June 3, 2011
Cleaning the basement is on every man’s to-do list. Before I go any further here’s a quick word about terminology: a garage is where cars live. A basement is a space under the house that cars can’t fit into either because it’s too small or because it’s gotten so cluttered with flower pots, old tools, paint cans, patio furniture, old Christmas trees, old Christmas fruitcakes, leftover lumber, twelve bird feeders, a parachute that belonged to the house’s previous owner, and other assorted sundries. Unlike pouring a driveway or building a deck or vacuuming the den cleaning the basement isn’t something you can hire a professional to do, because no professional, no matter how dedicated and knowledgeable, is going to know what you want to throw away. In fact I’d put off cleaning out the basement because I didn’t even know what I wanted to throw away, so fortunately my wife stepped up and not only helped out but also did an excellent job of telling me what in the basement we didn’t need anymore. Admittedly it was hard to let go of the flower pot full of golf balls, but it was time they went to a better place-specifically the city dump. And I have to admit I’d been thinking it was time to clean out the basement. To be more specific I’d been thinking that since sometime around the turn of the century when every time I had to go to the basement to get a hammer or a golf ball and I had to step over the flower pots which I’m pretty sure were breeding down there.
Whenever you clean out a basement there are certain things you can count on finding. For instance you’ll always find a single table leg. Why it’s always a single table leg and where the other three and the tabletop are is just one of those mysteries of life. Apparently at some point in our lives we’ve all decided to buy a table on an installment plan and then forgotten about it. Another thing you can count on finding-well, things, actually, will be assorted plastic and metal pieces from various do-it-yourself and home repair projects. I think any product that says "Some assembly required" should have an additional label that says, "You’ll have miscellaneous pieces left over when you’re done. Don’t sweat it." And anyone brave enough to undertake any home repair project, whether it’s fixing the leaky faucet or replacing the light bulb at the back of the refrigerator of vacuuming the den knows that, no matter how simple the job, you’ll end up with one or two miscellaneous pieces that you’re sure are supposed to go back in the refrigerator or the faucet somewhere but you just can’t figure out where, so they end up in the basement, usually in an old coffee can, although they will breed like flower pots and eventually scatter themselves as far as the crawlspace under the house. The only person I ever knew who finished a job with fewer pieces than he started with was my Uncle Rupert, who would not only find a use for each miscellaneous piece but would also finish each job with at least half his tools missing. You may recall that he once offered to repair a neighbor’s air conditioner even though he knew about as much about air conditioners as he would about cleaning his neighbor’s basement. Having removed-or, to use the technical term, "yanked out"-half the air conditioner’s inner workings he then reinserted them along with some wires he had handy, a couple of fuses, his needle nose pliers, and four screwdrivers. The result was that the air conditioner worked even better than before, producing enough BTUs to keep a hot air balloon aloft for a week. To this day Aunt Vita swears that the resulting explosion had nothing to do with her and Rupert’s sudden eighteen-month disappearance, claiming instead that they were taken up by the rapture but that she returned because she didn’t want to miss the season finales of her favorite shows, but that’s another story. With those miscellaneous pieces you’ll also find a big bag of screws. Some of these screws probably came with some of the furniture you’ve purchased over the years and which was marked "Some assembly required", meaning it came in seventeen-thousand different pieces and had a four-hundred page instruction booklet written entirely in Swedish. But there will also be other screws whose origins are a mystery-especially the ones that are as big as your thumb that look like they were intended to hold aircraft carriers together. And they probably were, but screws are migratory and will eventually make their way from distant oceans to your basement. Some of them will be flat head screws and some will be philips head screws. The origin of philips head screws has always baffled me. Who felt there was a need to double the number of screwdrivers in the world, and why? I imagine this must have happened decades ago, perhaps at Screw You Ltd. The boss called everyone into the office and after passing around glasses of orange juice and vodka said, "Look, people, the screwballs in accounting have done something screwy, and if we don’t double our sales we’ll be completely screwed. Anybody got any ideas? What about you, Philips?" The fact that I tend to get lost in thoughts like this, by the way, is another reason why it took so long to get around to cleaning the basement. Finally, though, once you’ve disposed of all the flower pots, project pieces, and screws you’ll come to the paint cans, at least half of which will date back to World War I. Yes, we do buy some paint cans, but I’m pretty sure there are other paint cans that grow in basements the way stalactites and stalagmites grow in caves. If you’ve ever had to repaint your house it wasn’t because the paint crumbled and peeled off over the years. It was because it slowly seeped down into the basement and grew into paint cans. That’s why old paint cans are always so light: they’re entirely composed of paint. Or maybe they grow from old tables.