New Orleans In the red-hot real estate market in Hong Kong they are selling something called “mosquito” apartments that are less than 180 square feet. There was a picture in the paper comparing the size, unfavorably, to that of a parking slot. Real estate brokers were suggesting that you could use the window sill for “entertaining.” For all I know they may now call jumpers, entertainers in Hong Kong. In Mumbai, the redevelopment schemes when high-rise luxury buildings replace squatters’ housing in registered and unregistered slums put families in 300 meter spaces.
Many times these days I think about these situations with the contradictory notions of envy and horror as I try to figure out what to do with too much stuff. I met a woman some months ago who had an occasional job in New York City helping families clear out stuff from the apartments of dearly departed parents. I understand increasingly why such a job now exists, and why it might pay even pay very well.
Looking after my elderly mother, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that she will never set foot in the second floor of her home again. Is there any good plan for her library and lifetime of books as a PhD of English Literature? Or my brother, another English PhD with an even wider range of tastes and interests, and his thousands of books that even after six months I’ve hardly dented in his old apartment. The Friends of the University of New Orleans Library are already in a quandary about whether or not there is something different they need to do about the twenty-five boxes of books we donated to them for their spring sale. When the librarian at Benjamin Franklin High School, attended by my brother, my daughter, and me, received the several boxes of classic volumes in French, Italian, and Latin that had been my brother’s, she wrote me quickly asking was I sure this was what I wanted to do because some of them were knocking on the door of rare. My response was equally eager, “no, please take them, what else might you need?”
We cherish all of this stuff, rich with memory and weighted with time. There’s a calculation of triage that I find myself making as I balance necessity, meaning something has to be done, with nostalgia, stewardship, and procrastination. Finally, a truck gets rented, the whole family gets impressed into duty, a storage locker is secured, and the triage goes to a higher level on all fronts with some things finally hitting the curb and others at least out of sight in a stalemate of sorts for another time. We have to move forward.
My father passed away almost exactly seven years ago. Where my brother lived is next door to where my son still lives. Half of the house my son and I painted a couple of years ago, and I look forward to finally painting my brother’s side soon. My father used to paint one side, and I would paint the other. It’s hard to explain to my son or really anyone else how much painting these houses and rooms means to me. Every brush stroke allows me to be reminded that his hands held a brush here, stroking this wood, striding this ladder every several years as we did this together. Yelling from ladder to ladder whether we “were having fun yet.” Sometime in the future my family will argue with me that a contractor should paint the walls inside my brother’s old apartment on his side of the shotgun double. There’s no rational way to describe the fact that many years ago he had personally and painstakingly painted three coats of these colors carefully on these walls. I look forward to rolling the paint and applying the trim on the same walls that he did, whether I can fully explain the experience or not.
The stuff eventually will get sorted, stored, salvaged, or trashed. I dread the day though when I can’t imagine myself physically in the same space and doing the same tasks as my brother and father. Someday, I hope my children have the same legacy experiences as they push a brush of brighter, fresh color to once again protect the planks providing the skin on the hundred year skeleton of these houses. It’s a strange labor and a pure joy.
In the meantime, I hope I do a better job figuring out what to do with all of this stuff and the burdens of love and time we must all carry.
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