It Could Always Be Worse

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Low-Maintenance Living

Okay, maybe you’ve come to the conclusion that you are an out-of-control clutterbug. Maybe you’re even feeling bad about how bad your clutter is. But don’t feel bad on my account. How ever high your clutter is stacked, I’ll bet I’ve seen worse.

As a professional organizer, I’ve seen it all. Eventually clutter reaches the point where it sends the owner (and perpetrator) into an immobilizing coma. That’s when they call me, the ultimate Clutterbuster. I’ve seen some mountains of clutter that looked insurmountable. But even the worst cases can be fixed. Let me tell you about some of my more memorable clients.

Francis and 11cr Fright Room Francis is one of my favorite clients. Married to a famous musician, she does her best to be the perfect wife and mother, but clutter keeps getting the better of her. Papers, toys, photographs (she’s a photo nut), records, tapes, CDs, and assorted memorabilia start to pileup the second she turns away from it. In desperation, she throws the stuff into an unused bedroom that has been dubbed the “Fright Room.”

When a family member starts looking for something among the clutter, they pray that it didn’t get dele gated to the fright room, because once something disappears in there, it might as well be gone forever. Fright room clutter is allowed to accumulate until it's chin-high and getting into the room is unthinkable. Then Francis calls me. I do battle with Francis’s fright room fairly regularly, and her family is always happy to see me coming up the walk.

A Moving Experience

One of my nicest clients was Artie, who had a moving experience with me. His house was being renovated, and his architect kept insisting that he move his furniture, art collection, and other belongings out of the house. Artie stalled until he could stall no longer. Finally, he called me and I moved Artie’s stuff out of the house and into storage. I had to hire a special crew to pack and move the art. Another crew packed everything else. Moving men moved everything except the art (which got moved first). During that week, Artie would periodically pop in long enough to wail, “How did I accumulate all of this stuff?”

He’d write out checks and beat a hasty retreat, leaving me to continue packing, logging, and storing his things. Artie was the most cooperative client I’ve ever worked with — he couldn’t get away from the scene of the clutter fast enough. Arid he had a sense of humor, which was good, because all told, the move to storage cost him over $10,000, and subsequent storage costs are running in the neighborhood of $1000 per month. That’s not all. The architect keeps changing the date when Artie can move back in, so it looks like it will be at least eight months instead of five months before Artie can ransom his things out of storage and spend another $10,000 or so to move back in. He’ll call me to do it, I know, and then he and I will get to have another moving crew – and go through the hassle … again!

Susan and Her Storage Units

Susan is an upstanding member of Beverly Hills whose name (along with her husband’s) is often in the society columns. Money is no object for Susan, so she buys whatever she wants whenever she wants. This buying frenzy manifests itself daily, either by going to shops, ordering from catalogs, or having merchandise delivered for her perusal. But once she’s purchased these things, she doesn’t know where to put it all. Never one to let something like clutter stand in her way, Susan simply shifted to storage. As new merchandise came in, she had other household items put in a self-storage unit. Eventually, she had seven units (in addition to her very large Beverly Hills casa), and duplications all over the place. She would buy a new comforter, even though there were already three in storage. Or, if she was a little disappointed in the color of something she ordered from a catalog, she’d send it to storage for use “later.” Susan called me to inventory everything in storage units and keep track of it — an ongoing process since Susan was forever sending or retrieving something to or from storage. The most incredible thing about Susan and her storage units was that she managed to juggle all of this clutter on an almost daily basis, at the cost of thousands of dollars per month, without her husband ever knowing about it. After a couple of years, her husband did start to wonder about where the money was, and Susan decided to bite the bullet and have a giant garage sale. She located an empty two-story house to display her clutter so she could sell it. There was so much, the house was full. She hired people to come in and run the sale. I figure the cost of her clutter, plus the storage units, plus me to keep it all organized, plus the people to run the sale, minus the money she took in on the sale, probably left her about twenty thousand dollars in the hole. I haven’t heard from her since the sale, but I’ve got a feeling the clutter habit will kick back in any day now, and she’ll start ordering storage units again. That’s the day Susan will pick up the phone and dial my number. It will be just like old times.

Hilda and the Health Department

When Hilda called me, she said it was because she had heard me speak at a function she’d attended. But when I saw Hilda’s house, I knew the real reason. Although she denied it, I knew somebody had called the health department. Clutter in boxes, bags, piles, and stacks covered Hilda’s two bedroom house from one end to the other. A path had been maintained to get from room to room, and that was it. Rat droppings covered the kitchen counters, the floors around the baseboards, and even her bed. There were holes in the wall, and mildew permeated the air. The windows had to be forced open so we could get some air. The family room, which lead to the breezeway, was impassable, Her daughter came by after we cleared that room and was so delighted that she could see the piano (for the first time in years) that she immediately sat down and played for us. The breezeway had clutter, including things like a kitchen sink, piled to the ceiling. It was a terri1 sight indeed. And the garage was not much better. We did what we could for Hilda. Over the many days that we were there, she kept insisting that someone else, not she, had made this mess. In the end, even this professional organizer had her limit. We didn’t go near the breezeway.

Pat the Pack Rat

Pat, like so many other clutterbugs, saved everything. She had cartons and piles of things all over the house. Her bathroom was jam-packed with bottles and jars of potions — ten bottles of the same shampoo and fourteen tubes of toothpaste—and her kitchen was no better. Dozens and dozens of exotic spices and bottles of cleaning fluids I had never heard of were in every cabinet. Her clothes went back decades and four sizes. She Saved herbs and twigs, old catalogs, papers, cards, you name it. Even though this woman refused to get rid of anything, we went in and organized her. At the end of the day, she’d put on gloves and go through the garbage to reassure herself that I had not thrown away something important. She even kept her cat’s whiskers as they fell (naturally) off his fuzzy little face. I bagged, tagged, boxed, filed, and in general, organized everything for this woman. It took us ten days to do her house. When we were finished, the difference was so astonishing that she had a party for her friends to Show off her newly organized habitat.

Julie’s Twelve-Year Time Capsule

Julie is a wife and mother of the first order. She lives with her doctor husband, two perfectly behaved children, and an adorable pet dog in a large house situated on a beautifully wooded lot in Connecticut. This picturesque setting began to tilt when Julie became so busy that she more or less stopped getting rid of as much as she might have and gradually gave up the concept of household organization altogether. Time passed and Julia’s clutter grew. Several key areas in the house were clutter-choked, particularly the pantry (no one had seen the floor of the pantry in years), the kitchen counters, the bathroom, the closets, and every available surface in the master bedroom. Julie’s family loved her—of that there was no doubt—but making their way through the clutter on a daily basis was becoming too much. When her husband decided to add a new wing onto the house, he put his foot down. Julie’s clutter problem would not, under any circum stances, be permitted to move into the new space. Since part of the new space included a master bedroom, it was clear that Julie would need help figuring out what could be moved into the new bedroom from the old bedroom and how to organize everything else that had been clogged with clutter. She told herself she was ready to get organized for the new wing. But she also told herself she was ready because it was the best thing to do for her family. The clutter was driving them crazy, and even though the clutter really didn’t bother her, she decided to do whatever was necessary to give her loved ones some relief.

Julie, like so many other people who call me, had a bit of a problem accurately describing the scope of her clutter. Based on her verbal description and a few snapshots she sent me, I thought that perhaps five days would get her house in order. I was more than a little surprised to discover that over the years, Julie had stored up what amounted to a virtual clutter time-capsule. Things seemed to go back ten to twelve years everywhere we looked and in every room of the house. There was a closet full of eight-year- old maternity clothes; there was a pair of two-toned purple suede platform shoes that were at least twelve years old if they were a day. There were monster piles of clutter in the bathroom (“hid den” under sheets and towels) that featured makeup of every description in various stages of years-old decay. The children’s toys had been kept in perpetuity since babyhood in the downstairs rec room (the kids were now nine and eleven years old). And everywhere were papers, papers, papers. Receipts, scraps with phone numbers on them, old school schedules, newspaper clip pings, stacks and stacks of catalogues, hundreds of clipped recipes all co-mingled everywhere (in every room) with coupons and money-saving box tops that had been clipped and cut years ago and never redeemed.

Julie and I dived into the clutter. I was determined, and she was committed. By the time the week was over, we had filled thirty-two of the largest trash bags available and put together a good three carloads of stuff to go to charity. In only one week, Julie and I ruthlessly weeded out and organized her clutter. Julie heroically let go of an enormous amount of ancient clutter, and she did it virtually cold turkey. But it was tough. The hardest day for me was when we started finding, among other things, the hundreds of pieces of paper in the pantry and then the bathroom (those are not your normal places for stashing paper, after all). It was then that I knew that there was no way we would be able to go through and organize all twelve years’ worth of paper along with all of the other clutter that needed to be dealt with. (In the end, we boxed what paper we couldn’t go through, and I went back later to help her tackle those leftover papers). Every single day was tough for Julie. She worked non-stop for six to eight hours each day. We barely stopped to eat. She threw or gave away things that I know made her heart and stomach ache. The day I suggested she let her children decide which, if any, baby toys they wanted to hang onto was probably her worst day. With trembling hands, she allowed the children to make their choices. They gave almost all of the outdated toys away, and I saved a small selection of the toys for mom. I know she died a little bit that day, but she did it for her family. They just couldn’t take the clutter any more. Her husband called me the Mother Theresa of organizing, but in my guide, she was the most courageous client I’ve ever met.

And there’ve been others. I’ve worked with small businesses that were started by some geniuses who thought all they needed to be successful were great ideas and relatives to answer the telephones. I’ve organized the paperwork for divorce cases, for property transactions, investments, and lawsuits. I’ve straightened out the bills as well as the personal paperwork for clients. I’ve tackled clutter in closets and garages, and I’ve worked for all types of people. I’ve heard and seen it all.

My experiences have taught me that certain principles apply to all clutter and that one pack rat is pretty much like another pack rat, give or take a few idiosyncrasies I know, for example, that it's unrealistic to expect clutterbugs to get rid of all of their clutter. People aren’t willing to take everything and chuck it into the trash just because someone else tells them to. So I don’t tell people to throw away their clutter, though, I may strongly suggest it, but the decision is up to the clutter’s owner, not to me.

If you are ready to start making some decisions and taking action with your Own clutter, a good starting point is the Ten Commandments on Clutter.

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