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Moving Man Has Developed His Own Style

February 04, 1985|JOHN SMOLENS | Smolens is a writer living in San Diego

SAN DIEGO — When I was 12 I ordered from Boys' Life a thousand address labels for $1. It was a waste of money because I probably didn't mail three letters a year. Just about everybody I knew lived in my town, a Boston suburb, and I would see them too frequently to require something as formal, and laborious, as a letter.

I had those address labels for years, their number only diminishing because I took to putting them on all "my" things: my desk, my radio, my hockey stick. And through all those years the labels remained accurate because my family never moved. (The one time we did move, back when I was 7, it was simply around the corner and four houses down, to a larger, older house that could better accommodate our growing family.)

I left home at 19 to enter Boston College, which was about 10 miles away. The short distance gave me a unique advantage over my dormmates: Freshmen weren't allowed to have cars on campus, but I could easily hitch out Route 9 and borrow my mother's car for Saturday night.

But something happened my senior year. I moved five times during the nine-month session. My reasons were all important, if not urgent, yet I can't recall one of them. But the result was that I had started to move; 12 years later, I haven't stopped.

The longest I've remained in one place is 10 months--and make no mistake: This is no worldwide tour, but activity confined, until recent years, to Greater Boston.

Each time I moved with purpose; to a bigger apartment, to a less-expensive apartment, or because the house or building I was living in was being sold. I always tried to think it was a change for the better but, in retrospect, some moves don't look so hot. Every move was accompanied by the hope that this would be the last move, for a while at least.

But habits often speak louder than intentions. I kept my possessions down to "one or two carloads," until five years ago, when I simplified matters by purchasing a small pickup truck. I own virtually no furniture, appliances or works of art. By the time I reached 30 I had it down to a science; like a well-trained infantryman, I could pull out and set up elsewhere in a matter of hours. Some people found this an admirable quality; others disturbing, even suspicious. Your possessions do, sometimes, determine your friends.

This is what I own:

Clothes. A stereo and about 400 records collected over the last 20 years. A Martin guitar and case. Sports equipment. A set of iron pots and pans and unbreakable dishware. A 100-pound mutt. Books I accumulate, but before each move I turn most of them in at a used-book store--there's something about staring at rows of read books that makes me squeamish.

I am neither crying poverty nor boasting austerity, but merely defining necessity, for aside from my clothes, all of which fit into two suitcases, everything gets packed into liquor cartons. Packing cartons is an art form. They make order out of chaos; impose form upon content. Show me a packed carton and I know everything about its packer.

Though there are no universal rules, certain items naturally fit together in one carton, making, for example, my high school yearbooks compatible with my framed photographs. Extension cords, on the other hand, work better in a box marked "fragile" if they are packed last and stuffed between things to protect them from bumping while in transit.

Still, at the other end of the move, there's always something I can't find when I need it. Refrigerator door magnets are particularly elusive. Unpacking all the cartons at once is a solution, but it seems beside the point.

I am not alone. Occasionally, I meet a man close to my age who has neither permanent home nor family. Our singularity allows us an odd fraternity. We tend to talk about places, events or sports rather than ourselves. The past is at least as important as the future. Our jobs have been varied. We are rarely lonely, and we're all decent packers.

To some, this life suggests weakness and causes them to look for the flaw in our character. We must have dark secrets we wish to forget, a string of divorces or, worse, some truly criminal act. As Captain Renaud says to Rick in "Casablanca," "I like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me."

Most of us have pasts that are neither dark nor romantic. Nor are we lost, abnormally flawed or criminal. The fact is we don't know why we live the way we do. Our lives were not chosen nor forced upon us; instead, they seemed to fit comfortably. If there is a reason for our movement, it is usually obscured by the daily rituals of survival, and when that reason does come clear it is most likely during a brief moment of euphoria or despair, and probably accompanied by drink. This reason is hardly worth remembering, as if to know it might make the life no longer desirable.

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