The thinking man's storage unit: an adventure in literary dumpster diving

Originally posted on Boxing the Octopus, 4/2/08. This came to mind when I saw that reality TV has now taken on the art of Dumpster Diving.

Yesterday, I posted about Lily Koppel's discovery of a red leather diary that sparked her new book, and I promised to share my own less dramatic but still fruitful dumpster diving, which began a few months ago when Gary shared with me the startling news that if a storage unit is abandoned by the drug lord or dead person or illegal alien or otherwise tragic figure who leased it, the contents are auctioned off after a certain period, and any enterprising or morbidly curious individual who shows up can purchase the contents, usually for a relative pittance.

The catch is, you may not cross the threshold until you are declared the winning bidder, so you can look at the stacks and piles and stacks and more stacks from the doorway but not peek inside, behind, or under the actual stuff. It’s a grab bag gold mine for flea market moguls who see dollar signs on every forsaken kitchen chair and novelists who see a human head in every Rubbermaid bin. I was so there.

Gary and I quickly fell in with the interesting assortment of regulars. An eighty-nine-year old man who regaled me with stories of WWII as we walked the lot. A cadre of yard sale mavens we dubbed the Banger Sisters. A guy who reminds me of Indiana Jones, except he’s young and black and makes a better than good living (judging from his hot wheels) buying and selling the contents of storage units with an uncanny knack for guessing what’s inside the unmarked boxes.

“Ever stumble on anything bizarre?” I asked him as we followed the facility manager down the long row of padlocked steel doors.

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

I instantly wanted to know. “Dead bodies? Drug money?”

“Nothing that exciting. Cremains. You know. A cremated person. Like in a big jar or a plastic box from the funeral home. Some kinky stuff like – well, you know.” He brightened with the memory of a particularly delicious find. “Once I got a whole stack of construction grade windows. Turned them over for twenty-five hundred bucks.”

The manager raised the door on the next unit up for bid. It was empty except for a futon with a broken steel frame and spider-infested mattress and seven neatly stacked Rubbermaid bins.

“Five dollars,” someone volunteered.

“Gary,” I whispered, “if ever there was a human head in a storage unit, I am looking directly at it.”

He gave me a look I call “the big eyebrow” and said, “Do not bid ten.”

But curiosity killed me. “Ten dollars!”

“Fifteen,” called one of the Banger Sisters, and the original bidder upped it to twenty.

“What do you think?” I asked black Indie, who squinted at the bins for a long moment, divining.

“Books.”

“Twenty-five dollars!” I shouted.

The Banger Sisters gave me the stink eye, and Gary huffed something Ralph Cramden-esque, but who cares? The unit was declared mine! We spirited our treasure trove home to the garage, after guiltily unloading the wildlife riddled futon mattress in a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant. (The other catch is that you have to take everything from the unit and leave it clean swept within twenty-four hours.) The first bin I opened yielded a disappointing selection of dusty candles, cheesy knickknacks, and pedestrian tchatchkes. The sort of suburban relics that travel from Dollar General to your Aunt Myrtle’s curio shelf to the church yard sale and so on until the Elmer’s glue gives way and the Littlest Angel’s head falls off and rolls under the sofa into the landfills of forever.

“Hey, next time, let’s light the twenty-five dollars on fire and drop it down a sewer grate,” Gary said helpfully. "Not as many venomous spiders involved.”

But just as Indie the Uncanny had predicted, the second bin – and the five that followed – were filled with books. Mostly hardcover. Lots of politico and satire. Hunter S. Thompson, PJ O'Rourke. Lots of terrific fiction. Thomas McGuane, Larry McMurtry’s older, better stuff. Bingo! A first edition hardcover Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my all-time favorites which I had only in paperback. BAM! A first edition Cold Mountain! Yeah, baby!

Hardcover editions of Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and several other reference books to replace my dilapidated trade paper versions. I was a big ol' Banger Sister about it, efficiently parsing stacks for sale and keeps, but inevitably the story began to emerge. Tom Clancy told me this was a man's book shelf. A thinking man, Carlos Casteneda added. And as I sorted the reference books and classics, I realized that this man was -- or wanted to be -- a writer.

The fifth bin contained a less interesting assortment of Chicken Soupy inspirational and self-help books, including...huh-oh...The Anger Workbook for Women.

The last bin contained trade paperback literary fiction from a variety of small presses, and marking a place in one of the books was the last page of a letter from the man's mom, pledging whatever help and support she could offer "now that you're handling the boys on your own." A telling PS urged him to reconsider his choice to enroll one of his sons in a program for gifted students. "Sometimes it's better to fit in with the regular crowd than to try to stand out," said good ol' Mom. I cringed. Chicken Sap for the Soul.

At the bottom of the bin, there was a 1950s children's book about park rangers in Yellowstone, three editions of a high school literary quarterly circa 1971 to 1973, and a little book with a swirladelic orange and magenta cover: India Love Poems published in 1967 by Peter Pauper Press. I flipped through the dry pages of the high school lit mags, looking for the man's name and found his byline beneath a few heartfelt but uncompromisingly guy-like poems. The primary contributor to the quarterlies was a girl who appeared to be in a very Janis Ian state of mind and could have so totally been me at seventeen. It surprised me not at all to open the poetry book and find that she'd given it to him.

"Because it seems to me that you brim with love," the inscription said.

She urged him to pursue his dream, expressed certainty that he would someday write important books, and wished him a life filled with peace and joy. The binding of the little book had been gnawed by mice. It was the only volume in the entire collection that was in less than immaculate condition, the only one that showed signs of a long journey.

So I guess there was a human head in there after all. And a human heart. Nothing as exciting as drug money or as important as the diary of a 1920s New York socialite. Just the evidence of plain life. Lost hope. Love and wreckage. Abandonment and moving on. Why we keep things. Or don't. Or can't. It didn't even occur to me to try to track this man down. His life was his life and none of my business. If he's dead, it's not my tragedy, and if he's alive, it's not my place to Google him up and tell him "Here, take back these things you left behind."

But I couldn't help it. I fell in love with him a little. Sitting on my garage floor, holding his well-worn but reverently cared for copy of The Bushwhacked Piano, I cried for this Thinking Man. And I too wish him peace and joy.

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