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Jack Smith

He looks back and--sure enough--the paper avalanche is gaining on him

June 18, 1986|Jack Smith

Do you remember the Collier brothers?

They were two men who withdrew from life, shut themselves up in their large house in New York, I believe it was, never put out the trash or sent out their laundry, and finally were found dead amid tons of their own impedimenta.

I don't remember the details. I have forgotten what drove the Collier brothers into their bizarre seclusion. Perhaps they simply marched to a different drummer.

But sometimes I think the same thing is going to happen to my wife and me.

It isn't that we're untidy, or that we're reclusive, or that we never put out the trash or send our laundry out. It's just that I have begun to notice that we're not keeping up.

Paper is gaining on us.

I myself am almost pathologically neat. I like everything to be lined up on my desk at right angles, everything in its place. I like tabletops and chairs to be clear. I like my books and clothes to be put away in the right places. I like a tidy bathroom.

I think my wife is equally neat, though possibly not as pathological about it. But she likes to squirrel things away. It isn't that she's possessive. She just hates to throw anything out. She had a frugal childhood and she doesn't believe in waste.

What is happening, I think, is that more is coming into our house than is going out, and we have less and less time to stay on top of it.

We get numerous magazines and are on dozens of lists for merchandising catalogues. We buy books and subscribe to two newspapers and receive more mail than anyone else in the neighborhood, plus the hundred or so letters I bring home every week from the office.

I try to keep the magazines in order--Vanity Fair in one pile, New Yorker in another, Newsweek and People and Sunset and Discover and the Skeptical Inquirer in others, with the current issue on top. It is hopeless. Magazines travel. When I put one down, it's lost until I chance upon it again.

We used to bundle up the newspapers and put them in a collection box down the hill. But the box has mysteriously vanished. We don't know what to do with them, and we don't like to throw newspapers away.

We now have newspapers stacked two feet high in two chairs. That takes half the space we had for guests in the living room. We haven't been able to entertain for months. Our housecleaner, who comes in on Saturday mornings, keeps asking us what we're going to do about it.

We have had the housecleaner for a long time and don't want to lose her. She keeps us from backsliding all the way. Every Friday night, before her Saturday-morning arrival, we make a pass at tidying up, so she won't think us uncivilized. But our quick fix becomes more and more superficial; we keep closing off areas that she is not to touch, areas where the clutter is too much for her to comprehend.

Thus, she has less and less to do, and she is frustrated. She has not entered my work room for two years. It is forbidden; she doesn't even come in to vacuum the carpet. My room is in such calamitous disorder that she could only stand in the doorway aghast.

I can't say that my wife's bedroom is in much better shape. Her nightstand is covered with stacks of books and magazines a foot high and beside the bed are three stacks of magazines from six to 18 inches high. She goes through them, reading and clipping. She does not file the clippings, but they grow in other piles in the other bedroom, which is more or less her storeroom.

She has yellowed piles of old Home magazines and clippings from other magazines and newspapers. I point out that if she were to retire and spend the rest of her life reading all those clippings, or filling out all the coupons she has clipped, she would never have time to get through them.

She says "Yes," and goes on clipping.

Meanwhile, she brings her work home from the office, sometimes including her electric typewriter. The dining room table is covered with her papers.

Besides clipping magazines and doing her office work at home, she also has to keep all our accounts, pay all our bills and worry over our Medicare, which, I guarantee, is calculated to drive the recipient crazy.

My point is, we are trying, but it's getting ahead of us.

I know I will be rebuked for letting her do all the paper work, but I simply do not have the mental acumen for financial accounts, and especially not for Medicare. It occurred to me the other day that if she were to leave me, I would simply have to die.

I suppose I should help more with dinner and the dishes, but if I did the cooking she would die. As for the dishes, I do stack my dishes in the dishwasher during the day, so all she has to do is turn it on. I have never learned how. On the other hand, she doesn't know how to work the videocassette recorder. One does what one can.

The other night I said, "I don't think we're ever going to catch up."

"No," she said. She sighed and went back to work on her electric calculator.

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