Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, October 11, 2004

The After Life of Stuff

For a professional organizer, finding ways to get rid of stuff is as much a part of our lives as persuading our clients to part with their clutter in the first place. In my first years as an organizer I loved stuff. My clients didn't mind if I added their discards to my garage sales. On Big Trash day I hauled home vacuum cleaners with no bag, lamps in need of rewiring, toys covered with mud. I made it my hobby to fix things and put them back into circulation. It was a cheap environmental action thing to do. Then just as suddenly I tired of it. There was just too much junk in the world, too much unfixable, badly designed crap.

When second hand stores posted signs saying they couldn't take any more donations because they were overwhelmed already it gave me pause. My clients had more stuff to give away than there were people to buy it. Their guest rooms were filled, their garage hadn't seen a car parked in it for ten years and their offsite storage spaces were expensive. Stuff had taken over their lives. They called me to help them get rid of it. It gave new meaning to the term "disposable income."

People used to save things for their kids. Now they were calling me because their mom had died that year leaving them with a houseful of things they didn't have room for, plus all the emotional baggage that comes with having to throw away the belongings of a family member.

One of my colleagues made estate liquidation her main business. She can clear most houses in a week through her network of antique dealers, auction houses, charitable organizations and estate sales, followed by haulers to take the rest away to the dump. Years of accumulation by family hoarders have become a lucrative business, sometimes their precious collections netting only enough to pay her fee. To be sure some things are valuable. That is a part of the thrill for those who rummage at garage sales, but the territory changed many an organizer's feelings about keeping stuff. We go home and we purge. We reduce our wardrobe down to black. We think twice about buying things. We want stuff to last and not have a toxic afterlife at the dump or a hazardous waste disposal fee attached to it.

Meanwhile we trade notes on where to take items so they can be used. That's our selling point. Our clients value their things even if they don't need them and we persuade them that they can have more value if they are sent out into the world to be used. We keep lists of what our favorite homeless shelters need. A couch that will seat several people, house wares always, clothes sometimes. Open bottles of shampoo can be used, even rubber bands and paper bags. But what to do with office furniture, binders and old technology?

For such a corporate client, I posted a number of items, one by one, on Excess Access, an Internet site designed to match gifts with charitable outfits. But stuff had become such a liability that these organizations were cautious about what they took on. The dot com bust with all those businesses closing down had created a glut of cubicle partitions, office furniture and unusable custom fit storage units all taken down in a hurry and missing crucial parts. My target donees wanted to see pictures. They were located in the city or across the Bay. They had to find people to transport the items. It was a slow process. Sometimes they never called back. Sometimes it would be months before they got it together to pick things up. And my client had storage costs. When items were finally picked up I was grateful. Please, please take these things away. I'll help. I'll clean it and fix it. I might even deliver it.

Which brought me to Freecycle. It's an electronic bulletin board of people posting free stuff, but you have to join the Yahoo list. I joined the Palo Alto one. All day people are posting their stuff to give away, Indian spices, size 10 evening gowns, garden stuff, a plastic rooster (lifelike). They wrote little notes about their item. My e-mail inbox exploded and I quickly opted for the daily digest. It was fascinating in a cultural anthropological sort of way. A friend told me about a man who furnished his entire apartment with Freecycle stuff. People also posted things they wanted. The best part about it was the speed at which things came and went and it was local so people could pick things up without driving far.

I had a heavy desk to offer, but desks are not big movers. Most people only need one and they are cumbersome to transport. Giving stuff away, I realized, took marketing skills. "Oak desk with high quality ball bearing drawer slides," I put in the headline. I even offered delivery since my client had to make a dump run anyway. I got a taker that same day.

My recipient wanted the desk wedged into a tiny garage office that was part of a planned community of three run down houses. They gave classes in sustainability and drew on the labor of college interns to help them refurbish the houses using only used building materials. He proudly told me how the multicolored roof of one house had been re-shingled using leftovers from other people's roofing jobs. He gave me a newsletter and a donation receipt for my client. Cool. I went home and listed more items.

An old workhorse of a laser printer brought two responses within minutes. They were so fast, so early in the morning, I thought they might be scavengers collecting printers to sell on e-Bay where there were a number of the same model selling for $20 to $40 plus shipping. But no it was just a young man looking for one for his own use.

Someone else wrote that their bookcase had collapsed and they would take any serviceable bookcase at all - tall and skinny or short and wide. A bookcase was not on my client's list to give away, but they had several in storage. "Okay" said the client, knowing full well that inevitably more stuff would have to be stored. "Hello, I'm Sasha, thank-you, good-bye," and so it was gone with a handshake and a wave of good will.

Twenty swivel chairs later (all having seen the grime of daily use) plus a library table and three computer desks and I had saved my client from another $50 dump run not to mention the cost of the moving van and two guys. I had been weary of stuff, but now I was energized in a way that was imbued with a sense of serendipity and human interest.

I recommended Freecycle to other organizers. "I want to give it to someone in my community," one responded about her items. She meant someone she knew, even if only peripherally. I considered Freecycle to be my community. I just hadn't met everyone in it yet. But I knew what she meant. There was an unregulated wild west quality to Freecycle that was a little outside of the mainstream, under the radar, suspect even. There was no telling who was out there. Our clients wanted their things to go to needy people, someone who was not planning on profiting on the item.

If there was money to be made they wanted a cut, thus the allure of Auction Drop. But Auction Drop was problematic. Items had to be proven to be valued at $75 or more by previous e-Bay auctions or they wouldn't take it on. And though some items might bring in a high price it was just as likely to net a disappointingly low amount. It was a mixed bag. "I wish I'd given it away and gotten the tax deduction," was the sentiment of many who had gone to the trouble.

The tax-deductible receipt has become a form of currency and for organizers it was a way of making the transaction legitimate and professional. It was proof that the item had value and was being used by state sanctioned people in need. Never mind that the organization on the receiving end had very little staff help to organize donations and sometimes would throw stuff in the dumpster because they had run out of storage space. I had seen it with my own eyes.

Freecycle offered no guarantee, but people genuinely seemed to need things. I was, at first, wary of hoarders. We organizers have a particular horror of hoarders. We attend all day conferences on the tenacity of this particular addiction and how to work with it. To give something away to a hoarder was akin to giving money to a homeless person who was a drug addict I did have a taker who bore signs of hoarding. She drove up in a Lincoln Continental to pick up a desk and the trunk was already filled with a layer of stuff; so was the back seat. We lay the desk on top of it all and tied the lid down. Still, it was hard to imagine a serious hoarder going out of their way to meet people in order to feed their habit.

I delivered stuff on my way to clients. People would not drive far for bubble wrap, but they were happy to have it delivered. A joyful Hawaiian woman with a topknot, living in my old neighborhood, took a bag of little gift boxes off my hands. She was making natural lip balm for her friends for Christmas and wanted boxes in which to wrap them. She gave me a bag of delicious mandarins for my trouble.

I met people who cared about environmental issues, were doing good work or giving away things themselves. It was an act of faith in the concept of Freecycle that people would conduct themselves fairly and honestly, pick things up off my porch and not turn out to be ax murderers.

There was something else about Freecycle too. It created a sense of abundance. It made me feel that the community would provide, that stuff would move around to where it was needed. Unlike the garage sale where people were looking for deals and sellers were having to devalue their items to an eighth of the original price, Freecycle made stuff valuable to somebody in a way that went beyond price. Those on the receiving end told you why they wanted the item. The transactions were an exchange of stories and the stories lodged themselves in my head in a different way than transactions involving money. Instead of remembering how much I was bargained down or how I may have overcharged a customer, I had multiple snapshots of the lives of strangers at a moment of gratitude.

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