Sorting it all out: A look at kinds of clutter


BY OTIS KIDWELL BURGER  |  Clut-ter (Klut’ tar prob. ME clutteren to CLOT. 1. Confused or disorganized condition or state; JUMBLE. To litter or pile in a disorganized state.   (Webster New Riverside University Dictionary)

The streets of New York aren’t paved with gold, but they are littered with castoff treasure.

Some years ago, when I possessed a station wagon and a strong friend, I considered cruising Park Avenue at night, collecting and selling discarded treasures. A friend said, “But that’s the turf of the Russian Mafia.” I have no wish to tussle with Russians, real or imaginary. So we confined our enterprise to our native Village turf. 

He found:

A working air conditioner. A working microwave. An antique store-sized coffee grinder. An antique child’s toy wagon. A queen-sized mattress (no bedbugs). An abandoned bicycle. A Hitchcock chair. A tennis racquet. An expensive stainless-steel garbage can. Five nonworking vacuum cleaners, which he repaired and gave away. A dressmaker’s dummy. Many working TVs. Two 9-x-12 Oriental rugs. 

One evening he phoned, “Bring a dolly!” and we wheeled a working washer-dryer from 23rd St. down Eighth Avenue; it still sits in the basement, in a spiderweb of hoses and clothesline. 

After the Great TV Extinction the streets and this house were soon littered with still-twitching TVs and heaps of wonderful videotapes. Most of which I have not yet played. Progress is an infallible source of obsolete clutter. 

I found: chairs, tables, shelves, lamps, window boxes, jackets, gloves, scarves, a fur-lined raincoat, earmuffs, an antique washstand, books, books, books, plants. A couch.

A friend of ours furnished most of her apartment in this style, which she calls “West Village Eclectic.”

Squirrels hoard nuts. Packrats and jackdaws collect junk and shiny objects. Humans collect both…with a great deal of help from street finds, thrift stores, Macy’s, etc. and eBay. (One friend was so weakened by eBay she had to hold a tag sale in order to move around.) Things say, “Take me,” and we do. A few make it to “Antiques Roadshow.” Some are actively used. Some disappear into closets or basements or back on the street.

Some stay. Whatever entered the Collyers’ house never left. The Collyer brothers is the Great Cautionary Tale. In the ’30s and ’40s they filled their entire house on upper Fifth Avenue from floor to ceiling with junk and newspapers, and burrowed throughout with tunnels, nests and booby traps. The younger Collyer, once a concert pianist and engineer, was finally killed in one of his own booby traps. The blind and paralyzed brother starved to death.

The Collyers’ problem wasn’t a lack of space. … But nowadays ours often is.

Not so long ago, many of us lived on farms, with an agreeable and fairly organized clutter of cats, chickens, farm machinery and livestock. We also lived in houses with attics and basements. Then came the urban slums, in which the chief clutter was humans. The middle-class Village brownstones housed a different clutter, a smother of knickknacks, overstuffed furniture and potted palms. Eventually, many homes split into apartments and rooming houses (like mine), and were often replaced by apartment buildings, where a one-room “studio” rents for as much per month as many farmers made in a year.

So, how do we trim our lives to fit our shrinking space?

Some of us don’t. A professional clutter-cleaner said his worst job was cleaning a one-room apartment where 12 people had lived. There had been a fire. There was a six-inch-deep crust of dead roaches, bedbugs, rats, garbage, junk over everything.

At the opposite extreme, when the Van Gogh opened more than 50 years ago, our friend Jay Bell, the super, said some people couldn’t afford both rent and furniture and slept on the floor.

How long does it take to collect clutter (let alone furniture) after such barebones beginnings?

No time at all, if you live and work in one room. I once volunteered to feed a woman’s cats. Problem: Find the cats. She was a dressmaker in the West Village. Narrow trails between chest-high piles of clothing led to the kitchen and bathroom. Two cats, alerted by the can opener, cautiously appeared from under heaps of skirts.

A friend of mine, an artist living in Westbeth, also lived in a one-room apartment filled with her work. She took in a pregnant feral cat. After the kittens were born and given to good homes, Mom cat was rarely seen again. Like the Collyers, she had made tunnels and nests through the (mostly organized) heaps of art materials.

Cats are often associated with clutter, and sometimes they are clutter. In the South Village, many years ago, two old ladies, rumored to be Jimmy Breslin’s aunts, lived in a brick house full of cats. Authorities reportedly tactfully failed to notice and intervene. Neighbors complained the smell came right through the walls. 

Back in the 1960s, the West Village was full of stray cats and dogs. We found many, adopted some, found homes for others. Neighbors kept cats. On a sunny day, these backyards were a living tapestry of greenery and little cat faces.

Keeping more cats or dogs than you can manage turns clutter into hoarding, with often tragic results. Some years ago we visited a house in the northwest Village that had literally gone to the dogs. There were dogs of all sizes and types, everywhere. The owner had to be told by the authorities to move. To where? He asked distractedly, opening a chest door as he talked. A heap of newborn puppies tumbled out. “Now where did those…!” he said.

There is also urban clutter. Some years ago, a covered pier space near us was littered with mattresses and feral cats. I took a cat carrier there to rescue some kittens but there had been a fire the previous night and mattresses and cats were gone. A few years later a genuine shantytown appeared on the river near Gansevoort Peninsula, a fairly order clutter of scrap-built homes, with improvised stoves, no toilets, no running water but plenty of feral cats. The city rightly decided that this was unsanitary clutter and this impromptu village vanished.

In the 1950s William Zeckendorf decided to tear down the “little old low decaying” clutter of the West Village in order to erect tall, more financially worthy towers. Jane Jacobs, who lived with her family around the corner, rented a room here when this was a rooming house, and wrote “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” This house — which I now own — was then owned by two retired policemen, who kept the heat on half an hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening. When not physically writing, Jane huddled in bed to keep warm. Then she sallied forth to save the West Village and Lower Manhattan.

(Jane and I went to a meeting at which the Lower Manhattan Expressway was being bulldozed down on us, and I said to Jane, “There must be some way to stop this.” She leapt up and jumped on the stage and lifted the paper out of the recording machine and she was jailed. I was awed and so was the city, and the project was abandoned.)

My children have often accused me of clutter, with some justification. But I do know where things are. Usually. However, magazines do keep coming. And how can I say goodbye to Kurt Vonnegut? …Tony Hillerman, E. Nesbit, Beatrix Potter…and a host of others? I did manage to give away some 1960s Natural History magazines recently.

Then the basement flooded. Not rainwater this time. Dental floss is not biodegradable. Flushed down the toilet, it can lurk in your plumbing for decades. We had already replaced an upstairs toilet. Now Jerry the plumber extracted another huge clot, a jumble of dental floss clogging the main drain. Everything in the house, including the toilets, had been emptying into the basement, lapping around 55-year-old heaps of stored odds and ends. 

Not so long ago these backyards housed privies, which tended to overflow in heavy rains. This historical comparison was no comfort. 

To the rescue came Clutter Free Junk Removal Services and Cleanouts. A truck as impressive as the Queen Mary parked outside, and Raul and his team donned rubber boots, masks and hazmat suites and disappeared into the Dismal Swamp below. They pumped out the sewage, power-washed everything, sanitized everything, moved everything around, threw out many huge bags of sodden stuff and several planks of contaminated wood.

Then the waters receded, and the cats and I (but no dove) came tiptoeing around the newly emerging dry land.

“Do they also do dead bodies?” my daughter Kathy asked.


Two of my neighbors, people I knew, had died alone during heat waves. I have often wondered… .

Nature provides its own cleanup services: vultures, dung beetles, ants, maggots, fungi, bacteria, etc. It takes intrepid humans to clean up the messes humans make: sewage, garbage, junk, coal ash, plastic, oil spills, radioactive waste. Dental floss. Humans are the only species that leaves such imperishable clutter on the Earth.

Meanwhile, many buried treasures have resurfaced in my basement: a nice humpback trunk, smelling strongly of mold; two chainsaws; a skittles board but no skittles; a Coleman lantern; several canes, crutches and a walker, in case of future need; several ancient wax Edison recordings; an immense pipe cutter; a big ornate metal house with attached exercise wheels presumably for gerbils; and a unicycle.

As to the stuff Raul & Co. hauled away, thanks to my own immense collection of National Geographic and environmental magazines, I know that landfills — like cows, humans and other creatures — produce methane, a useful gas, usually burned off as waste by corporations fracking for oil. But some landfills now capture their methane and pipe it as fuel to many nearby homes. I like to think that those sewage-sodden bags and environmental magazines hauled from my basement are in some enlightened landfill being recycled, reborn, redeemed from clutter and providing clean energy for this cluttered planet.