Space: a coveted and vanishing luxury, even in the US, where large tracts of uncultivated, unpopulated, wild land stretch across the continent. In between, small towns and large cities are linked by snaking, weaving, meandering highways, cutting through forests, deserts, farmland and mountains. In September, I travelled by road from Providence to Johnson (Vermont) and later, from Rochester (NY) to New York city. At one point, I also travelled to Boston — I wanted to pack as much as I could in to the two months that I was to be in the US.
Everywhere I went, in between populated areas, I saw unbridled, beautiful space. I had been told that everything in America was big. The spaces were big, the roads were wide, the buildings were impressive, and the shopping malls were massive.
It was a shock, therefore, to step into populated areas, and experience the sheer density of stuff all over the place. It’s not a word that I can exchange for something prettier or more descriptive. It’s just stuff, encompassing everything from clothes to food to furniture. And everyone has more stuff than their small homes and offices can take. Everyone has more stuff than they need. And it’s everywhere.
In the small home where I was a guest, I had a hard time finding space for my handbag, let alone my clothes. I literally lived out of my suitcase for the month that I spent there. Clothes would be folded and returned to the suitcase, shoes wrapped in a bag, laundry also wrapped into a bag and placed back into my suitcase, which was zipped up and pushed under the bed. Without that, I would have never have been able to find anything. Because the spare room I was in was a repository for all those things my hosts couldn’t find space for.
There were extra computers, clothes, boxes of more clothes, make-up and toiletries (great shampoos, which I raided). There were mugs, shoes, jackets, pillows and sheets, weights, light bulbs, yoga mats, picture frames, candles, books, magazines, newspapers, hangers (yes, empty hangers), cables, wires and discarded or unopened mail. In the kitchen, on the small table were more candles, toiletries, mugs, frames and decorative items that hadn’t found a home yet.
I couldn’t bear to inventory the bathroom, where more stuff was piled into a ceiling-high shelf next to the vanity. I only got a glimpse of the master bedroom, but it was enough to give me claustrophobia. When my friends ran out of space in the home, their cars would double as extra storage. Getting into the car meant clearing out bottles and clothes and papers before one sat down.
And because they couldn’t find anything when they needed it, my hosts tended to go out and buy what they lacked. At the giant shopping malls where we spent most of our time, I saw deals everywhere: buy three for less than the price of one. Buy one, get one free. Spend less by buying more. America’s companies had mastered the art of selling, and Americans were lapping it up. You couldn’t buy just one of anything — there were deals to be had and it was always, always better to buy more. We get these small 45 gram packs of chips in Pakistan, the kind that you can eat in one sitting without overeating. The smallest pack I could find in the malls of America were 200 grams.
I stayed with friends and family around the country. One friend had seven jackets (that I could find), and when I left, they were heading out to buy him an eighth because he needed a proper ‘winter’ jacket.
Of the small studio offices I was invited into at the VSC, the writers had stacks of papers, writing pads, scattered pens and books, resting next to Kindles and laptops. The rooms were overflowing, barely enough space to let the mind rest from the chaos that surrounded them. The artists’ studios were no different, with a few exceptions. Yet they were all comfortable in the midst of their stuff. They barely noticed the clutter, in fact, until they commented on the sparseness of my office. I had my laptop, a writing pad and a large sketch pad that I was using to draw maps and tables about my book. What else, after all, did I need?
One Man’s Garbage…
At the VSC, an artist from Cambodia was visiting the US for the second time in her career. She looked younger than she actually was; she had suffered under Polpot’s regime when she was a child. As an adult, she took advantage of an opportunity to travel to New York for an exhibition. She told us that when she took her first walk around the city, she was fixated on the garbage collection, the giant dumpsters that were being emptied that particular morning.
Her second exhibition was an installation of toys she had retrieved from dumpsters around New York.
The toys were in good shape, just slightly worn. And they were bright and colorful and shiny. Far too shiny, she said to be thrown away. “Children in my country would play with these toys for years, decades, even pass them on to their own children. We don’t throw away perfectly good toys.” Or perfectly good clothes, for that matter. She was one of three Cambodians at Johnson, and she spent a month there with one small bag. Stuff is scarce in Cambodia, and therefore, treated with more deference than she saw in the States.
Space for Shopping
There were wonderful things to see in the US. Perhaps it was a twist of circumstances that placed me among people whose prime leisure activity was shopping. Perhaps it was just my own blind arrogance that all I saw were giant shopping malls nestled amid forests of fall leaves. When I wrote ‘Material World’ back in April, I had no personal experience of the disparities of consumption patterns between the first world and the third. It hit home, in the shopping malls of suburban America, that I lived in a third world country.
“The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians..” – FRED PEARCE
Yet, perhaps the saddest part of every mall that I went into from Vermont to New York was that no mall, whether in the suburbs, in a small town, or in the city, had any bookstores in them. If you wanted a bookstore, you had to find a Barnes & Nobles store outside of a mall. You won’t be browsing through any bookstores in between shopping for clothes or eating at the food courts. With all that space, all that vastness, all those warehouse-style malls that go on for miles, there seems to be no room for books.