»  The Straggler, No. 16

February 9, 2004

  The Decline of Stuff


In his book The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer describes some WWI film footage he has been watching of soldiers on the Western Front:

Every piece of equipment looks like it weighs a ton. There were no lightweight nylon rucksacks or Gor-tex boots. Things were made of iron and wood … Everything weighed more then.

He goes on to quote some lines from the war poet Ivor Gurney:

We marched and saw a company of Canadians,
Their coats weighed eighty pounds at least.

This passage came to mind the other day while I was talking to my plumber. I had called him in to get an estimate for removal of some pipes. Our house came to us with an old-fashioned heating system: huge ancient cast-iron radiators upstairs, baseboard pipe heating downstairs. We put up with this for some years. Then last fall, having come into a little money, we called in a firm to install a spiffy new system that blows air through vents. The project left us with a great deal of now-redundant old galvanized-steel and copper piping to be removed, not to mention those cumbersome great radiators. So I called in the plumber for an estimate to remove it all.

The plumber sized up the job briskly and gave me a quote. It was a little more than I wanted to pay, so I attempted some bargaining. This probably wasn't appropriate, but I have picked up the bargaining habit from my wife, who has the Third Worlder's refusal to take any quoted price at face value, and will haggle over the price of a subway token. Surely (I said to the plumber) the extracted metal piping would itself be worth a good deal as scrap?

The plumber smiled a superior smile at my ignorance. Scrap metal? Forget it. Yes, there were a few dealers still in business on Long Island, but they took in only copper and brass, and didn't give much for that. It was not worth trucking it over there.

Surely, I wondered aloud, there must always be some use for metal. Bobbing up to the surface of my mind came dim folk-memories of London park railings being dismantled in WW2, to be melted down and used to build battleships. And even in my own childhood, in the 1950s, we had campaigns of collecting the foil caps from milk bottles for … for … for some large national purpose, I forget quite what. At any rate, I had had it impressed on me at an early age that metal is important, that key components of the world are made from it. Why, the World Trade Center was made from it: I have seen one of the support beams from those doomed towers, preserved in the State Museum at Albany — a thirty-foot girder that must have weighed many tons, grotesquely twisted back double on itself into a shape like one of those little colored ribbons people wear to declare their sympathy with some disease or other.

The plumber disabused me. No, nobody wants scrap metal. Not worth the trouble of transporting it. He then — this was a garrulous fellow — embarked on a long harangue about the quality of construction materials, which, according to him, was declining fast.

"Faucets! You wouldn't believe what people are paying for faucets! A thousand dollars for a faucet! And the things are no good! They don't last!"

From faucets the plumber's monologue broadened out into a mighty river of complaint, covering building materials of all sorts. Roofing! — time was, a roof would last you thirty years. Now, with these new, lighter materials, figure ten. Paint! — the health lobbies and environmentalists had pushed oil-based paints out of the market in favor of latex-based. Now even the latter were under attack from some group of busybodies. "Pretty soon we'll be down to watercolors — you'll have to repaint your house every time it rains!" Bathtubs and toilets, window frames, wallboard, siding — all the stuff of the world was becoming lighter, flimsier, less potent, less durable.

I decided against the estimate, got rid of the plumber, and set about dismantling the master-bedroom radiator. Its end-bosses pleaded forlornly that it had been forged by the Weil-McLain Co. of Erie, Pa., in that remote past of wood and iron and eighty-pound greatcoats. The thing was far too heavy to lift in one piece, but once I had cut through the binding rods at top and bottom and whacked at it with a sledge-hammer, it came apart in 17 sections, each weighing 17 pounds. Three hundred pounds of cast iron! I called one of those scrap dealers for prices. Cast iron? A penny a pound. The plumber had been right, it wasn't worth the trouble of transporting it.

For a few moments, schlepping the radiator sections two by two out of the house, I was at one with those infantrymen in the trenches of Flanders. Seventeen pounds of cast iron in each hand, I thought of how stuff once was: the great shining cuboids of coal my father used to have delivered, which he broke up with a special hammer; the first pair of boots I had in the Army Cadets, stiff black leather with metal hobs on the leather soles; wooden matchsticks in split-wood matchboxes, houses built of brick, cans made of thick unyielding metal, pants of wool worsted. Everything now is so flimsy and disposable. There is a line of science-fiction stories — most recently, the movie The Truman Show — in which the physical world turns out to be a sort of mock-up or theater set, made of two-by-fours covered with painted canvas. It sometimes seems like that.

Yet perhaps that is not such a bad thing for our souls. Our ancestors — certainly those doughboys in the trenches — were well supplied with daily reminders of their own mortality. In our world of relative peace, good health, and long life, we have few such. Perhaps all this flimsiness and insubstantiality will serve instead.

      … We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.