I’ve been on the clutter patrol lately. Last week I checked out the clutter on those information kiosks on Nassau Street and came to the conclusion [reported in last week’s issue] that — untidy as they may be — those flapping scraps of paper tacked to the walls have some real value after all.
At least one reader agreed with me:
I am a former resident of Princeton/Plainsboro and am on a short trip to Princeton this week. I enjoyed reading your article and could not agree more about leaving the kiosks alone. They lend a degree of character to Nassau Street that is difficult to quantify in dollars or even clearly express.
When I lived in Palmer Square I remember browsing through the various listings. They provided equal parts of information and comedic effect. Each time I return to Princeton I am slightly disappointed to see old landmarks disappear (Lahieres, the hospital where my daughter was born, the parking lot across from the guitar shop).
Of course, there should be a natural evolution and modernization is inevitable. But it would be great to hang on to the unique, slightly quirky landmarks that make Princeton special. In San Diego, where I currently reside, they would have declared the kiosks historic landmarks!
This week I have been tackling the clutter of my own desk and office and you can guess in advance what conclusion I am about to reach regarding its value. But first some words in defense of clutter.
I used to apologize for the considerable — some would say gargantuan — amount of clutter in my life. No more. First off a lot of paper flows through my work area, and so does a lot of electronic messaging. At one point in the era before E-mail I counted over 140 pieces of mail coming into the office on a typical day. It’s fair to say that the current onslaught of E-mail generates a commensurate load of paper.
Let’s assume that I do what all those professional organizers tell you to do and I handle 95 percent of that mail on the spot, either by dealing with it, throwing it away, or filing it for some later action. That leaves seven pieces that become clutter. Multiply 7 by 6 days a week by 52 weeks in a year and you have more than 2,100 pieces of paper accumulate in a year.
That gets compounded by the fact that we are in the paper business — we produce a lot of it to bring you the 48 pages you hold in your hand today. Our production process results in a trickle of clutter every day. Over the weeks and months the trickle turns into a torrent. It gets messy around here.
Again no apologies: Just this week the relatives of a recently deceased Plainsboro woman, who were planning a memorial service for her, asked if we had a copy of a feature article that had appeared 10 years ago or so in our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. They weren’t sure of the date or even the year. My colleague Lynn Miller found the exact issue, April 27, 2001, within 10 minutes. So being cluttered, I would argue, does not mean you are disorganized.
Clutter is also a sign that you are not always ruthless in your decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. Going through a cluttered office means that you can reconsider all sorts of ideas that may or may not deserve to become stories in the paper. On this most recent expedition of the clutter patrol I discovered a notice about a new Saturday afternoon discussion group starting up, meeting weekly at different coffee shops and restaurants in town. I set it aside because I wondered if it would be worth a small story to give people a taste of the group. Since then I have heard of a similar group that just started in West Windsor, intended to get people talking in a way that the hosts of the cable TV news shows never seem to do. I re-read the notice about the Princeton group and set it aside again. Maybe I will come to a decision after a third reading.
Buried in my pile of clutter was a two-month-old letter from an anonymous correspondent, who had clearly labeled it “not for publication.” I wouldn’t publish it in any case without an identifiable author, but something had made me set it aside, rather than immediately tossing it.
The subject turned out to be clutter. The writer had taken note of U.S. 1’s then recent announcement of its merger with Community News Service. He implored the new group not to resort to the publishing tactics of some of our competitors by creating pseudo-newspapers chock full of advertising that are stuffed weekly into every mailbox on the street, whether they are wanted or not. My anonymous correspondent even chided the Postal Service for entering into this same business by offering cut rates to advertisers who want to have the “letter carrier” foist their mass-produced advertising cards into the mail slot of every “postal customer” in town.
With the mail, apparently, it may now be possible to apply the old saying often applied to travel: “There are two kinds of class — first and none at all.”
The point of that letter now fully registered, I feel secure crumpling it up and giving it one last useful role — as a ball headed toward the hoop represented by a waste basket. One point becomes two.
Of course the removal of one piece of clutter is quickly superseded by other pieces. It’s a sea of clutter, in which I feel myself gently bobbing as I try to produce a publication worthy of reading. Maybe that’s the most valuable role that clutter can play — as a dramatic counterpoint to what I hope will become a neat, orderly, and uncluttered editorial environment.
With paper and office debris crowded around me, I set out to make this publication as neat and orderly as can be: Ads on the side and below, creating containers into which editorial content can rest. Photos across the top whenever possible, the bottom of one editorial column arranged so that the eye has to move as little as possible to get to the next. All elements separated by a pica (one-sixth of an inch) whenever possible. Listing text separated by three extra points of white space from the main article above.
When the job is done I feel like the office neat-nik. And when I walk out the door, not a single item is out of place.