Today I dropped off three boxes of outgrown clothes: toddlers’ tops and pants, girls’ size-six summer stuff, and boys’ size-twelve shorts and tee-shirts. I didn’t shed a single tear. My secret, you ask?
Arm’s length. I’m a professional packer-upper. My number is posted in the drop-off zones of every school and daycare in the city. Feeling overwhelmed? Are your children in college yet you still can’t bear to part with the first communion dress? Is your great-aunt long gone but you still have her trousseau smelling of lavender and mothballs? Who ya gonna call? A packer-upper.
I’m pushing fifty. I wear camo. I wear tough lightweight boots and pants with twenty pockets, each pocket packed with exactly what I need. My shirtsleeves are rolled. Underneath is a lacy push-up bra.
I’ve lived in two military conflict zones, have escaped from forest fire once, and deadly floods twice. I’ve learned to have sex standing up because the bedroom’s too destroyed to use. I’ve learned to live in the moment and flee a place forever. When it comes to worldly belongings, I’ve learned to be ruthless.
After I came to America, I worked as a consultant at Customized Closets. I gravitated to Step One, packing up the old stuff. You might think that packer-uppers are needed most by the elderly and those considerate folks doing Swedish death-cleaning. Or by rampant consumerists who’ve suddenly converted to Kondoism. Or shopaholics whose garages are filled to bursting with cans of Chunky Beef Stew and brand-new camping gear and twenty-nine packages of DIY Kitchen Spice Gardens because Price Club was having a sale.
No, it’s the parents who demand my services. Parents whose children are changing day to day so miraculously that they can’t even open the kids’ sock drawers without being felled by nostalgia’s axe.
Last week, I was packer-upper for a mover. That’s right, a big, muscular guy, a dad whose day-job involves going into a home, packing each room, and transporting the load to a new city at the employer’s expense.
“My job’s a piece of cake,” he said. He meant it required no curation. He just had to pick the stuff up, bring it from A to B. He cried when I told him his kid’s size-six soccer uniform had to go. “Ever seen your kid score the tiebreaker?” he said.
That’s nice, I told him, but every item of kid’s clothing, once worn, has special juju and he couldn’t keep arguing this was unique and that was an heirloom. “You hired me to help you downsize.” Look at it as “clearing the closet for bigger and better accomplishments,” I said.
Before that, I was a packer-upper for a famous fashion designer. Her kids had only hand-made clothes, many made by grand-maman, and of course the famous fashion designer wanted to keep every piece. “These must go,” I said.
“I will fire you,” she said.
“If haute couture is too easily available,” I warned her, “they’ll treasure off-the-rack for its rarity.”
She let me stay.
Before that, I was packer-upper to a guy who was a repo man. Twenty boxes of other people’s stuff tossed out on the lawn—fine by him. But the baptismal gown of his little princess?
* * *
I acted as a volunteer packer-upper before I left my country of birth, when the hostilities were intensifying. I helped recent widows, clueless orphans, and freshly bombed-out homeowners. I helped refugees fleeing to the west and to the north. And of course my own family, telling each of my six siblings “one knapsack, that’s all.” I took my father by the hand to his room. I opened the closet door and said, “Pretend you are Mother, how would she pack your suitcase?” He packed so fast we even had time to take Mother’s favorite hat, the one with the green feather, to the graveyard, spike it to her marker, and say a prayer before we left. Maybe someone stole her hat later. It was very nice.
Papa had one more request before we left the country. “I want us all to go say farewell to my mother,” he said but that was one thing I had to refuse. Grandmother was staying underground, in an unused subway tunnel where many of the people from her retirement home were sheltering. They didn’t have the stamina to march for days to get to the border, so they were living like mice in the big echoing tunnel. “No, Papa,” I said, “I cannot be confined.” I quivered with instincts for escape. Running, fighting, bribing: yes to all these. But no to burrowing. “Don’t box me in,” I said.
I blame this on Uncle Lucky.
* * *
My first professional gig was packing up stuff for my mother’s oldest brother. He would have become a subsistence farmer except that geologists discovered mineral deposits in his field. So Uncle Lucky took a diploma in mining technology, mortgaged the farm to buy a Kobelco digger and started his own mine. You can do that when you are first-born son and your name is Lucky. The minerals were rare-earth elements, which are vital to certain alloys and catalysts. Rare-earth elements are crucial in creating permanent magnets, which are part of the future with smart phones, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and magneto-levitating rail lines. “Maglev uses two sets of magnets,” he told me, “one set to repel the train from the track, and the other set to move the train ahead. It’s all frictionless.” Something in real life that was frictionless? Sounded too good to be true. But I knew he kept up-to-date on science news.
Back to Lucky’s mine. The small operation kept getting bigger. He hired professional engineers but sometimes Mother Nature threw a curveball. Sometimes he needed someone young, strong, and not inclined to ask questions. I became the favorite niece.
Early one morning Uncle Lucky drove me to the mine, along with two trusted members of his crew. We met no-one else on the road except an ambulance driving with its lights off. The mine was located on a hill without trees, a hill whose top was cut off, like a soft-boiled egg and the idea is you stick a spoon down into the yolk. Way, way down in this case. The top of the mine was dark and foreboding. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” I joked.
Nobody cracked a smile; it was like we didn’t speak the same language. We donned hardhats and coveralls and got into the mine elevator, which was big enough and strong enough to transport a truck, although it was empty when we got on.
We stopped two storeys down and got a reading on air quality. I could see wet rock on every side. The air smelled like petrichor. We went down many meters. I grabbed the bars of the elevator cage, praying the descent would end before my stomach rose to my mouth.
“Does the wet rock indicate flooding?” I asked. Again, nobody answered.
When we reached the bottom, Uncle Lucky patted my shoulder. “You’re doing fine. First trip down is always the worst.”
We took another air reading. “Twenty minutes,” the older crew member said.
The two crew members drove the Kobelco excavator from the digging area into the elevator. They picked up shovels and pick-axes. The chemical toilet. Took them all aboard. Uncle took photos and made notes.
I had three empty crates. I picked up hand tools and personal effects left by the miners. I assumed they’d vacated in a hurry. Screwdrivers, lunch-kits, water bottles, flashlights. The fluorescent yellow and orange construction vests and sturdy cotton coveralls bearing a tang of sweat. That far down, the mine is warm, especially once you get working.
My armpits grew clammy. I felt lightheaded. I could not wait to leave. The tunnel was closing in around me like an earthen fist. The toilet reeked. The tools oppressed. I looked at the personal effects. The lunch-kits, the water bottles, the mounds of clothing. Like the cloakroom of a school.
In the elevator I packed up my crates, lining up the lunch-kits like steel coffins.
Like I say, Grandmother, don’t box me in.