This essay first appeared in Literal Latté, won a Riggs Gold Medal Essay Award, and was cited in The Best American Essays 1998. It was written during a bleak period of suburban exile, a time when I had moved back home to save money. People always ask how my mother felt about this essay. She was horrified, of course. But she laughed, too. Sort of.

Since writing this essay, I've discovered that there are a lot of people like my family. If you're interested in the widespread phenomenon of hoarding, you should check out Squalor Survivors, the definitive web resource on the subject.

Stuff

by Tyler C. Gore

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Every time I've ever moved — nineteen times in eleven years, to be exact — I've lamented the amount of stuff I had. All those crates of books — the weight of my useless knowledge — to be lugged up stairs. The ungainly and grimy futon. The boxes of mysterious papers and the dented file cabinets in which they will never be filed. The knick-knacks, the whatnot, the brick-a-brack of the years.

Illustration of man feeding an anthropomorphic house with junk

illustration: Brad Gore

And then I went back to school, and driven by the economics of higher education, moved back home, Gen-X style, to live with my mother and brother and sister in the New Jersey suburb I thought I had long ago escaped, where my stuff was finally united with all the stuff of my family and, of course, all the stuff I had conveniently left behind when I moved away at eighteen. I do not exaggerate when I claim to be drowning in a sea of stuff, sinking into the flotsam and jetsam of possessions, the swirling detritus of our collective lifetimes of collecting which chokes the closets and crowds the passageways and congests the bureaus and shelves and clogs the nooks and crannies of the House of Gore. I fear the day when we will all have to move to make more room for our stuff.

Well, you say, it can't be that bad. It is that bad. Actually, it's worse, because I haven't mentioned that my mother now owns two other houses—one that belonged to my grandmother, and one that was my father's before he died—and they are worse, far worse than my mother's house. The phrase packed to the gills is ridiculously insufficient to describe them.

“Cluttered,” might describe the house I live in. It doesn't, but it will have to do. “Messy,” is the word my family has traditionally used, the shameful reason why no one is allowed in. Really, I guess it's a combination of both. Both cluttered and messy. They go hand in hand, cluttered and messy, because when you have too much stuff, there's no place to put the new stuff. And when it's already messy, why bother putting anything back where it belongs?

The heart of the home is the hearth, and the kitchen can serve us here as the essence, the Platonic form, of my family's neurosis.

The kitchen is the most actively used room in our house, the hub of dysfunctional family interaction, mostly because it contains the television and the food. That's where we—me, my mother, my brother, and occasionally my estranged sister—gather to argue, complain, eat and watch TV. On any given day, the table is piled high with paper

“Then there are the paper plates, liberally employed in a pitiful attempt to avoid using real plates, which will, after all, only have to be washed.”

plates and real dishes, paper cups and real glasses, dirty flatware, frozen food boxes, paper towels, mail, catalogues (they come in by the dozen every day), boxes of breakfast cereal, empty milk cartons, darkening banana peels and squashed grapefruit rinds, and hundreds of little tiny pink pieces of paper upon which are scribbled notes to each other and cryptic phone numbers belonging to various unnamed parties. You might think it's hard to fit all this on one table. Well, it is. Things tend to be pushed towards the middle in a crusty heap as little clearings are made at the edges so we can eat while we watch TV. Why do we live like this? This is one of things we argue about at the table.

For one thing, it's because we have too many dishes. When all the dishes are clean, they must be stuffed precariously into the cabinets, wedged into a kind of ceramic jigsaw puzzle, so that the careless removal of any dish may cause an avalanche of the others. It is a system that discourages anyone from putting away all the dishes. There is a similar problem with the flatware, of which we have several sets, enough for a small restaurant. My family has adapted to the surplus of dishes by using the dishwasher as an extra cabinet: when the dishes are done, they are left in the dishwasher and used until the dishwasher is empty, meanwhile accumulating on the counter, the sink, and, of course, the table. The dishes are sometimes re-loaded at that point, starting the cycle over, but more often, we move on to the cabinets and use the rest of the dishes.

Then there are the paper plates and cups, liberally employed throughout the whole process in a pitiful attempt to avoid using real dishes, which will, after all, only have to be washed. Paperware (if such a awful word even exists) has the advantage of being disposable, but we tend to leave it all on the table with everything else. This is because the only garbage container we have is a small 4 or 5 gallon plastic container, about the size of a wastepaper basket, stored under the sink. In a house where each day we use enough paper products to deplete a personal-sized rain forest, this small container is filled almost instantly. It is apparently too much effort to change it daily (and really it would need changing several times a day anyway), so once it is full, the garbage is left on the table. I have repeatedly suggested that we purchase a large 55 gallon garbage-can so that waste is a little easier to dispose of, but this plan is always met with hostility by my mother, who doesn't like the unseemly idea of having a garbage can right in the middle of the kitchen.