by Wendell Wood Collins
Storage had never been Penny Brown’s strong suit. She was fairly neat on the outside, but open a closet and all bets were off.
It hadn’t always been this way. Growing up in a tidy Victorian in Allentown, there was a place for everything. Nooks and crannies had places for Lazy Susans and her grandmother’s corner cupboard and Hope chest.
But now the vestiges of her 50-something life could be found inside the one of the many mini-storage facilities along US1 between New Brunswick and Kendall Park. Why did they even call them mini-storage? She wondered. They were more like maxi storage, for heavy times like hers.
“Mini-storage is the place to be!” her old friend Sandy Simmons insisted. As a business investment, that is. Sandy and the Simmons brothers owned a batch of mini-storage units in Central New Jersey, scattering them among the area’s many strip malls and big box centers. It appeared to be a profitable business, judging from the gleaming white Lexus and hulking Rolex hanging from his hairy wrist. “Good stable cash flows, low point of entry, always a buyer, permanent demand,” Sandy recommended, as if Penny was going to purchase a franchise instead of renting a lowly 15×15 unit to house her worldly goods. Mini-storage was a countercyclical business, he explained — in bad economic times, lots of people (like her) downsized, and his business boomed in return.
Penny’s whole life felt downsized. She left a good job at the community bank a while back for a more fulfilling but lower paying position at a local private school, and subsequently had to sell her home of 15 years while finding a place for 15 years of stuff that had accumulated, but that she could not bear to part with.
She jumped at the chance when Sandy offered her half-price on the unit. “You’re a safe bet,” he assured her. She figured as much after hearing about a few of Sandy’s more infamous clients, like the prostitute who would meet her johns at the front gate and slink past the office hoping not to be spotted (that lasted two days), and the gangster kid who rode his spiffy new bike into the complex twice a week, wearing a new suit, but it turned out he’d been fencing stolen goods, the suit and the bike included.
With mini-storage, Penny could keep her stuff and take her time figuring out her next move. But mini-storage had also become part of the problem. She’d been visiting her storage unit every Sunday after church for the past five years.
Penny pulled her battered but hearty Subaru into the front drive of Presidential Storage and honked her horn twice. She never could remember the secret password (this one happened to be Tyler) to punch into the little keypad at the gate, but the security guard reluctantly, as always, let her through. Sandy had picked a different President as the password for each of his storage facilities. He remained disappointed that there the only president born in New Jersey was usually confused for a Ohio birthright.
She wound down the long drive, passing one sad, low, fake terra cotta building after another, and turned right into the last row, #35. That’s where Sandy put the old timers who were on a tight budget –– longer term tenants like Penny who wanted privacy and who didn’t mind winding around the lanes of the whole lot for it. The rest of the facility reminded her of a cemetery but with no fake bouquets to mark the resting places of loved ones. On Sundays, however, Row 35 was hopping with activity.
Her next door neighbor was already there. Lloyd Ferguson was an older man who had been a Presidential tenant for 20 years. He arrived like clockwork every Saturday and Sunday morning at 9 a.m., and spent a good part of the morning sitting in a little garden area towards the front of his space. She called it a garden area because, while any real plant would keel over and die in five minutes once the door was pulled down, Lloyd had managed to create a livable visiting area with some old plastic ferns and a little wrought iron table set. To walk into his storage unit, you almost felt like you were sitting in someone’s parlor getting ready for tea, it was so cared for, chock full of antiquities. Penny aspired to that level of tidiness some day, but also feared the danger of living in memory. She never sat in her own place, just did her weekly inventory and moved on to her neighbors.
“Hey Lloyd, what’s cooking?” Penny grinned as she popped her head under the storage unit’s aluminum pull-down door.
Lloyd started every Sunday morning with tea and the memory of Lorraine. “She was the butter on my bread,” he smiled when he first told Penny about his beloved late wife.
“What’s cookin yourself, good lookin?” he responded. Lloyd always made Penny feel better than she was when she started out for the unit. Like labeling her good looking when she knew she was just middle of the road. Penny was a medium person in general — medium height, with what she considered mousy brown hair, plain face, plainclothes (but not a policeman). She even dressed like one of those dowdy lady detectives on CSI. She was so plain that someone had picked her out of a crowd at Sears and nominated her for a Glamour Magazine Makeover, but she was too embarrassed that they wouldn’t be successful, and would try to sell her expensive makeup and clothes once they discovered she was really a Glamour Don’t, so turned them down.
Lloyd, on the other hand, she’d nicknamed Dapper Dan. He always came to his unit in a suit with a freshly pressed handkerchief popping out of his top pocket, shoes shined and a big smile. What did he have to smile so big about, she wondered? She knew only a little about his life outside of Presidential Storage, but assumed it was quiet and lonely, like hers. Why else would he sit here every week?
“Nothing much, you know me. Work, kids, family,” Penny answered with a half smile/half grimace. She had a job, in which she taught other people’s kids but never had any of her own, and she worried about her family — her mother and sister lived two counties away but might as well have been in Timbuktu for as much effort as they made to see her. She was always the one to drive to see them, to take her mother out to lunch at Friendly’s every Saturday, to cart her nieces and nephews around when her sister was too tired. Penny loved her family, but she didn’t feel that loved in return.
That was why she was there now. Here she felt loved. Even if Lloyd didn’t really know her, he genuinely looked forward to seeing her each week. The same could almost be said for a few other motley neighbors in the storage ’hood. Two doors down from Lloyd was Dwight, an egg-headed man of mysterious age — could be older, could be younger — who checked on his unit like clockwork just as she was about to leave each Sunday. She almost thought he was showing up just to see her, but he never had much to say. He would drive by and nod a hello, and then walk down and check out the goings on at Lloyd’s, which about the time he arrived would be the last of a game of Gin or Hearts.
“Girl, you should get in that car right now and head to AC, you such a card shark,” Lloyd would chuckle. He was right in a way. Cards were one of the only talents Penny had, next to storage unit maximization. She was good in math as a child and taught science to sixth graders, which required a little bit of math smarts, but there was something about cards that brought out her competitive streak. She was good at counting cards, at reading other people (but only in card games, not so much in life), and at strategy, coming up with bids and such.
“You are funny,” she replied, blushing slightly. Yes she was good at hearts and spades and games where money was not on the line, but she was not a risk taker by any stretch of the imagination. Once she had won $40 on the $5 tables in Black Jack at a teacher’s conference in Atlantic City but was so terrified of losing money she quit after a five hand streak and never looked back.
“Actually you don’t have that good a poker face, though. I been meaning to ask you, what’s got you down? You usually so funny, just a breath of fresh air when you set your mind to it. But lately you seem a little low.”
Penny blushed again. No one had ever called her funny or a breath of fresh air before. And he was right in that she was low. But she had just settled on that as a steady state of being.
“I’m not sure what you mean. I’m sort of the same day in and day out. You’re the one who’s a breath of fresh air. That’s why Sundays are my favorite day of the week. I get to hang out with you and laugh.”
Lloyd smiled big back and shook his head. “Girl, if I make your week you really need to get a life.” An understatement if there ever was one.
Penny felt the urge to head back to the storage unit for her weekly inventory. “I have a lot of straightening up to do back there. Time to go!” she hurried off.
“What, you got company comin’” Lloyd said, a little hurt that she was leaving so soon.
“In a way. Mother has threatened to come for a visit, and she may want to see where all our family heirlooms have gotten off to.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be here if you get tired of straightenin!” he called. She turned and headed towards her unit.
Ahh, to be with her stuff. Penny already felt better being in the presence of it. It was stuff she couldn’t bear to throw away, but had no room for at home. The older stuff was in boxes pushed to the back of the unit, with scrawled labels on the top. Linens. Record albums. Books galore. High school yearbooks, college texts, classics and how-to-books she had bought at the library sale. Even old trashy paperbacks that were curling at the edges. She just couldn’t think of throwing those away. What if she wanted to re-read them one day?
In the adjacent box was summer camp paraphernalia. Her swimming ribbon for coming in third place (there were only three swimmers). Her plaques for the superlative awards – Most Enthusiastic Baton Twirler, Most Enthusiastic Canoer, Best All Around Recorder player (there were only two). Boy how she had loved that camp, tucked in the bordering corner of West Virginia and Maryland. And now she barely ever ventured farther than her mom’s and her storage unit and the Menlo Park mall.
What had gone wrong with her life? Back then she had been most enthusiastic and best all around at something, but now she felt like least enthusiastic, least-all-around.
A light tap on the steel door woke her from her winsome trance.
“Anyone home?” a somewhat familiar male voice called out. Penny sat there, frozen, trying to figure out who was there.
“Hi –– yes I’m here.” God forbid this would be someone’s home, she thought. Sadly there probably were people who resorted to ministorage for shelter.
The metal door creaked open to reveal the gray pants and white shirt of Dwight, a headless form with the door not quite open all the way.
“I was starting to worry that we’d have to send in a search party,” he laughed as he raised the door to its full upright position.
“I haven’t been in here that long, have I?” Penny asked, both perturbed and relieved that her pity party had been interrupted. But she was also intrigued. Dwight had never uttered more than a hello or goodbye to her before.
“I got here at noon and it’s now 1:30. That’s long enough –– there isn’t that much oxygen in these windowless units.”
Penny was shocked. She had gone into a sort of memory lane/catatonic state and the time had flown by. She blushed.
“Thanks for letting me know. I get busy organizing stuff, and time just flies.”
Dwight looked around the unit and laughed again. “Organized? This is the neatest storage space I’ve ever seen. You should see mine!”
Penny felt secretly pleased to be considered neat, and suddenly had an urge to see his space.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” she blurted, then aghast, flashbacked to a scene from her childhood when her family friends’ 5-year-old son had made the same offer. She had let him go first, in the basement bathroom of their Point Pleasant beach cottage, and then screamed for his parents. That was the last time she got such an offer.
“I’ll take you up on that any day!” Dwight almost shouted. He was a lot more animated than she expected. He also was cuter, in the shade of the unit, than she had noticed in the glare of the sun outside. While egg-headed, his remaining curly blond hair mixed with gray gave him an almost preppy appeal.
“I think I need some air. It’s time to check out yours!” Penny shot up and out of her unit so fast that she almost got dizzy.
They ducked under the door and she pulled it down, with his final shove to the ground for good measure. She locked the padlock at the bottom of the grate and smoothed out her pants, almost bumping into Dwight as she stood up.
“I just realized I don’t even know your last name?” Penny chirped, her voice an octave higher than usual.
“It’s Mr. Anderson, Miss Brown. It’s nice to properly meet you. Would you care to join me for a brief tour?”
Dwight put out his arm, and Penny nestled her hand in its crook, which felt substantial, even strong. He wasn’t so bad after all.
They walked two doors down, and Dwight squatted to unlock his unit. He pulled up the metal door and voila, Penny was astonished. There covering every wall were fabrics of all colors and sizes and patterns and materials. She had always wanted to see the bazaars of Istanbul or Morocco, and here was their Maryland neighbor, minus the goats and the Call to Prayer.
“Oh my, what have we here?”
“I’m a furniture rep. I keep my fabrics here so that when I visit retailers I can just load up on the way. No room at the inn.”
Penny felt a huge wave of relief. Here under her nose all this time was a nice man, with manners, who was gainfully employed. Unlike the rest of his Presidential unit neighbors who were there to live in the past.
“There’s a story behind each of these swatches. But staying in here will give you a headache, with all the dyes and dust. Want to grab a bite, and I can tell you more?”
A bite? She hadn’t been out with a man in years. She couldn’t even remember when. Then she remembered her mother’s threatened visit. She opened her mouth to say sorry, I just can’t, Mom’s coming, but then remembered something Lloyd had told her. Get a life. Her mother wasn’t her life. Her boxes of memories weren’t a life. Even cards with Lloyd, however fun and sweet a man he was, wasn’t a life. This might be a first step in the right direction…her life.
“Sure, that would be great,” she responded.
They snuck under the door and out into the sunlight of the Presidential lot. She inhaled, exhaled, and smiled. Mini-storage might just be a good investment after all.
Wendell Wood Collins is director of corporate relations at the Bendheim Center for Finance at Princeton University. She lives in Hopewell with her three daughters.