Kate Smith is senior editor for Minnesota Public Radio News.
For years I've wondered about storage units. Who rents them? What's in there? Apparently others are curious, too, since storage has now joined trucking, extermination and fishing as industries worthy of reality TV shows.
I'll confess I've not only been curious, I've mocked the nation's seeming craze for temporary storage units. Why do communities with only a handful of residents need a concrete pad on the edge of town with storage units behind garage doors? It seems that every small town in America has sprouted one of these things.
I've observed from afar, until now.
I'm part of a merging-households marriage. The marriage came a while back, and now my husband Mark and I are at the "stuff" phase of the process.
If you already live in a shared household, you might have forgotten that at one point, you had two of everything too. Two kitchens. Two living rooms. Two bedrooms. Two lives' worth of family photos, papers, pictures, beer-making kits and camping gear.
And two sets of boxed things. You know, the things that don't get touched until it's time to move them again?
Merging two households into one means we are learning about the world of the storage unit.
The weekend of the big move (as opposed to the various little moves), with the truck and everything, had a good, solid plan. I could have mapped it for you like a coach along the sidelines. The plan required at least two trips to a newly acquired storage unit. It would temporarily take the household overflow.
We pulled the truck up to the main entrance to the storage facility, which is a retrofitted industrial building. My first impression was: This place is busy. Multiple vehicles were pulling into a small parking lot simultaneously.
In front of us was a rental trailer. Its door was up, and the trailer, its driver and drivers of the other vehicles had disappeared into the dark.
The storage literature offered important declarations and regulations. No tailgating was one. Another was the reminder to be out of the facility at least 15 minutes before closing. That was to ensure the automated security wouldn't lock us in overnight.
We punched in a complicated access code and drove in. I felt immediately at home; this was nothing more than an indoor alley with garages on either side, just like our city neighborhood.
The moving crew ahead of us had stopped a ways down the alley. The movers were already at it, assembly-line like, pulling stuff out of the trailer and taking it somewhere. They were workers. No standing around and gabbing. Each time I came back for another load, they were busy. Then they were gone.
We got to work. We had to park our truck about 50 feet from the 10- by 15-foot storage unit. It was a lot of trips back and forth. As we worked, others came and went, and the flavor of storage life revealed itself.
There was a battered, bluish van pulled to one side of the alley. It was there when we arrived and still there when we left. Let's just say it was not so efficiently filled with stuff. No driver around, just the vehicle.
During one of our trips back to the truck, a woman in a station wagon appeared. She parked across the alley and I observed her activities in slivers each time I returned for a new load. She opened one of the garage doors to reveal neatly organized wooden shelving with lots and lots of office file boxes. By the time I returned for the next load, she was getting into the car. I'll never know what she was there for. A deposit or withdrawal?
At one point a man appeared walking toward us down the alley. He didn't seem to be connected to anything, not a storage unit or a vehicle. He walked by, made eye contact and responded when I said, "Howdy." A couple of loads later, there he was again, walking the other way down the alley carrying a case of bottled water. To where? And why? Who knows?
There was the fancy black pickup truck. It pulled up to a space I couldn't see into until we were leaving. In the storage unit was a nice-looking boat. Exactly how he planned to get it out, in the not-enough-turning-radius alley, I will never know.
Two guys pulled in as we were getting ready to leave. They opened up another garage space and I glanced in — couldn't help myself.
Each space tells a story about a life or lives. This one was an exercise in non-organized spatial relations. There were containers the size of garbage bags that looked like reinforced, plasticized burlap. They seemed jammed into the space and they seemed heavy. It took both guys to push them around looking for something. For what? Who knows?
Slivers of lives; that's all you get at a storage facility.
Our storage unit will give us temporary shelter for household overflow. We're paid up until sometime this summer. The climate-controlled 10 by 15 has a monthly charge that's about what I spent on rent in an earlier era. We'll see how the household merger goes, and just how temporary our time at the storage facility will be.
Secretly, I'm hoping we're there long enough so I can find out what that woman stores in boxes on all those neatly arranged shelves. And what the guys have in those heavy bags.