In Passing: Throwing Out the Rubbish

When they leave the building, the Boomers will have left a great deal of rubbish behind—all of it collected, or just saved, but much of it without curating—because they refused to part with it, or simply hoarded it all. To be fair, the Boomer intention was not wholly a feeble effort to preserve themselves against their mortality. Some intention was meant to save what was dear to them for its own sake. For that they are forgiven. Sentiment is human. The rest is questionable.

Those collectors who spent thousands of dollars on baseball cards, going to “shows” and haggling over the condition of a card—they are likely damned. How many games did they take their kids to? No, they can’t afford the tickets these days, but they can buy a Hank Aaron rookie card with a little wear for a thousand dollars. Or more!

Oh, I hear their cries even now, before they have even descended the rungs of hell, for in old age, their eyes have abandoned them. Or in the case of the record collectors, their hearing is gone. Comic books, ditto. And books, dear books: saved, unread, collected for their investment value, their contents lying neglected.

Why? How many morning breezes were never felt as these addled fools huddled over their precious collections? How many neighborhood baseball games went unplayed at the park? How many friendships lost, or never begun? How many chances at love were missed, or a child’s first words never heard? What conversations were never had, or arguments never made? 

You say you never knew your dad, but you have a Pickwick Papers with the imperfect title on page 375. Just so.

Not all Baby Boomers were profligate collectors of things. Some saved their money for a rainy day. They never made it to their grandfathers’ villages in Ireland, but we can hope they made their wills. (Probate is another form of hell). Some collected nothing but opinions. We certainly know them. But in the course of their manias, ranting eloquently at television screens, they failed not just the world they lived in, but even themselves. And, after all, their greater dereliction was to the future.

For instance, the bibliomaniac will tell you that he is playing a key role in preserving the great literature of the world. Oh, it’s not just about the money, he protests. He may not know who Mrs. Bardell was but wait! While he was busy collecting, a world that appreciates such literature has been dying from neglect. What good is saving books if there is no one to read them? Did he read to his children every night? Did he share their enthusiasm for Jane Austen, or Tom Wolfe, or Thornton Wilder? A music collector once bragged to me about his near-complete collection of Blue Note records, in the same breath he bemoaned the dying interest in Jazz. He saw no contradiction. I asked him if he had someone to pass his collection on to. No. He had not seen his son since the divorce many years before.

And, of course, there was always television. Some families ate in front of the tube. Now they can argue about the name of Beaver Cleaver’s dog. They know how many times Patrick McGoohan appeared on Columbo, but they don’t know who their congressman is. They have collected the trivia of a popular culture that is already the bane of the current generation, but they never learned to play the piano, or cook, or plant a good garden, much less taught such things to the next generation. But then, in this case at least, their collection will not have to be disposed of. It will leave the building with them.

Recently, I asked a fellow who was buying a first edition Stephen King for several hundred dollars what his other favorite horror writers were. He stammered and finally came out with the name of someone who had collaborated with King on something. I asked him what his favorite King title was. He stammered again. Finally, he admitted he didn’t read them. He collected them, and he watched the movies. But his collection is worth a great deal, he said.

In the course of my occupation, I come across the unintended collections of families from many years ago. They are usually well-read and often carry the names of several generations on the endpapers. The handwriting alone bears witness to a level of care—there is the awkward script of “Alice” when she was a girl, and in another, the deliberate signature of a young woman, and then the casual mark of a mother, and then the more difficult hand of a grandmother. But in noting the titles and authors themselves, I can see other intentions. This title, but not that, for instance. Very few authors merit more than their best work, and that being the judgment of a careful reader and not a public critic. Lesser titles were long since given away. These are not the sorts of collections that should be lost. They are a heritage. I have often learned to appreciate authors in that way who have been sorely missed by our modern age of empty values.

The person selling me the books—a relative, or in-law—tells me she is cleaning out the house the family lived in, so that it can be sold. Anything I don’t buy will end up in the dump. I am immediately disheartened. Are there no children or grandchildren, I ask? Yes, but they don’t read. They don’t care. Despite the number of times that I have seen it before, I am aghast again. But, I say, look! This is a record book of a ship that served in World War II! Whose name is this: Ensign Herold Smith? Oh, that was Alice’s husband. He worked at the post office, but he’s been dead for many years. And who is Douglas? That was Alice’s son. An uncle. He died in Vietnam. Where are the grandchildren? The woman looks at me, nonplussed. She’s doing what she can. Really. She lives in an apartment now. She is alone. She has no place to store all this crap, and no one wants to help . . . I see.

Again. In a world of diminished expectations, where visions of a home one day have been reduced to two bedrooms and a small patio, there is no room for all of this. A few pieces of Ikea are easier to deal with than those old antiques. 

Is this particular granddaughter responsible for a nation that taxes away the wealth of its middle class? Did she set the standards of disposable marriages and fewer children so mom could get the satisfaction of working in an office cubicle for a multinational corporation? Is she at fault for a system of values geared to the efficiency of the machine?

To be human is to cherish what makes us human. Not to collect, but to preserve and pass on what was worth the time of your life. Is that now a thing of the past?

So, we have begun the generations without family homes. Generations of renters. Homes bought for market value. No room for piles of crap. We move on. All the Baby Boomer accumulations must go. 

The best offer will be accepted.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

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