What we keep, who we are

Die Garage

Die Garage

I’ve broken through a membrane in our garage, the garage that’s bigger than some apartments I’ve lived in, where our kids can ride their bikes or scooters when there’s no cars and I’ve cleared the boxes to the side.

The garage, that’s come to represent all our excess, that’s formed a membrane between us and our objects, because objects have weight and sentiment and your possessions can grow to consume you.

And so the task of cleaning out our garage grew to become more than it should. The task now something more, a symbol of life’s lethargy, a dark lidless bird outside my window, a reminder growing more ominous each day that passed as if time alone, my procrastination, gave it life.

But like anything, once you start and make some progress, you’ve broken through the membrane.


It’s the thought of what might be buried in the boxes, the boxes under the stairs, that made it so hard. The boxes that came from my mom’s house in Pennsylvania, labeled “Master Tapes,” all caps, underlined. An implied directive to handle with the utmost care. If the Ark of the Covenant were labeled, it would have the same font.

DSC_0019But to understand how a system works you have to take it apart and put it back together again.

So I dismantled the insides of all the boxes and laid them out on the ground. And like Noah, I put an order to things; I organized them by their color and species.

For my stepdad John was a musician and a collector, and at times a stretcher-of-the-truth. In other words, every object, every record, every book or piece of art had a story behind it. It’s not to say John lied, but because he was a story-teller I’ll call it more a creation of New Realities.

Because he said things like,“I knew Marc Bolan and actually had some letters he sent me when he was going through a difficult time…wasn’t easy being Irish and gay and Jewish in the 60s…”

Or the fact he was in the studio the night they recorded The Court of the Crimson King.

It’s scraps like this that force me to go slow taking apart his boxes, in hopes I’ll come across something truly precious.

Here are a few stops along the way:

Hand-written note on cover, German.

Hand-written note on cover, German.

Talking Books! Talking Boxes!

Talking Books! Talking Boxes!

Lost Treasures of English Folklore!

Lost Treasures of English Folklore!

The Master Tapes boxes are from John’s recording studio, an era spanning the 60s into the 90s, with multiple sized reels and audio/video format, including 5″ reels, 7″ reels, two sizes in between, compact discs, cassettes, vinyl in 45s and 33⅓, video cassettes, Super 8, even video film, the big reels: the original film from BBC recordings John starred in, late 60s. African safari expeditions, too. It’s stuff I will likely never watch because I don’t have the equipment but I’m compelled to keep.

And while it’s not wise to do so and lesser to admit it here, I’m moved to drink in the garage, to start earlier than one should and continue on deep into the night, as if there are spirits here in the garage, that The Chamber of Secrets has been opened and it’s true: you can hide pieces of your soul in books and objects, it’s not advanced wizardry.

That may sound New Age or Young Adult, but amid the old microphones and chords and many small recording devices unopened and described on the packaging in German, amid all this I found a random love letter from an old girlfriend of mine, read it, had the impulse to save it, but when I put it in my pocket I sensed it actually stir, like it was alive, and so I threw it out and closed the lid.

It’s all these things that drop to the bottom of the boxes and roll around like loose pebbles in our shoes: handwritten or typed letters, the ink fading, addressed to John.

A musician in Salzburg offering to put John up at his house and maybe John could get him a recording deal,

…I hear you’re touring in Austria in the near future. I have been singing around the German and Austrian folk clubs and many people are asking me for a record of my songs…I have sufficient material for 5 or 6 albums but you would have to choose whatever songs you wanted.

Signed, Les Brown (who sounds like he should be someone).

By going through John’s records you can follow him around the world as his tastes grew from the blues and ragtime in the American South, onto Hawaii, Portugal, India, Afghanistan, parts of Africa.

Because he was signed to Island records in the 70s, he’d get promo copies of records from the label, and it’s through John I first heard Rain Dogs, because according to John, Tom Waits had contacted him directly asking, would he produce his next album? But John couldn’t listen to it it was so bad, which made me about die.

Many of the cassettes have lost their mates (tapes without cases and vice versa), and some of the reels have the tape hanging out like guts, and I do my best to organize them and flip the titles so they’re all facing the same direction, and I’ve effectively moved contents of boxes from one box to another, but I’ve at least scoured the insides and feel like I know what’s in there.

And I move on to my boxes now, containing the precious but disorganized artifacts of my own life, and release old letters from professors, first resumés, drunken photos from college. It’s the micro-scenes lived, lost, forgotten until this moment, a final gasp where we all go to die, in the garage.

From a writing professor (in red pen, cursive),

May well be the very best (at least creative) journal I have ever read Bill. If you ever really get control of all your talent & channel it better you might well be a force to be reckoned with.

(Then, a capital A with a circle around it.)

Another professor:

So you’ve learned how to expose the naked nerve. Ooof. Creepy, painful, devouring, liberating, useful — above all, useful. Keep doing it, nerve by nerve, body part by body part, jagged edge by jagged edge…

When you discover your planet of origin, please let me know.


She may be dead now but she was alive again when I found that letter yesterday.

And so the picking away at these forgotten parts of our lives takes on an obsessive aspect, like picking at dried glue and scabs, because there’s parts of us buried in boxes but some things buried are better left that way — there’s a reason they’re buried, they’re dead.

Of all the treasures I imagined there is one I did not: an antique pocket watch my grandfather gave me when I was going off to college. I thought it had been stolen from a fraternity house, from a special place I’d hidden it but it was gone. Instead, it was here at the bottom of a box and my grandfather appeared when I held it in my palm and looked to the sky, I felt him.

It’s in our basements, attics and closets in the things we keep we think we’ll find answers to life’s pointlessness, the gaps in our past, but of course we never really find it in our things, it’s just enough to make us keep looking.


Categories: death

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40 replies

  1. “That may sound New Age or Young Adult…” Ha! I never realized how attuned the two are. Great!
    You had some pretty sweet profs. Those comments are creative writing assignments in themselves.
    My wife chides me for hanging onto boxes of stuff in our attic, full of mouse droppings and heated, frozen, heated, frozen… But who can bear to throw that stuff away.


  2. I can completely relate. I have boxes I haven’t opened for more than 5 moves. One contains notepads of my estranged father’s barely legible memoires that I inherited when I was called to retrieve the remains. He believed a twice-told lie to be as good as truth, so I’ll have to wait to be in the mood for fiction before I get to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s…well…not uncommon, to move stuff from place to place and never touch it. We lived in a 90 year old bungalow in West Seattle and lost some stuff to a kind of flood, which was good, because then it was obvious it had to be gotten rid of. Funny how our brains work or don’t, sometimes. How those things wick away our energy it seems.


  3. Very poignant. There was a point I got rid of everything, boxes full of old crap, storage, furniture etc., everything except what fit in a suitcase, and it was hard but afterward I remember how amazing it felt. And more stuff always piles up anyway. I guess the stuff could be considered an anchor to the past sometimes, to memories we don’t want to forget. (Or maybe we do, as in the case of the old love letter.) Anyway, I think writing is a good way to hold on to the memories without having the burden of stuff.

    I’d imagine going through parents’ old boxes is a completely different experience though!


  4. It sounds like a task going through what may or may not be treasure.

    My house is filled to bursting with the remnants of lost loved ones. I will need to go through it but it will take an act of will to begin.


  5. I’m apparently a weirdo, likely from moving often and unexpectedly as a kid and then being in the Army. I know exactly what I have, where it’s at and why it’s there. My husband, on the other hand, has inherited a lot of family stuff that is neither valuable nor sentimental, in an effort to be helpful. It has been a decade-long quest to usher that stuff to Goodwill. And then another relative moves from a house to an apartment…
    There comes a time when memories just become something else to dust, organize or resent, at which point they lose meaning. I wonder sometimes if we want to keep proof of a full life, especially when times come that aren’t so full – in a concrete sense, shouting “I exist!” to the world. Without our stuff, our personal tastes, our memories, what are we?

    Ah, the effects of being outside and in the garden…the brain is on a walkabout and my comments start getting regrettably long.


    • Weirdo good, gardening good. Glad to hear you were able to get out Michelle! Nothing regrettably long here in your comment. Thank you for visiting and sharing in some of my weirdness. I just got back from my third day doing it, the garage, and I’m wiped. And more to go, still. And too nice to not be gardening myself, here!


  6. When I was living overseas, I thought about all the stuff I’d left in boxes back home and how detached I’d become from all of it. I went over there with a clothes and a toothbrush. While I was there I bought a few books, some CDs and a cheapo thingy to play them on. I didn’t need anything I’d left behind.

    Then I came home. I started accumulating stuff again. And whenever I moved I kept moving it with me.

    I’m going to move again soon. We’re cleaning out the basement. The wife and I can’t agree.

    The stuff in the basement is in the basement because it’s not needed. There are no hidden gems down there, in my case. Unless newspapers from the Cowboy’s 1994 Super Bowl win are a hidden gem. Yet I fear I’m about to move all this crap again.

    Sounds like you had some good professors.


    • I wish you well on the move, is a stressful time for you and your family. Hopefully warmer climates for you all. I’m going to check out that Dark Side documentary you recommended last week, perhaps this weekend. Thank you for that…missed your post this week? What, too busy with the basement? Life? I get that. Have a good day and weekend, Walt.


      • I do have a bit too much going on right now to focus on new writing, but I did repost something from “My Archives,” as J. Peterman would say. That’s one good thing about the early days…I’ve got a backstock of good posts that no one ever read!

        Things will settle down a little in the next week or two and I’ll be able to get back into a little bit of routine.

        Let me know what you think of the doc if you get to it. Have a good’un.


  7. When the marriage broke apart – the wuzband got the house and the lion’s share of the stuff in that house – so I experienced an epic purge – from a house full of stuff and moving to a sparsely furnished studio apartment?

    The feeling was liberating, to say the least. I was finally unteathered from 15 years of junk (both physical and emotional)

    It’s been 5 years, and my closet is starting to accumulate drek again…but at least it’s ONLY the closet. I sense another purge close at hand.


    • It’s funny how the junk can be physical and emotional, intertwined. It’s a hard thing for people to deal with when they lose someone too (like, when they DIE) and you have to reconcile their clothing. Dark. Not going there, sorry. Sunny out: think squirrels and birds instead.


  8. So many gems. The old letter that stirred in your pocket, the personalized wisdom of old professors, the reappearing pocket watch. There’s a tub in our basement I used to fantasize burning. You make it sound appealing to sort through, at least before burning.


    • Grand. Glad you found some gems in there Kristen; I did too. It’s a hard process of course, and well, I’m here in the kitchen now but should be out there doing more of it. Just delivered some unwanted boxes of electronics to the donation truck up the way. Back stiff, hair unwashed, starting to smell like the musty boxes and think I might curl up in one and take a nap.


  9. This is a great post. Sorry it took me so long to get around to it. Life intervenes. Your stepdad should have fired up the blog machine and shared that shizzle with us.

    20th Century Boy is in my running playlist. I was big on glam in my formative years. Roxy. T-Rex. Mott. etc.

    Huzzah on the pocket watch. So…what’s on those tapes?


    • You mustn’t ever apologize about not reading my posts etc. I’m glad you could make time to, that says a lot, so thanks Mark. No expectations here – I hold too much shit as-is.

      I like that you use shizzle. I just learned that recently from a good Jewish friend.

      I may actually get a reel-to-reel player so I can play some of these tapes. That’s a nutty, half-baked idea when you’re unemployed and sloughing off possessions, but it may be worth it. I had a reel-to-reel player in my first apartment but the cats knocked it off the mantel and it bent one of the nubs so the reel wouldn’t fit over it right. A fucking Swiss-made player, a REVOX, that sounded (sorry) so warm and awesome. Like if vinyl could play on a tape, well there you go.

      I will always like Def Leppard because of their genuine fondness for T Rex, and in part turning me on to that era. That’s what good bands should do I think: turn you on to their ‘metal guru.’ Now I’m going out there to put that on, thanks Mark.


      • Yeah, I would encourage you to get a reel-to-reel and fire it up. You never know what magic you’ll find. Who doesn’t like a good buried treasure story?

        I retract my apology. Well-intended but misplaced. Just like my bong from the last time I listened to a Roxy Music album.


  10. Bill, really enjoyed this piece. I would be tempted to find ways to play all this old stuff. Thrift shops sometimes have old tape decks and movie projectors. I bought a projector for my dad last year, he has a bunch of 8mm tapes in a box, he was super excited but I don’t know if it ever got used. Maybe you have an old Beetles master tape in there…at a bare minimum you have a great place to begin a novel.


    • Hey Jon, so glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the encouragement! Yes, some of the reels are labeled and feature Dylan from 63 Newport Folk Festival, etc. Probably content that’s available elsewhere but you know, it sure would sound dynamite played on a reel-to-reel. So I am going to look into that for sure. And yes, found much more since I posted this that inclined me to think I might write more about my step-dad’s life, which was quite dense. It’s odd to find parts of someone’s history like puzzle pieces out of the box. And spread among many boxes. Cheers to you and yours, – Bill


  11. True story: a few weeks ago, Beth and I climbed in the car to go wherever we were going. Her phone sync’d up with the stereo and started playing her music. It was something I hadn’t heard before. I reacted sharply; “What the fuck are we listening to? You have to change it immediately! This is awful!”

    It was Tom Waits.


    • That’s happened to me with Tom Waits too, Andy. He is still one of my favorites but at times, unlistenable. Good for him, I think. He marches to the beat of a different drum alright.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. love it. made me go over the stuff i keep.


  13. Loved every word of this, but those professors of yours, they set you a challenge didn’t they – acknowledged your rich talent (accreditation to die for), but then asked where you were taking it. I ask it too, because what you have unfolded here seems almost the spine of a novella, or something bigger, or maybe an edgy YA novel. So I pass on the Anais Nin quote that I came across on another blog this morning: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” This hoard in your garage presents rich pickings Which reminds me. I mentioned YA English writer David Almond in my writers reading post the other day. For years he struggled as a writer of literary fiction, and then one day as he was posting off another manuscript, the idea for a more junior work, ‘Skellig’ dropped into his head. It made his name. It is about an old garage, and a strange washed up, and ailing being that a troubled boy finds within…


    • Well now you’ve given me a pocketful here to go through: another box! Thanks Tish?! Seriously, I like hearing your advice and I’m grateful for its provocations. This will hang with me today…and I’ve not read YA since I was one, and it’s had me thinking. Now my pre-YA just emerged in the dark, taken to getting up early these days for some reason I’m unclear on. Your time and thoughtfulness is truly appreciated — thank you. I am just getting into my coffee and clearing out the webs.


  14. That Peter Held has some bad ass hair! 😀


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