The House on Summit Avenue
by Harry Warner, Jr.
Every so often, you see in newspapers pictures and stories about the incredible clutter found in the house or apartment of a recluse who has died or has been carted off to the funny farm. I used to get an uneasy feeling when I saw such items and thought about the way the clutter of books and magazines has been growing in the three upstairs rooms I use for storage purposes and in the attic. But now I feel better. Unbeknownst to me, I'd been living for many years next door to just such a genuine case of terminal clutter without realizing it, and the situation in my neighbors' home makes my accumulation seem trivial.
The elderly couple who lived on the second floor of the building next to mine were a bit of the wild side. She had been, of all things, a professional boxer in her youth. Apparently there was a profession for female boxers around the middle of this century and she was part of it. She must have been pretty good, if I may judge by the left jab I saw her land on a young man who she thought had parked too close to her car one afternoon. Her husband came up to me one day and told me in confidence that he had heard me shooting the previous night. I hadn't even been home that night and I don't own a gun, and I haven't pulled a trigger since I patronized a booth at the Hagerstown Fair in my teens, but he smiled knowingly at me. Their minister told me that they were in the habit of interposing mailing comments during his sermons in loud voices.
About five years ago, the telephone company laid a new cable up Summit Avenue, mostly under sidewalks, resulting in the laying of new sidewalks for most of us and new curbs for some of us. A concrete-splattered workman told me one day almost with tears in his eyes about the hard time my neighbors had been giving the crew; they insisted on a flattened section of curb in front of their building to make it easier to get a wheel-chair onto the sidewalk, even though neither the husband nor wife needed a wheelchair nor had ever used one; they just thought such a feature of the curb might come in handy some time in the future. The woman carried a cane most of the time but laid it aside when she was in a hurry, and I've seen her climb the steps to her door with two heavy bags of groceries in both arms without walking difficulties. They apparently used the local ambulance service the way people used to ask doctors to make house calls. The ambulance would roll up with siren screaming at least once a month, stay double-parked for ten minutes or so, and then roll away without either of the couple as occupants.
A local attorney and his wife once visited my home asking me to begin a career in espionage; this couple and my neighbors had both patronized a public auction, both couples had successfully bid on sets of dishes. Then in the attorney's version, my neighbors had walked off with the more expensive dishes which the attorney had paid for. I was supposed to pay them a visit and verify this fact by seeing the dishes in their home. I knew the two went regularly to public auctions, and once in a while I saw them at yard sales. But I didn't often see them taking acquisitions into the house, which left me unprepared for what happened early this year. The two had become less and less visible as the years passed, sometimes not moving their car for weeks at a time, so I didn't think anything of it when someone asked me where the man was. Nobody had seen him for a long while, despite catching occasional glimpses of her. We speculated that he might be in a rest home. Last yuletide, I noticed that the Christmas card from her was signed in a strange hand, and a few days later her obituary notice appeared in the local newspapers. There was no mention in it of her husband, and one of the neighbors somehow learned he had died two years earlier. It is unheard of that a Hagerstown resident should die without an obituary in the local newspapers, but it had somehow happened.
A few weeks later, people unknown to me began removing things from the apartment they had occupied. It began in a modest, unassuming way, with some battered pieces of furniture hauled away in a small pickup truck and a half-dozen or so garbage bags of unidentified contents placed at the curb for the trash collector. Then it escalated a bit. Instead of the pickup truck, there was a larger truck with greater capacity drawing up in front of the building and becoming laden with large boxes and mysterious shapes which I could not identify as anything known to civilization. Moreover, plump garbage bags also began to be hauled away by truck.
Perhaps a week later there was a tremendous commotion outside the house. What to my wondering eyes should appear but a dumpster, one of those huge ones, wider than a big truck, half as long as a boxcar and with sides and rear wall extending perhaps five feet up. Its arrival signaled a new phase of the emptying of the apartment. Now, instead of things being carried down the steps and out the door of the building, they began to descend with resounding thumps from upstairs windows and the upstairs balcony, tossed at random to the walkway and lawn below for transfer into the dumpster. I wouldn't have believed that apartment could contain enough stuff to fill a dumpster, but it did. They piled that dumpster so high that they had great difficulty getting a canvas cover over the mountain. All the neighbors were marveling and some of them were looking at me as if there were a secret tunnel through which I was transferring a lot of my stuff to the neighboring apartment.
After the huge green dumpster had been hauled up atop a sanitary disposal truck and hauled away, the neighborhood wondered for about 24 hours what that apartment could do for an encore. Then we saw it -- the dumpster was back. And again the dumpster was filled to overflowing and again it was hauled away and behold, the dumpster returned and acquired a third load at least as high and tottering as the first two. After it left for the third time, Goodwill Industries stopped by with a large truck to pick up a good bit of stuff. A few days later, for the first time there emerged from that apartment things that appeared to be in excellent condition: a living room suite, refrigerator, stove, and so on.
I've looked at that building and I've tried to cipher out in my head the probabilities that so much stuff could have been occupying its second floor without resorting to fourth dimensional packing methods and I haven't had much luck. It occurred to me once that some of the stuff could be coming from the first floor apartment, but then I realized they wouldn't have hauled first floor stuff upstairs to throw it off the balcony or out the window. I've never been through that building so I can't be sure about its attic but from the outside, it doesn't look as if there could be a very large attic, so not too much of the stuff evacuated could have come from there.
Of course, I have no idea what may have been in the garbage bags but the workmen wore masks over their mouths on the job so I fear the worst. Visible were unbelievable quantities of empty pasteboard cartons, ranging from pizza type to large ones. There was a great deal of nondescript lumber. Vast quantities of what may have been old clothing but looked more like rags pure and simple came out.
Remember, I didn't make this spectacle my full time occupation during those weeks. I'm sure there must have been many occasions when a truck rolled up, loaded, and drove away without my knowledge because I wasn't home or wasn't looking out the window. And there seems to be a sort of nervous tension to this day in the neighborhood over that apartment. People look fearfully at it from time to time, as if they expected their credulity to be stretched to the snapping point by the sudden resumption of evacuation operations. I'm not sure if I could bear it if I suddenly saw more stuff beginning to flop out of the window or balcony because it would outrage all the laws of probability and reasonableness.
Since then, exterminators have been active in that building, and I've seen other men enter and leave with mysterious-looking instruments in their hands whose purpose I can't deduce. I can't help wishing that the apartment has been rendered uninhabitable for the next half century or so because I'm fearful of new tenants who possess a substantial quantity of small children moving in and creating territorial rights problems for my back yard. And I can't imagine how that man and woman managed to live in that apartment or how they explained the environment to those ambulance crews.
Eventually, everything will come out of 423 Summit Avenue. It will be imposing in its quantity but almost all of it will be books, records, magazines, music, and usable furniture, and the neighbors won't think it worthwhile to gossip about what a hoarder I was, because my clutter will seem quite unimportant in comparison with the things they saw emerge from next door. And I never did spy out that set of dishes for the attorney, and it's too late now.
- - - - - - - - - -Most of the comments we received on Harry's article didn't get past the point of being croggled we actually had an article from him, in addition to his usual letter of comment. Only Patty Peters picked up on Harry's final thoughts in his article, when she pondered on what might eventually become of all our belongings after we're gone: "Who would place any value on most of the things we find important enough to house? I don't even want to consider how the moose collection will be interpreted."
Rich also had an article in Mimosa 6, though it perhaps more appropriately belonged in the previous "Farewell to Tennessee" issue. We'd lived in Tennessee for 15 years before finally moving north to Maryland, and found that in spite of ourselves, roots were only too easy to put down. Even though we never really considered Tennessee 'home' to us, we did miss all the friends we'd made there.
Rich's article was a 'loose end' he felt he wanted to tie down from all those years in Tennessee -- for the eight years he worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, his job frequently took him to one of TVA's coal-fueled power plants out in the wilds of rural Kentucky, to a place where the landscape had been immensely changed by strip mining long before land reclamation laws were ever thought of. The name of the power station was, ironically, The Paradise Power Plant; with all the open pits and corrosive ponds left over from strip mining, a place farther from paradise would be hard to imagine, as you will see:
All illustrations by Steve Stiles