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Keeping Things (2002)

Keeping Things (2002)

©2002, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2002). Keeping things. Unpublished essay.






Keeping Things

By Dallas Denny


I’m a packrat. There, I’ve admitted it. I’m a packrat.

It’s not that I horde things. Please be clear: I’m not saying I have rooms full of plastic sacks from the grocery or Hefty bags full of plastic six-pack holders and broken-off pull tabs from beer cans or every National Geographic since 1952 or old Popsicle sticks or a big ball of used aluminum foil. No, I just hang onto things, unless they’re broken or never worked properly in the first place.

I was reminded of this tendency today when I went through the drawers of my desk, looking for the Dymo labelmaker I’d not used in ages. Said drawers are full to overflowing, stuffed with a wonderful assortment of things that might be useful around the office, and some that aren’t particularly so. Not long ago, I kept a friend amused during a phone call as I pulled out and made noises with a bicycle horn, a bicycle bell, one of those bells you hit with the palm of your hand just before you call, “Bellhop!”, sleigh bells, a miniature cowbell, jingle bells, a mélange of bell-shaped bells, a tuning fork, a policeman’s whistle, a bosun’s whistle, a slide whistle, and an electric pencil sharpener. By the time I was finished with the sound effects, we were both laughing.

Today, though, I came across small things, old things acquired decades ago that I kept because they’re useful. For instance, there in the second drawer to my left, was my trusty Dymo labelmaker. You remember those— you dial up the letter and squeeze the handle, and repeat until you have spelled something out; then you squeeze lightly to advance the tape and push the button and cut it off.

I hadn’t used the labelmaker in years, but I needed to today to help me sort out the collection of USB cables and DC adapters that give no clue which computer component they’re associated with. It was a handy thing to have at that moment, and it helped to organize my life.

As I looked for the Dymo, I came across other things. There was my trusty, tiny Swingline Tot 50 stapler—and a box of the miniature staples that fit it. I bought it for a dollar or two in the early 1970s, while I was in college, when full-sized staplers were beyond my budget. It always worked perfectly, fastening thick sheaves of papers together, even though it weighs only about an ounce. I also came across a Swingline Cub, which is about half the size of a regular stapler. I have no idea where it came from.

And there was the little set of screwdrivers I paid an entire dollar for, long ago. I’ve used them to take my computer cases apart ever since computers had tubes. Well, not exactly, but I remember using them on my Commodore VIC-20 back in 1981. The screwdrivers still work fine, even though they’ve always had a habit of jumping out of the slots in their little plastic box, making it impossible to close the lid without lining them up again.

In my desk, of course, are the usual office standbys: old pencils, those rubber erasers you stick on when the eraser on the pencil is worn away or hardens with age, large red rubber erases like the one you used in second grade, pens, Magic Markers, thumbtacks, staple removers, push pins, boxes of staples, a dozen types of paper fasteners, Scotch tape, rubber stamps and inkpad. But I come across other things as well: an old notary stamp, architect’s rulers, seven different types of tape, a box of a dozen Chinese folding knives, a receipt book, empty 35 mm film canisters, fingernail and toenail clippers, a nearly empty lipstick, an eyeglass repair kit, a bottle of Joyful Heart essence, whatever that is, safety pins, computer case screws, a loose mouse ball, a measuring tape, a bottle of Parker Super Quink that I’ll have to throw away or sell on eBay because it’s dried up and hardened, rubber cement, inkpads and re-inker, a medicine dropper from an old ink bottle, Rapidograph ink, those round reinforcement holes for notebook paper, three bottles of Elmer’s Glue-All, Elmer’s School Glue, rubber cement, three types of Wite-Out, Wite-Out thinner, matches, jeweler’s loupes, coin tubes, microscope slides, luggage tags, stick-on dots, old bookmarkers, matches, rubber bands in assorted sizes, Crayola crayons, a clipboard, stencils, the slide rule I used in my pre-calculator high school days, and an old-school grocery store price marker, the kind that stamps the prices in ink.

My desk is not my only materials magnet, of course. I have things stashed in other places. There’s the closet. Remember Light Brites? I have one. There’s no telling when I’ll need to spell out SOS on it and direct it toward a passing airplane. There’s a carbide lantern, left over from my spelunking days. In the kitchen I have an icepick, even though there are no more icemen bringing those big blocks of ice that need to be chipped in order to make an iced drink. One never knows when an ice age will hit. In my kitchen I keep things I’ve never used but might find a use for some day— a wooden butter press, for example.

In the drawers under my waterbed I keep remote controls to electronic devices that are long since gone, old sunglasses and sunglass cases, retired wallets, one of those plastic squeeze coin purses, combs I’ll never use because they’re too short, an electric hair crimper, stopwatches, including one that reads in increments of 1/100 minute, a package of 30-year-old Zig Zag rolling papers (don’t ask), an event counter (the kind with a ring for your thumb and a lever you press to increment it, a toothbrush holder that’s too short for today’s toothbrushes, anti-fungus tablets for my waterbed, water purification tablets, a compass, a dozen or so of those tiny little military P-38 can openers, and cameras in obsolete formats—remember 110? Yeah? Remember 635 mm? Didn’t think so. Wait! Here’s my tiny Minox spy camera. I’d forgotten about that.

Uh-oh. I’ve written myself into a corner here. To round out this column, I have no choice but to admit that I have a toy drawer— two, actually. There I keep giveaways from Happy Meals, including Hardee’s California Raisins, a gyroscope, a Duncan top, assorted yo-yos, including one that lights up, cast metal cars, a prism, wind-up toys, a Slinky, an abacus, a fossilized trilobite, Silly Putty, a slingshot, a box of marbles, jacks-and-ball, a kazoo and a jew’s harp, an old Tibetan prayer wheel, a string of firecrackers, a quirt, those candles you can’t blow out, a rubber rat, a rubber snake, a plastic alligator with the manufacturer’s tag still on it, the Domino’s Noid, playing cards, incense, an assortment of those noisemakers that get handed out on New Year’s Eve, a miniature Etch-A-Sketch, X-Ray glasses, a jump rope, an assortment of dice in many shapes (no telling when a game of Dungeons and Dragons will spontaneously erupt), a pair of those rockets you fill with water, pump up, and launch, a cup and ball, a nine-puzzle, a Marine Band harmonica, motors for an Estes rocket, a kaleidoscope, rubber balls, juggling balls, a Superball, a tennis ball, a tattered pre-Ali Cassius Clay hand puppet, and a Magic 8-Ball that has somehow gotten so low on water that it won’t tell fortunes properly and will have to be re-filled or, more likely, retired.

All this isn’t one one-hundredth of what I have stashed around my house. It’s amazing how much debris a human being can collect in 50-some years on a planet filled with gadgets and geegaws. I’ll never get rid of this stuff; it’s full of old memories, and most of it works. I just hope that when I go that little Tot 50 Swingline finds a good home.