Any meditation on the current state of our nation should include consideration of the recent ubiquity of self-storage facilities. On our recent Eastern Seaboard sojourn I was surprised by the frequency and size of them along the highway. What’s going on? Are we as a nation storing up goods essential to our survival in an imminent Armageddon? Are these ominously boring sites the nuclear age equivalent of our ancestors’ grain silos? Will they save our tribe from starvation and annihilation? Are these the safe-deposit vaults in which the aesthetic prizes of our dominant civilization will be preserved for a kinder prosperity? Or are they evidence of yet another weird twist in the evolution of a society obsessed with the obesity of ownership?
There are now more than 50,000 such warehouses for personal goods across the country, offering Americans close to two-and-a-half billion square feet of rental space in which to stash the shit they can’t fit into their already stuffed houses and garages and backyard storage sheds. In spite of the fact that the size of the average American home has doubled in my lifetime, one in ten households now feel the need to store their excess elsewhere.
Or is it that simple? The earliest such storage spaces, in the late nineteenth century, were for the metropolitan rich—basically well-guarded buildings where the Gilded Agers could safely place their valuables while they were travelling or away at their vacation homes, a cool place for their out-of-season furs or that extra grand piano. Art collections gathered there, heirlooms, and out-of-fashion antiques. Think the end of Citizen Kane. An ancillary attic of the rich and famous, an expensive perk.
Today’s roadside facilities have no such white-glove pretentions, and the class they attract is not the mansion set. Who are they then? Many are victims of what sociologists call “life events”—divorces, foreclosures, sickness, deaths in the family, job dislocations, bankruptcy. For some a rental storage unit is just a temporary measure as they get their life, hopefully, back on track. For others it is the end of the line, for whom even the monthly storage rental fees become more than they can pay, and they walk away, leaving what they have saved of their lives up for forfeiture and auction. In one way these facilities are the ultimate pawn shops, testimony to the new transient uncertainty of life for the working class.
But for many other people a storage unit is just a place to stash the crap they can’t bring themselves to trash. Other species hoard, but usually just things to eat. We started out as hunters and gatherers. Few of us now hunt to eat, and our instinct for gathering has little to do with sustenance. We gather now to identify ourselves by what we possess. Property is status. We even invented a “right to property” to sanctify our accumulative lust. Stuff is us. Don’t give it up.
The potlatch customs of indigenous Columbia River nations enraged early American immigrants. Here a prominent family would assert its status by divesting itself of what riches nature—and the salmon-rich river—had bestowed upon them in a grand show of largesse and self-diminishment. A truly Satanic impulse! But even those first Anglo invaders brought with them only what they needed. True excess consumption was yet an American dream.
On one website I read an exchange among militia survivalist types about what to hide in your storage unit—stockpiles of provisions and ammunition up front (keep the weapons ready at home)—in preparation for the ultimate property fight. But padlocked behind most of those folding steel doors is the past, not the future, what Americans don’t need but don’t want to give up. When it comes to stuff, you can’t take it with you, but you can leave it for someone else to deal with.
What Would Buddha Do?