Acts of Salvage explores what the contemporary city compels us to cling to or discard.
Acts of Salvage is curated by Amy Lavender Harris, Geographer, Torontonian, dumpster diver and author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit.
I’ve been shifting gears lately, propelled toward new projects by the sense of something turning, something pulling me along. Perhaps it’s the season: things accelerate, change, end, begin. The Imagining Toronto project began in the fall, almost (almost) as if by accident: events converged, and there it was, conceived as clearly as if it had been waiting for someone to notice and engage with it.
While plugging away at Acts of Salvage, another story — or more precisely a set of ideas — has begun to make itself manifest. For the moment I am sitting on that set of ideas, letting it percolate and produce steam. Perhaps in the winter there will be time to develop it into its formal form. It’s an urban project, of course; on a subject I’ve written about before: the curious relationships people in cities have with wildlife. Animals, of course, including raccoons and pigeons, but also wasps and bees and weeds and coyotes and trees. I’ve begun outlining, and talking to a few people, and made a few tentative stabs toward writing. And it feels good. It feels … proper. It feels like the natural next step. And so. And so I have begun walking down the long road to writing another book.
What does this mean for Acts of Salvage, which I’ve already promised to a publisher who will, if it works well enough, presumably put into print? Lately I have begun to see them as parallel projects, ideas spinning around similar orbits. There’s a fourth book, too, one I do not yet feel ready to write. But I trust in the ideas. I trust they will wait.
The regular soundtrack at my local Goodwill — indeed, at most second-hand stores in Toronto — is an endless mix of eighties music. It’s a playlist that sounds very much like this, streaming (or so it seems) from some local radio station whose listener base consists mainly of people whose adult existence has never lived up to their memories of high school.
It’s not precisely that I dislike eighties music, or those who listen to it. I have my own not-so guilty pleasures from the era: Big Country, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, A Flock of Seagulls, Joan Jett and — a song I will never tire of — Dead or Alive’s immortal “You Spin Me Round.” My own musical preferences — which emerged independently of pop radio in the very late eighties and early nineties — include certain albums released during the eighties, probably chief among them REM’s Chronic Town (which I still have on cassette), Murmur, Document, etc. and U2′s Boy, October, War and all their live releases from 1980 onward.
But when eighties music enjoyed its long revival from the late nineties onward via ‘Retro’ weekends in clubs, and on radio and music television (and accompanying compilation albums), I gave it a pass. I was never able to get into the collective nostalgia for a decade that had produced such prolonged personal misery that its music actually filled me with nausea.
One afternoon, half a year ago, I was browsing at the local Goodwill when something — some current in the air, some internal tremor, some awareness of an unseen threat — made me feel distinctly uneasy. I stopped still where I was, in the middle of a narrow aisle, and listened. And what I heard was Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
Most people remember “Take My Breath Away” because it was featured on the Top Gun movie soundtrack in 1986. I have never seen the entire film, but know the song because it received heavy radio airplay that summer — the summer I graduated from grade eight, worked at my first real job, entered puberty, and first encountered V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series of books. The song’s visceral power, to me at least, derived from its juxtaposition of displacement and longing, its paean to desire and desolation — things I felt acutely that summer, and for several years thereafter.
In the nearly three decades that have elapsed since the song’s original release I have, of course, heard it again from time to time, on the radio in the car or on the sound system in some shopping mall. And, apart from some vague twinge of remembrance, it has never struck me the way it did a few months ago at the local Goodwill.
One afternoon in grade eight a boy at school pointed at my clothes and taunted: “Goodwill!” He continued to do so for the rest of the afternoon, ratcheting up his attack whenever the opportunity arose, and encouraging a small chorus of classmates to join in. At the time I was rather perplexed: I had always thought of that particular boy as less hostile than my other classmates [and have, in fact, continued to think of him that way, although it occurs to me now that he was the same classmate who poured blue paint onto my hair a few months later -- an assault to which the school responded by gathering both grade eight classes together and asking what I had "done" to deserve it]. More importantly, I wasn’t exactly sure what “Goodwill” was, never having been inside one. I did, of course, understand the nature of his attack: my clothes had failed, as usual, to live up to the social standard in effect in the eighties. My shoes were too white, too Trex instead of Tretorn; my outfit too redolent of Bi-Way or Bargain Harold’s (two long-vanished discount retailers that, like K-Mart, sold knock-off clothes and cheap electronics before WalMart drove them to extinction). I did know all about second-hand clothes, though: my mother volunteered regularly at a local hospital charity shop whose main stock-in-trade was the cast-off clothing that filled my closet.
And what I understood from his taunting was this: if it was a socially risky to wear cut-rate clothing from a discount store (the source of most of my classmates’ wardrobes), it was a far greater shame to be seen wearing something second-hand — worst of all from Goodwill, that repository of discarded objects and, by extension, the domain of undesirable people.
I remain sufficiently defensive about those days to point out that my parents, while unable (or, equally, unwilling) to buy into the excess of the eighties, were not precisely poor.
It is true that they had very little money. But they were highly educated, furnished their home with books and antiques — and had put every penny they had into large and valuable tracts of suburban land that they sold very profitably to a developer in 1989, putting to a decided end any narrative of our “poor” family that persisted even at that point.
Until then, though, I lived for eight years in a community where social worth was defined by visible proof of consumption. Reeboks, a Swatch watch, a Cabbage Patch doll and a neon “Choose Life” sweatshirt didn’t guarantee popularity — but they provided necessary protection against being labeled a loser. And it wasn’t only teens — the targets of so much advertising — who were affected. Their parents took up or abandoned jogging, wore larger (or smaller) earrings, ties and shoulder pads, bought smaller (or larger) domestic (or imported) cars and furnished their living rooms in pastel (or beige) in accordance with the continually shifting dictates of consumption. My mother recalls encountering another parent among the school supplies on display in a store one September, agonizing over whether she was buying her son the “right” lunchbox — not out of any interest in his aesthetic preferences, but in a panic about being (and buying) properly on trend.
The odd thing was that our community — a suburb just east of Toronto — was and remains demographically working class. The parents of my classmates were, for the most part, factory workers, low-level functionaries and stay-at-home mothers who fought for groceries in the chaotic environs of Knob Hill Farms, bought knock-off clothing at at K-Mart and waited in line for cheap jewellery and off-label electronics at Consumers Distributing. On occasion I would even encounter some classmate’s mother shopping at the charity shop where my mother volunteered — a meeting that, rather than leveling the social landscape, only reinforced the stigma against us for being “seen” in such a setting.
The social violence I experienced in my late childhood and teens has marked me in certain ways. It has made me diffident, socially awkward and wary of friendship. It has turned me into a virulent opponent of coercion in any form.
It has also given me the gift of a hard kind of forgiveness.
A decade or two ago I realized that many of my classmates — and their parents — had lived essentially desperate lives. They were no more able than we to live up to the kinds of conspicuous consumption the eighties demanded: the difference was that it mattered to them — mattered enough for them to cling to any material advantage over those who appeared to have less; mattered enough to justify the kinds of social exclusion, name-calling and physical assault I and my siblings suffered for the worst part of a terrible decade. And in doing so they embodied Robert Roberts’ argument in The Classic Slum (1971) that no group hated the working class so much as the lower middle class, because they lived in terror of being mistaken for it.
And so, whenever I hear eighties music playing at the local Goodwill, it makes me a little anxious. It reminds me of the desperation of that decade — a desperation summed up, in fact, by certain iconic eighties songs, among them Rush’s “Subdivisions” and Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers.” I’ve noticed, over the years, that both songs elicit strong visceral responses from many people who grew up during that decade. Those who had “fit in” socially tend to respond ruefully, able to admit at the safe distance of two decades that those were cruel times. Those who felt excluded respond grimly, bearing such songs like a torch of remembered resentment. And then there’s me, for whom eighties music has all the character of an anthropological curiosity. It makes me feel as if, after having traveled a great distance, I have returned to the site of some distant trauma, a trauma so far removed it has left little trace other than a vague sense of anomie, and an inchoate anxiety.
An anxiety elicited from time to time by some song standing out from the ceaseless stream of eighties music on tap at the local Goodwill.
And when words fail, what else should a writer — or anyone else — do but shut up and listen?
But to what? And to whom?
To media outlets recounting in endless sequence the sketchy, horrifying details, no less horrific for being wrong, for being woeful, hopeful underestimates of the numbers left dead? To reporters asking how the families of the dead are faring, their sombre faces a charade of sympathy? To news anchors engaging in pointless conjecture, or to talk show hosts asking vapid, leading questions of pro- and anti-gun lobbyists and mental health pundits? To agencies angling to be the first to publish pictures of the dead children, their faces sweet and shining and somehow sepia toned even in recent family photographs?
To the individuals and organizations too eager to use tragedy to advance their ideologies? Who blame too many guns, not enough guns, mental illness, video games, a Godless America, intervention in foreign wars, immigration, elitism, schools, parents and even the children themselves?
To colleagues and acquaintances who signal their shock through social media, and post links to petitions and share second-hand opinions, and then, a little later, resume recounting the minutiae of their lives — recipes and videos of cats and collages of Christmas trees?
To the neighbours and distant relatives of the victims, or to parents of the children who escaped physical harm, or to the teachers whose classrooms were not invaded, or to the crisis teams standing by to provide counselling to the survivors, or even to the law enforcement officials attempting to piece together all that is irretrievably broken?
To friends and strangers averring that they will hug their children more tightly tonight (grateful, their subtext, that they are not those other parents, the parents whose children’s bodies lay for lonely hours in blood-soaked classrooms), and wondering aloud how to explain the inexplicable to children whose classrooms will never be invaded?
The dead children will never speak again; their bodies providing answers only to what is already known.
And their parents: how can they speak the unspeakable? How can they clutch framed photographs and stuffed toys and clothing that still smells sweetly of their dead children? How can they articulate their anguish and express the magnitude of their loss? And enter sunlit bedrooms still awash in pink Ponies and plastic trucks to pick out funeral clothes and mementos to place in caskets that are too unbearably small to contain all that loss? And open refrigerator doors decorated with drawings their children have made of the families they have now left behind? And sleep and shower and bury their children and endure the comfortless words of those who have become strangers because they cannot enter that dark antechamber of grief?
They cannot. It is too much.
And we will watch, because watching is what we do when we encounter a tragedy that does not include us.
If only we could remember that when words fail it is time not to speak but to listen.
[Below is a text I posted on Facebook a few days after writing the above. Adding it here because it is essentially a continuation of the same thought. ]
I am finding that the level of commentary and responses to it (ref, e.g., the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” blog post, although other examples abound, especially on the subject of guns) speak as much to the origins of the tragedy in Sandy Hook as anything else. There is an impotence in all this misdirected outrage, an impotence that plays out in semi-automatic sniper attacks via comments sections and social media, driven by a sense of moral superiority, appropriated victimhood and generalized contempt for the experiences (and perhaps even the existence) of others.
Given the prevalence of mental illness (according to the NIMH, a quarter of the American population experiences mental illness in any given year, and between a third and half of the population will suffer mental illness in their lifetimes — figures closely paralleled in other countries), it is meaningless to identify mental illness, without any other qualifiers, as the ‘cause’ of the killings. You might as well say that being obese or having a college education – equally prevalent demographic phenomena) ‘cause’ violence [and by ‘violence’ I mean all forms of violence, including social violence].
Add to this the challenging reality that people who commit violent crimes, especially mass murders, are typically considered mentally ill by popular definition, in the sense that it is widely assumed that anyone who would commit such acts must be off their rocker in some critical way. [That courts attempt to distinguish between mental illness and criminal insanity is an entirely separate and probably moot subject, given that it revolves around the ability to punish, not prevent.]
The fixation on mental illness in this case seems to me to be problematic not only because it stigmatizes the significant proportion of the population experiencing mental illness [and here I will not enter into the debate over whether autism, a neurodevelopmental phenomenon, can even be considered a ‘mental illness’ – and let alone for the moment whether the shooter had ever been diagnosed with autism, or any mental disorder, which remains entirely unknown at the moment], but because it is a kind of red herring.
How convenient, it seems to me, that the gun control debate the shootings elicited has shifted so quickly, and so subtly, and so nearly completely, to the subject of mental illness. Don’t think it has? Tempted to respond that both subjects will or should remain on the table? Guess what: even the gun lobby has signalled its openness to measures that would make it more difficult for the ‘mentally ill’ to acquire guns. Clever of them, given that such provisions already exist in the form of thin prohibitions against folks convicted of certain crimes (who are often considered ‘mentally ill’ by definition – see above) obtaining guns. Clever, too, to anticipate Congress or state legislators squabbling for years about which mental illnesses should proscribe the purchasing of guns. And even more clever to ensure American progressives will waste precious time signing petitions urging better mental health care funding – until they are distracted, in a week or two, by some new cause and some new set of petitions.
Let me speak about guns.
I come from a hunting culture. I have fired both long guns and handguns. I have family members who are soldiers, and an in-law who is a retired cop. I think it is fair to say that I understand guns – and their utility – in a way many city dwellers do not.
Beyond this, I know enough Americans to understand that element of its culture so deeply defined by distrust in authority that it demands, even now, two and a half centuries after the Revolution, the right to bear arms against a political oppressor. I know this well enough to understand that the Second Amendment will never be repealed.
Thing is, little children aren’t political oppressors. Nor are theatre-goers, college classmates, congresswomen or co-workers.
And the US Supreme Court has already ruled that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited right – any more, in fact, than free speech is unlimited.
So one question, it seems quite reasonably to me, should be: what new limits should be placed on guns? Why, for example, should a citizen – any citizen, irrespective of mental well-being – be able to purchase a semi-automatic assault rifle with a large capacity magazine? A pump-action shotgun (also widely used, incidentally, as a combat weapon in the US military) or a boring old .22 is far better for hunting. A .357 Magnum, a common handgun, is more than adequate for self-protection.
The arguments gun lobbyists make against gun control are largely specious. Gun control is hardly a slippery slope: there is arguably less gun control now, and less political motivation for it, than at any historical point in the American past. The claim that citizens require access to firepower equalling what their governments possess is ludicrous, unless you covet a personal cache of long-range missiles and atomic warheads. The suggestion that gun laws should not change because mass shootings are statistically rare is empty, given the reality that other statistically rare but devastating events (airplane crashes, terrorist attacks) lead almost invariably to legislative change. Even the old line about only outlaws having guns is disqualified on the grounds that (a) the conversation has never been about banning guns entirely and (b) muggers, bank robbers and even hit men tend not to use assault weapons of the sort used in mass killings.
It is a truism in environmental science (one of the fields I teach in) that while diffuse sources of pollution (e.g., auto emissions) are important to identify and treat, it is the point sources (e.g., oil spills) that require our most urgent attention.
To me, assault weapons are a point source. And they require our urgent attention now.
And the diffuse source? It isn’t mental illness. No: it’s displaced rage.
Some readers may recall that the primary purpose of the Acts of Salvage website is to support a literary work in progress, not just to share my salvaged, sidewalk and second-hand scores.
I’ve been focusing on the latter lately because, well, I haven’t been writing.
It’s not as if I haven’t been writing at all, of course. This fall I’ve managed to fulfill ongoing writing commitments, including two short articles for Spacing Magazine, and a longer essay (on infertility and motherhood) for a forthcoming anthology a friend is editing. I’ve continued my peripatetic schedule of talks and workshops pertaining to the Imagining Toronto project and even a couple of events associated with this Acts of Salvage project. And, as always, the private journal-style writings I attend to nearly every day, and which often feed (eventually) into my more formal work.
But I haven’t been writing in the big sense of working on a major project. This is very unusual for me. Although I am by nature a slow and meditative writer, once a project seizes me, I never let it go. It took three years to write the Imagining Toronto book, a period that included the birth of my daughter and the death of my father, not to mention a heavy teaching load and a massive and complex research undertaking on a subject that had never previously received sustained scholarly attention.
Earlier this year I wrote about 20,000 words of the Acts of Salvage story, including a good initial draft of the first chapter, the conclusion and a good chunk of the body. I was very happy with the writing, and the parts of it I’d shared with early readers had received favourable feedback.
Since then, I’ve felt as if I was fumbling, and so I set the story down. I didn’t mind doing so: in some ways I’ve learned to be a patient person. And I know how to listen, and when to do so.
And so I’ve waited, and watched, and listened to currents in the air and soil.
I have been listening listening for something still out of range, a sound too distant to quite discern.
And then a few days ago it came. Early one morning it called out in a high, clear voice, and I knew immediately how to answer.
I was going to say that, for me, writing is almost always connected to reading. But in all truth it isn’t.
For me writing is almost always connected to listening.
A few days ago, as the ground froze and the dawn rose all gunmetal grey, I could sense something, like tracks at the edge of a pathway gone hard into ruts. Something like a single footfall, or the memory of it.
The perpetual twilight of November cast long shadows against the houses as I walked, and in this eerie light I could sense the curve of the lost landscape beneath them.
It was in this way that I remembered where to find the story behind the story. I’ve been writing about the city, of course — but suddenly I remembered that I had never meant to write about the city as such.
In the Imagining Toronto book, I quoted two writers, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Robert Charles Wilson, who in their beautiful and idiosyncratic ways both wrote about the city within the city, the city at the centre of the map.
And I knew, once again, how to find my way there.
And this year I can hardly regret the winter, because the long shadows have made me a map to the story behind the story.
Early on Friday 20 October, I spoke with CBC Radio One Metro Morning host Matt Galloway about dumpster diving, Acts of Salvage, taboos about waste and similar subjects.
Some highlights of our conversation:
- It is possible to find just about anything at curbside: furniture; books; bicycles; children’s toys; dishes; architectural salvage; metals, bottles and similar materials to sell as scrap or for recycling; clothing; even food. [I admitted I draw the line at food, and have to admit it's unlikely I'd pick up clothing at curbside -- although I've salvaged some wonderful fabric later used to reupholster salvaged furniture.]
- Taboos about waste have as much to do with purifying ontological categories (clean/dirty) as they do with the things we actually throw out. On the show I pointed out that we think of new clothing and supermarket food as clean, and yet some new clothing and carpeting off-gas known carcinogens, and food recalls are commonplace due to common contaminants we don’t even think to suspect.
- Through the things we throw out, it is possible to trace and even predict socio-economic shifts in a neighbourhood. The best neighbourhoods for scavenging, in my experience, are areas in transition, with solid homes whose long-term residents are starting to give way to new inhabitants. The transition produces quite a few interesting objects purged from basements, attics and garages.
Here is a teeny preview of Acts of Salvage, a fragment of text I’ve already read at the Draft Reading Series and the Little Red Umbrella Variety Spectacular. It sets some of the tone for the novel, which unspools around dumpster divers, feral cats, hoarders and a man who finds a mummified baby in the attic of a Toronto home he is restoring.
There are some deeply personal undercurrents to this story, although my own experiences do not closely resemble those recounted in the novel. For the moment I’ll say only that my daughter — the only child I’ll ever have — is the most lovely result of grace amid sorrow.
* * *
The baby lies between the joists of an old closet under the eaves. A muffled bundle, nearly shapeless in the shadows, it is a rough cocoon containing a narrow, sunken body and a head that seems improbably large atop the withered limbs. Dusty, silent, smelling faintly of leather and old wool, it provides mute testimony to the passage of time, the immanence of being, and the fragility of anything that may be loved or discarded.
James pulls out the bundle—wound loosely in a woollen shawl and yellow knitted blanket, both long discoloured and studded with grit—and lays it on the splintered wooden floorboards. He peels a corner of blanket away from the baby’s face; its skin like parchment, its flesh glowing in the muted attic light. With a forefinger he strokes the infant’s smooth skull, the closed and sunken eyelids and, with nearly breathless delicacy, the brittle fingertips. Then he pulls out his cellphone and dials the number nearest his heart.
“I found a baby,” he whispers in a gutted, hollow voice. “Under the eaves.”
There is a shocked, shuttered silence; then a single word: “Again?”
James knows, this time, that there is no need to call 911. There is no emergency here, and even the memory of what might once have been urgency, grief, desperation or rage has turned to dust nearly as completely as the frayed curtains flapping at the tiny peaked window above his head. There is no need for a crush of police cars, fire trucks, an ambulance crowding the narrow west-end street, drawing a throng of onlookers; some concerned, others curious and hoping just a little for blood. No need for the story to get out, the media arriving, someone telling them who he is and then the inevitable telephone call, later in the evening, from a reporter whose audio equipment is always on, asking him a little breathlessly if he finds any irony in finding a dead baby so soon after having lost one of his own.
James has always been good at finding things. Given the description of a lost object, he can trace its destination by divination. He has some internal instinct for the shape of things, an unspoken affinity that has always drawn him to the organic. As a teen he made money working for the local tree service, and became a valued member of its crew because he always knew which way the branches would break and which limbs could hold a hoist; could determine whether a tree was healthy or hollow merely by touching it. Later, as an electrician’s apprentice he listened to electrons singing in the wires, and thought of himself sitting inside a giant skeleton, his hands on the pulse of its body, the circuitry unspooling like synapses, neurons, ganglia. It seemed inevitable that he would end up working as a contractor, gutting and restoring old houses one at a time, sensing their songs, their secrets, and their beautiful bones.
After the first baby, which James had found tucked between attic joists in a nearly identical bay-and-gable house at the other end of the city, there had been a flurry of attention and speculation. A police investigation. Impromptu searches of property records, genealogies. Newspapers wrapped around the mummified remains had been used to date the discovery. Former neighbours described a single woman, then in her thirties, who had stayed in the house one summer all those decades ago and then disappeared. Given the names of relatives, a reporter traced the woman to a nursing home in Buffalo, and found her senile, addled and mute. Someone even wrote an operetta about the discovery, broadcast on CBC Radio: a sentimental tear-jerker with a sniff of scandal; perfect for a Saturday afternoon. Audiences had loved it. James heard the broadcast while driving in his truck and squelched the station, yanking the radio so hard he broke the dial.
The librettist had contacted James, asked for his input, his story, but he had refused, and so the writer had played to his audience. The scent of shame; the spectre of incest or at the very least illegitimacy, a terrible secret smothered with a blanket. Babies, the public believes—not really wanting them itself—are all too understandably thrown away by unwed mothers: left face-down in toilets or garbage bins outside of urban proms and in hotel restrooms on class trips. A few years ago a young American woman had deposited her squalling newborn in an abandoned trailer near her house and driven past it for days, she admitted to detectives, to see if it was still crying. A tiny corpse, discovered in an airplane washroom in Manila, the abandoning woman (one does not quite say mother) claiming to have been raped by a wealthy businessman. Even in Toronto a woman, charged with “improper disposal” in the case of an infant’s corpse frozen on her apartment balcony, was rumoured to have disposed of another child in the Humber River, its body wrapped in garbage bags.
Babies, especially newborns, occupy a liminal position between objects that might be discarded and living humans who too often become burdens. Their legal status is unclear; their very being precarious. Criminal charges hinge, so often, on whether the child had ever breathed air, a magic elixir pulling it across the invisible threshold between thing and being. A woman cannot be charged for having a miscarriage or even, in this country at least, a very late term abortion, although once, nearly two decades ago, an Ottawa woman had been arrested for shooting a pellet gun into her own uterus, injuring her near-term fetus. The charges were dismissed in a muddle of case law and psychiatric wrangling and the woman released into treatment, her child monitored for signs of harm.
But James knows only too well that there are reasons other than murder for someone to conceal a dead baby, to keep it so close to home, so nearly at arm’s reach. Something that, if it cannot, any longer, be a part of yourself, might remain nearby. He understands what it is like to hold something so precious so tightly that you cannot bear to let it go.
Ever since early childhood I have listened and looked for things. Even as a little child I collected assemblages of found objects: wooden spools, wine corks, bits of fabric, coloured glass, marbles, shells, leaves, birds’ nests, stones.
Nearly every morning in the late 1970s I walked out early from our Leslieville home to buy the newspaper from a box at the end of the street, and if it was garbage day I would dig through the bags and boxes deposited at curbside, collecting pennies, toys and miscellaneous objects that seemed appealing. Once I found hundreds of Legos and other small toys purged by a household whose children had grown out of them; another time I brought home dozens of paint chip cards and wallpaper sample books discarded by a neighbour whose interior decorating interests had waned. I talked to neighbours’ cats and the strays inhabiting the alley behind Gerrard.
One of the first books I recall owning came from the garbage. Early one chilly morning my mother dug a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s The Magic Circle: Stories and People in Poetry (1952) from a box set out at curbside just up the street and gave it to me — my first concerted introduction to narrative poetry. I have it on my desk as I write this, and it still smells the same, more than thirty years later: that faint musty tang emitted by books stored too long in attics and cellars.
Shortly before we moved away from our east-end Toronto home, I brought home a large stuffed elephant that my mother would not allow me to keep in the house. It languished on the back verandah, and when we moved I was not permitted to take it because, my parents argued, there would not be enough room in the new house for it. I longed for that elephant for years afterward, my heart lurching with loss whose memory, even now, remains painful. I could not bear to leave it behind.
* * *
When researchers study hoarding behaviour, often they look for evidence of some incident or trauma that may have sparked it. The children of Holocaust survivors, for example, have often invoked parents who hoarded food or objects as a psychological hedge against the memory of privation. Similarly, those who survived the 1930s Depression or other periods of poverty sometimes describe a thrifty habit grown into a compulsion. Contemporary documentary-style television shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive typically trace their participants’ hoarding to traumas such as the end of a marriage or the death of a parent or child.
But in truth hoarding is far more complex. What accounts, for example, for an apparent increase in hoarding in the past generation–a period marked, for the most part, by widespread wealth and inexpensive access to consumer goods? It is worth noting, along this line, that the most well known North American hoarders — the Collyer brothers of New York, who died trapped in their stuffed-to-the-rafters mansion–had lived in luxury since childhood. Why do most traumatized people not become hoarders–and why do many hoarders report ordinary, even banal pasts? Many hoarders live outwardly average lives, their colleagues and acquaintances having little idea about their compulsions.
The authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) argue that hoarding is diverse and complicated. While much of their study focuses on depression, impulse control disorders and other brain/mood dysfunctions, they introduce other potential correlations, including the possibility that belonging to a consumer culture may influence hoarding, which would make hoarding a social as much as psychological condition.
* * *
I am not a hoarder, although I have all the hallmarks of someone who could easily have become one. I have family members who hoard, or at least accumulate so many possessions their dwellings are uncomfortable and unpleasant to navigate. I feel compelled to collect things, particularly (during this stage in my life) books and vintage kitchen wares. I anthropomorphize things people throw out, and regularly feel drawn to rescue them on the basis of a sentiment akin to pity or sorrow. Having spent part of my childhood growing up in what passes for poverty in Canada, I have an urge to hedge against future hard times. Some part of me asks, whenever the shampoo bottle gets low, if I shouldn’t save the dregs in case hygiene products become scarce in the future. It takes a conscious act of will to squeeze out what I can and toss the bottle into the recycling bin.
But the important thing is that I do. Not only that, I like getting rid of things whose period of utility has passed. Every few months I start to feel ruthless, and at these moments I sort and purge books, clothes, kitchenwares and other categories. In the past year I have begun keeping a cardboard box handy for things I decide on the fly we no longer have any use or place for. I have become much more cold-hearted about gifts people give us, about toys my little daughter no longer plays with, about books I no longer care for on subjects I have lost interest in. [And notably, whenever we set a box or two at curbside, everything in it is gone within hours, making me suspect our neighbours are pack-rats, too.]
If hoarding is understood as a continuum, I would place myself closer to “hoarder” than “minimalist,” but with some notable redeeming features. In our home we have thousands of books, for which finding shelf space is a perennial challenge. At the same time, they are meticulously organized by category or alphabetized and even arranged chronologically where possible. My closets are packed, but the clothes hanging in them are arranged by colour. My financial records are an accountant’s dream–although I have files dating back to the early nineties (including the lease to the house I rented after first moving away from home).
So although I have clutter, at least it’s organized. And isn’t this the very definition of a researcher: someone who compulsively hoards and catalogues information, transforming it through some version of Boyle’s Law into publishable work? This is certainly how I came to write my first book: by pressing masses of analysis into a recognisable shape.
* * *
As a writer I realized years ago that, for me at least, personal preoccupations are the most natural place to start (or take) a writing project. I have never in my life set out to write something; rather, some subject or idea has always lodged itself and taken root.
For years I have listened to stories about hoarders, collecting newspaper clippings and books, such as Franz Lidz’s Ghosty Men (Bloomsbury, 2003), an account of the Collyer brothers. As part of another writing project (excerpted here) I read about dumpster-divers and scavengers with a more-than-professional interest. I’ve always been interested in the urban abject: feral cats, bottle-pickers, street people, vacant lots, alleyways, and have a thick raft of clippings and notes I’ve been saving for years. And while I struggled to conceive and then carry the pregnancy that produced my daughter, I began noticing media reports about mummified babies found in trunks and attics.
At some point, inevitably, these preoccupations began to come together in a new writing project. And while at the moment I’m supposed to be pursuing a new scholarly book project, I’ve decided to write something on the side, a novel called Acts of Salvage, exploring (through a narrative revolving around dumpster divers, bottle pickers, hoarders and a man who discovers a mummified baby in the attic of a Toronto home) what the contemporary city compels us to cling to or discard. No more on this for the moment, although I’ll announce publication details as they become available.
This website is meant to serve as an addendum to Acts of Salvage. In part it will consist of research notes and links, an approach I found tremendously helpful while working on the Imagining Toronto book. At the same time, I plan to use this space for a more frivolous purpose: posting pictures of some of my own ‘acts of salvage.’ As people close to me already know, I’m an inveterate dumpster diver who also loves garage sales and the local Goodwill. For years I’ve been collecting vintage kitchenwares, and in the past few months I’ve managed to pick up some wonderful sixties and seventies-era dishware too lovely not to share.
If you have any questions, thoughts or observations, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel welcome to comment here or contact me at alharris [at] gmail [dot] com.