Following the 1965 Watts Riots, my husband’s grandparents moved from Lynwood to Fullerton. They loved their new home, but they were pack rats. They held onto the Lynwood house and used it for storage. Dishes, pianos, model train sets, bearskin rugs, pinball machines, paintings, antique guns in Old West holsters—their stuff crammed every shed, shelf, room, nook, and closet. Plus, the house was a burglar magnet.
So the family finally sneaked in with a truck one weekend, only to find that the stuff would not go gently. After a few loads, the grandparents showed up unannounced, leaped from their Cadillac, and called a halt to the cleanup. And as the group stood looking sheepish, Grandma ran to the flatbed.
“Look, babe!” she trilled, grabbing a fruit jar with the date 1932 on it. “Here are those peaches we were looking for!”
Stuff. Why is it so hard to get rid of?
We are driving through Garden Grove, wondering if there’s any way not to be doomed to repeat our family history. For a decade, my own family’s surplus stuff has been piling up in a warehouse, having outgrown an assortment of sheds, shelves, rooms, nooks, and closets. Chairs, couches, dishes, rugs, books, high school trophies. Newspapers, Beanie Babies, sour-smelling hand-me-downs, Barney videos, and Happy Meal prizes. Two Weedwackers and a pole for picking Valencia oranges. Why? It’s been a decade since we had either a lawn or a Valencia orange tree.
You read about people who purge it all, or give it away, or lose everything in brushfires. They always say empty-handedness makes them feel so free. But here in the most consumerist county of the most consumerist half of consumerist California, freedom’s just another word for not enough surfboards.
I saw a UCLA study in which a team of social scientists had ventured into a random sampling of middle-class Southern California households. Only 25 percent could fit a car into their stuff-stuffed garages, and the clutter was so distracting that just being in the same room with it elevated the women’s levels of stress hormones. But getting rid of it is hard, even for people without hoarder grandmas.
Instead, acquisition management has evolved into a SoCal tradition: You move into a house, and it feels empty, so you buy stuff. Then you move to a new house. Now you need new stuff. But you might move again, so you hang onto the old stuff. Plus, now you have kids. What about their stuff? And then there’s your work stuff. And all of your nice stuff. You can’t just put that in with the Weedwackers and the orange picker. So you get in your car—which is on the street, because of all your garage stuff—and hit the freeway in search of, say, a $250-a-month North County self-storage unit.
In other words, stuff happens. And from the number of storage places in O.C., it’s happening to a lot of us. So what to do?
Send the next generation in with a flatbed? I’d say yes, but the last time we visited that storage unit, our now-grown kids couldn’t even part with their old Pokeman cards. Oh, stuff. I wish we could quit you. But the chain appears destined to remain unbroken—right there in the box where I left it, along with those peaches we’ve been looking for.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.