Basements didn't mean much to me when my wife and I were first married. Back then, I was young and carefree. What did I know?
But it wasn't long before heredity kicked in and it dawned on me that a basement holds an amazing potential for storing vast amounts of worthless junk. Lauren and I have been married almost 15 years now, and a broken toilet recently showed me how far I've come. I fixed the plumbing problem with a rubber contraption called a Bullseye flapper. The scary part was, I not only knew what that was, I actually had one. It was right there in the basement.
Before I was married, if you had asked me for a Bullseye flapper I'd have referred you to the nearest pasture. So when, and why, did I start hoarding Bullseye flappers? And why does my basement look more and more like the markdown room at Lloyd's House of Junk? After consulting with several married friends and studying my family history, I've determined this is a process most men go through: we grow up, we get married and we gradually begin stocking our basements with miscellaneous bits and pieces of every house we've ever lived in.
Here's a sampling of what's sitting in my basement right now: screws from outlet covers I've replaced over the years. Countless lumber scraps, none large enough to be really useful. Rubber gaskets from a car I owned in high school. Leftover wire ranging in size from miniature (three inches long) to jumbo (four inches long).
This behavior is not my fault. It's inherited. When it comes to saving worthless junk, my dad is the reigning national champion. I think it's because his father once owned a hardware store and he's trying to carry on the tradition. Dad's shed is stocked with old, dirty lumber scraps, warped lawn mower wheels and coffee cans full of rusty nuts and bolts. But the really good stuff, the junk that can't be exposed to the elements, fills the basement.
Last winter, Mom cleaned the basement, putting roughly half of Dad's junk into a large barrel earmarked for the garbage truck. Into that barrel, if you can believe this, she threw some items just because they were dirt-encrusted and hadn't been touched since the Ford administration. Corroded faucets with no handles. Assorted moldy boots. Pieces of broken pencils. Paint brushes with bristles so stiff they could be used as hammers.
Then Dad came downstairs. He saw the junk barrel and started pawing through it to retrieve things Mom really should have saved, such as broken chunks of bathroom tile. Mom threatened him bodily harm if he touched one rusty bolt.
Back one more generation, my grandmother carried the pack-rat gene. She recently gave me some stuff that had gathered dust in her basement workshop for 25 years. Included was a 16-drawer box stocked with treasures from another generation: broken jigsaw blades, a tube of glue from 1966 and a small box labeled "japanned tubular rivets."
All of these things make a great addition to my basement collection. After it ages a few more years, it'll be ready for a garage sale—an important part of the junk saver's life. I think we love garage sales because they confirm in our minds that our own junk has value. We peruse another guy's treasure, then give him money for it. Often this involves a filthy, decades-old electrical appliance that the seller assures you "works just fine." To prove it, he has priced it at 25 cents. You get it home and find that it does indeed "work fine," as a doorstop.
But you've paid good money for this thing and you're not throwing it away. You take it apart to have a look, forget how it goes back together and end up keeping it, in pieces, on a basement shelf. Hey, you might need the parts someday.
Maybe the reason pack rats have so many tiny, unrelated bits of junk is that we love to take things apart. In my basement sits the skeleton of a Eureka vacuum cleaner that I tried to fix two years ago. I took the whole thing apart, cleaned it, put it back together and plugged it in. It sounded like a 747 trying to take off while dragging a pregnant moose. Maybe the problem had something to do with the leftover pieces that were piled on the workbench. My wife, a nonadventurous type, went out and bought a new one.
Meanwhile, I held onto what was left of the old Eureka. This despite the fact I have no idea how to fix a vacuum cleaner. But my junk-saving relatives would be proud. Together, we've probably amassed enough worthless items to build something potentially dangerous, then sell it at a garage sale to some poor sap who'll take it apart and store the pieces in his basement. On the shelf, right next to his Bullseye flapper.
Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He and his wife, Lauren, have three children.
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