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Where dreamers and pack rats rule

April 29, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

According to people in the industry, self-storage is all about change, which may explain why Los Angeles has more self-storage facilities per capita than any other city in the nation. These include what is probably the tallest (a 13-story Public Storage in the old Pac Building on Beverly Boulevard) and what is possibly the prettiest (another Public Storage on Eagle Rock Boulevard, mosaicked and painted at the behest of residents of Glassell Park concerned with the view).

Many of these mini-warehouses are still found in traditional warehouse districts, often amid the crushed gravel and flattened pennies beside railroad tracks. But nowadays you see them crouched everywhere, their countless corrugated doors pulled shut like the eyes of something sleeping. Who can guess the form of its dreams?

"Birth, death, divorce, retirement, natural disaster, economic downturn," says Harvey Lenkin, president and chief executive of the Glendale-based Public Storage Inc., listing the things that keep him in business. "We are all about controlled chaos." Billable monthly.

In the last 10 years, mini-storage has exploded nationwide. The disproportionate popularity in this town is a function of many things, including architecture -- few attics, fewer basements -- and immigration, but it also is one facet in the prism through which L.A. magnifies the rest of the country.

If Maryland can claim to be America in Miniature topographically, Los Angeles is its equivalent culturally. The popularity of self-storage reveals an all-American desire to be psychically untethered while still having a lot of stuff.

We pride ourselves on traveling light, we West Coast citizens of the second millennium. With phones the size of a Power Bar, laptops that really only require a knee and computer-chipped credit cards, we envision ourselves sleek as seals, seemingly wingless as hummingbirds. In this city, we have little need for even the ballast of history, beyond knowing where Chaplin once had an office and which letter of the Hollywood sign that young actress jumped from.

Our own past we jettison as regularly as urban mobility and good therapy allow. Parental relationships, broken hearts, dashed hopes we tie up with string and label "baggage." "He has too much baggage," a woman tells a friend who is dating a divorced man, referring, without apology, to the man's two young children. Unwanted baggage. Unnecessary baggage.

"Let it go," we chant, referring to such unwieldy concepts as grief, guilt, concern about the nation, the actual events of the past. Here, personal history is an art form, a resume often more prose poem than fact. When an L.A. writer was asked by a reporter how she could call her new book a debut novel when she had, in fact, co-written a previous novel, she was genuinely shocked. "That one doesn't count," she said, as if explaining something to a very slow child. "I'm reinventing myself."

But the past has a habit of acquiring dimension, of coming in several different colors and nine fabrics, of occupying space and collecting dust. We may "let go" of the angry sorrow of that first marriage, but what to do with the wing chairs, the pool table and all those foreign beer bottles? How can you just give away the entire contents of your parents' house?

And in a land of reinvention, it's hard to know what will be called for next; better, then, to keep plenty of props handy.

So we put it all in storage. It is difficult to justify any level of poverty in a society where people pay rent equivalent to that of a medium-size apartment to shelter stuff that they aren't using.

But sometimes it is a matter of necessity -- students go home for the summer, soldiers go off to war, a bad business decision requires the sacrifice of the three-bedroom house in favor of the two-bedroom apartment.

Like waitress jobs and weight gain, self-storage is almost always "temporary."

"My mother died a few years ago," Lenkin says. "I couldn't cope with going through the stuff, so I put it in storage. Just for a few months," he says, with a rueful laugh. "It's still there."

Self-storage is a way of preserving the past without owning it, commitment on a month-to-month basis. Some people default, as people will, and the facilities sell off the contents of their units in their entirety.

The California Storage Auctions and News has been going strong since 1991, printing lists of local lien sales and providing tips for prospective bidders -- "Are there any addresses visible on any of the boxes or suitcases that appear throughout the unit? (A Beverly Hills address would be interesting)."

But most people hang onto their units longer than they expect to. Because people can become as attached to the space as they are to the stuff. A storage unit can be a secret place, as many divorce lawyers and homicide investigators have discovered, but it can also be a refuge.

I can shake this world from my shoulders, stash the clothes and the couch and take off. Me and my cell phone and my credit card, my little rucksack and a copy of "The Confessions of St. Augustine" and I'm off to the Sahara, off to a new life, Michael Palin without the film crew.

That's what we store in those buildings beside the railroad tracks, the stuff of dreams.

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