Pick any Richmond street, walk or bike down it frequently, and look around. If you see tightly drawn shades on every visit, you may begin to wonder what's inside those four walls. As I recently discovered, an innocuous-looking city bungalow can hide not a meth lab but the sort of pathology that gnaws on itself rather than screaming for help.
We all knew Len to be a hoarder. His life, ended by morbid obesity and associated illnesses, made me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim that "things are in the saddle and ride mankind." He wrote that in a century when most Americans owned far fewer possessions than we do today, and I've rarely seen anyone more ridden than Len.
He was an obsessive Star Trek and military-history aficionado who piled up expensive action figures: Imagine meticulous replicas of modern Green Berets, fighter pilots and British commandos. To their ranks, add moldering, virtual-army comic books and paperbacks piled high, clothes heaped and rumpled, carcasses of dead computers atop each other, notices of unpaid bills ankle-deep and gnawed by rodents, and you have a picture right out of a reality-television show. His pickup truck was only a tiny bit better off, with at least one place cleared — the driver's seat — to sit down.
I hope that his death and the fate of his collection, now sorted, dusted and being sold off to collectors to pay Len's considerable credit-card, medical, and home-equity bills, can be an object lesson to others. How many of us use stuff as a bulwark against some fear, be it of poverty, bereavement or death? Miss Havirsham had her wedding cake and rotting dress; others have their barns full of rusting cars, attics stuffed with yearbooks and school mementos that the silverfish slowly devour. The American Psychological Association estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of Americans suffer from what the organization now calls hoarding disorder. Of the association's six criteria, Len clearly demonstrated five.
In my family there were some borderline cases, but these accumulators were constructing a financial buffer against hard times. I've had to clean up after a few of them and thought I'd seen it all, but Len was in a league of his own. His reasons were nothing like those that inspired my grandfather, a one-time junk dealer. Yet grandpa recognized that copper, brass and antiques might bring a solid return on the dollar when the market was just right.
Len was also nothing like my late father-in-law, a child of the Great Depression. For a few years, I've been sorting and reusing the lumber and other building supplies he bought or salvaged because, as he never ceased to remind me, "I might have a use for it" when — never if — hard times came again.
Len's problem, however, was a modern disorder, and he didn't want anyone to see its symptoms. He eventually barred the door to friends and family, cleaned himself up reasonably well when he left his house, and maintained the facade of normality at work and social outings. When Len died, his doors and windows were opened for the first time in two decades. We friends had the unenviable task of helping Len's executor sort more than 40 contractor bags of trash from the many items that held value.
As much as Len's death stung personally and remains with me daily, it also made me think about the American mania for collecting things instead of, say, saving money. We see tangled piles of earthly goods on shows such as "American Pickers" and the canceled "Hoarders," playing on cable networks that once actually covered arts and entertainment or history. Thus hoarding and pathological collecting now attract commercial sponsors, and a casual Web search reveals services dedicated to helping families clean up after their mentally ill relatives.
As I went through Len's things, often wearing a respirator, I began to wonder: At what point does a stash of comics, Barbie dolls, or superhero Slurpee cups push an avid collector over the edge to become a hoarder?
I think Len's mania to rebuild a vanished childhood with vintage stuff began in his teens, after a car accident led to his father's death and a lingering decline for his mother. Interventions by friends never helped. My reading about hoarding suggests that only regular visits by and to a professional, plus help from family, and perhaps medication, effectively can treat compulsive hoarding.
In the end, no quantity of "Star Wars" toys, vintage farm tractors, Madame Alexander dolls or engraved napkin rings will make a collector, or hoarder, live another moment. These items can bring a return on investment or, more commonly, joy if they're shared in a community of collectors. My 1950 John Deere M tractor still mows the grass even as I hunt down replacement parts for it and swap tales with other old-tractor geeks. I learned about World War II history by building plastic models, a pastime I still pursue. I doubt I'll ever have so many kits that I won't be able to walk through my house. I'm lucky to finish one every year.
One sign of being a collector and not a hoarder? The willingness to part with items. At times, Len enjoyed his possessions and traded with other collectors, but mostly he was alone, in his crowded house, playing games on his computer while stacks of his own dusty things leaned over him like goblins. There are a great number of houses like Len's in Richmond. Do family members even know what to do if they get that awful peek inside?
The day after my first visit to Len's, I stepped up selling my own things at the eternal yard sale called eBay. Were I to discard or sell something I later needed, I reasoned that a replacement was just one eBay auction away. I just hope that what I trade or sell doesn't go into another bungalow to rot away in stacks, while the new owner hunkers down, as Len did, in a warren of drink cups, pizza boxes and dreams of recapturing a lost childhood. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
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