It is spring and dangerous urges are in the air. A neighbor of mine recently succumbed to the impulse to replace the somewhat soggy railroad ties in his backyard garden. For days I heard manly grunts and whirring chain saw noises as he battled the recalcitrant timbers. One day, after the wood chips had stopped flying, we talked. He gave me some neighborly advice. "If you ever get the urge to replace your railroad ties," he said, "take a cold shower."
I recently yielded to a different seasonal impulse, I cleaned the basement. Not the whole thing. I only got about one-third of the way through it. That is when I ran into our mysterious collection of window screens. The screens presented me with a set of riddles. Where did they come from? How did the screens get bigger than any windows on our house? How did they get so numerous? Were they breeding?
Rather than face these difficult questions, I quit cleaning. It was a good time to quit because my assistant, my 7-year-old son, had just lost his enthusiasm for tossing things out. The urge to hoard, which had been suppressed for a few hours, had emerged.
The flow of junk had reversed. Instead of moving outward, away from the basement and toward the alley, junk was now incoming. Items were being "rescued" from the alley.
That is the usual direction for such stuff. Junk flows into our basement like a school of herring swimming to its spawning ground. Few obstacles can stop it.
The other day, I was able to reverse the tide for a few hours. I carted stuff out of the basement and placed it in a wheelbarrow.
I told my son he was the baron of wheelbarrow.
It was a new position of power for him, and like most folks in such posts, he was wildly enthusiastic about his work.
As long as the baron was amused, things went smoothly. He and I hauled out parts of an old table. The table had traveled from Chicago to Louisville, to Bethesda, to Baltimore. It had functioned well for adult meals. But when it was called upon to be the chief staging area for the kids, it couldn't stand the pressure. One day it fell apart when one, maybe two, kids were standing on it. The kids bounced back. But the table never recovered.
We also wheeled out rusty andirons and malfunctioning fireplace screens. We must have half a dozen fireplaces in our house. None of them work. But they all look like they do because they now have the correct andirons and screens. Whenever we bought new fireplace parts, the old ones migrated to the basement. There these displaced parts joined a collection of parts leftover from previous houses, houses that had working fireplaces. It turns out that working fireplaces consume parts about as fast as they burn wood. This leads me to believe that the only people who really have benefited from America's fondness for home and hearth, are the fireplace parts people.
I also carried out a piece of decorative iron. I had no idea what function that piece of iron was supposed to perform. But I did remember how we acquired it. When a neighbor "deaccessioned" her basement, she gave the iron thing to us.
When I had finished hauling stuff out to the alley, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It was short-lived.
I soon realized that the hard part of fulfilling the urge to clean is finding somebody to haul junk away.
I called the city. The city said it would send a truck around to pick the bulk trash up. The truck would be there in two weeks. And there was a limit to the number of items I could donate. I also had to list my junk. Rather than making a detailed disclosure, I settled for "one table and four bags of junk."
That meant I had to begin the tedious job of trying to squeeze the contents of my junk pile into four bags. I chopped up table legs, folded wire fencing and stuffed heavy fireplace parts in flimsy plastic.
Moreover, I had to move my trash pile. I couldn't put it in the alley because the pile would block my parking pad, and I wouldn't be able to park my car. Instead I put the pile on a strip of ground that sits next to the parking pad.
But then the fig-tree fellow showed up. Weeks earlier I had succumbed to the seasonal urge to plant things. I bought a couple of fig trees. It turned out the best place to plant these trees was on the strip of ground where the trash pile was resting. So I moved the pile again, this time to the back of the parking pad. There it will sit until the night before the bulk trash truck comes. Then, after I move my car, I will carry the junk out to the edge of the alley.
This episode has taught me a lesson. The next time I feel a seasonal urge coming on, I'll stretch out on the sofa, crack a beverage and wait until the feeling passes.