Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Buried Alive

In real life, I pay for graduate school by working as the on-site manager of a self-storage facility. It's not a terribly exciting job, but it allows me to work from home and it's generally only busy one week a month (when rent comes due). But the last few days have been livelier than normal, as I've had to spend quite a bit of my time shoveling snow. This isn't an area that gets it very often so hardly anyone has snow tires or chains, and customer after customer has tried to get to their storage unit only to get stuck in a snow drift. Most are here to get Christmas presents out of their units; I suspect many will be back next week with cars full of everything they just replaced. In truth, most of these people were stuck before they even got here.

A couple years back, I spent a week helping build a mission school in southern Mexico and one of our hosts asked what I do for a living. When I told him I manage a mini storage, he had no idea what I was talking about, so I tried to explain: "It's a place where people can keep the stuff that doesn't fit in their house." He gave me a blank look, then asked "Why would anyone need to keep stuff that they can't fit in their house?" I had no answer for him.

Most of the people who rent from us start out while moving. Some need to clear out space while the house is on the market or before they can move into a new one; others need to store their belongings while on a trip or deployment; most figure they will only need the unit for a few months at the most. The trouble is, a substantial number of people who move in for such reasons, never move out. They get into their new house, decide they want to update the furniture, and never empty the storage unit. They buy new clothes, toys and electronics, and shove the old stuff in storage--too valuable to throw or give away, but too old to keep using.

Half of them will end up keeping the unit for years, filled with stuff they have long since replaced with something newer and better. Others dutifully pay rent for units they never even visit. A few stop paying altogether, leaving us with a garage full of old stuff that no one wants or cares about. Sometimes it's junk--cat-scratched furniture and broken-down appliances--but often enough it's just out of date. By law, we have to auction such units off, and we're usually lucky to get $50 for a whole house worth of stuff. No one, it seems, wants old clothes and used furniture. Inevitably, most of it ends up in a landfill.

Yet the cycle goes on, and every month more people fill up their units with their excess, as we all go on buying and buying, burying ourselves under remnants of our corporate consumerism. All of which is to say, though this snow will inevitably melt away, we'll still be buried alive.

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