My Storage War

by Michael McGrath

Last week, I finally broke off a two-year, long-distance relationship. It had become increasingly toxic. Neither party was getting what they needed. It was a stalemate, a spin cycle, a quicksand oasis between a rock and a hard place. There were unanswered emails, hefty certified letters, voicemails I avoided like landmines. I never loved them. It had started off as something easy, convenient. I had plans. Well, I had plans to make plans, and I didn’t want anything serious.

Plans changed. Or, rather, plans failed to materialize. The relationship dragged on and soured. Late fees accrued on the ransom as the hostages grew mustier. Our already tenuous connection weakened. I didn’t need them. I didn’t have any place for them. It couldn’t continue, but I couldn’t break it off. I’d previously thought of it as something like a phantom limb, but it was closer to a rotten vestigial organ.

Yes, I had a storage unit for two years. It held a mattress and box spring, an old television, a few pieces of tattered hand-me-down grad school furniture and sagging cardboard filled with kitchenware and books and computer speakers.

The Mothership was reluctant to reabsorb these items. I couldn’t afford to continue to keep them at bay (at $107 a month), but I couldn’t bring myself to shell out the upfront costs required to collect. The rental truck alone (not including gas, tolls, road indulgences, etc.) was equal to almost four months of doing nothing. Doing nothing always won.

Until two years ago, storage units existed in my mind largely as manifestations of the downtrodden and criminally insane. They were the final resting place of serial killers’ trophy jars and crooked art dealers’ stolen antiquities and sad dads’ fishing equipment. Buffalo Bill. Sideshow Bob. Where else would Mr. van Houten’s racecar bed wind up? But these were rosy, pre-recession notions. Now there are acres of storage units everywhere you look. What we can’t fit in our units we sell in the front yard.

My lone experience with storage before 2010 was an afternoon spent clearing out a unit full of my aunt’s belongings a year or so after she died. We waded through garbage bags of clothing and other detritus looking for anything of value before a hired man with a pickup hauled everything else to the dump. An incriminating sootiness — fingerprint dust from the police, who had treated her overdose as “suspicious” — coated everything and stained our own fingers. Afterwards we went down the street for pizza, where we took turns washing our hands in the restroom.

Oh, I was also vaguely aware of Paris Hilton’s lost storage unit, full of tawdry personal documents and embarrassing prescription medications brought to light after a clever scavenger (Nabila Haniss, who would eventually appear on A&E’s Storage Wars) bought her lot at auction. How could someone fall behind on their storage bill? I remember thinking. They’re holding all your stuff. Don’t you want your stuff?

Just four years later I found myself months behind on my own storage bill and committed to losing everything. I’d decided it was the only way forward. I came to terms with the loss of a few sentimental items (my Hulk Hands! My Samurai swords!) and felt light and free in a way that had eluded me since signing the paperwork. Despite the doom awaiting my credit and pangs of guilt over leaving a mess for strangers to clean up, I remained steadfast, having performed all the necessary rationalizations.

Then the company tracked down my parents’ trusty landline and my mother just happened to be home on a snow day. I was on a walk to the post office and when I returned I recognized the expression on her face all too well. “I just got off the phone with your friends at the storage place,” she said, glasses sliding down her nose. She had paid the bill. My knees nearly buckled at the news. I tried to explain that I’d said my farewells to those things. I’d set them on fire and let them drift out to sea. But now they were back, charred and dripping, with a formidable new investor who just happened to double as my current landlord.

Thus began the monthly fights. Ostensibly they were about the storage unit but really they were about everything: my lack of steady employment, my Mothership residency, my inability to finish (let alone publish) my thesis, my OnDemand habits, my stalled freelance career, my dormant online dating profile, my facial hair experiments. The storage unit was a Russian Doll, an inkblot, a festering sore on an oft-bit tongue.

I ran the bill back up to $400 and enjoyed a nice chat with Karen from the storage company’s office.

“Can we charge your card directly?” she asked. “Save you the postage?”

I still harbored fantasies of a fresh identity or escape to a non-extraditing tropical nation, so I said I’d rather not authorize automatic billing. I sent a check and then didn’t pay again for another three months.

Two weeks ago, 24 months after I boxed up my little apartment, a cousin got married outside Washington, D.C., which placed me within a three-hour drive of my storage unit. I found a U-Haul store and took a $25 taxi from the hotel the morning after the ceremony. My mother had reserved the 10-foot truck ($309) online, but as it turns out the form of payment has to be presented at pick-up. I gritted my teeth and swiped. The clerk wore a White Sox hat. “Sox are having a good season,” I said, making conversation while my receipt printed. “It’s just a hat,” he said. “I just like the way it looks.”

I filled up at a nearby gas station ($85) and scrolled through the radio dial, the Christian rock growing twangier as the highway narrowed between the hills of Virginia. I met a friend for gelato ($6) in town and then followed him back to his house in the woods. We cooked dinner and shot beer ($24) cans off the laundry line with a pellet rifle.

The next morning I met Karen at the front desk. “Hi,” I said as we shook hands. “It’s me, your worst customer.”

“I’ll miss our calls,” she said as she showed me to the loading dock where my belongings were patiently waiting.

Shawn — the company-mandated chaperone assigned to me at $45 an hour (one hour minimum) — was a pro and we had the truck expertly loaded within twenty minutes. I wrote a check for the $45 plus a final balance of $60, consulted the map and started the 10-hour drive back to the Mothership. Along the way I stopped for gas two more times ($150) and bought a Whopper Junior Meal and a four-piece nugget ($6) for lunch.

Two days later I drove my empty truck to the U-Haul drop-off one town over. The odometer read 780 miles. I was glum, expecting to spend .40 per mile over my limit of 500. But unbeknownst to me the non-Chicago fan at the Washington U-Haul had extended my mileage to 950. I could have driven the truck around for two more days, stuck couches and a cooler in the back, headed to the drive-in or the beach.

The clerk and I inspected the truck together (“reasonably clean,” he said), shook hands and I ran across the lot to my ride. It had started to rain. On the way home we passed an elderly couple in a gold Mercury sedan driving the wrong way down the two-lane highway. We flashed our lights and honked the horn. I called 911. “What’s your emergency?” asked the dispatcher, after a painfully long pause.

Michael McGrath tweets as @marcomcgrath. Visit him at Photo: Flickr/St_A_Sh