I’m having a closet crisis.
I live in a duplex apartment, about 800 square feet. I think. In New York, apartment sizes are like penises on the Internet: always revised upward. In this space-starved city, the size of your home is what a car is to an Angeleno, political views to a San Franciscan, academic degree to a Bostonian, job title or military rank to a Washingtonian. It defines you.
The biggest challenge for the average New Yorker is where to put everything, a problem that is staring me in the face right now.
My old apartment, a one-bedroom Art Deco beauty with a sunken living room just off Central Park, had three large closets - the New York equivalent of a second garage. So why did I move? The neighborhood became stodgy and lacked essential services. It also held too many memories.
By 2004, having been single for a while, I decided to strike out for the city’s newest up-and-coming gayborhood, Hell’s Kitchen. Also, having bought at the trough of the recession of the early ’90s, I knew the apartment had appreciated - by over 500 percent, as it turned out. Moving from an expensive neighborhood (How expensive? A Russian oligarch recently bought a pied-à-terre around the corner from my former pad for $87 million) to a funkier one would give me what every Manhattanite spends his life searching for: more room.
I found what I was wanted in an area where luxury high-rises are slowly replacing car dealerships, plumbing contractors and horse stables. Eight years ago, it was still marginal enough to offer bargains. I discovered a fixer-upper in a 120-year-old tenement walk-up. Even if it was a wreck, it had "good bones," as they say in real estate parlance. Originally it was two separate spaces: a small apartment above and just below, a few steps down from the sidewalk, a barber shop with its own street entrance. The addition of a narrow winding captain’s staircase had turned the units into a duplex or a "maisonette," a micro-house (two hallways on top of each other, according to my brother in Ohio).
What I really liked was the prospect of gutting the place. Where horrified friends saw jerry-rigged cabinets, the ramshackle kitchen, the faux-wood floors, prison-quality bathrooms and wallboard that narrowed the downstairs by nearly a foot, I envisioned a sleek, modern environment.
I emulated those men in Chelsea whose apartments always looked as though they had just been prepped for an Architectural Digest photo shoot. Other than a few books on the coffee table and vases full of flowers, these rooms are as sparse as a hospital room. Somehow, these guys manage to hide everything. The walk-in closet (sigh) consists of perfectly aligned clothes on hangers and neatly packed in boxes - even boxes are stashed away in bigger boxes. Like any good guest, I always make a point of peering into the medicine cabinets when I visit the loo. Judy Garland used to go to parties and pour all the medicine bottles into her purse, no matter the cause or cure. I’m not quite that tacky, but I do gaze admiringly at exquisite rows of cologne lined up like polished chess pieces.
The complex renovation took just under a year, at the end of which I at last had my HGTV-ready apartment. The upstairs became one long room, a living area flowing into a galley kitchen lined with matching cabinets and stainless steel appliances. At the far end is a full bath. The ground-floor level below is another long room with a European-style open full bath on one end and a home-office area, my bed and the door to the street at the other end.
Most important, by widening the footprint at the top of the stairs and converting unused kitchen space, I was able to create a closet upstairs. Small, but a closet. The one downstairs is much larger. In both, the California-style shelving that I installed (badly, I admit) employs every inch.
The only problem was that I have too much stuff. I’m not a hoarder, more of a pack rat. It’s congenital. My mom’s house in Florida is crammed with branded baseball caps, track suits and remaindered books from WalMart. My sister-in-law has given up trying to get my brother to throw out anything. My dad used to pick up discarded rubber bands, saved every delivery box and tore out the unwritten parts of envelopes. To his credit, he only saved things he used - the boxes and rubber bands at his office, the envelopes as scrap paper. My niece and nephew have inherited the curse; both live in glorious squalor.
Bad as my family is, my partner was worse. He managed to save every memento of every vacation. He possessed the same physique - as well as every item of clothing - he had in high school. I inherited all of it and have as much trouble as he had parting with it.
As for me: How can I let go of that unmatched sheet for a single bed? Those crutches from a long-ago accident might come in handy if I break my leg. Who knows when I might go to another military-themed Circuit party?
I have gone on buying jags. When I feared I was balding, I bought more hats than Imelda Marcus had shoes. My soccer shoes are still with me, even though I didn’t play. I will never use those ski poles, since I have to rent equipment at the lift anyway. Kitty litter has lots of uses other than absorbing cat waste. And so what if I look ridiculous in those lounge pants from the 1993 International Male catalog!
In other words, I’m a typical American whose car won’t fit in the garage because he can’t bear to throw anything away. Though I may never wear that Bengal-striped dress shirt from the Calvin Klein outlet, how can I pass up an 80 percent markdown? How can I tell my mom that I never wear the Hawaiian shirts she buys at Goodwill? I remember a friend yelling at me for buying a bathing suit. He: "You already have three square cut bathing suits." Me (cue Lucy Ricardo at the milliner’s): "But this one has a belt."
As if to prove my theory that throwing anything out only leads to problems, "possession editing" was the cause of my current crisis. Having shot my wad from the apartment sale on the renovation, I had to settle for the kind of furniture that you have to assemble while trying to figure out the Swedish-to-English instructions: a poster-board bed with paper-thin shelves that couldn’t house bubble wrap (yes, I save that); a faux-faux pleather chair; and an outdoor garden sofa that I had assumed, wrongly, would be sturdy, if really, really uncomfortable.
After months of indecision, I bought a new bed. It came in just two pieces, assembled by the deliverymen. It has two rows of sturdy drawers - a lot of extra storage in a queen-sized (of course!) frame.
I had a vision of a new sofa - Scandinavian simplicity; dark wood, solid - but I couldn’t find it anywhere. One night, it appeared on the street a few doors down from my building, awaiting the garbage collector’s compactor. It started life as a coffee table, but topped with a custom foam cushion, it’s a good example that, in New York City, one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure. The piece is not only chic but has two large drawers underneath.
The moment of truth, however, didn’t arrive until my makeshift shelving in the upstairs closet collapsed under the weight of blankets, books, holiday cards and old medical equipment.
With my worldly possessions spread around me, I’ve been considering what goes where. And considering. And considering. Shouldn’t the bedding be under the bed? But then, shouldn’t my most-used items be the most accessible? If I put my extra canvas bags in the small upstairs closet, I may never see them again. And on.
Having everything strewn on the floor has made me realize that - gasp! - I have too much crap. I’ve kept several copies of every publication I’ve edited, even though no one has ever asked to see them. I only wear ties to funerals but have two drawers of them. Joke underwear ceases to be funny about one hour after someone has given it to you. Even if I had the wall space I wouldn’t hang reproductions of fine art.
The cold comfort I derive from knowing people who would be even more petrified to make these decisions is the reason everyone loves to watch Hoarders. One friend marveled that I could host 30 people at a brunch. This woman lives in a large one-bedroom apartment that cannot house everything she inherited from her parents. Another woman I know lives in the city but had to buy a car to "commute" to her deceased parents’ home in Connecticut. She’s so paralyzed about throwing any sacred relics that her sister, in disgust, made her buy out her share of the family manse. Last I heard, she was still sifting through books, correspondence, photos and journals.
If, as Rod Stewart sang, "every picture tells a story," so does every broken Ohio blue glass, every colored bandana, every threadbare blanket. Besides, if I threw out all the junk, I’d be left with too much storage. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does a dwelling. In the land of plenty, an empty shelf indicates food rationing, oil embargoes, Warsaw groceries in 1945, Tara after the Yankees got done with it.
I know, I know. I should hire a professional organizer. But I’m too disorganized.