An inside look at Chicago real estate

The Black Hole of Gray Area Stuff – Don’t Let This Happen to You

Kay Severinsen By
Kay Severinsen
   | Home Ownership

Basement clutter

Forget about me. Save yourselves.  I have never understood that melodramatic line from old movies better than at this moment – two weeks after the rainfall and the sump pump failure.  Things could have been different. Don’t do as we did. Don’t let your stuff pile up in the basement.

I knew better. I saw what stuff did to my parents, whose home of 40 years took two years to unclog. I vowed to go a different path, one with basement walls lined with neat metal shelves, plastic boxes with lids, and everything marked. I would regularly cull these shelves for Amvets.

The metal shelves are there, and so are the marked plastic boxes.

But things happened. College kids came home every May with piles of things that they said they’d take back to college, but didn’t. My husband closed his office and moved it home, along with maybe a quarter-mile of cardboard boxes and office furniture. My mother-in-law recently left her home of 58 years and we accumulated our favorite memory pieces. My office in the basement had become a library of old work materials.

The piles grew because we suffered from gray area syndrome. It’s easy enough to throw out things you truly don’t want, and it’s somewhat easy to find a place to store the things you know for sure you should save. It’s all the stuff with no easy answers – things in the gray area — that has filled our basement. Does this computer monitor still work? Not sure, put it in the basement. What should we do with our extra business furniture? Basement! The college textbooks, the kitchen utensils some college kid left behind, the possibly repairable Guitar Hero guitars? The teaching materials from my last career change? My grandparents’ photo albums full of pictures of people I don’t know but who were very important to people I loved. Gray areas, all. Basement!

And underneath the gray areas lurked a dark underbelly of pure trash: Mylar balloons that only needed a squirt of helium to live again, wrapping paper crumpled into the floor behind those neat shelving units, tools that fell out of something and rusted, old paint cans, tutus, college t-shirts, exercise equipment, sports equipment, a punching bag, holiday decorations (mostly broken), boxes that would be good for something someday. And on and on.

Then came the rains on top of snow a few weeks ago. The sump pump chose that moment to blow its fuse. By the time we figured it out and reset the fuse, there was a wading pool lapping through the stuff. We lifted as much as we could up to higher ground and swept wave after wave of water towards the drain. Within about 45 minutes we could tell the water had met its match and the seepage stopped. I wanted to kiss that noisy, rusty little pump.

We started up every fan we could find and considered that we had won the war. But within days, a smell like dead fish was rising up from the basement to the first floor. We hauled bag after bag of newly trashed items to the curb and also called a professional basement rescue company.

Servpro not only took serious charge of the damage – our basement is probably now drier than it has ever been in its lifetime -– they piled our overwhelming heaps of stuff into compact art forms in the middle of each room. They seem rather safe right there, in the middle of each room, clutching each other like towering life rafts.

Boxes, furniture, toolboxes, neatly marked boxes, and empty boxes that will be good for something someday are now packed as tightly as if compressed by a gigantic trash compactor. I don’t know how we will ever get them apart.

I actually don’t want to get them apart. I think we should charge admission.  Like any modern art sculpture, the stacks leave the observer in wonderment. What is it trying to say? What does it mean? How did the artists create this piece? How would one ever get it out of a basement?

One gets the feeling the crews have done this before. Perhaps they achieved this level of skill because there are other homeowners like us who figured someday they would get around to cleaning the basement.

If I could go back in time, I’d be ruthless and commanding: Everyone to the basement – grab 10 items and toss them – or no dinner for you.  I’d mercilessly toss family memorabilia; casually dispose of documents that might have social security numbers on them; break toys just so they could be trashed.

I have heard it said that Americans don’t really need bigger houses for themselves, they need bigger houses because they have so much stuff. If that describes you, perhaps you can at least keep all that stuff above the mean high water line.