Leftovers in Living
PROBABLY the only man who never made a practice of keeping things year after year, which might or might not come in handy some time, was Robinson Crusoe. And he does n’t deserve the credit for this seeming hardihood of character: fate really was the factor which decided for Robinson that he should give up every bauble and trinket. Noah had two of everything, — really piggish of him, in a sense, — and between these two poles are to be found all of us.
How many times have we stood before some bit of furniture, picture, or what not, and had to decide whether we should keep it or not. Perhaps we were moving into a smaller dwelling, and found that a dear davenport would make living in the future one tortuous twisting. So we stand looking at it — wondering. Then memory begins to play us strange tricks. How many fine old friends have sat upon it, how many pleasant chats were held within its hearing. We get sentimental about it, swear that never, never shall we part with it — and send it away to a storage warehouse.
Letters are terrible things to cast one into interminable quandaries. There arc those charming long ones we get from Aunt Mary, who lives in the country and who knows how to tell of all the little happenings so vividly and interestingly. Every time we get one we read it over once, chuckle at half a dozen good things, and promptly save it. After carrying it around in a coat pocket, we put it in a corner of the desk, with others of its kind which some day will be taken out and read again.
Of course, the day never comes; we are so infernally busy, and the old letters wait in their pigeonhole — aging and growing yellow. But another day does come when we have to decide whether to keep the million or so letters we have on hand, or move into a more commodious place. Then there is nothing to do but burn them and stay where we are, or keep them and change our address.
I once knew a man who had saved every letter he had ever received. His correspondence, eliminating the advertisement end of it, might not have impressed one as voluminous. His relatives wrote him every Christmas and on his birthdays, and on other gala occasions. Yet even these birthday and Christmas letters, when collected and saved year after year — well, the accumulation was absolutely staggering. But he was no mean saver, this man. He kept the advertisements as well. If you ask him why he keeps them, he just nods his head wisely, as if he had some secret information along the line of amassed correspondence, and says, ‘Well, I might need them some day.’
Medicines are almost as bad as letters. Nobody can bear to throw away any medicine; at least, I have never heard of anybody who has done it. Even special prescriptions for special ailments, which will never come again, are kept. Pills might come from the South African diamond mines for all the care people bestow on them, hoarding them year after year. On all these little round boxes is a message. ‘Take one before meals,’ it says. That is all. We have n’t the least idea what it is for, unless we have thought to write more descriptively on it somewhere ourselves. All we know is that, if the enclosed pills are taken, one before meals, something may be cured. So we keep the little boxes in the medicine cabinet as time rolls on.
We even have arguments about them regarding their true nature. We come down with a slight cold and decide we ought to take something. Into the medicine cabinet we plunge and pore over all the bottles and pill-boxes. As we remember, the special box we are looking for, which we had during our last cold the preceding February, was a black one, and the pills were a sickly white in color and must be taken one every three hours. But no, somebody in the house says those arc not for colds, but were for the dog when he had the colic. They get us another box, which looks just like it on the outside but which contains some surprising-looking pills of a violent red shade. We are about to take one when another member of the family comes up and asks us, — rather hurt he is, too, — why we are taking his pills for rheumatism.
After this there is only one thing to do. Get another box from the druggist for your cold — a box which you will file away with its companions in the medicine chest. We mark it with a cross, so that we shall know later on that it is for colds — but by the time we get another cold we shall have forgotten what the mark meant and have to begin all over again.
Many people simply cannot bear to throw away clothes. So far as we know the cycles in clothing never whirl around again and hit us in precisely the same way. Why a man should want to hoard all the old trousers and hats he has ever worn is a mystery. A more unsentimental thing than either a pair of trousers, even of passionate hue, or a derby hat, would be hard to discover. Yet many men have scores of such articles.
Women especially have an uncontrollable mania for keeping things hoarded in trunks and dark cardboard boxes. We stand back in silent reverence for anybody who has a real sentiment over an old wedding-dress, or something of that nature. That can be understood, appreciated. But any woman who could have a true and tender sentiment about all the things she had in her attic would be — well, much too sentimental.
And we know it is n’t sentiment because we ‘ve listened. They delve into one of their unfathomable cardboard boxes and fish out an emerald green ostrich feather of tremendous size. They hold it up to the light, run it through their fingers, then apparently go into a sort of trance. ‘Now what could I use that for? Of course it could n’t be dyed anything but black, and black is n’t being worn. I wonder if — But no, it is entirely too garish as it is. Still, one does see them — Now, perhaps with white satin and a little ornament — Hum — ‘ That is n’t sentiment.
It would seem as if the attics and cellars must have reached the bulging point of saturation by this time, could hold no more; but the automobile has made its demands on the dark niches as it has made other demands. We started in years ago with a small car when quaintness ruled the fashion in cars. We eventually wore it out — or it wore us out — and we had to part with it.
There were many precious things on that car, special contrivances which we had bought or, perhaps, had had made, and there seemed no good reason why these should be thrown in with the departing machine. We would keep them and perhaps use them on a future car. So we gathered all the extra sparkplugs, inner tubes, shoes, special wrenches, and miscellany, which were not actually a necessary part of that car. Purists in conscience would call it stripping a car, but that is really splitting a hair. They had not come with the car when we purchased it so why should they go away with it? These things were carefully cleaned and filed away in some safe place. Then we bought another car.
This one was of a totally different kind in size and character. The sparkplug thread was metric gauge instead of the other possible one — sure to be. The tires were much larger in circumference and diameter, and therefore our salvaged treasures of rubber were of no value. The special wrenches could be used nowhere on this new car unless as hammers; and we had two hammers, so these were not needed. In fact, not a blessed item of the first car would fit anything on the second one.
It was disappointing, and we felt quite cast down about it for a time. But then a bright thought struck us: this was by no means the end of cars; in another year we might have still a different car, and some of these things would have to fit; it would be beyond the limits of reason to believe that two cars would be foreign in every part to our savings. So we kept right on saving them. Not only that, but the second car accumulated some leftovers, and when that was sold we had two separate sets of accessories. We could now reasonably aspire to cope with anything in the automotive line and put our spare parts to good use.
This third car was what is called a special one. That is, the factories build them according to their own designs and, with evil cunning, put in threads and dimensions that nothing can fit save their own brand. Bolts were purposely inserted everywhere of a thread not recognized by the people who make bolts. Consequently, when we needed a new bolt we had to send to the special factory and get its special bolt — and pay a special price for it.
We had two sets of spare accessories now — and a third car. Nothing salvaged from the first two cars would fit anything on the special third car. It had been a waste of time and energy to save them apparently. But we held on grimly; sometime we would get a car that would take some of these things and be glad to get them. It even occurred to us that it would be a splendid idea to buy a fourth car some day — with all our present store of parts in mind.
But somehow or other we never do get a car that will utilize these leftovers. One year, tires of enormous circumference and slender diameter are the thing. Then the next season the tire-makers go quite mad over things that look like big rubber doughnuts, hardly any hole and mostly tire. When they don’t do something of this sort, they start fooling with the rims and put a brand-new bead on, to confuse everybody.
Other things go out of style. We saved some beautiful leather straps with polished brass buckles from our first car. These held the wind-shield taut; at least that is what they were made for. Black leather and shining brass! We folded these in flannel and waited for a chance to use them. No car since then has had a place for them. They simply are n’t used — that ‘s all.
One thing I have kept to the last; perhaps I should have mentioned it first, because it is a mystery, and mystery makes for suspense, and suspense will make any paper simply irresistible. This last thing is the collection of articles, or parts of articles, which gave the word ‘miscellaneous’ its name. You will find this collection in a drawer somewhere in the house. It has been years in the collecting. No human being has ever found a use for more than half of one per cent of the things in it. He never will. They are things too valuable to throw away — and of no use whatever to retain.
Bits of old wire, a flat-iron handle with a piece gone from one corner; a part of an imposing gas-light fixture; a once gorgeous pipe-case which held a quaintly designed carved pipe, now broken; one end of a curtain rod; two padlocks, the keys of which are missing; a bit of what is supposed to be part of the good ship Cristobal Colon which came to an untimely end in the Spanish-American War; a souvenir showing how much art a penman could put on a bit of birch bark and dating back to the World’s Fair at Chicago; a china mug, on which in Old English is the sentimental phrase ‘To A Friend’; an eraser got up to resemble a bullet. To go on enumerating the articles in this collection would be a cataloguer’s job. It is a staggering lot. Why such things are saved, nobody knows.
Once in perhaps a lifetime, a collector of this sort of thing finds a use for one of the items. A worst twist of fate could hardly happen. It is just that little coincidence that makes people go on hoarding up unintrinsic treasures. They remember it.
We speak of a saving grace, but there is also a saving nuisance.