Saturday, March 27, 2010

A closet full of skeletons

We are parked at the Elks Lodge in San Jose, California (map). This is a frequent stop for us, perhaps our "most usual" parking spot in the bay area, due to its easy access to transit and its proximity to downtown San Jose, where we used to live and where we still own a condominium that we rent out. It's a little pricey here, at $18 per night, so we often stay elsewhere if we don't need the 50-amp power, but on this visit we're on a mission.

Long-time readers may know that we are "all-in" full-timers: we have no "home base" and no permanent home waiting in the wings. We kept the condo here strictly as an income property, and to hold a chip in the real estate game as a hedge against runaway property inflation for that day in the distant future when we might settle down again, in places unknown. So far, of course, that inflation has not happened, and, in fact, the place is worth more or less exactly what we paid for it ten years ago.

Our dirty little secret, though, has been that we kept a small storage closet here for ourselves. It came with the condo when we bought it, but it is a separate space, accessed through the common parking garage. We didn't even disclose its existence to the tenant or management company. It's pretty small, at just 3½ by 5¾ feet, but it afforded us the opportunity to store a handful of things we just could not get rid of, but either did not need or could not fit on the bus. For example, several banker's boxes worth of company records from the business Louise sold, which needed to be kept, for tax reasons, for seven years. Similarly, records from sales of previous property each of us owned, and our respective divorces, also needed to be stored for the IRS-mandated seven years.

Here we are, though, at the 5½ year mark of living full-time aboard Odyssey. This tax season marks the seventh year since the business was sold, and we are well past that on any previous real property or former spouses, and the banker's boxes of records can go to the shredder. And so it is that our "excuse" for keeping a storage closet of any sort has ended, and the realization has dawned that we could be making a few extra bucks every month by renting the thing out to someone else in the building (our own tenant, to whom we offered first refusal, does not want it).

Now the reality, of course, is that since we just had to keep the closet for record storage, and there was some extra room in there, we ended up filling it to the brim with things that, for one reason or another, we could not part with before we hit the road, but could not take with us. Mostly, the reasons were emotional attachment: Louise's family silver, handed down from her grandparents. Award plaques and other keepsakes we each had earned over the course of an entire career. A nearly complete set of Waterford crystal, a poor choice for bus (or boat) use, given to me by my parents at the time of my first marriage. Books inscribed by the people who presented them to us as gifts -- sometimes the authors. Stuffed toy animals from our childhood. The antique lacquered chest that had belonged to Louise's grandfather.

There are also items of less emotional content, kept for more practical reasons. The nearly brand-new 6' stepladder we bought for household maintenance in the condo. A carpet knee-kicker. Extra pieces of carpet and vinyl flooring, as well as leftover plumbing and electrical items from the complete renovation we did before we moved in. Even leftover paint, all kept in the name of maintenance of the unit as a rental property. Leftover bits of the bus conversion we did not need to carry, like the base stand for the TV, which we instead mounted on a swing-arm, or the 6-gallon air compressor that got repaired after we were forced to replace it with something better, and even an extra chain and sprockets for the Suzuki motorcycles we no longer carry.

Somehow, though, over the course of more than five years, our memories of what was really in there had grown dim, and the sheer scope of the project to empty it and move on did not fully dawn until we were halfway into the excavation. What we had remembered more clearly was the enormous amount of downsizing we had done before we moved onto the bus. We sold or gave away everything, or so we had remembered. Dozens of lineal feet of books, decades of accumulated furniture, a lifetime of knick-knacks, tons of silverware, cookware, glassware, stoneware, outerwear, everywhere.

Much of that process, too, had been hard. Selling the roll-top desk that I got as a young teen. Ridding myself of textbooks that I had accumulated through graduate school, college, and even high school, their wealth of information made obsolete by the Internet and the passing of time -- ten elements have been added to the Periodic Table since my textbooks were published. Parting with tools I had collected for nearly four decades. Most of the hard work, I thought, had been done.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: the things that were simply too hard to part with, contained too many memories, ultimately went into the closet that "we had to have anyway." And so it is a closet full of skeletons, the "things" that own us, rather than the other way around, making a mockery of the word "possessions." We are determined to face them down, and live the life we have chosen, unfettered by closets full of things we don't use in places we don't live.

As I type this, I am sitting in a sea of cardboard boxes; the simple act of walking from the penthouse to the bedroom is an acrobatic exercise that often exacts collateral damage on the dog, who was always underfoot anyway and now has nowhere to escape. The past two days have been a whirlwind of eBay activity as we sell everything from sterling silver to bits of police motorcycle uniforms. There are more books than either of us remembered, between the keepsake and inscribed volumes, and the ones we thought we'd read "someday" in a few years, after we whittled down the stack we brought with us to while away the time (we've averaged only one a year since we left). Sadly, the books have no monetary value, and we are donating them to the library.

The bulkier items are on Craig's List, like the air compressor. I've got about five pounds of Freon R-12 refrigerant in a 30# cylinder that I'm trying to figure out how to legally sell, worth a couple hundred bucks. There are a daunting number of items still to list on the Internet, including motorcycle parts, collectible Matchbox cars, and various bits of memorabilia. We'd already exhausted the family and friends avenue before we hit the road: the heirlooms we've been storing were offered to family in the pre-departure purge, and our friends ended up with a lot of our furniture, tools, and kitchenware.

Louise is better at this than I. Other than a box of childhood toys that will need some kind of ceremonial send-off (they are too far gone even to be given away at this point), she has had no trouble glancing at items and plopping them into boxes or onto piles. I, on the other hand, have spent inordinate amounts of time thumbing through cherished volumes, fondling keepsakes, and ruminating about appropriate dispositions for gifts from now-deceased relatives. I am taking digital photos of the truly important items as a memento, but as they say at liquidations, "everything must go."

When we left here five and a half years ago, the bus was packed to the gills -- we crammed everything in that we possibly could. But over that time we've consumed the consumables, replaced the replacement parts, and simply got rid of lots of stuff that we realized we were carrying around for no reason. So today we have a little more room, and I expect we will once again leave here with none to spare. Some of the books will get crammed in the bookshelves, the motor uniform will get stuffed in the closet, and extra tools and parts will be squeezed into the bays.

Several boxes will likely fill the living room as we plan to cull through thousands of slides and photographic prints, both loose and in albums, and send the ones we'd like to keep off to be digitized. Some of the for-sale items will likely leave here with us as well, until their listings end or a buyer steps forward. And I am mentally preparing myself for the reality that, on our last day here about two weeks from now, there will be a huge pile of stuff that will have to go to Freecycle, Goodwill, or the dump. I hope I will be ready.


  1. We are just starring our journey full timing, and like you we have a small storage space for the type of things you mentioned. I'm hoping in a few years time we too will be better able to part with our stuff as skeletons in our closet! 18$ a night to much? Oh dear, my husband and I have much to learn! Lol. Rebecca (Rebaenrose)

  2. you are so awesome. I am totally tied down with stuff, and cannot do without my tools, bits and bobs.

    Last weekend Tarzan and I climbed into the loft of our storage building to look for a kite. First time he was up there, and his brain just locked up. a storage bin FULL of new in package 1970's hot wheels cars? my toy sailboat form childhood, model airplane kits, toys, camping stuff, he went insane

    "Mom, did you know daddy's loft is full of COOL STUFF that I can have when I get older???"

    i am hoping he will PLAY with it, not collect it.

  3. I feel your pain. We stored our household items in a 12' x 20' unit when we rented our house and hit the road as "full timers" back in 1993. 2 years later I could not remember exactly what all was in there. At $50..00 per month the storage fees likely eclipsed the value of what was there.....after cleaning up, the "keeper" possessions ended up in 8-9 small boxes of which 4 or so held nothing but picture albums from our earlier years, some 1920's antique hand made lamps from my grandfather and some old high end stereo componants. Those were the only things which really had any "value". The rest was just "stuff". What does one do with over 600
    8-track tapes? Loads of love & memories went to the dump.

  4. Oh you really were more mentally ready to give it all up than Jim and I were when we hit the road in 2007. Bravo! Our storage unit was way bigger.

    We thought we had done away with "Everything" until we went back to it last year, and saw that the phrase "get rid of everything" had a very different definition to us back then.

    What kind of lunatic was I in thinking that we "needed" three sets of dishes, glasses and silverware? Did we really think those Halloween decorations really necessary? And my wedding dress? Who's going to want that with the big ol' cocktail spill down the front? Or trunk full of mementos we saved that nobody will give a crap about when we're dead. Without any kids, I have no idea what we were thinking when we decided to pay to store so much junk.

    Even though we have a seasonal cabin now (our own little hold on the real estate market), it sits unused, full of stuff that I really don't care all that much about.

    The best thing about this lifestyle is, if all that disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't devastate me the same way it would have before we hit the road and saw what really mattered in life.

    Good luck with the fire sale! You'll feel so much freer when it's over.

  5. I would like a Link to the matchbox cars please .... Or a 1 st chance at them.

  6. I remember the emotional rollercoasters well!

    I've gone through two rounds of it myself - my first round was actually the more emotional one. Going through all the business records, that brought up so many memories (as you guys well know happens when you mix family and business together).

    I left a lot of stuff behind in the house tho - even though I had it up for sale, I wasn't mentally ready to fully leap.

    A year later, I was. I got rid of everything remaining - house included. I do still keep a few boxes of stuff in Chris' folks basement.

    Chris still keeps a large storage unit in Sacramento. We have it set up more like a closet with all his books & DVDs, and seasonal clothes. It's also where we keep our Burning Man gear, that we don't want to carry around with us full time. Ideally, I'd love to eventually get rid of the unit all together. But.. he has to come to that decision on his own.

  7. Kind of weird but the song that comes to mind is... "hop on the bus Gus, You don't need to discuss much Just drop off the key, Lee
    And get yourself free"
    Call it 50 Ways to leave your Closet.

    Good Luck Sean & Louise! Maureen & Eric (twoscamps)

  8. Clearly this post spoke to many.

    @Rebecca: Did not mean to mislead, $18 is a great rate for RV parking with hookups in the bay area. But we generally do not need hookups except in the hottest of weather, and we prefer to park someplace without them and pay nothing, or maybe a nominal amount like $5. What we are getting here for our money is convenience. As you spend more time on the road, you too will find ways to minimize your nightly costs.

    @Charles: Storage building?

    @Jamey: Please email me. I don't have any way to contact you otherwise. I am working on the Matchbox collection right now. Our email is on the About Us page.



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