The Story of Junk

Thousands gape! Booby traps grow deadly in 1938 Harlem

Why are people so fascinated with smell-o-rama stories about humans living with old newspapers and cat food and an accumulation of objects that is in essence the building of a grave? Perhaps the answer is in the question, a self-torturous mental romp in the decay, slime, and ooze that awaits us all.

New York's eight daily newspapers fought for scoops for over a decade, beginning in 1938 ("Booby Traps Grow Deadly!" "Thousands Gape!"), about the Collyer brothers—Columbia grads who barricaded themselves inside a Harlem brownstone with 136 tons of debris, 13 mantel clocks, 10 grand pianos, and jars of human excrement, falling deeper and deeper into a utopia of refuse, defying physical limits and making time disappear in their neither-with-you-nor-without-you folie à deux. (When Homer lost his sight, he and his brother, Langley, decided that Homer would "eat one hundred oranges a week." When they stopped using electricity, Langley said it was because "Homer can't see. . . . As for me, I prefer it a trifle shady.")

By the end, Homer had not left the house for seven years and when he did, it was in a canvas sack. (At this point, story-breaking New World reporter Helen Worden, tipped off by the corner druggist, arrives on the scene and the cop says, "This is your baby, Miss Worden, and the final chapter's being written right now.") It took the police 16 more days to find Langley "wedged between a mahogany chest and an old sewing machine. The rats had eaten half the face . . . but he was still identifiable."

Humorist Franz Lidz embraces the era's zest, crosscutting the Collyer story with that of his debris-collecting Uncle Arthur, the star of Lidz's memoir, Unstrung Heroes, who had a similar kind of gothic doubling (fitful relationship with his brother in the Bronx) and who was also a hoarder, the kind who put an equal value on everything but who never quite got over a feeling of not meeting the Collyers' high accumulation standards. "You gotta have brains to collect that much stuff," he says.

Though layering two narratives is tricky (wait, I thought we were in Homer's house and now we're in Uncle Arthur's and can't we just move forward dramatically and the Collyers are more interesting anyway because they were so remote and so attached to their late mother), Lidz's affection for his uncle energizes what could just be someone else's history.

 
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