Junk

A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a link to this YouTube video, with a note: “This reminded me of you. Or your dad I guess.”

If you don’t want to watch it (it’s the usual Kids in the Hall goofiness), here’s a synopsis: Having quit his job as a lawyer, Dave Foley comes home one day with a fire engine. He parks it in the driveway and starts soliciting customers; hilarity ensues.

My friend sent it to me, see, because you know the part about buying a fire engine and parking it in your driveway? My dad actually did that. And thereby hangs a tale:

He was running for a statewide judgeship a few years ago, a low-profile race where if you can just get people to remember your name you’re way ahead of the game. Somehow he decided that if he bought an old fire engine he could hang big campaign signs on it and drive it in the little fiesta parades held in towns all over the state.

So my dad became an expert in buying antique fire engines. He found one in Oklahoma, or maybe it was Kansas, for less than $3,000. It was really great looking, I have to admit: 1950s curves, lots of red and chrome. And it ran great, having been lovingly maintained by whatever Sticksville volunteer fire department had been using it for the last 50 years. My dad hung it with signs and drove it in parades. He lost the election by just a few hundred votes.

And then he found that it’s easier to buy an old fire truck than to sell one.

Another problem: My dad at this point had not stopped looking online — eBay and elsewhere — at antique fire engines for sale. He knew enough about the various models to know what was especially desirable or rare, and what was lacking in the one he owned. So the next step was inevitable: He bought another truck.

I was hearing about all of this over the phone, of course. But I could picture the whole thing all too well. It fit a pattern.

About ten years ago, my dad bought a satellite dish at a garage sale. Not one of those little DirecTV thingies that were just becoming popular back then, but the kind of big, white, six-foot diameter dish that was the state of the art back in the early ’80s. He installed it in the back yard with a concrete footing, and it worked for about six months before the positioning motor gave out.

A year or two passed and he found another dish, this one slightly smaller and made of black metal mesh. This he installed right next to the first one. Our backyard now began to look like the back lot of a local TV station, or maybe some kind of government installation, especially with the ham radio antenna on the roof. After a few years the black dish stopped working, too, or maybe the decoder fees just became more expensive than basic cable. But both dishes are still there.

My dad is also a ham radio operator, which explains the large antenna in the yard that also makes me cringe at what I imagine the neighbors say. An entire room, my brother’s old bedroom, is now full of ham radio gear, enough to re-stock NORAD after a nuclear attack. Actually, that room also holds another category of secondhand junk that’s among my dad’s favorites: exercise equipment. In this case, a commercial-quality treadmill he bought at some garage sale or other. It gets sporadic use, as it’s sometimes occluded by radios or old computer parts.

My dad has a long-standing affection for old cameras. He has a more recent thing for musical instruments: a practice bagpipe chanter and banjo were just a warmup for two electric console organs (from churches that were upgrading to digital) and at least two nineteenth-century pump organs. My dad doesn’t play, of course, although he does enjoy the 100-year-old pool table he bought at a divorce sale of one of his law partners. Then there’s the usual garage-scale detritus: Foreman grills, Razor scooters, TV stands with a chip or two in the finish, power tools, you get the idea.

Anyway, I think it was three years ago that I went home for Christmas and, driving down to the end of the suburban cul-de-sac, saw a fire truck in the driveway. Sticking out of the driveway, actually, since the driveway curves and slopes in a really odd way that makes it not so convenient for fire trucks. So the truck was sticking way out, and it was covered with Christmas lights.

This was too much. Too white trash. All my class anxieties, which I thought I had placated by moving to the East Coast and going to grad school, suddenly swelled up. Maybe it was the neighbors’ tasteful houses on either side, with their tasteful holiday decorations. I was mortified.

And that’s the embarrassment, really, that comes with my dad’s junk affliction: What will the neighbors think? I haven’t lived with my parents for more than a dozen years, but I still think of the neighbors on either side, with their lovely yards — well-trimmed grass, terraces, even a tennis court — looking over into ours and shaking their heads at their neighbors, who are this close to having an old car propped up on cinderblocks. (In fact, there’s a rusty shell of a ’68 Mustang in the garage that my youngest brother acquired with my dad’s encouragement; he’s supposed to be fixing up, but it’s been there for at least a couple of years.)

“So you’re keeping one of the fire trucks in the driveway now?” I said to my dad, trying to inflect my voice with as much eye rolling as possible. “With Christmas lights? And you’re using your friend’s warehouse to store the other one, which you have no earthly use for?”

He just smiled, perfectly comfortable with his fire trucks, one in storage and one bedecked with gaudy red lights.

I have spent a considerable amount of effort to avoid taking on my dad’s junk obsession, but I think I’m losing the struggle. I moved to a tiny place in Brooklyn, pleased that I wouldn’t be able to accumulate much stuff there. I bought a Mac laptop, paying extra for a cute little computer that could by no means morph into one of the junkyard monstrosities that my dad is always cobbling together in the basement. (My next younger brother went the other route, embracing the junk aesthetic wholeheartedly: He got a Ph.D. in computer engineering, loves to dive into tangled wires and network cables, and runs everything on Linux.)

But there are disturbing signs that I haven’t escaped the family curse. The furniture in my room is mostly secondhand office furniture — a desk cobbled together from a couple of filing cabinets that have definitelyseen better days, some shelves that would be more at home holding auto parts or printing samples. The furniture, however, can be excused by poverty.

Worse is the camera drawer. I have acquired at least eight cameras, including a lovely Super-8 movie camera from West Germany and a 1970s East German Praktica SLR. Two of the cameras are actually pinhole cameras I made myself; as befits their junk status, only one of them works, and they both look truly awful.

Nor am I immune to the allure of musical instruments. Six months ago I bought a beautiful 20-year-old pedal steel guitar, which I had no idea how to play. I’ve taken some lessons and I’m making a little progress, but mostly it sits, taking up space in my bedroom, probably more space percentage-wise than those old organs in my parents’ house.

And then there’s the Doc Martens box of treasures. Sitting on a shelf, it holds little things I can’t let go of: a small elephant carved from white marble, a Russian alarm clock that keeps bad time, an old corduroy yarmulke. At least it’s contained in a shoebox, I tell myself.

But that’s not really true. For years, I tried to get into the fantasies presented in magazines like Wallpaper of the perfect Modernist living spaces, all open spaces, clean rectangles, and light. But there are a couple of antiques stores on Atlantic Avenue near my apartment that specialize in quirky 19th-and 20th-century stuff, and when I wandered in recently I realized I was home. There were a couple of wax heads of presidents in bell jars (Chester Arthur, I think, and Grover Cleveland). A bunch of old chemistry equipment. Furniture from labs and industrial kitchens. Telescopes, dentists’ lamps, a Sears-Roebuck vibrator for “muscle massage.” My dream house, it turns out, is a ramshackle Tudor mansion, each room full of a different kind of junk: old taxidermy, hi-fi equipment, dead presidents.

And maybe an old fire engine parked out front. Or, you know, something else cool like that.

9 responses to “Junk”

  1. Rachel says:

    Great post, Dave. I responded to it on so many levels–there was the class anxiety, the memory of spending half my childhood being dragged on “antiquing” expeditions with my mom, the strange regard I have for my own clutter, and the “Whoop! We can embed YouTube videos?!” moment.

    Oddly enough, it’s only now that I realize how wonderful and ahead-of-the-curve my mom’s yard-sale taste was–due to the endless treasure-hunting hajj, before I was in double digits she got me hooked on everything from Art Nouveau light fixtures to midcentury modern kitchenware (I loooove Bakelite!). And all that time I just thought we were buying that stuff because we were too poor to go to Sears.

    The pack-rat gene is a dominant one, I fear, though I’ve managed to limit it (mostly) to books. Is there a good reason to own first editions of M.F.K. Fisher? Not really. What’s your point?

    The fire engine story is simply amazing. Any man who buys not one, but TWO fire engines is certifiably awesome. Don’t think of the truck in the driveway as an eyesore—call it an “installation” and give it a clever name. False Alarm. Liar Engine. Hook and Ladder To Nowhere.

  2. Hellmut says:

    Thanks for sharing the hilarious account of your dad, David. If I were to talk about my family it would only be sad instead of funny. You wouldn’t be the David from College Park by any chance?

  3. Tim Wager says:

    Things I’ve found, hauled around the country in various moves, and eventually jettisoned include the following: a small-ish reel-to-reel tape machine that recorded and played back only slightly slowly (it worked okay if I sped up the lead reel with a finger), the hollow head (about 8″ high) from a broken (knockoff) Bart Simpson plaster figure, a 12-string acousit guitar that would stay in tune for about 12 seconds, a squash racquet with only 2 broken strings…

    I’ve gotten better about not acquiring junk over the years, but I won’t go into the stuff I’ve still got kicking around, so as to avoid the embarrassment (think baseball cards). And your Doc Martens box of treasures, Dave? Um, I’ve got a *trunk*.

  4. Tim Wager says:

    Yeah, that’s an “acoustic” guitar, not some crazy new thing you don’t know about.

  5. Dave says:

    Yeah, I had a reel-to-reel for a few years that I finally got rid of. Why are they so appealing?

  6. Dave says:

    Hellmut — I am, I believe, College Park Dave, friend of Ed. You must be College Park Hellmut! (Although why two ‘l’s?) Welcome!

    P.S. Sad families make for the funniest stories of all.

  7. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I’m amazed by your versatility as a writer, Dave… and I have to say it, I love it when you write these sad/funny/personal stories (not that I don’t like the political posts as well–though they are rarely funny and always sad).

    I have the junk-collecting bug somewhere in me as well, though I don’t want it–and in fact one of the most cleansing experiences I’ve had was when I had a garage sale and was able to purge all of these things I just couldn’t bear to actually throw away…

    And I know they’re not about quite the same topic, but this post reminded me of a more benign version of one of my other favorite posts, Farrell’s “The crazy things we do” (which, by the way, is worth a re-read)…

  8. Scott Godfrey says:

    I love this post.

    I myself am a reformed pack-ratter. I had my cleansing experience in the form of a garage sale in which I sold most all of my possessions before going on an extended tour of the US. I realized how burdened I had become by all the knickknacks and whatnots.

    The dominant, pack-rat gene continues to seep back into my life in different ways, however. For example, when I met Steph, I owned one pair of shoes; they were my all purpose do everything wear anywhere shoes. I’m not joking: I now own twelve pairs of sneakers alone. It’s nutty, but I can’t bring myself to getting rid of shoes, and if I see a pair I like, I MUST HAVE THEM.

  9. Daniel McInnis says:

    Great Story, I enjoy reading your post.

    Dan