Tuesday, March 6, 2012

We Collect Dust

Collecting You - Indigo Girls (mp3)
Broken Things - Julie Miller (mp3)

Elvis Presley was stuck awkwardly in a mangle of tree limbs. Waylon lay cracked on the asphalt. Jon Bon Jovi remained whole, but scratched all to hell.

For the second time in as many years, a close family member of mine has found their home directly in the line of a tornado, most of their possessions scattered or destroyed in the process.

In their late 50s, married for more almost 40 years, and paragons of a grind-it-out lower-middle-class lifestyle that demanded penny-pinching and finding joy in the little things, my sister and brother-in-law raised three children who will all be better off financially than they were. In other words, they’ve raised kids who are beating the 21st Century odds.

Because retirement as most of us dream it wasn’t going to be a part of their lives, they only planned to grow old and eventually die in their home, working until they became infirm or collapsed, whichever came first. They saved up for improvements, first by expanding a master bathroom, then adding on a dining room.

My brother-in-law’s pride and joy was his garage. Rod was born an auto mechanic. Gears and electronics have always come natural to him, and he’s been earning a living at it since he was 15.

His garage was a testosterony shrine to his various obsessions and collections. He collected vinyl albums and singles and even bought a beat-up broken-down jukebox for $40 a few years back. He repaired it both mechanically and cosmetically and set about filling it with his favorite old (and not-so-) 45s. He even bought jukebox labels.

Rod collected record players. He’d find them discarded but in good shape, fix the motor and store it away. He had a rare and classic bar-sized pool table with a slate top. Damn thing weighs 800 pounds. Five feet away from it stood a classic early ‘70s pinball machine he bought broken-down and beat-up for $150. He fixed it up and could’ve sold it for a healthy profit.

He collected old bicycles. When he would find one discarded by the side of the road, he’d pull over, investigate the condition of the frame, and often bring it home. He’d fix them up and hang them up on the ceiling of his garage.

Although he’d stopped doing it quite so obsessively, his biggest and most beloved hobby was finding beat-up broken-down VW Beetles and restoring them. He’d get ‘em cheap, pour his elbow grease and heart into them, and then sell them. Because where the hell would he keep ‘em? And what kind of immoral crime would it be to fix them and them keep them imprisoned?

That garage was Rod’s own personal museum of lifelong hobbies. Finding beat-up broken-down mechanical items, giving them a little bit of love and attention, and restoring their vitality.

While my sister walked in a daze around the property, searching desperately for her five cats, all missing in the storm, I found myself looking down at the vinyl littering the driveway. Hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, singles and albums cracked and shattered. The pinball machine was in at least three distinct parts. The bikes and the record players were strewn wildly.

And I had to just close my eyes and breathe in order to keep from crying.

“Your sister wasn’t here and is unhurt and alive. The rest of this just doesn’t matter that much.”

He’s right. And he wasn’t just spouting out words. He meant it. My siblings were both safe. Four of the five cats were found in that first day. All their picture albums and most of their important and expensive belongings were recoverable. In other words, the stuff everyone talks about being the most vital in moments like this survived.

I seemed more upset about Rod’s losses than he did. Which was both odd and not so.

What is it about our humanity that so many of us collect things? Humans are collectors by nature, and most of what we collect and obsess over, when destroyed or scattered by disaster, can be sacrificed without much pain. It’s just stuff, ultimately, right?

So... why? Why do we do it? Why do I buy used DVDs and stack my shelves full of them? Why do I refuse to whittle my book collection or CD collection down when, were a tornado or fire to hit my house tomorrow, these things would be the last of my concerns? Why do I still have four boxes of comic books in my garage when I gave up that hobby more than 20 years ago?

What do you collect that, when the fit hits the shan, means little to nothing? Can you explain it? Can you defend it? I can’t. Yet I will continue to collect. Even when my current collections peter out, I’m almost certain to find something equally important and simultaneously dismissible to take their place.

Collection and foolishness. Welcome to humanity.


Bob said...

I'm so sorry for their loss. If you factor in your own falling-tree episode after the Fantasy draft last fall, your family is really snakebit for some reason.

I've been de-collecting slowly. It started with books. I realized at some point 5-10 years ago that I was never going to re-read all of these books I was collecting and that the best thing to do with them was to give them away once I finished reading them.

Anonymous said...

Kudos .. my issue deals w/ a tremendous sense of personal loss growing up ... I lost (via death or divorce) many friends and family .. way more than anyone should deal w/ growing up ... so, I guess, I make up for it by being a "Purveyor of Fine Goods" .. aka .. I'm a mild hoarder ... I can't figure out how to deal w/ 2 wear houses full of my 'collections' ...

PS .. I love your blog and your city .. I've been visiting
Chatt since 1987 ... Tryiing to figure out how to relo there permanently ...

troutking said...

Great post, Billy. I'm glad everyone's OK. You pose a good question and I don't know the answer to it. If I'm really honest, I guess it may be that nothing really intrinsically matters except what we decide bring us happiness and a sense of accomplishment. But that's a depressing and empty thought, so now I'm going to disavow it.