and trimmed from clothes. There’s nothing quite like a mess of ribbons and string to keep a drawer organised. And, when you decide to tidy up, it speeds things up by hauling the entire contents out in a big, jumbled lump to fall on the floor and maybe some of it breaks. This can be helpful if you’re having a hard time deciding what to discard. The broken stuff, of course. Definitely keep the rest. Put it back right where you found it. It’s perfect where it was!

Definitely don’t throw out the seeds that failed to germinate, or the herbs that, once planted and sprouted, whipped the cat into such a frenzy that she devoured the entire stand of grass then barfed it on the rug. Hold onto the cookie cutters shaped like hearts while stick to every dough known to mankind and tear even the sturdiest shortbread into gluey chunks. And for sure keep the Break-Up Tiara. It fits so nicely into the feeder tray part of the spaetzle maker. Oh, and totally hold onto that fucking spaetzle maker, even though it’s wrecked every batch of dumplings it’s ever met.

I feel like it’s super important to have a supply of matches at hand, matches in a quantity large enough to light all the fires I might ever want to light, if all the match factories were to cease producing matches at once. Oh, and keep that box of matches, too, in case lighting all the fires ever is still not fire enough.

And, neatly fold and keep the napkin handed out at a friend’s fundraiser, an event where I became very messy indeed, only to discover the fabric was selected more because it took the printed decal nicely than because it absorbed chin-spills or finger grease. It’s really nicely designed, though, and of all the weird crap in the kitchen drawer, it seems like the most sensible thing to retain. the napkin—definitely most important…

Almost. The napkin, actually, comes in second.Well, the napkin wins on the nostalgia and design scores, since it reminds me of a really lovely evening, a really wonderful date, and has a connection to a friend. But, there are other things on the scoreboard, and overall, napkin? Runner-up.

The most important thing to keep? Not the matches, not the tiara, not the walkie-talkie, nor the napkin. The most important thing to hold onto is definitely the single, perfectly formed chocolate chip. Unmelted, unblemished, entirely without bloom, that little pea-sized chip traveled across the kitchen to take up residence in the drawer. I imagine a really determined ant lugging a chunk of sugary goodness down the cupboards, across the floor, deking around my cat, up the baseboard and over the heater and onto the other cupboard, and down the backside where the molding is a bit cracked and stopping to catch its breathe only to discover, like sticking your head through a railing and it sliding there just like butter but ending up trapped, there was a way into the kitchen drawer but no way out. Not carrying its golden cargo, at any rate. And so, it left behind the chocolate chip in exchange for its own ant-y freedom, and a good tall tale, of course, to tell the rest of the ants back at the ant hill.

Inspired by the first ant’s big talk, or perhaps hoping to prove it’s all a great big lie, other ants will follow in pilgrimage, and it seems only right to restore that chocolate chip to its official spot in the kitchen drawer. Not because I especially want a hoard of ants thronging up my cupboard and boiling into the pantry, but because after that first guy worked so hard to get the chocolate chip home to share, and gave up only after every exit route proved impassable, it’d be a shame for those efforts to be shattered by a row of skeptic ants traveling in single-file and taking my cleanliness for evidence that the chip never existed at all.

Chocolate chip, napkin, matches, tiara, spaetzle maker, shitty cookie cutters, poppy seeds and Chinese lantern seeds, walkie talkie…back in the drawer. The ribbons are out.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 1:30 pm

    I just wanted to tell you that I love this post. Working on unburdening, etc. Lots to think about.

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