Recently a friend staged an intervention.
No, I don’t shoot heroin. I don’t do crystal meth. And I don’t drink.
My name is Parri, and I’m a penoholic.
And a tote bag hoarder.
And I especially have issues if I can score either of these items for free.
Unsuccessful attempts have been made to break me of my “problem,” but have been met by obstinacy and denial. Why do these collections bother my loved ones so, I’ve wondered? My stash isn’t life-threatening to me or anyone around me. But to listen to my husband and teenage daughter, you’d think I’m one step away from being featured on The Loser Channel, alongside the guy who’s sexually attracted to balloons, the woman who eats deodorant, and the lady who licks her cat.
The root of the problem, I think, is that we just don’t have space in our home, so there’s no room for excess. I live in a bungalow, with no basement, attic or garage. And my coffin-size closets were built back when ladies owned one dress, which they wore to church on Sunday. Consequently, my office has become a junk room repository for everything that has no place elsewhere in the house.
If there’s an art or sewing project on the dining room table, when I’m expecting company for a Passover Seder, I put it in the office. If there are bills, catalogs and receipts on the counter when a Jehovah Witness comes knocking? It goes in the office.
For years I’ve tried to make this junk room into a creative space where I can write. But every time I make the slightest headway, the math tutor arrives or the bug guy comes to spray. The clutter gets shoveled back in the room, and I’m buried once again. I’ve been cleaning my office for seven years.
So last Saturday, my friend Jo Anne came over to help me tackle this space once and for all. Since we closed our business last July, this albatross of a room is the only thing standing between me and listing my house, so we can get out from under a gigantic mortgage.
Jo Anne kindly offered to help me face the insurmountable. Little did I know the first thing my little neatnik friend would do is set her sparkly blue eyes on my office supplies.
In two minutes flat, Jo Anne discovered that I had enough writing utensils to take up two three-gallon Rubbermaid totes, four desk drawers and two cupboards ― plus enough overflowing pen and pencil cups for the entire Duggar family and their offspring in the century to come.
There were free pens from when my brother was in the novelty business … 13 trout and a dolphin … a bag of foot-long Frankenstein and skeleton pens that I kept forgetting to distribute as “lovely parting gifts” on Halloween.
There was a magnetic poetry pen; several rhinestone-studded pens, light-up pens; rubber pens; a feathered pen shaped like a giant flamingo; and a souvenir Vegas pen with a guy who loses his underwear when you turn it upside down. (That one was a joke; I didn’t buy it for myself.)
“Are you kidding me?” Jo Anne exclaimed with wide eyes. “Why would anyone need all these pens?”
“I’m a writer. I like pens,” I said.
I gave her an empty bin in which to toss the non-keepers. But it quickly became apparent that Jo Anne thought they were all non-keepers. She started filling the trash can.
“Why are you throwing them out?” I asked? I was starting to hyperventilate. “They’re perfectly good pens. At least give them away to the poor.”
“Poor people don’t want your pens,” Jo Anne insisted
“But they’re good pens. They work,” I said. “I’ve tested every single pen in those bins. You can’t just throw away perfectly good writing utensils.”
“It’s wasteful. My grandparents grew up during the Depression. I’ve heard about the days when families of five had to split a single lima bean.”
“Nobody wants your pens,” Jo Anne said.
I started frantically picking them out of the garbage.
“Those fish pens are brand new,” I showed her. “They still have the tags on them.”
“Why do you have so many fish pens? Who writes with a trout? Do you use these?”
“No,” I said sheepishly. “But they’re new. Look at the tags.”
That’s when my eyes glimpsed the Silly Putty pen in the garbage.
“That has real Silly Putty in it,” I said.
“Why do you need that?” Jo Anne asked. “Who needs that?”
“I don’t know. My brother gave it to me. You never know when you’ll be in the middle of writing the next War and Peace and feel the need to craft a prosthetic nose.”
“Put it back in the garbage,” Jo Anne said.
“No, not the garbage,” I panicked. “The poor might want that one.”
“Alright, that’s it,” she said. “Turn around. Step away from the pens. You are not allowed to watch while I go through these bins.”
“But wait,” I said. “Let me at least take this one. It was my grandmother’s Parker pen. And that purple one writes in 10 different colors.”
“Alright, that’s it. Take those and turn around,” she said. “You are officially banned.” Then she started filling my trash can … flowered pens, sequin pens, leopard pens …
“Is this all of it?” she asked.
And she could tell from my face that it wasn’t. (Damn, why am I such a bad liar?)
I opened the office supply cabinet, and pulled out four smaller Rubbermaid containers of Sharpies –plus two more packages of unopened Sharpies ― fine-point and ultra-fine-point ― in 24 colors, waiting in the wings, should the ones in use run out of ink.
There were several unopened boxes of Papermate ballpoints, uniball roller pens, number two pencils, and a set of 25 colored gel pens that I was going to give my daughter for Hanukkah three years ago, but decided to keep for myself ― because two of the colors were purple and peacock blue and I love purple and peacock blue.
“Oh my God,” Jo Anne exclaimed. “Why on earth does anyone need this many pens? You must have a thousand pens.”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I have a problem.”
“Yes, you do,” she said sternly.
And the irony of it all? No one in the house knew about this stash of ink. Every time someone went looking for a writing utensil, all they could find was a pencil with a broken point or a dried up highlighter.
Once again, Jo Anne took over, and I was not allowed to question her judgment.
We filled a bag with unopened office supplies to be returned for store credit that I could put toward much-needed printer ink. She pulled out 20 pens that she deemed worthy of The Salvation Army. And the rest were promptly thrown in my smelly dumpster, so I wouldn’t be tempted to reabsorb them back into my life.
All in all, we got rid of close to 500 pens, markers and highlighters and Staples let me return several unopened packages for store credit. I got to keep my Sharpies, in the name of art. And we filled the desk drawer with pens that actually work.
Next week, she said, she’s coming back for my totebags.
I don’t know why, of all the objects one can choose to stock, I have chosen these. I have no pantry, no canned goods for a hurricane. There’s no dried fruit, nuts, batteries, or anything else that could possibly sustain us through a state of emergency. My husband and I were both scouts. You’d think we’d embrace the motto, “Be prepared.”
Fourteen years ago, as the new millenium approached, we knew several people who stockpiled water and packaged foods, in the event the world stopped when the two-digit year turned to “00.” I worked at a power company at the time and knew how hard we were working on our Y2K project. So I had sincere doubts that power, water or other necessities would be in short supply.
Still, on New Year’s Eve day, I had a moment of second guessing myself and sent my husband to the local superstore to grab a few necessities, just in case. He came home an hour later with two gallons of water and a gigantic box of orange cracker sandwiches filled with processed peanut butter.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “This is what we’re supposed to live on, if tonight begins the apocalypse?”
“What?” he said. “Peanut butter is protein. And you don’t have to cook them.”
I chided him for his lack of preparedness, but looking back, perhaps I shouldn’t have thrown stones.
Because if and when the world as we know it does end:
Before dying of starvation and dehydration …
At best, all I could do is pen the first few chapters of my memoir.