Pack rats squeezed by 'neatness police'

July 02, 2006|by KATE COLEMAN

Uh oh.

A front-page story in last Sunday's edition of The Washington Post reported that a man had filed a federal lawsuit against Arlington County, Va., officials who'd ordered his eviction from his high-rise condominium.

The county's "hoarding task force" had deemed his dwell-ing "Unfit for Human Habitation," and he hasn't lived there since October.

He claims the eviction violates his civil rights.

"This is America," he said. "There's no such thing as the neatness police."

I'll confess to having a greater than average amount of clutter, but this guy's place was considered a hazard to public safety. It was piled with all manner of "rubbish," floor to ceiling with a 15-inch path the only way through.

Researchers have only recently begun to study hoarding and its relation to brain dysfunction or mental illness, according to the Post, but a conservative estimate figures more than 1 million Americans behave this way.


I don't need to see a scientific study to admit to having a bit of a problem, and I can assure you that much of my clutter is embarrassing. It makes me feel crazy, but my good intentions never get it cleared.

A couple of weeks ago the "neatness police" - my daughter, Maggie, and her friend Richard - laid down the law in my basement.

It had contained bits and pieces of more than 30 years worth of my past, things I haven't used or even thought of for ages, items my children outgrew many, many years ago.

Maggie and Richard were assertive but gentle. They made most decisions without my sentimental muddling but did ask me for a verdict on a few items.

They hauled several loads of stuff - toys, games and knickknacks - up the stairs and out to the rescue mission. Old dishes and mugs and other idle household items went. Two Mousetrap games and a menagerie of stuffed animals hit the road.

Maggie's Strawberry Shortcake and my son's Masters of the Universe collections stayed. For now, anyway.

For years I've donated boxes of not-needed-anymore things to a church rummage sale or to local thrift shops. I've long planned to have a yard sale but recently decided I just don't want to deal with it. I'm on a roll toward liberation, and I don't want any delay.

I'm not in danger of having a 6-foot stack of newspapers fall on me, but I've got to let some of the year's old and unread features go - perhaps the papers from before May.

Soon. Promise.

My office is next, and I have to do that myself.

It used to double as a guest room. That was before I stopped working full time and filled the sleeper couch with boxes of files I didn't have time to clear out at the paper - notes from interviews with many of the interesting people I talked to over the years, cards of appreciation and thanks.

My personal bookkeeping stuff - out-of-date receipts, old calendars, decades of canceled checks, bank statements, you name it - will be easy to get rid of. It actually will be fun to use the shredder I bought several months ago.

But I'll have to read through the boxes of letters and notes before deciding their fate.

Somewhere in there is a letter from my fourth-grade teacher, written in her beautiful penmanship on pale yellow stationery scented with her trademark Este-Lauder fragrance, Youth Dew.

There are Mother's Day cards with nursery-school-sized handprints and determinedly scrawled signatures.

Some things are worth keeping.

I did part with a card Maggie and Richard found in the basement. It was one I had given her years ago:

"Happy Birthday to my daughter, the pack rat ... from the Leader of the Pack."

Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail.

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