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Fear and Loathing in Public Storage

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It was only supposed to last a month. Two, tops, if I really couldn’t get my shit together on the apartment hunting front. The plan made perfect sense to me: I’d couch surf with my friend Baily for whatever time it took, and when that was over — optimistically, end of November 2013 — I’d return to Unit 395 at Venice Public Storage to reclaim the stuff I’d very carefully shoved and thrown in a month earlier. A temporary vacation for all my worldly possessions, and a great series of spooky Instagrams to boot. And the first month was just a dollar*! I was scamming Public Storage, I was in control, I was a winner.

*plus insurance and account opening fees and “green credits” so, you know, way more than a dollar

Five months and somewhere in the neighborhood of $1100 later I finally loaded up the last of my furniture into a medium-load Uhaul and signed the closing paperwork that said no, I never cooked meth in my storage unit. Over the previous week or so I’d been making quick trips to grab smaller items that I’d…well, failed to properly pack in the first place. Duffel bags full of liquor. Beach chairs. A VCR. Fireworks. But now, box spring and mattress tossed in the back of the truck, I was finally sealing the door for real on this unique chapter of my life.

When I sit down in some distant, future-panted future to start penning my memoirs (title TBD) I’ll inevitably refer to those five months as my “dark period” or “the wilderness months” or something equally melodramatic. In many ways they really did suck! For the bulk of that time I was, in fact, sleeping on a couch — a too-small couch — in the middle of my friend’s living room. What little clothing I’d taken with me was tucked in a hallway closet. I had my computer and some cereal bars, the important stuff, but the rest of my clothing/books/vestiges of civilized life was in storage. I paid rent, effectively a monthly self-esteem payment, but you could still conservatively say that I was slumming it.

Every so often I’d return to Unit 395 to grab a stray item, usually a shirt I wanted to wear or, like, one tie. Knowing how my mind works, I was able to pinpoint the item’s location pretty effectively. (It just made sense to look for that pair of flip-flops behind the love seat, because of course that’s where I’d put them.) These trips didn’t exactly thrill me, for a few reasons.

FIRST: have you ever been to a storage facility? They’re depressing in every way, from the conceptual (people organizing stuff they don’t need) to the practical (locks and locks and locks and key codes and locks). They’re all long, echoing hallways that scream “hospital” but are of course devoid of any human activity. Or mostly devoid, considering…

SECOND: Venice Public Storage is to many of its patrons a YMCA. I was genuinely surprised to find more than a few of the units on my floor occupied by men who’d just…hang out there all day. Reading old, old newspapers. Rearranging collections of items I didn’t want to know more about. One guy one time was blasting Of Monsters and Men’s “Dirty Paws” from a portable speaker and I momentarily lost complete touch with reality.

THIRD: Storage units are basically mirrors, reflecting back at you not only the contents you fill them with, but also the time or circumstances under which you did so in the first place. For me, 395 was a unit that I sort of frantically — without any sort of a plan — threw shit into. It was a monument to desperation. And so going back there…I mean, I never wanted to go back. Even on the final excavation, when I knew I was moving into a better and healthier environment, I couldn’t shake the purposelessness that filled that space. With any luck, Public Storage invoked some Native American purification ritual on the unit just after I left.

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But good and unexpected things also happen when you’re divested of all your dumb shit! You realize, days in…that you don’t need most of it. Not your PS3. Not your DVD collection. Even the books that you’d taken such insane care to put away start to feel unnecessary. Why have you held onto Ulysses for ten years? You will never in your life read it! And that’s not only okay; it’s beautiful. When you’re not surrounded by books, it turns out, you can’t feel bad about not reading them. You’re FREE. Today, four weeks after finally removing those books from storage, they still sit in boxes. I may never open them. I may never read another book for the rest of my life.

It took me two weeks after leaving Public Storage to finally get my bed fully assembled. There was an issue with the new frame my friend had bequeathed me, but an issue resolved by a quick drive back to his place. Missing slats. Eventually I got them from him, but for that first stretch at the new place — 27 minutes by car from Venice Public Storage — I once more slept on an undersized couch. It felt normal somehow. Remember when Tom Hanks returns home at the end of Castaway and is so unnerved by the trappings of normal life that he ends up sleeping on the floor next to his bed? That was me, in Beverly Hills adjacent.

I don’t know if there’s a message or a lesson in any of this. Divest yourself of material possessions for a while to learn something new about yourself? Understand that you are not  your obvious collection of Kurt Vonnegut novels, or that crappy “Starry Night” you painted on a Wine & Canvas date two years ago? It’s life, not a story — there’s only so much you can take away from it before you’re re-shaping the narrative.

BUT I do think there’s something to be said for packing all your shit up and throwing it into a bleak, definition-less room. You get to really look at it, this ostensible accumulation of YOU, and ask — is this me? Do I want to continue being this person? Or can I see, with all the clarity that comes from this 10×10 space and the lightbulb dangling ominously in the center of it, that it’s time for something new?

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