Day 9: A Shirt for Ali

This year’s IKEA catalogue arrived last week but it’s still sitting in its plastic mailing sleeve. Ordinarily I would have already pored through the catalogue. I don’t necessarily want to buy anything—my runs to IKEA are dictated almost wholly by the need to replace broken wine glasses—but I’m fascinated with the orderliness of the domestic world it projects. The interiors depicted in the catalogs of Calvin Klein Home, stripped of the books and coffee cups and toys that litter our daily file, are the sanctums of a temple to minimalism served by lithe beings who nourish themselves from the air around them. The IKEA interiors, on the other hand, are replete with domestic paraphernalia. You could see that people might actually be living in one of these spaces. But it so, it’s a particular kind of family, because absolutely everything is in its place. The toys are packed in big netted baskets that hang on the wall. A child’s wagon is neatly parked on its own (parking?) mat against the wall. A coffee cup sits in its saucer atop a stack of magazines, and, of course, all the spines face the same way.

Andreas Gursky,Prada I, 1996

Andreas Gursky,Prada I, 1996

Everything is contained in something else. Stuff is stored in bins, baskets, crates, wire cubes and chests. Even the containers are subdivided. There are drawer organizers for cutlery, jewelry, accessories, sewing articles, first aid items and toiletries. A dressing table drawer is half open to expose a geometric composition of smaller compartments that looks a bit like a pared down typesetter’s tray, but instead of metal characters it houses collections of rolled up belts, scarves and handkerchiefs—each in its compartment. Paperclips and pins nest in round plexiglas cases that are attached to a magnetic strip on the wall. A kitchen drawer has slid open to reveal stacked pots; the tops are set in a row along the spines of a rack. A pot cover rack, who’d have thought?

Nothing is left on its own. Nothing is left to chance.

It’s artifice, of course. There’s not even a smudge on the jars that sit so snugly in the built-in spice rack in one of the kitchen drawers. Whoever was supposed to live in this perfectly organized world never arrived. It’s a house waiting to get lived in, to get messy.

Keeping the house in this state would require more time and effort than all but the most compulsive would be willing to devote. Still, I’m attracted to this orderliness and the semblance of control over one’s life that it suggests.

Perhaps what bothers me about the stuff I’ve accumulated (and now want to get rid of) is less the presence of the objects themselves than the fact that they can no longer be contained. They fit no organizing scheme I can think of, even if I could find the right basket or bin to fit them. A collection of odd remnants that have little in common with one another is hardly a collection.

Clutter bothers me. Extreme clutter makes me physically uncomfortable. (Yes, I know this is not normal but this condition, whatever it is, doesn’t interfere in my life to make me want to seek help.) I feel it when I’m called into my boss’s office, who happens to be the Executive Director of the organization, so he can have whatever kind of office he wants. There’s not a single square foot of shelf, table and desk surface that isn’t covered with books, files and periodicals. Between the Chesterfield on the one side of the room and the wall of bookcases on the other stands a supermarket cart, it, too, loaded with books and files.

This disorder must be deliberate. Having a supermarket cart in the middle of your office is no oversight. I knew that his desk, a massive mahogany Edwardian piece with an intricately carved base of reeds and palm fronds, was meant to overpower the visitor with its imposing presence, but I think the clutter works the same way. It signals, this is my domain, a room of secret knowledge that I possess and that you are privileged to observe but not to study.

I have the same feeling looking into the drawers in my kitchen and the racks in my closets, except I’m not always sure I know whose domain it is.

The landscapes of order I see in the IKEA catalog—let’s call them, for lack of a better term, taxatopias—inspires me to winnow out from my closets all the clothes that I haven’t worn in the last couple of years, the flannels and oversized Eddie Bauer madras shirts that make me feel or look older, the 14-eyelet Doc Martens and camo pants I’m too old to wear, the clinging gym t-shirts that belong on a body I no longer have. I thought of giving them to Ali, young housepainter from Syria who refreshed the living room walls and ceiling this summer and who’s even tidier than I pretend to be (a good thing to have in a housepainter), beautiful Ali with the soulful chestnut-brown eyes. He’s my size and I suspect he’d appreciate the clothes, seeing as he sends whatever is left over of the money he makes after paying rent, utilities and food to his family back in Syria. But giving away clothes is a sensitive matter, prone to misunderstandings and ripe with occasions for taking offense. No one wants to appear as if he actually needs second-hand clothes. I’ll ask him if perhaps he knows of newly arrived immigrants who’d like some warm clothes for the winter. The Doc Martens will have to wait for another time.

I rifle through the closets and set aside what will be packed for Ali or his cousins. A half-hour later I take stock: more than two dozen shirts that once hung in my closet are now lying folded in stacks on my bed. I realize in the piles are shirts I’ve never worn, gifts all of them. I thought there’d be occasions where I’d feel comfortable wearing them, but they never materialized. The shirts were too bright or splashy for my character – a turquoise button-down with loud broad stripes, a daring bright green and oxblood check, a muscle t-shirt with a plunging v-neck, all too not me.

How could someone give me a turquoise button-down? Didn’t they knew I’m a jeans-and-black-crew-neck sweater guy? But then I think, maybe that’s precisely why they gave me it.

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