When I was 18 years old, I lived like a musical monk in one room of a two-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side. I spent that year and much of the next practicing the guitar six to eight hours a day. In that room, I had a single mattress on the floor, an amplifier, and a guitar.
By the end of that period, I had become a working musician, and I needed more stuff: a microphone, a mike stand, and, most important, a car. I had to get to my musical jobs, and it couldn’t be done by subway or bus.
Some of my fellow musicians followed a slightly different bent. Some of them kept acquiring stuff: P.A. systems, tape recorders, mixing boards, electronic effects. Some of them pursued the equipment maven path and ended up running recording studios. It gave them a place to keep and play with all their stuff.
THIS WILL CHALLENGE delicate married sensibilities. I’ll state it as politely as I can. When you get married, and when you have children, stuff proliferates. It is not inaccurate to say that women have an entirely different regard for stuff than men do. For a man, it’s kind of like a shopping trip for clothes. J.C. Penney’s has a radio ad aimed at just that kind of man. “Get in, get what you want, and get out,” the announcer says.
A woman would make that same shopping trip into an entertainment.
That’s an easy jab, and much too simple. I believe women create lives out of stuff, following a deep instinct that makes them want to protect themselves within dependable walls. They want permanence. They want life weighed down, filled up, and reliable.
None of this packing up your guitar and your amp in your car and hitting the road. Wrong stuff entirely. For one thing, women want a regular bed.
OUR DINING ROOM IS currently filled with camping stuff. There’s a propane stove, a little folding metal table purchased especially to put the propane stove on, two big tarpaulins newly rinsed and folded up, a kerosene lantern, a vial of propane for the stove, a high-powered flashlight, three different bug sprays, plastic dishware, plastic bags, rope, bungee cord, a pillow, sleeping bags, mattress pads — and out on the porch we have a couple giant plastic snap-top containers and a cooler for carrying all the stuff, box and cooler newly hosed out and clean.
For a two-day camping trip, it takes two days to put everything away afterward.
Our garage and basement stand testimony to various enthusiasms variously followed. On one vacation, my wife learned to roller-blade. We have roller-blading equipment in sizes that still fit one person (my wife) and probably don’t fit either of our two boys any more. We have skateboards, bicycles, and more kinds of balls than you can count: We have golf stuff. We have tennis stuff. We have baseball stuff. We have cross-country skiing stuff.
We have wardrobes to go with all the stuff.
And we’re not bad, as modern folk go. Some people have boats.
WE HAVE MOVED TWICE since the turn of the last century. Having done so, I can confidently say that I will never get divorced. Contemplating the pain of dealing with all that stuff, with having to divide it up, I’ll shrug my shoulders and go on rather than face it. Moving is bad enough. At least you all end up in the same place at the end of the process.
In the traditional mode, stuff ends up in a traditional place: At Grandma’s house. There, grandchildren can pick through and play with old uniforms, medals, hats, fishing equipment, tools, lumber, and toys.
The summer after my grandfather died, I found my grandmother out at the cement block barbecue my grandfather had built, trying to set fire to my grandfather’s old Home Guard campaign hat, his police uniforms, his web belt, his suits — all that glorious old stuff.
In my grandmother’s episode of wild destructive grief lies the real reason women collect stuff. It is not an eccentricity — no, packrats still make the news. Stuff doesn’t mean anything unless it is shared. Stuff makes up the tangible assets of love.
You can have love without stuff — but not commonly. For me, I look around and see old musical instruments and dusty stacks of sheet music, sewing machines and drapery hardware, shelves full of board games and books, the box of winter clothes in the guest room that willy-nilly ended up too small for the boys intended for them in the following year, the garden implements, the rain barrel, the snow shovels and the motor oil and the jerry can half full of gasoline, the rack for firewood, the hodgepodge of pots and pans in the kitchen, and I see a single message: I love you.