I am sighing audibly and angrily (a bad habit I’ve been told) while carrying a dresser up the narrow staircase of my rental house. Two buddies and I have spent the morning transporting my stuff around the corner; this is the second shortest move I’ve ever made. We carry the usual academic’s belongings: books, shelves, desks, heavy metal file cabinets — the detritus I’ve accumulated and winnowed for 20 years.
Not counting college, I’ve moved somewhere around 14 times, and I have cultivated some serious skills. I am one of the finest scroungers of boxes you could ever meet. I learned as a newlywed how you can safely pack glassware in liquor store boxes. The first time I lived in Champaign, I discovered the dumpsters behind Kinkos, full of those Hammermill boxes with the sturdy lids. More recently, I realized that Hutchcraft Movers tosses used boxes in a dumpster, often on Thursdays. Finding intact wardrobe boxes here one afternoon felt so much like theft I had to go inside and penitently ask if it really was alright to stuff them into my Saturn sedan.
My most recent moves have been paid for by employers. Nothing is as beautiful as watching some burly dude take your oak entertainment center up the steps on your behalf. Thus, I’d thought my gifts for finding cardboard had become dormant. So committed was I to staying put, I actually threw out or recycled all the really good boxes from last time. Pure foolishnes for someone with my transient past.
Over the years I have also become a very fine last-minute packer (to the consternation of my family), by which I mean two or three all-nighters in a row (another, and perhaps most useful, of the academic arts). Before church-friends or colleagues or family arrive to load the rental truck, I want things sealed in boxes. I want a plan. I’m only paying them with pizza, and I don’t want to leave town with a truck full of resentment.
I’ve arrived at too many friends’ homes and apartments, ready to show them how to carry a hide-a-bed without it unfolding and killing someone, to find they were still cleaning sheets out of closets and pawing through the toenail clippers and expired medicines in the bathroom drawers. The only benefit from these experiences is leaving these houses with a bag full of half-used groceries your now former friends get too tired to pack. For years I had a can of baking powder in my cabinet from an old girlfriend.
My irritation with such ill-preparedness stems from one of my first attempts to help friends relocate a 1000 miles south to study at seminary. They had almost nothing packed. They needed boxes. They did not have a large enough truck. So we had to carry the dresser drawers still packed full of clothes, a wholly (and unholy) too-intimate encounter.
As I remember it, I was on my way through the garage when I spilled a drawer full of my friend’s wife’s lingerie. I knelt to gather up all the cotton, nylon, and silk strewn on the cement floor, relieved no one had witnessed me. Just as I picked up the last items, this wife I barely knew stepped into the garage.
She stopped and stared. I held in one hand a plain white bra and in the other a pair of pink threadbare panties. We made eye contact, and she said nothing. I mumbled something about getting this stuff onto the truck. As I lifted the drawer and turned away from her, I thought, “This really is her fault. If she had packed them away in suitcases, I never would have had to touch her underpants.” For two days, helping them drive their truck down south, I said almost nothing to her, and I didn’t know what to say to her husband either. I came to the conviction that I would never leave a drawer full of anyone’s underpants for my closest friends to see.
In restrospect, I know moving requires exposing yourself to others. It may not be your beloved’s underwear, but moving is always intimate. Someone’s hands are all over your favorite chair or the mattress your kid has slept on her whole life. If you make them pack for you, they’ll touch the coffee mugs and flatware that you put into your mouth every day. No one can avoid this, though professional movers handle it with more delicacy. They talk to one another, but they almost never say anything to you about what they find under the bed. I think of it as the difference between having a nurse change your bandages and cleanse your surgical scar rather than asking a guy from work to do it.
Still, any number of these intimate exchanges happen all the time in Champaign, or any town full of academics. We practice these exhausting, necessary rituals of touching and carting one another’s personal crap around. In May and August, we have the sacred appearances of the ratty chairs; curbsides and alleys fill with relics to be carted off in the night. These days we also have the purging of apartments on Craigslist. For the patient, prices decline, week by week or day by day as the postings get more desperate until, at the end you read: “Look, I’m leaving for the Bay Area in two days to be a librarian. I’ll sell you my grandmother’s walnut dining room set for $80.” Don’t be enticed and buy right away. A day later you’ll see an entire dining room set offered on Freecycle for nothing, which explains the table I’m writing on right now.
These rites of spring and fall (and to a lesser extent, winter break) make up one of the most stable qualities of Champaign-Urbana (or Madison, WI; Columbia, MO; Bloomington, IN). Students arrive and leave in rhythm. Typically four or five grad students crowd into the kind of house I’m renting, then disappear (but continue to receive mail at this address). The new tenure track assistant professors buy their very first homes, frequently the ones being sold by the assistant professors who didn’t get tenure.
When you are the one moving, you learn to hate all your own heavy furniture. You eventually break all the cheap particle board shelves you inherited from old roommates. You abuse the kindness of your friends, occasionally injuring one. Whether shifting your stuff around the block or a 1000 miles away, the distance barely matters to anyone but you. While the landlords and realtors count on the inherent movement, the long-term locals only notice it from time to time.
So sigh audibly and curse the ridiculous lime green couch left in your alley. But you might as well resent how leaves fall into the sewer grates or snow turns gray with grease before it melts. Orphaned furniture and random computer parts abandoned in public are the basic waste that a college town generates, like the plaque some of us have collected in our arteries. The place stays stable by welcoming transients. Without having to think too much about it, a community like this receives and sends its streams of people circulating through, keeping itself alive.