Sarah Smith Nessel — Trash and treasure, all rolled into one

07/16/2013 3:32 PM

07/16/2013 3:32 PM

You learn a lot of things about yourself when you write a newspaper column.

Most of them come courtesy of readers who think you would make either an excellent candidate for office or an excellent candidate for deportation. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground in my inbox.

Among the things I’ve learned over the past year and a half is that I am materialistic and pretentious, live in a 6,000-square-foot-house with seven bedrooms and drive a luxury car, or maybe even two.

You can imagine how surprised I was, given that the cars sitting in our garage look exactly like a 2004 Honda Civic with a giant dent and a 2003 Toyota Matrix with a bad paint job. I also detest shopping and own not a single designer item. I have no idea how many square feet we have, but I don’t think it’s even halfway to 5,000. I’m pretty bad at math, though, which probably explains why I’ve always thought we had four bedrooms, not seven.

Even if you count only the bedrooms I’ve been able to find, my detractors are right about one thing: We have more space than we need. That’s a bad thing for us and for the planet, since we’re burning fossil fuels year round to heat and cool a dwelling that is as much a storage space as a living space.

We’ve lived here our entire 17-year marriage, and the unused rooms, unneeded closets and ugly-but-spacious basement have slowly accumulated far too many random possessions: packages of disintegrating origami paper, broken particle-board bookcases, tacky Christmas decorations and a box full of game cartridges for some ’70s-era system called Intellivision. We also have a full-torso back and shoulder brace, custom designed and fitted in an orthotics clinic, featuring fashionable black polyester with a white hard-shell exterior. It’s the perfect gift for any 5-foot 4-inch man you may happen to know who is recovering from surgery on herniated L4-L5 spinal discs and doesn’t mind walking around looking like a Star Wars stormtrooper. I’ll be waiting for your call.

Occasionally one of us will accuse the other of never letting go of anything, and when the offending item is produced as evidence, we realize that neither of us knows where it came from. We blame the house’s former owners, because people in denial always blame someone else. It’s easier that way.

The whole situation of being possessed by possessions is why a recent cover story in this publication fascinated me. It was about “scrappers” — those people who cruise through neighborhoods the night before large-item-pickup day and haul away things that people like me are too lazy or uncreative to make good use of. These are seriously dedicated people, and the value they can generate from what the rest of us throw out is amazing. Where I see a broken old chair with chipped paint, they see an antique furniture piece with a beautiful patina. I envy them in much the same way I envy people who manage to put together a fabulous-looking wardrobe from thrift-store pieces. Every time I’ve tried that, the overall effect is that I went Dumpster-diving.

My bad luck in thrift stores is equaled only by my bad luck in getting rid of large items. I am the only person I know who has set furniture out by the curb and then had to haul it back to the garage the next day because no one wanted it. Being rejected by the boy I had a crush on in 1979 was bad enough, but having my possessions rejected by scrappers who are happy to pick up televisions from that same era is somehow worse. Insecurities never really die — they only change focus.

They say inertia is a powerful force. That must be why, as I write this, an ad promoting an electronics-recycling event has been sitting on my desk for three weeks, waiting for me to call the appointment number, find all the old, nonworking computers stashed randomly around the house, and figure out how to wipe the hard drives clean. I’m not even sure what “wipe the hard drives clean” means. I just know you’re supposed to do it.

After reading the story about scrappers, I’m starting to feel re-energized. Maybe that old entertainment center and broken humidifier weren’t really rejected; they simply were underappreciated by novice treasure-hunters. My dream of taking three months off work — not for traveling the world but for recycling and Craigslisting and donating — may never happen, but at least now I know that my efforts to simplify dovetail perfectly with the passions of people I’ve never met.

Scrappers, I’m sorry I was too tired to drag my stuff to the curb for my city’s “recirculation day” last month. You may be more talented than me in finding beauty in castoffs, but we have one important thing in common — we both hate to add to the landfills. The next time Leawood has large-item recirculation, I promise to get my act together and set out plenty of potential treasures. You won’t have a hard time finding me — just look for the normal-size house with modest cars in the driveway. If you’re willing to haul everything off, I’ll even save the Star Wars back brace for you. You’ll need it.


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