Ralph Gardner Jr: A Professional Organizer To The Rescue | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Professional Organizer To The Rescue

Jan 18, 2020

Professional organizer Robyn Stein
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr

Our basement is large. How large I can’t say because I never measured it. But there are two sections that we refer to as the new basement and the old basement. The new basement, fluorescently lighted, came with the addition to the house in the early 1980’s. The old, dank, dim hand dug basement dates to the mid-19th Century.

The new basement has reasonably high ceilings. Those in the old basement are sufficiently low and filled with things like pipes and air-conditioning ducts that I would routinely hit my head until I wised up and started sporting a hard hat whenever I assaulted the gloom.

However, old and new basement have something in common. They’re filled to the gills with stuff. Thousands of books, children’s clothes, furniture, dishes, filing cabinets, my baby carriage. Yes, my baby carriage. It’s a British navy blue Silver Cross with chrome details, approximately the size and weight of a Cadillac DeVille.

Lately, and by lately I mean within the last several years, all that stuff has started to become a problem. Not because of mold – I’m proud to report the basement remains as dry as a bone even if it smells musty – but because it’s become almost impenetrable. There’s so much stuff down there that you can’t even get to it. And then I hit my head trying.

And the situation hasn’t been helped by the recent arrival of new stuff – from my mother’s apartment; from my son-in-law’s grandmother’s house; from my wife’s parents. Come the apocalypse we won’t lack for glassware.

But lately we’ve been thinking of doing something revolutionary about it. Getting rid of it. Not all of it, mind you. Certainly not my baby carriage. That stays. It evokes a more genteel era in both my life and that of civilization in general.

But there’s lots of other stuff we no longer need. I’m thinking of a set of china decorated with creepy grey flowers. And an antique hand crank Victrola. And a six-foot Batik mural from Sri Lanka.

A garage sale is out because we live at the end of a long dirt road and prize our privacy. Habitat for Humanity has been the recipient of several donations and will be of several more. Ditto the Kinderhook Memorial Library annual book sale.

But what about the rest? What about all the stuff we want to keep for sentimental reasons, or because our children might want them someday, or because dire current events compel us to become survivalists? You’ll never know when you might need a pair of heavy brass sconces – originally from the Schwab Mansion on Riverside Drive.

We recently decided we required professional help. Perhaps psychological. But concurrently organizational. So we invited over Robyn Stein, a professional organizer who divides her time between New York City and Columbia County and has helped the dazed and confused in both locales to get their lives, closets and basements together. And garages. Did I mention that our garage houses a tsunami of objects not strictly automotive?

Robin worked her magic even before she arrived. Because the imminence of her visit prompted my wife Debbie to do something she hasn’t done in a while – tackle the Matterhorn of matter in the basement.

I couldn’t have done in fifty years what my wife did in two days – carve a functioning path through the debris. She could be a professional organizer herself. She has a talent for setting priorities, for seeing clearly through the murk, for tackling problems in a systematic way.

I don’t and not just because, until I discovered that hard hat, the very real possibility of smashing my head on some low wooden beam and requiring stitches gave me pause.

I’m spatially challenged as well as easily distracted; diving down every rabbit hole presented by a postcard from the Paleolithic or a container with political campaign buttons. Anybody need an “I Like Ike” or “Nixon’s The One”?

However, I’m holding onto “Rally Around the Presidency, Not The President” from the Watergate era. It still seems relevant.

Robyn had some good ideas. She suggested photographing stuff we feel some vague sentimental attachment to, such as our children’s more minor drawings, and then tossing them.

She took issue with superstar organizer Marie Kondo’s suggestion about ditching anything that doesn’t spark joy. That’s a pretty high bar. There are many worthwhile states of being that objects provoke short of joy.

What about curiosity? Fondness? Should those emotions be consigned to the dumpster? Hauled away by County Waste?

Robyn had other practical suggestions. Such as constructing a cedar lined closet in the basement for vintage clothes. Or a long 4’ high platform, rather than shelves, as a staging area for our ever-growing collection of plastic storage bins. She also offered to find out for us the date, once a year, when you can dispose of old paint, of which we a hardware store’s worth, at one of the county transfer stations.

She also described adjudicating the destiny of things as a process. There may be artifacts you’re not quite ready to get rid of today but you might a year or two from now.

But she thought it would be a shame to sell or throw away my baby carriage. There should always be a special place in your home, your heart and especially your basement, for things of enduring beauty.

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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