Film and TV

Hoarder Stories, Part 1

I worry about my interest in hoarders.

They are, as the stars of reality shows like A&E's Hoarders and TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive, the latest in a long line of Americans--right after celebrity drug addicts, obese weight-loss competitors, and tone-deaf teenagers who think they can sing--who are being exploited for our viewing pleasure. And ever since those two shows went on summer hiatus, I've been thinking about how I should start spending more time with my friend, Betty, who's a hoarder. I--and perhaps you, too--need a little hoarder time.

Betty is 81 and, about 40 years ago, she and her husband moved into his mother's house after the old lady passed away. Hubby's mom had tastefully decorated her big, sprawling ranch home with a lot of nice antiques, and when Betty and her husband moved in, they somehow never got around to unpacking. That's why, when you visit Betty, you walk around waist-high piles of carefully arranged cardboard boxes: because rather than clean out her mother-in-law's stuff and replace it with her own, she sort of merged her things with what was already there.

Betty used to tell me that it was her husband, Roger, who was the packrat. And it's true--Roger actually kept toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles after they were empty; I saw the evidence shortly after he died seven years ago.

But it turns out that Betty didn't stop accruing junk after Roger died. One of her sons drove down from Flagstaff the year after his dad died, to help Betty clear out some of the stuff, including a 60-year-old Pontiac parked in her carport that she was using as a makeshift storage unit for the empty Pringle's cans she was collecting ("They're great for mailing muffins in," she once confided in me. Do I need to mention that Betty, who doesn't drive, neither baked nor visited the post office?). Her son gave up and, after a very long weekend during which my friend refused to part with a single one of the several hundred Styrofoam meat trays in her basement ("They're perfectly good!" she argued), he went back home. He hasn't returned.

This real-life episode of Hoarders is what really got me thinking about why people won't part with their stuff. I still have a lot of the toys and crap--yearbooks, Partridge Family trading cards, old Tiger Beat magazines--of my youth, but I don't consider myself a hoarder. But lately I've been wondering if I don't secretly admire people who go berserk with accumulation.

I'm beginning to think the reason that we've become fascinated by the poor slobs whose homes are over-run with newspapers and baby clothes and candy wrappers has less to do with voyeurism or our own need for prime time schadenfreude. I think we're ogling hoarders because we secretly, and almost certainly unconsciously, admire them.

Many of us are feeling the pinch of a crummy economy, and are recovering from a recent era during which we lived too large. We bought stuff and then traded it up for bigger, shinier versions of more of the same. Now, perhaps, we can't afford that bigger, shinier junk, and it's gone, too. But hoarders are people who buy on sale, and in quantity, and never let go of so much as a packing peanut. They cherish their possessions and, in fact, have traded relationships and careers in order to live alongside their towering stacks of discounted crap from Walmart and various tag sales. While we were overspending and discarding what we briefly held dear, these folks were shopping at yard sales and are trading in their well-being to protect the stuff they bought.

I can't afford new placemats, but my friend Betty has 400 of them, most with the price stickers still on. I've tightened my purse strings and have stopped shopping, but Betty, when I visit her, can't wait to show me her latest score: pocket T-shirts from Walgreen's, three for $10; a lamp shaped like a llama that cost her nothing, because the lady having the yard sale took a liking to Betty; disposable diapers from the dollar store, not because Betty is incontinent but because "those things usually cost ten times that at the grocery store."

I'm beginning to think that Betty, like all other hoarders, is merely a spendthrift with a soul--albeit a deeply damaged one, because, really, who needs 120 boxes of blueberry muffin mix or seventeen unopened boxes of taper candles? I think that we, when we're watching hoarders suffer on television, are actually cheering them on for investing themselves so deeply in the things they've bothered to accumulate.

I am, anyway.

Until my hoarding programs start up again, I'm going to have to preoccupy myself with other hoarding preoccupations (lest I become one myself!). I've gone in search of other hoarders in entertainment outside of reality television, and have found a number of packrats in novels, plays, and movies. I'll share my list with you tomorrow; in the meantime, both the TLC and A&E shows are in reruns through the summer. And did you know you can go online and watch deleted scenes from Hoarders?

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela