Ralph Gardner Jr: Cleaning Up

Mar 31, 2019

I have trouble throwing things out. No matter what it is I can usually find some excuse for why it must be kept. How it will come in handy, return to breathless relevance, due to seen or unseen and even unseeable circumstance months or even years from now.

This presents an especially acute problem at the present moment because I’ve been delegated to clean out my mother’s apartment, the apartment she moved into in the final days of 1959.

And my mother was much like me. She never threw anything out either. There are check stubs dating back to the Fifties. And my report cards. My three younger brothers’ report cards, too. All of them.

Old airline tickets. No problem. How many do you need? As well complimentary airline carry on bags. TWA? Pan Am? Aer Lingus? I can’t possibly part with those. They’re now vintage items, arousing memories of flying’s golden age.

Here’s a situation I confronted last week that will suggest why there’s no way we’ll be able to vacate the apartment by May 31, the surrender date, unless I receive help from a trained profession.

And I’m not talking about a Marie Kondo type organizer. Though that would obviously help, too.

I’m referring to a psychologist, someone with an advanced degree in the warped workings of the human mind.

Actually, my problem is that I don’t think I have a problem. I have completely logical reasons for holding on to virtually everything. Ok, perhaps not my father’s socks and underwear. They went into the recycling bin.

But just about anything that might be described as archival. That’s because I’m a writer. You never know when you’ll need to jog your memory or require documentary evidence that something happened long ago.

Here’s an example of the dilemma I’m assuming I’ll face in the coming days and weeks and for which there’s no easy answer. Did I also mention that I have a strong sentimental streak?

I’m not conceited enough to consider my life or my parents lives important. But there’s nonetheless something precious about them. They deserve to be dignified. To quote Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” -- attention must be paid.

Back to that example. From approximately 1946 through the 1990s my mother saw virtually every play and musical on Broadway as well as every opera at the Metropolitan Opera.

And she kept the programs. In neat, professionally manufactured binders that say “Playbill” on their spine. I haven’t counted but there must be at least fifty of them.

So last week I pulled down one of them, the most accessible, requiring me to climb over only modest foothills of stuffed shopping bags and packing material.

The binder I accessed was for the year 1970 and its Playbills included those for Applause, Follies, Pippin and the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

I’ve looked up Playbills online and discovered that unless they’re from a play or musical’s opening night and signed by the cast they’re virtually worthless.

I decided that what I should do is contact the theater department of one of the colleges either my children or I attended to see if they might want them.

But as I’m leafing through that particular binder I discover that my mother also used them to file every occurrence that might succumb to the rubric of theatrical. And this included a tedious high school production of “Tiger at the Gates” where played the role of “The Mathematician.”

I was excruciatingly bad. Leaden doesn’t start to describe my performance. But I didn’t take it personally. The entire play seemed created as a sleep aid. Besides, I hadn’t joined the cast because I thought it would set me on the road to a Tony but because the production was being staged at a girl’s school and I was desperate to meet girls.

In that regard, Tiger at the Gates turned out to be a smashing success since I met my high school girlfriend through the production.

But now that I’ve found that ancient stale yellow single page program what am I supposed to do with that binder of Playbills that contains it? Keep it? Try to extract the program? I tried that and tore it in the process. Send it off to some college with apologies and an explanation that they shouldn’t take its inclusion as evidence that my mother considered my performance in Tiger at the Gates the equal of Lauren Bacall’s spirited star turn in Applause?

Thus far I’ve done nothing but become paralyzed by indecision. And it’s only day one.

There are shelves of books to pore through. Armies of shoe trees. A half-century’s worth of Christmas cards.

Last night I discovered a handsome loose-leaf binder dedicated solely to a brief item that Meyer Berger, known for the New York Times’ “About New York” column, devoted in the late Fifties to my father’s passion for collecting the work of Horatio Alger. And on the following pages all the other newspapers across the country that picked up the item. There’s even a staged photo of me sitting on my father’s lap as he reads me some Alger title such as “Rags to Riches.”

I have no memory of the occasion. I have no recollection my father ever reading to me. I suppose that’s reason alone to hold onto it.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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