June 03, 2015

The Junkyard Life

No one would want to live in a junkyard – but homes resemble junkyards and junkyards resemble homes more closely than we would care to admit.

I had a chance to think about this last week when I visited a junkyard. I drove in with an old car that will be sold on as scrap metal. I had a moment to look around while I was there. When you look at the way it really works, a junkyard is not quite what culture and literature tell us it is.

It is true enough that a defining quality of a junkyard is that it is a place to store old equipment whose value has so declined that it is not cost-effective to keep it indoors. The idea of a junkyard, though, is that some of this equipment will be put back to use – not a large fraction, but enough to pay the bills and keep the place operating. Accordingly, junkyards are not packed with old and forgotten stuff, sitting there and rusting away, the way they might appear in movies. Anyway, cars don’t rust the way they used to. At a glance, cars in a junkyard look like they are ready to drive away – and as many of a third of them are in fact fit to drive, at least a short distance at low speeds. The junkyard I visited was packed with cars parked with just enough room to walk between them. When I arrived, there was only enough bare ground to add maybe 20 more cars.

Does that mean this particular junkyard was full and would soon have to stop taking in cars? Of course not! To make sure there is always room for something new, almost every day the junkyard mechanics would pick out one or two cars that had especially low value. These could be cars that were more than 15 years old or were starting to rust, but they could also be cars of a make and model that they had plenty of or ones where the most interesting parts had already been taken out and sold. Workers would remove and dispose of most of the parts and all of the fluids. What was left of the car would be taken away as scrap metal. A junkyard maximizes its inventory and its revenue by keeping as much stuff as it can, throwing away just enough of the least valuable stuff to avoid running out of space.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Look at the business model of a junkyard again: Keep as much as you can. Throw away just enough to avoid running out of space. Isn’t that uncomfortably close to the way people manage their homes? If you are like most people, you wouldn’t say “I have too much stuff” just because you have useless possessions that realistically no one is ever going to use. No, “I have too much stuff” is understood to mean there is not much space left. It is only when you start to feel you are at risk of running out of space that you look at your stuff with a critical eye and take some of it away. Exactly the same way a junkyard does it.

The problem with this approach is obvious enough. The purpose of a junkyard, its business model, its reason for being, is to keep stuff that has a chance of being valuable in the future. But keeping stuff is not, cannot be, the primary purpose of the place where you live. A home has to be a place to live first and foremost. Otherwise, you really could live in a junkyard.

If the problem with keeping as much stuff as space permits is obvious, the answer is equally obvious. Long before you are running out of space, notice which possessions you are using and which you have stopped using. Keep things you will be using in the reasonably near future, and take away most of the rest. It is not really a question of quantity, but of activity. If you are surrounded by your active possessions and those that support you in the action of your life, your life will never feel like a junkyard. But when you hear a voice in your head that says, “keep these things, they might be useful someday,” be careful. That’s the spirit of the junkyard talking to you.

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