Skip to comments.The Paper Chase
Posted on 10/26/2003 2:52:19 PM PST by sarcasm
y father never had much use for fairy tales. The fifth of five brothers raised in a one-bedroom tenement on the Lower East Side, he preferred real-life grotesqueries. And so at bedtime, I would listen raptly to his urban horror stories, tales that filled the dark with chimera, bogeymen, golems.
The most macabre was the tale of the Collyer Brothers, the hermit hoarders of Harlem. In lugubrious tones not unlike Boris Karloff's, my father described the vague aura of evil that had endowed the four-story brownstone on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street for much of the 1930's and 40's. It was there, barricaded in a sanctuary of junk, that the blind and bedridden Homer Collyer lived with his devoted younger brother, Langley, the elderly scions of an upper-class Manhattan family.
And it was there that they amassed one of the world's legendary collections of urban junk, a collection so extraordinary that their accomplishment, such as it was, came to represent the ultimate New York cautionary tale.
The Collyer brothers' saga confirms a New Yorker's worst nightmare: crumpled people living in crumpled rooms with their crumpled possessions, the crowded chaos of the city refracted in their homes. It's not that Gothamites hoard more than other people; it's that they have less room to hoard in.
Even now, after more than a half century, the Collyer name still resonates. New York City firefighters refer to an emergency call to a junk-jammed apartment as a "Collyer." The brothers are recalled whenever a recluse dies amid an accumulation of junk; as a middle-aged woman snapped at her parents in a Roz Chast cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker: "You guys never throw anything out! You're starting to live like the COLLYER BROTHERS."
The elderly Collyers were well-to-do sons of a prominent Manhattan gynecologist and an opera singer. Homer had been Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia, where he earned his degree in admiralty law. Langley was a pianist who had performed at Carnegie Hall.
The brothers had moved to Harlem in 1909 when they were in their 20's and the neighborhood was a fashionable, and white, suburb of Manhattan. They became more and more reclusive as the neighborhood went shabby on them, booby-trapping their home with midnight street pickings and turning it into a sealed fortress of ephemera, 180 tons of it by the end. Children chucked rocks at their windows and called them "ghosty men."
My father recounted in great detail the rotting decadence of what had been a Victorian showplace. The Collyers had carved a network out of the neck-deep rubble. Within the winding warrens were tattered toys and chipped chandeliers, broken baby carriages and smashed baby grands, crushed violins and cracked mantel clocks, moldering hope chests crammed with monogrammed linen.
Homer went blind in the mid-30's and was crippled by rheumatism in 1940. His brother nursed him, washed him, fed him a hundred oranges a week in a bizarre attempt to cure his blindness and saved newspapers for him to read when he regained his sight. Hundreds of thousands of newspapers.
Langley was buried in an avalanche of rubbish in 1947 when he tripped one of his elaborate booby traps while bringing Homer dinner. Thanks to my father, I knew all the particulars: how Homer had starved to death, how Langley's body had been gnawed by rats, how the police had searched the city for Langley for nearly three weeks while he lay entombed in the debris of his own house. To my 7-year-old ears, the cruel twist was deliciously gruesome: Homer and Langley had been killed by the very bulwarks they had raised to keep the world out of their lives.
The shadowy world of Homer and Langley was resurrected this month in an exhibition at the Inquiring Mind Gallery in Saugerties, N.Y. In this show, Richard Finkelstein, a Manhattan painter, has reimagined the brothers' lives in 17 black and white drawings called "Love and Squalor on 128th Street." One sketch depicts the brothers dancing in the debris before an audience of female mannequins, the women in their lives.
A murder mystery by Mark Saltzman called "Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out,'' opens next February in Burbank, Calif. And last year the Collyers popped up at the Gramercy Arts Theater on East 23rd Street in "The Dazzle," a period drama by Richard Greenberg that was loosely based on the brothers' story.
Very loosely. Like nearly everyone else who invokes the Collyers, the playwright acknowledged he knew next to nothing about them. Mr. Greenberg was less interested in historical accuracy than the "idea" of the Collyers; to him, they were just "two people propelled by the romantic possibilities of life, although perhaps not as we might conventionally define them.''
"Some see eccentrics as 'the other,' and in terms of pure irrationality,'' Mr. Greenberg added in a interview published around the time the play was produced. "But I see such eccentrics as having a very pure logic, although their needs are different from most of ours."
Plenty of Nothing
New York has long teemed with pack rats who can't pass a garbage bin without lifting the lid. A few became legends.
In the 1940's, a woman named Theresa Fox was found dead in the kitchen of her three-room hovel - somewhere in Queens, according to one newspaper account - with $1,300 stashed in the ratty stockings she wore. Ms. Fox, who was said to have owned property in Brooklyn valued at $100,000, had 100 one-pound bags of coffee in her cupboard, and 500 cans of evaporated milk stuffed in her mattress. The drawers of her bedroom bureau brimmed with sugar, and dozens of loaves of bread were stacked against the walls in a fieldstone pattern.
During the 50's, a shabby, plucked sparrow of a man named Charles Huffman was found dead in a Brooklyn street with no money in his pockets; the police said his $7-a-week room was piled with bank books and more than $500,000 in stock certificates.
And in the 60's a realtor named George Aichele, who lived at 61 East 86th Street in Yorkville, was found dead in a dim catacomb of trash and cash. Amid the stacks of old newspapers, heaps of used razor blades, drifts of pipes and birdcages and zithers was a paper bag containing a single penny and a note explaining that it had been found in front of the house in December 1957.
"New Yorkers live in such tight spaces that hoarding gets out of control faster," said Kate Sherman, director of special projects at the New York Service Program for Older People on West 91st Street. She says if New Yorkers moved more, they might edit their junk more. "But with rent control," she conceded, "people tend to stay in the same place."
Last year Ms. Sherman gave a lecture at the center where she works titled "I've Got Plenty of Nothing: the Dynamics of Hoarding," in which she cast the malady as materialism run amok.
"Part of it is about living in this age and society where there are so many papers to keep track of," she said. "It is really hard to know what to throw away. And if you are having memory problems or do not have the energy to take bales of paper to the recycling area, it can easily get out of hand. But I think with extreme hoarders, there's a level of it that's kind of beyond rational explanation."
Social scientists disagree as to exactly what causes obsessive hoarding. In its December 1960 issue, the Journal of Chronic Diseases branded recluses like the Collyers "deviants who are often surrounded by mystery and violence."
It is a description that doesn't sit well with Randy Frost, a professor of clinical psychology at Smith College and a consultant to the New York City Hoarding Task Force, a group formed this year by the Weill Medical College of Cornell University to examine hoarding among the elderly.
"If, by deviancy, the researchers meant sinister, that's not true," Professor Frost said. "If anything, hoarders tend to be avoidant and afraid."
And violent? "Only in situations where a hoarder's possessions are being taken away," he said. "What is true is that hoarders usually wind up isolated." He cited a Boston study of hoarders aged 65 and older. "Fifty-five percent of them had never been married," he said, noting that the figure for the general population is 5 percent.
Secrets of the Pharaohs
Historical accounts of hoarding date back 5,400 years ago to the necropolises of ancient Egyptians. In those vast cities of the dead, rulers of the Memphite dynasties were buried in mastabas, oblong tombs with sloping sides and flat roofs.
Huge storerooms above and below the late pharaoh were jam-packed with his possessions, a collection that typically included furniture, clothing, magical amulets, tools, weapons, game boards, jewelry, jugs of wine and lunch boxes laden with mummified ducks and geese.
"I wouldn't call it junk, exactly," said Peter Piccione, a Brooklyn-born Egyptologist who teaches at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
What would he call it?
"Stuff,'' Professor Piccione replied. "The ancient Egyptians believed a pharaoh couldn't lead much of a life in the afterlife without his stuff. Basically, they thought you could take it with you."
All the Collyer brothers took with them were secrets. Though Homer's death and the search for Langley were front-page staples in New York City's 12 daily newspapers, not even the most tenacious reporter could explain why these sons of privilege had been subsumed by their stuff.
'My Junk Is Like a Friend'
The brothers have haunted me ever since my father told me his cautionary tales, and presumably they also haunted the two congenital collectors who helped me tell the brothers' story.
One was Carl Schoettler, a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun and lifelong bibliophile whose apartment is a dark forest of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books. Together we visited the infamous corner at 128th Street and Fifth Avenue, now a vest-pocket park that is home to a dozen sycamores. We made a pilgrimage to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Homer and Langley are buried along with Mae West and Paderewski, the pianist whose notices drove Langley from the concert stage. We talked to old Harlem residents who claimed to have actually met the elusive Collyers.
My other collaborator was my Uncle Arthur, 88, so habitual a hoarder that my mother used to call him the lost Collyer brother. Small, bent and eternally boyish, Uncle Arthur dresses in layers of Salvation Army overcoats kept closed with rusty safety pins. Like a Beckett tramp, he holds his pants up with bits of rope.
Uncle Arthur was a 19-year-old novice collector when he moved to a tiny tenement apartment in Harlem, only three blocks from the Collyer homestead. He already knew that Homer and Langley were the preeminent junk collectors.
"I'd walk by their house and wonder what of value did they have,'' he said. "You got to have brains to collect that much stuff.
"I always wanted to get in touch with them,'' he added. "I always wanted to get in touch with anybody who collected as much as I did. They collected more. They had their junk up to the windows. I didn't have that much."
Uncle Arthur does, however, have quite lot, and he has turned squalor into an art form. Until his collection was "deaccessioned'' three years ago, nearly every cubic inch of his one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was full, and virtually every surface was covered with heaps of stuff that mounted toward the ceiling. Uncle Arthur hates a vacuum.
Tangled mounds of twine and electrical cord climbed up gentle rolling hills of newspapers still in their plastic sleeves. A riot of shirts and jackets slopped out of stained grocery bags and onto the grubby carpet. The stove and the kitchen counters disappeared from view, lost under a couple of feet of cans, bottles and Calder-like mobiles that Uncle Arthur had fashioned out of clothespins and coat hangers. The bedroom closet was packed with newspapers from the Carter administration; the refrigerator, with English muffins from the end of the Reformation.
He shares the apartment with Wagging II, his cat. "Collecting junk is my hobby," he said. "My junk is like a friend, another person, another cat."
An urban prospector, Uncle Arthur trails through the streets of Brooklyn, collecting the detritus of the New York night. He finds his booty in back alleys, subways cars, train stations.
"Believe it or not, I've never bought a single piece of junk," Uncle Arthur said. "I found it all on the street. You'd be surprised what you find once you look. Pennies, nickels, dimes, safety pins, jacks, dice, mirrors, small bottles, dresser handles, screws, wire, cord, moth balls, cigarette packs, pens that say different things on them, bullets."
He envied the space the Collyer brothers had in their 12-room house. Although by the time he got to Brooklyn in 1975, he was doing pretty well, he never quite got over the feeling that he never met the Collyers' high standards of junk connoisseurship. "I save this, I save that," he said. "I mix it all together, the good and the bad. So it's my fault."
He particularly prizes first-edition magazines, bus transfers and parking tickets plucked from windshields. "People just leave parking tickets on their cars," he said wonderingly. "I must have found thousands of dollars' worth. Every day I could pick one up."
My father used to claim that Uncle Arthur's hoarding was his way of "channeling aggression and sublimating it." And there is perhaps a defensiveness behind Uncle Arthur's hobby. Like Langley Collyer, he builds barricades, and sets booby traps and nests inside his walls of junk. But he is incapable of aggression. The only time I've ever seen Uncle Arthur really get mad was when my father told him to give it up. The tiny folds that line his pale forehead are not engraved by anger but merely the result of squinting down at the sidewalk.
Uncle Arthur has his own theory as to what lies behind his hoarding. "Maybe it's something I missed in my childhood," he said. "Like something big. The thing is you don't have to pay for junk. It's free."
He's not insensitive. He knows that people sniff at his junk, and frequently. "My landlord doesn't like my hobby," he conceded. "But what can he do? I've got a lease."
Franz Lidz is the author of "Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders," being published this month by Bloomsbury.
My mother was big on saying that, too!
It's funny how extremes can provoke you to go too far in the other direction. I was so horrified by the Collyer brothers' story, combined with the lifestyles of a couple of Collyer-ish friends, that I've become so averse to paper that I don't even bring the newspaper in the house any more. I'm retired and rarely eat at home, so the paper travels with me in my truck and I read it when I go out to eat. What I can't read in a day goes to the trash. My mail gets the same treatment. It goes into a briefcase where it sits for a couple of months until the sheer volume of it forces me to head for the neighborhood bar where I sort it all out, throwing nearly everything away.
I think the writer got it right when he said there are people who just don't know what to do with the stuff when it comes into the house. I'm like that. So I don't bring it in to begin with.
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