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So Much Clutter, So Little Room: Examining the Roots of Hoarding
The New York Times ^ | Sunday, January 4, 2004 | NINA BERNSTEIN

Posted on 01/04/2004 6:17:43 AM PST by TroutStalker

The cases never cease to fascinate: reclusive people trapped by their own accumulations, in rooms made unlivable by floor-to-ceiling heaps of newspapers, books and saved objects — from twist ties to grand pianos.

Some pass into legend, like the Collyer brothers, "the hermit hoarders of Harlem," who in 1947 were buried by the piles of urban junk that filled their four-story Harlem brownstone. But even less extreme examples, like that of the Bronx man rescued on Monday after being trapped for two days under an avalanche of magazines and catalogs, haunt the public imagination.

Such compulsive hoarding is being recognized as a widespread behavioral disorder, one that is particularly acute in cities like New York, where space is at a premium. The pack rat behavior ranges from egregious cases that endanger lives to more commonplace collecting that resonates with anyone who has ever stacked magazines to read later or bought more shoes than the closet will hold.

One woman, for example, found throwing out a newspaper so unbearable that her therapist instructed her never to buy one again. Another could not pass a newsstand without thinking that one of the myriad periodicals on sale contained some bit of information that could change her life.

And a third, trying to explain why she had bought several puppets that she did not want or need from a television shopping channel, spoke of feeling sorry for the toys when no one else bid on them.

The emotional investment that goes into hoarding makes it much harder to overcome than landlords or housing court judges often understand, said Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a national authority on the disorder who helped a group of medical, legal and social service agencies establish the New York City Task Force on Hoarding a year ago.

Similar groups exist in a dozen places, Dr. Frost said, including Seattle, Ottawa, Fairfax County, Va., and Dane County, Wis.

"I don't know if it's more of a problem in the city than elsewhere, but certainly the limited amount of space makes it come to a head," Dr. Frost added. "Most of this new attention is not coming from the mental health side of things, because many people with this problem don't seek help. It's coming from the housing side and services to the elderly."

Landlords, and lawyers and social workers who deal with elderly tenants, are often among the first to confront the problem.

Toby Golick, a clinical-law professor at Cardozo Law School, described the case of an elderly Manhattan man who rescued broken toys, discarded toasters and dilapidated umbrellas from the street until even his kitchen and bathroom were too crammed for use. The situation came to light only when the landlord could not squeeze in to fix a leaky faucet.

"He picked up things that he thought people were throwing away and still had life," said Ms. Golick, a founder of the hoarding task force, which will hold its second conference at Cardozo on Jan 21. "He was very upset that this was a disposable society and that people were very quick to disregard things of value."

In the end, she said, Cardozo's legal clinic prevented the man's eviction by working patiently with him on a compromise: the bathroom and kitchen would be cleared, and passageways tunneled through the piles of treasured junk in the other rooms. The turning point had been finding a resale shop that would accept some items, so the man would not have to throw them away.

Like the elderly tinkerer, the Bronx man, Patrice Moore, 43, saw treasure where others saw mainly trash. Interviewed yesterday at St. Barnabas Hospital, where he was recovering from leg injuries suffered when his collection collapsed on him, he said he might sue the landlord over the loss of comic books and articles from the 1980's about his favorite entertainer, Michael Jackson.

"I had to squeeze inside my apartment," he said of his 10-by-10-foot room, which rents for $250 a month. "I don't know how I lived that way. The problem was, I never got a storage space."

In one sense, Dr. Frost agreed, space makes the difference between eccentricity and pathology.

"People can collect and not throw things away without it really being a problem if they have the space and can organize it," he said. "It's only a pathology when it interferes with their functioning."

Pathological hoarding can affect people of all ages, and it seems to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, added Dr. Frost, who has researched the problem for a decade and recently received a grant to develop a model treatment to be tested on about 40 subjects at the Institute of Living in Hartford and at Boston University.

There are three facets to the problem, he said: enormous emotional difficulty throwing things away; compulsive acquisition — sometimes by buying things, but often by picking them up for free — and a high level of disorganization and clutter.

Many of the people afflicted seem to be unusually intelligent, he said. "They see more connections between things, which leads them to value those things much more than the rest of us do. "

But they also have difficulty finding conventional categories for the information they collect. Instead, they tend to organize their homes by visual or spatial cues — they might locate an electric bill, for example, on the left-hand side of a pile six inches deep, rather than where bills are filed.

This taxes their memory, so they tend to want to leave everything out in plain sight, piled in the middle of the room.

"They have to remember where everything is," explained Dr. Frost. "The rest of us only have to remember our system."

Equally important is their tendency to attach emotional significance to a wider variety of things. "For some it has to do with identity," he said. "I've had people tell me, `If I throw too much away, there'll be nothing left of me.' Almost like a Midas touch — if something comes into my ownership, it's part of me."

Finally, the psychologist said, "throwing something away makes them feel unsafe." The sense of security and comfort that most people feel in the familiar surroundings of home, hoarders may feel only when hemmed in by a nest of debris.

But there was no room for sentiment at the two-story brick apartment building on Morris Avenue in the Bronx from which police, firefighters and other city emergency workers extracted Mr. Moore. A man who would identify himself only as the landlord's brother said that he had stuffed Mr. Moore's trove of paper in garbage bags and stashed it in a back room for the night.

"Tomorrow is trash day," he said.

Janon Fisher contributed reporting for this article.


TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: behavior; clutter; disorders; filth; hoard; hoarder; hoarders; hoarding; mentalhealth; ocd; packrat; psychology; squalor; stuff
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1 posted on 01/04/2004 6:17:43 AM PST by TroutStalker
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To: TroutStalker
I collect things, but I have clear paths to travel in my house. This seems like another waste of tax money. I doubt that the problem is that widespread that they need to spend our money on it. Soon, the police will be inspecting people's homes and ticketing them for keeping "too much" junk. Worse yet, home owners associations will probably write into their covenants that no more than X amount of house space can contain clutter.
2 posted on 01/04/2004 6:23:29 AM PST by rabidralph (Happy New Year, y'all.)
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To: All
Rank Location Receipts Donors/Avg Freepers/Avg Monthlies
47 Iowa 20.00
1
20.00
134
0.15
35.00
2

Thanks for donating to Free Republic!

Move your locale up the leaderboard!

3 posted on 01/04/2004 6:24:10 AM PST by Support Free Republic (If Woody had gone straight to the police, this would never have happened!)
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To: TroutStalker
Hmmm... The Collect-o-maniacs won't want to pass this up.

Police-Seized Loot Is Online, and Yes, It's a Steal

4 posted on 01/04/2004 6:24:31 AM PST by csvset
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To: TroutStalker
Great Article. I just printed it up and filed five cpoies ofd it in section 4, subsection AAZ. That would be located in the living room, about 3 feet down in in the pile of new filings.

Oh well, time to work on my giant collection of twine!

5 posted on 01/04/2004 6:25:13 AM PST by FormerACLUmember (One man with courage makes a majority)
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To: TroutStalker
My in-laws save EVERYTHING.... towering stacks in their basment and garage.. It's going to be awful to clear out their stuff once they pass on.

Tia

6 posted on 01/04/2004 6:31:21 AM PST by tiamat ("Just a Bronze-Age Gal, Trapped in a Techno World!")
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To: TroutStalker
Interesting article. Wonder if any FReeper might have a hoarding problem...uhhh...
7 posted on 01/04/2004 6:32:24 AM PST by YepYep
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To: TroutStalker
"It's only a pathology when it interferes with their functioning."

That occurs long before they are stumbling over things. Ask the family of a person who resolutely refuses to throw away junk.

8 posted on 01/04/2004 6:39:43 AM PST by Tax Government
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To: tiamat
I know some people like that. There's a lot that is inarguably garbage, like dead batteries, that they still will not discard. I have a pretty high trash tolerance, but when it starts to become pure filth, I can't take it anymore.

I myself have a problem throwing things away just because I don't want them, if they are broken or spoiled I can part with them easily. Two solutions to my hesitation I have found, garage sales and/or donation to the Salvation Army.

I have also heard the advice "clean when you are angry", you're better able to throw stuff out then.
9 posted on 01/04/2004 6:43:41 AM PST by jocon307 ( The dems don't get it, the American people do.)
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To: tiamat
After my father-in-law died five years ago, my wife and I bought a larger house so her mom could live with us. They lived in their house for fifty years and both saved all kinds of things.

We spent a lot of time going through everything before having an estate sale. It was exhausting. Junk from garage sales, records from old businesses, stacks of magazines, seven bowling balls, drawers of old hardware filled the basement, attic and shed.

We are just now going through a dozen boxes of old photos, cards and memorabilia, pitching out pictures and obituaries of people we don't know.

My own solution to the problem is to move and/or get divorced periodically.

10 posted on 01/04/2004 6:48:24 AM PST by TroutStalker (Whip me, strip me, tie me, fly me -- catch & release)
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To: jocon307
The Discovery Channel and Style Network both have shows that address this. They come into the house, clean them out, have a yard sale, organize and redecorate. It's fascinating to watch the hosts try to hide their horror when they see how some of these people live.
11 posted on 01/04/2004 6:48:28 AM PST by Megben
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To: TroutStalker; aculeus; general_re; BlueLancer; hellinahandcart
And a third, trying to explain why she had bought several puppets that she did not want or need from a television shopping channel, spoke of feeling sorry for the toys when no one else bid on them.
12 posted on 01/04/2004 6:49:07 AM PST by dighton
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To: Tax Government
An elderly woman who lived behind my brother had saved so much junk that her house was literally filled with magazines, newspapers and trash. There was only enough space for narrow passageways throughout, including the stairs. When she died, my brother said they filled over a dozen trash trucks cleaning it out.
13 posted on 01/04/2004 6:53:26 AM PST by TroutStalker (Whip me, strip me, tie me, fly me -- catch & release)
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To: YepYep
I only hoard yarn. Well, and the pattern books. And a few knitting needles. And crochet hooks. And stuff.

But that's about all.

14 posted on 01/04/2004 6:55:52 AM PST by Catspaw
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To: TroutStalker
That is awfully kind to give your MIL a home! You and your wife are good people.

Of course, I really cannot talk... I hoard things and so does my husband. Our daughter is showing signs of being a pat-rack as well. We are moving to a smaller home next year and I REALLY do not see what I will do with all of the accumulated crap of a 20 + year marriage.

Tia

15 posted on 01/04/2004 6:56:32 AM PST by tiamat ("Just a Bronze-Age Gal, Trapped in a Techno World!")
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To: FormerACLUmember
Oh well, time to work on my giant collection of twine!

In a box labeled "bits of twine too short to use."

I used to tease my dad about all the "goodies" he collected. But whenever somebody needed something (squirrel cage blower or a motor or a fan belt for a '56 Chevy or a heating element for a Norge dryer...), they'd give dad a call and he'd locate it in his collection.

I've inherited his collector skills, but to a lesser degree; only because I've moved so many times over the years. He lived in the same house for 40 years.

16 posted on 01/04/2004 6:56:42 AM PST by tgslTakoma (Get ready for March 20, 2004 folks. cANSWER commies are regrouping for another assault on DC!)
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To: Tax Government
Ask the family of a person who resolutely refuses to throw away junk.

I see you've met my wife

17 posted on 01/04/2004 6:57:12 AM PST by philo
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To: TroutStalker
"One woman, for example, found throwing out a newspaper so unbearable that her therapist instructed her never to buy one again."

I'd suggest a subscription to the 'Minneapolis Star Tribune.'

That would cure her in no time - she'd not only throw it out as soon as it arrived, after she'd thrown-up she'd likely tear her hair out by the roots and throw that away too.
18 posted on 01/04/2004 6:58:30 AM PST by WorkingClassFilth (DEFUND NPR & PBS - THE AMERICAN PRAVDA)
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To: tiamat
Tia, we're in the same boat--literally. We're moving aboard our catamaran in a year or so and we'll be tossing about 75-85% of our stuff (my hubby says, "it's not a barge"). We'll sell what we can and toss the rest. The junk pickers will have a field day.
19 posted on 01/04/2004 6:58:54 AM PST by Catspaw
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To: Tax Government
Ask the family of a person who resolutely refuses to throw away junk.

Junk? It's perfectly good stuff.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

20 posted on 01/04/2004 7:00:10 AM PST by tgslTakoma (Get ready for March 20, 2004 folks. cANSWER commies are regrouping for another assault on DC!)
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To: Catspaw
If I may make a suggestion, select what you want to keep, and have an estate sale for the rest. You would be surprised what people will buy and take home for their own "collection".
21 posted on 01/04/2004 7:05:48 AM PST by TroutStalker (Whip me, strip me, tie me, fly me -- catch & release)
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To: tgslTakoma
I've owned several Jaguars in my young life, the last sold away in 1978. I still have an extra head gasket set, valve adjusting tools and books for 3.8 and 4.2 six cylinder engines (and will not give them up).
22 posted on 01/04/2004 7:05:50 AM PST by Eric in the Ozarks
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To: TroutStalker
I think there's a related disorder called animal hoarding. Lots of cats and dogs.
23 posted on 01/04/2004 7:06:14 AM PST by Tuscaloosa Goldfinch
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To: dighton; TroutStalker; general_re; BlueLancer; hellinahandcart
... Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a national authority on the disorder who helped a group of medical, legal and social service agencies establish the New York City Task Force on Hoarding a year ago.

Similar groups exist in a dozen places, Dr. Frost said, including Seattle, Ottawa, Fairfax County, Va., and Dane County, Wis.

Doctor Frost, Title Hoarder.

24 posted on 01/04/2004 7:06:54 AM PST by aculeus
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To: Catspaw
Where are you headed once aboard?

If I could live anywhere, it would be the BVI's. Sigh.

25 posted on 01/04/2004 7:07:59 AM PST by Tuscaloosa Goldfinch
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To: YepYep
Bookmarking to read later.
26 posted on 01/04/2004 7:09:01 AM PST by TruthNtegrity (I refuse to call candidates for President "Democratic" as they are NOT. They are Democrats.)
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To: Tuscaloosa Goldfinch
First stop will be either the Gulf Shores/Pensacola area or further east in the panhandle to finish outfitting the boat, then we're off. If we like a place, we'll stay. If we don't, we'll pull up anchor and move.

We spent a month in the BVI years ago and I love both the area and the people.

27 posted on 01/04/2004 7:13:08 AM PST by Catspaw
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To: TroutStalker
I just cannot stand to delete any interesting FR threads from my hard drive, but that's the extent of my problem. Honest.
28 posted on 01/04/2004 7:17:10 AM PST by The_Media_never_lie
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To: TroutStalker
If I may make a suggestion, select what you want to keep, and have an estate sale for the rest. You would be surprised what people will buy and take home for their own "collection".

That's what we plan on doing--having a big yard sale for one or two weekends prior to moving on board. What's left we either toss or give to St. Vincent de Paul (depending on what's left). There's not a lot of storage space aboard a boat (it's not like we're going to be towing a barge behind us), so what we take with us will be minimal. And we have 20+ years of STUFF to dump.

29 posted on 01/04/2004 7:17:47 AM PST by Catspaw
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To: Catspaw
Sounds wonderful. Stay safe!
30 posted on 01/04/2004 7:18:43 AM PST by Tuscaloosa Goldfinch
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To: Catspaw
Oh, how fun! I've had fantasies of living on a boat!

could be worse! At least it's not an ark!

Good Luck!

Tia

31 posted on 01/04/2004 7:20:07 AM PST by tiamat ("Just a Bronze-Age Gal, Trapped in a Techno World!")
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To: tgslTakoma
My grandfather was like that --- I always thought it was because he had lived during the depression and also during those "waste not want not" days that most of us can't imagine.

He wouldn't throw out used shoes because even though he didn't need to wear them now, he figured hard times could come back and they'd be better than wearing shoes with holes. He saved electrical cords, figuring if he ever needed to he could melt off the plastic and sell the copper. His house was neat because he didn't store his stuff there, but you couldn't have parked a bicycle in his 2-stall garage.
32 posted on 01/04/2004 7:20:29 AM PST by FITZ
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To: TroutStalker
For some reason, I have a compulsive need to stockpile National Geographic and Wired magazines. I have every issue of NG from about 1972 to the present and I have every issue of Wired since I first subscribed back in 1994.

My wife got me the CD-ROM version of every NG magazine from the past 100 years with the expectation that I would get rid of my collection. Nothing doing however. I mean, you can't take a CD-ROM to the bathroom with you.

I guess the glossy feel of these magazines especially appeal to me. In my computer room, the shelves are literally groaning under the nearly 120 issues of Wired but it is fun to thumb through them from time to time and see what was "cool" just five years ago (still can't afford it though).

33 posted on 01/04/2004 7:26:01 AM PST by SamAdams76
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To: FormerACLUmember; TroutStalker
People just don't understand that we won't be able to FIND this kind of stuff when the communists come!
34 posted on 01/04/2004 7:28:54 AM PST by Wumpus Hunter
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To: FITZ
The success of the off-site storage business (with garage-sized spaces crammed with stuff people don't even think about) shows that hoarding is widely practiced.

My wife hoards Christmas decorations and stuff, so we've had to rent a small storage space to keep it all.

My mother was a pack-rat; it took us a week to throw out all the junk she accumulated after she passed.

35 posted on 01/04/2004 7:34:40 AM PST by sinkspur (Adopt a shelter dog or cat! You'll save one life, and maybe two!)
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To: TroutStalker
Great post. From experience, if you have a friend or family member with this problem, try to remove the words JUNK, STUFF, and CRAP from your vocabulary while talking with them, even if they use those words. Even when they refuse your help, it is much more helpful to say "I would love to help you organize and sort your collection of magazines" rather than say "I'll bring my pick-up over Saturday and we can take a load of your crap to the dump."
36 posted on 01/04/2004 7:37:21 AM PST by linton59
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To: tgslTakoma
Actually this is a clinical manifestation of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), treated with massive doses of SSRI medication.
37 posted on 01/04/2004 7:39:44 AM PST by FormerACLUmember (One man with courage makes a majority)
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To: sinkspur
That could be hard --- it depends on the yearly cost of storage --- but I can imagine there are things stored in some of those places that don't amount to what people pay to store them.
38 posted on 01/04/2004 7:42:16 AM PST by FITZ
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To: Wumpus Hunter
"People just don't understand that we won't be able to FIND this kind of stuff when the communists come!" or for when the Mexicans come charging over the top of the hill

You need to be organized.

Put the $1's in a waste basket till you cannot squash another one in.

Then trade them in for $5's or $10's an stack them neatly in an old shoe box.

When you have 10 or more boxes of $5's and $10's trade them in for $100's.

With 20 or more shoe boxes full of $100's it's time to trade them in for some gold bricks. We like to keep a few dozen of those around just in case.

Semper Fi

39 posted on 01/04/2004 7:42:46 AM PST by An Old Man (USMC 1956 1960)
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To: Catspaw
WE have a nice big laundry room where we live, I take stuff over all year long and it is always gone within hours.
40 posted on 01/04/2004 7:45:01 AM PST by douglas1 (i)
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To: TroutStalker
We are just now going through a dozen boxes of old photos, cards and memorabilia, pitching out pictures and obituaries of people we don't know.

Someday you will have a descendant who is interested in genealogy and family history, and he or she will curse your name!

-ccm

41 posted on 01/04/2004 7:47:26 AM PST by ccmay
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To: rabidralph
for later read
42 posted on 01/04/2004 7:47:35 AM PST by Final Authority
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To: The_Media_never_lie
"I just cannot stand to delete any interesting FR threads from my hard drive, but that's the extent of my problem. Honest."

Bookmark them. Then they will be stored on FR's servers, and you'll free up a bunch of hard drive space.

43 posted on 01/04/2004 7:49:37 AM PST by redhead (Les Français sont des singes de capitulation qui mangent du fromage.)
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To: YepYep
Wonder if any FReeper might have a hoarding problem...uhhh...

"Hello. My name is Polybius."

"Hi, Polybius!!!!"

"I....ummm....errrr.....never throw away FreepMail."

44 posted on 01/04/2004 7:55:14 AM PST by Polybius
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To: WorkingClassFilth
When we lived in the Twin Cities, I finally had enough of the Strib so I called and canceled except for the Sunday paper. A few weeks later, they offered me the Saturday for free, since I was taking the Sunday, so I agreed to take the paper two days a week.
A few months later, the Strib called offering me Thursday and Friday for free, since I was already getting Saturday and Sunday. That's as far as they would go, tho.
45 posted on 01/04/2004 8:07:58 AM PST by Eric in the Ozarks
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To: dighton; aculeus; general_re; L,TOWM; Constitution Day; hellinahandcart; Thinkin' Gal
"Like the elderly tinkerer, the Bronx man, Patrice Moore, 43, saw treasure where others saw mainly trash."

"Life, as it is."
I have lived for over 40 years and I've seen "life, as it is": pain, misery, cruelty.

I've heard all of the voices of God's noblest creature: moans from bundles of filth in the streets.

I've been a soldier and a slave.
I've seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa.
I've held them in their last moments; these were men who saw "life, as it is".
But they died despairing. No glory. No bray of last words. Only their eyes filled with confusion, questioning "Why?"
I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had ever been born.

Life itself seems lunatic. Who knows where madness lies?
Perhaps to be too practical is madness.
To surrender dreams, this may be madness;
To seek treasure where there is only trash.
Too much sanity may be madness.

But maddest of all, to see "life, as it is" and not as it should be!
("Man of La Mancha")

46 posted on 01/04/2004 8:08:48 AM PST by BlueLancer (Der Elite Møøsenspåånkængrüppen ØberKømmååndø (EMØØK))
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To: SamAdams76
LOL! We had large stacks of National Geographic at Pop's house from way back. Those things are heavy, too.

When we gave a subscription to our daughter, she asked if she had to keep all the old ones. She is definitely not a hoarder.

47 posted on 01/04/2004 8:10:49 AM PST by TroutStalker (Whip me, strip me, tie me, fly me -- catch & release)
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To: ccmay
We still have all the old photos that the living can recall, and that's still a lot. It might be fun to take all the others and make things up to write on the back.
48 posted on 01/04/2004 8:13:26 AM PST by TroutStalker (Whip me, strip me, tie me, fly me -- catch & release)
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To: TroutStalker
"a national authority on the disorder who helped a group of medical, legal and social service agencies establish the New York City Task Force on Hoarding a year ago"

This is a joke, right?

49 posted on 01/04/2004 8:18:58 AM PST by sweetliberty (Controlling the ACLU by feeding it our liberties is like controlling sharks by chumming the waters)
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To: TroutStalker
"They see more connections between things, which leads them to value those things much more than the rest of us do. "

Yup. I have it...but, I have the room to store it too.

50 posted on 01/04/2004 8:26:28 AM PST by blam
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