The Things We Hold Onto

Or the cost of keeping a storage unit.

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Right before Thanksgiving, I flew down to Texas to clear out my storage unit. I’d had it for over five years and I still don’t want to think about how much I paid for it. It’d be easy enough to calculate, of course, but then I’d have to think about that figure compared to the monetary value of the things I kept in there and then I’d need to reach for a bottle of whiskey. Or maybe it’d be more depressing to think about the sentimental value I put on things that weren’t nearly worth the price I paid to keep them for roughly 64 months?

Regardless — however you think about it, storage units are a con that we play on ourselves.

As I’ve written a few times for The Billfold, I left Houston after finishing my MFA in 2011 to go work in Qatar. One of the most stressful things I did in the couple weeks I had to get my shit together between the job offer and the 14-hour flight was pack up my apartment. (This was ultimately more difficult than leaving everyone I knew, which probably says something, but let’s not get into that.)

The Moral Conflict of Living and Working in Qatar

I sold off all the big items — furniture, bookshelves, rugs, etc. What I kept, well, I mostly forgot about that stuff. At the time, though, it all must have seemed terribly important, because I signed on for $45 a month for an air-conditioned unit on high ground to avoid those Houston floods. I remembered my books, of course, and those were the main motivating factor. Every time I’ve moved, schlepping them around the country was getting harder and harder. (I move a lot.) I also had a silver-plated Bach Stradivarius trumpet I no longer played, but kept in case I decided to take it back up. The rest of it, though, was a mystery that I never really felt like solving, but, like the trumpet, I figured whatever was in there, I’d want again, someday.

I moved back to the States over two years ago, settling in Brooklyn, where I’d been living before I left for Texas. In a sense, I was rebooting my life, so rather than immediately go to Houston and deal with the storage unit, it was easier not to think about it — or, more accurately, only think about it once a month when I saw my bank statement with the automatic monthly charge. That cost seemed worth it, especially since I didn’t really want anything in it other than my books, and even those I’d done fine enough without for a few years.

Storage units are sneaky that way. You don’t think of them in terms of the total cost. What you’ve already paid is sunk and what’s owed ahead is always avoidable because you can stop at any time. Especially when the unit is halfway across the country, that monthly fee seems small compared to the costs of a plane ticket, accommodations, greasy roadside meals, gas, and a rental vehicle — the last of which is quite possibly the most overpriced item available in the American economy. (To pick up a mid-sized SUV at Hobby airport and drop it off six days later at JFK cost me damn near a grand all by itself. The rental companies know if you’re dropping off in another location than the pickup, you must really need the car, so there’s no romance when they fuck you.) Once you tally all those costs up, paying $45 a month seems like a pittance. As does $55 and then $60 when they raise the rent.

However, one day I got an email notifying me the facility had been sold to another company and the price had gone up to $75 a month. This was apparently the hitherto unknown limit for me. Still, it took me a few months to commit to dealing with it in a practical sense. (Procrastination almost always has a price tag too.) In October, I put in for PTO, booked a one-way flight, and rented a stupid, overpriced car.

The mid-sized SUV was a strategic choice. After loading it up with the books I hadn’t donated, there wouldn’t be room for much else. I’d have to jettison anything that wasn’t necessary or dear.

I learned in Qatar that you don’t actually need much. I lived in an impersonal apartment in an impersonal neighborhood of impersonal high-rises and I was a perfectly happy minimalist. Which is not to say living in Qatar wasn’t a decadent experience — it’s just proof that you don’t need much stuff to live quite well.

That was a liberating realization. I learned to travel light, never taking trips with more than a backpack’s worth of clothes and some reading material. At home, I took back up my New Yorker’s habit of shopping only a day or two in advance for groceries. My wardrobe was curated to the few items I actually wore.

For some people this is no big deal, but I have a packrat mentality and three years of Texas-living had introduced me to the joys of Costco. Doha fixed this. Throwing out or donating things became a regular habit that I’ve tried to keep since coming back to New York — except for my books. Those started to accumulate again because I’m still a sucker for the feel and heft of physical paper. I’ll probably die crushed under a pile of Waugh and Wodehouse novels.

All of which is to say three things: 1) You don’t really need most of your shit, 2) You don’t even really want most of your shit, and 3) Books really do furnish a room.

Central to the con of storage units is that the more money you sink into them, the more it seems worth paying for things that are increasingly not worth what you’ve already paid. No matter what you’ve paid, though, from a monetary perspective, it’s always better to clear your unit out as soon as possible.

But it’s also about the psychic perspective — and that’s also best dealt with sooner than later, because a storage unit is a pretty expensive way of not dealing with the past.

I sometimes look back on my grad school years with a kind of dread. Don’t get me wrong. It was a fun time. It was an educational time. It was a productive time. But when I look back, I see a different person whom I don’t totally get. I mean, the essentials are all there — thinning red hair; love of books, basketball, pizza, and puns; a tragic tendency toward pairing beers with shots — but, true to the millennial stereotype, it took me up until my late twenties to feel finally like something approaching an adult, only after going abroad and getting to travel and meeting people outside of my comfort zone and working a job that actually felt important to me (even if expat life often feels like arrested development). Going back to Houston and dealing with my stuff meant thinking about the mental headscratchers as well as the random physical junk.

It wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet, but there was Christmas music blaring through the empty storage building as I rummaged through my belongings and tried to understand why, for instance, I thought I’d still want a VHS player or a bulky laserjet printer or a bag of (laundered) gym T-shirts. I looked through the tchotchke I’d accumulated over the years and the books I’d read (as well as some I’d meant to) and realized that as much as there was the bittersweet pang of thinking about who I was, these things, especially the books, were a reminder of who and what I aspired to be as compared to what that vision is now at 33, my Jesus Year; they were a reminder about how life’s weird routes and chance occurrences change you and your priorities.

It was like finding an old short story I had written in college and reading it for the first time in years. If you’ve ever had that experience, you know that it almost inevitably induces a cringe as you make your way through the purple figures of speech, the tortured, labyrinthine syntax, the hokey sense of love and sex, the adolescent arrogance elevated to grand existential struggle. But those growing pains are, I believe, kind of necessary too. You’re figuring out what works on the page and what doesn’t. You’re getting the sloppiness and the naiveté out of your system.

And of course there’s the most painful realization: that in several years you’ll look back on yourself today with a similar sense of judgment.

This is the con of storage units: They allow us to avoid making some of those necessary cuts in life; they let us forget that some things are better left behind. And like most cons, they cost you.

So. If you’re still belatedly in the market for a New Year’s resolution, something concrete that is less likely to fail than your plans to avoid all processed carbs, read the complete works of Dostoevsky, and finally ask out that barista — seriously, don’t do it — and you’ve got a storage unit out there somewhere full of stuff you’ve been meaning to get around to sorting out, maybe think about clearing out that unit and saving yourself a little money and a lot of angst.

Dane A. Wisher is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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