One Man's Clutter Is Another Man's Archives


Havre de Grace. -- One way to pass the time and ward off cabin fever during a hard and interminable winter is to rummage around in the basement. When I do that I invariably find something that switches on the memory machine, and then when I next look at the clock, hours have gone by.

The other day, searching back in a dark corner for an empty can to scoop birdseed with, I found a cardboard box stuffed with old reporter's notebooks. Each was filled with scribbles from stories covered years ago. When I opened the first one I was hooked; there was nothing to do but sit down and flip through the pages.

For a while I was transported to crime scenes, courtrooms, political conventions, legislative sessions, news conferences and other events from long ago. And when the tour ended and I found myself back in the basement again, I replaced the box of notebooks in the same dark corner. It may sit there undisturbed for another 10 years, but I never even considered throwing it out.

Why? The stories produced from those old notes were, for the most part, routine, and in any case they're preserved elsewhere in their published form. There's no likelihood anyone else would want to see the notebooks. But I'm keeping them anyway.

In our house, and probably in the world, there are two schools of thought about what constitutes clutter. One holds that if it isn't being used and isn't likely to be used any time soon, it's clutter and it ought to be removed. The other assumes that if there's room for it, it ought to be saved, just in case. Those notebooks aren't clutter, they're archives.

There's much to be said for getting rid of clutter. Even if you've never been involved in an Arkansas real-estate deal, it's probably good practice to throw out your old files and notes once the statute of limitations has expired. Those who do this instinctively tend to lead exemplary, well-pruned lives.

If a relative sends them a funny story from an out-of-town paper, they read it, but they don't file it. They don't keep road maps of places they don't intend to visit. If they lose one glove, they don't save the other one. They see no use for half a broken screwdriver, or a toaster that doesn't work but has a perfectly good cord and plug. Such things they throw out without a second thought.

Their minds are orderly and their basements free of fire hazards. But they're not likely to experience the happy surprises that come the way of a pack-rat person who's been rummaging away in the clutter on a winter afternoon.

A friend of mine, a lawyer, was doing such rummaging recently and came up with the equivalent of my box of old notebooks. He found a file filled with routine papers that had crossed his desk but had seemed, for some reason, worth saving. Reading them over years later, he found himself chuckling at the memories they evoked.

Clutter? Maybe. This is ordinary stuff, familiar to anyone who's been around courts and police departments. But for him each page was a ticket to other times and other places. He was delighted he'd kept the file, and he isn't likely to throw it away now.

There was a handwritten motion from a criminal defendant seeking to have some long-forgotten charges dismissed. Why? Because "his mother is sick, his father is sick, his sister is pregnant and he is a high-school dropout."

There was a police report about a disorderly-conduct arrest in which the officer solemnly reported that "while the subject was being questioned he began urinating on the officer's shoe, and while being handcuffed he continued urinating on the officer's cruiser."

There was a report to a Maryland state's attorney concerning a 1970 case in which a police officer arrested a man for driving an old Cadillac hearse painted with red and white stripes. The charge was "casting contempt upon the American flag." The officer had concluded, he explained, that as the hearse symbolized death and the stripes symbolized the flag, the defendant might as well have carried a sign reading Death to America.

And then there was the Parole and Probation report written about a defendant in a 1976 case. It was apparently saved by my friend as a model of bureaucratic prose. It praises the defendant for lacking "discernible social saliencies" and "generating a strongly positive adjustment profile."

The writer recommended probation for the defendant, explaining that he "may have experienced some transitory reflection of former peer values, at a time when he was at a confluence of personal value judgment. This notion would appear to support the position that his action is more episodic than residual in complexion."

It was unrecorded whether the sentencing judge was swayed by this display of, well, semantic clutter.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad