»  The Straggler, No. 82

September 7, 2009

   Creative Destruction

My local GM dealer has shut up shop. I drive past the place every day; it is a melancholy sight. Weeds and tall grasses are coming up all around. The forecourt is empty, more weeds beginning to push up through cracks in the concrete. The big display windows have been crudely masked with some reflective sheeting. One already sports a big diagonal crack. The flagpoles out front, from which once flew great carpet-sized editions of Old Glory, have been removed, I suppose to forestall their eventually falling across the highway. The service bays at the side, into which we pulled our '97 Malibu many a time to have its innumerable defects dealt with by a bustling staff of mechanics, are shuttered and silent.

It was bad enough when, twenty years ago, GM's Manhattan showroom was turned into a toy store. Now here is our local dealership looking like a set from that History Channel special about what will happen to the world after humanity has gone. (Gone where? They didn't tell us.) Driving on, I find myself briefly communing with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet who, staggering out of his mead-hall one day, found himself looking at the ruins of some Roman palace: "The work of giants is decaying …"

Creative destruction, an economist would tell you. He'd have a point. The very next lot to that defunct GM dealership is spick and span, big new buildings freshly painted, late-model trucks parked on the forecourt. This lot belongs to a self-storage firm — one of those places that will rent you a lock-up cubicle to store your stuff. (They do moving, too; hence the trucks.) The buildings are strikingly simple: great windowless cubes painted white with blue trim.

I've been seeing this architectural style all over for twenty years now, though the color schemes differ by firm. Self-storage has been booming. The Yellow Pages for my modest suburban county list over a hundred firms. There is a Self Storage Association ("represents more than 6,000 U.S. member companies"), a trade journal (Inside Self Storage), an expo (Washington, D.C., October 5–8), a training institute, websites and blogs. Public Storage, the biggest name in the business, has market capitalization of $12 billion and revenues close to $2 billion.

On a whim I stopped by that self-storage facility. There were two employees on the premises: one a middle-aged lady minding a computer and a bank of closed-circuit TV monitors, the other an elderly gent with a bunch of keys. Both were friendly and helpful. The gent — "custodian," he described himself — gave me a guided tour. We walked long corridors lined with different-sized storage units under dim fluorescent lighting.

I played back to the custodian some of the issues I'd read about on the blogs. Employee pilferage? "It's just me with the keys. I'd be fired like a shot." Roof leakages? "Older places maybe. This here's brand new." Damp, mold? "Climate controlled 24/7, five dollars extra." Vermin? "A bird got in once, set off all the motion detectors. I got a call, middle of the night." My literary imagination kicked in. Any strange stuff? Anyone tried to store a corpse? "Not so far. I guess we'd catch the smell soon enough." He opened an empty unit to show me. Five by five, eight feet high, 89 dollars a month. I was still in imaginative territory, thinking of the Dead Letter Office. What if I stop paying? Disappear? Die? What happens to my stuff? "We do due diligence, try to find you, locate next of kin. At last, we auction it off."

Back home I head up to my study in the attic. The study is actually a room I made from one half of the attic. The other half is filled with junk: Christmas decorations, winter clothing and ski gear, luggage, abandoned toys, out-of-favor tchotchkes and crockery, displaced furniture, stacks of old magazines, remnants of construction projects, … and this is just the attic. There's also the basement, the garage, and the garage loft. How did we accumulate so much junk?

The first four years we were married we lived in a studio apartment in Manhattan, with a bed that folded down out of the wall. The place was so small my wife used to say that if she wanted to put anything down she had to pick something else up first. When we left, we packed up everything we owned into a dozen boxes provided by Moishe the Movers. (Ah, Manhattan. One rival firm, run by a feminist co-operative, was named The Mother Truckers.) Now, twenty years on, here we are with a house silted up with possessions.

There are great cosmic principles at work here. Simplicity yields to complexity. From ammonites and trilobites come seven hundred species of dinosaur; from the spare pronouncements of the Master come annotations, exegesis, and commentary upon commentary; from the convenience of a phone call we advance to email inbox folders, texting, MySpace, Facebook, and twittering. There were originally three federal crimes: there are now, according to one scholar's tally, at least 4,452. (Did you know that as of 2002 it has been a federal crime to move birds across state lines to engage in fights?)

Then comes the cleansing fire, the creative destruction. An asteroid strike brings worldwide winter and mass extinctions; a barbarian horde burns the great library; GM becomes Motors Liquidation Company (even the ticker symbol "GM" has been retired); a solar storm obliterates all electronic records and services. That last one is actually on the cards. In 1859 the Sun ejected a blob of charged plasma that, when it hit the Earth, shorted out telegraph services. A computer is far, far more sensitive than an 1859 telegraph, our electronic civilization correspondingly more fragile.

The phrase "cleansing fire" stirs uncomfortable thoughts, though. Do I have a fire extinguisher in the attic? I think I do, somewhere behind those stacked bundles of old magazines and the kids' elementary-school art projects. "Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice," mused Robert Frost. Our modern suspicion, on view in the recent movies Idiocracy and WALL-E, is that it will end in stuff: great heaped drifts of discarded clothes, toys, books, papers, knick-knacks, furniture, electronics, vehicles, exercise machines, spare parts. Perhaps self-storage will at least keep it all out of sight for a while.