The nation itself, with all its so called internal improvements, which, by the way, are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it as for them is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. —Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden
Hurricane Irene seems to have ushered in the fall, that season of the year punctuated by cool breezes and colored leaves. The hummingbirds have made their departure, no longer to be glimpsed hovering at the red feeder on the front porch. The titmice have largely replaced the goldfinches at the sunflower seed feeder in the yard. High in the tops of the towering maples the first leaves of autumn have turned a jaundiced eye.
These are the days when a man steps out onto his back stoop, looks up at the sky and feels a certain stirring within his breast — the call to clean out the garage.
It’s a chore we ponder all summer long. With purposeful arm we raise the garage door, survey the acreage of junk, rub our chins — and gently lower the door again. Summer days are hot and too close for such work; better to wait until the cool fall weather.
I called the local refuse company to inquire about terms for renting a dumpster. Of the various sizes available, I settled on the 12-yard. We could have it delivered by the end of the week. That would give us the 3-day holiday weekend to get a head start. It seemed like a good plan.
Friday evening I returned home from work to find the massive steel structure parked at the head of the driveway, several yards from the garage. The men had leveled the dumpster on wooden blocks. You could undo the catch and swing the rear door open to facilitate loading. I glanced up at the blue sky, felt the cool air on my face and a twinge in my stomach.
It was my Saturday to work at the office. By the time I returned home, my wife and older daughter had begun the laborious process of sorting through the contents of the garage. Several items had already been tossed into the dumpster: broken chairs, metal stands, pieces of splintered wood and glass, old pillows.
My wife beckoned me to the basement, where she had already removed nearly half of the junk we had stored there. “You have to go through what’s left and decided what you want to keep — I didn’t touch your stuff.” Slowly, I nodded my head.
We walked up and out through the open hatchway and retraced our steps to the garage. “Do you want these?” my daughter asked, holding up two books in her hands: Leaves of Grass and an Easy Reader paperback from my elementary school days. “Keep them for now,” I mused, and ducked into the house to change into my work clothes.
I lifted the bow saw off the nail inside the garage and commenced fishing out a few of the wooden chairs from the dumpster. “What are you doing?” my wife asked. “Sawing them up into smaller pieces,” I said. “Why?” she asked. “So they don’t take up so much room. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to fill it up in short order.” She shook her head and returned to the garage to help my daughter.
I finished with the chairs and set to work dismantling the plastic table lying in the back yard. After that I tackled a broken plastic lawn chair, green with lichenified mold.
My son-in-law appeared in the driveway. “Just got a small landscaping job from your neighbor,” he said. “Pocket money for the week.” He pitched in, helping to break up some of the bigger items.
“Look!” my daughter exclaimed. “The doll house we got for Christmas when we were little.” The wooden shingles and clapboard veneer had peeled off in places, but the structure was still intact. “What should we do with it?”
“Put it on the workbench,” my wife said. “I want to keep it.”
Several distinct piles had begun to take shape at the head of the driveway. “These can be donated to the Salvation Army,” my daughter said, pointing to the plastic basket full of basketballs and soccer balls. “We started a pile of clothing as well.”
I threw the remnants of the plastic chair into the dumpster and sat down on the back stoop. My younger daughter appeared with cold drinks. “Want an orange juice?” she asked, handing me the chilled plastic bottle. “Lotta stuff, huh?”
I surveyed the paraphernalia strewn about and nodded my head. How many things we collect over the course of our lives, I thought. We spend our hard-earned money to buy them, finagle the space to store them, and then expend precious time, energy and more money to get rid of them. Much of the labor of our lives ends up on the ash heap at the dump.
I rose to my feet, drained the dregs of the orange juice and tossed the empty container into the dumpster. It struck the side and made a short hollow sound that quickly dimmed and faded away.