Take my basement, please

November 10, 2012



My sister- and brother-in-law live in a fine old farmhouse that I secretly covet.

I like it for a lot of reasons, but primarily this: it doesn’t have a basement.

Their place was built in the 19th century, back when men where men and canning vegetables was something you did because you needed food for the winter, not because you read in Toronto Life magazine that it was trendy.

Back then, houses didn’t need basements. They just needed a solid, flat foundation. Then somehow the housing industry convinced us we needed extra space in our homes, a whole floor below ground, just to store our junk.

You know the expression: one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. And if he’s married and has a basement, he probably has an awful, awful lot of treasure. It just kind of piles up.

Chances are, for most of us with basements at least a portion of that space looks like it belongs on the TV show Hoarders. If you haven’t seen it, Hoarders brings television crews and psychologists into the homes of people who are drowning in junk.

It’s a depressing show, mostly because many of us are only about five years away from having that TV crew show up on our doorsteps.

In my house, our basement is where stuff goes to die. We have boxes stacked on shelves that we haven’t opened since we moved in two and a half years ago. There are probably Christmas lights and ornaments that archaeologists will discover 200 years from now, still in the package.

Go down there and you find yourself overwhelmed: Where did all this stuff come from? Who bought all this? Why is there a pair of ski boots over there? No one in this house even skis! Why do we have three microwaves? How many unused end tables does one family need?

I understand that life gets busy. Unlike public schools teachers, most of us can’t cut out extracurricular activities — they’re doing it for the students! — so our junk piles just get neglected. But we grow our collection of stuff with a dedication that defies reason.

Our basement has become the black hole for our junk — and the extended family’s junk, too, once they learned we had one. Oh yes, Aunt Bertha, we’d love to have your collection of teacups featuring pictures of Yorkshire terriers! What’s that? A box full of Halloween-themed lanterns that don’t work anymore? Send that, too!

That’s why I love living in a university town.

Say what you will about the college students we share our neighbourhoods with, personally, I’m jealous of how empty their homes are — there’s nothing cluttering up the space like dandelions that won’t stop spreading. They’ve paired down living to the fundamentals: a mattress, maybe a dresser, a sofa and a kitchen table.

They don’t clutter their homes with all the unnecessary things other adults do: table runners, hutches, floor lamps, ottomans, chinaware, silverware, Tupperware, decorations, wreaths, floor rugs, crystal sets, toaster ovens, exercise bikes. On and on.

No, they live with a refreshing Spartan ethic that breeds innovation. Need curtains? These bed sheets will do nicely. No chairs? Pull up one of those comfortable milk crates.

You’ve got to admire how simply many university students live. They just need a roof over their head, some cheap grub, and if they’re female, a pair or two of black tights. Throw in a pair of skinny jeans for the guys and they’re set for the year.

When I moved to Ontario, my life’s possessions fit in the back of a Toyota Corolla. Somehow, my junk grew to fill an apartment, then a house with a basement and shed. With every move, my junk pile moved with me — and it grew and grew.

But the next time we move, I’ve got a plan to lose some of that junk. I’ll be looking for an old farmhouse. And it better not have a basement.

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