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'The Stuff Was Company': One Man Cleans Up His 'Mess'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next story begins with grocery bags, at least that's how author Barry Yourgrau begins his new book. His girlfriend had gone shopping, and when she realized she had locked herself out of her apartment, she hauled her heavy grocery sacks over to Yourgrau's place to borrow his extra set of keys. And we will let Barry Yourgrau himself pick up with the story he's written in his new memoir. It's called "Mess: One Man's Struggle To Clean Up His House And His Act." Welcome to the program, Barry.

BARRY YOURGRAU: Rachel, how are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well, thanks. So let's pick it up from that moment. You see your girlfriend standing at the door of your New York apartment. You don't want to let her in, why?

YOURGRAU: Let's actually begin before that, a few seconds. When I heard the doorbell ring, a feeling of absolute dread went through me because I didn't want to let anybody in at that point. My apartment had become a colossal mess.

MARTIN: When you say a mess, can you paint a picture?

YOURGRAU: Well, I got to the point where I had a thing for not throwing away plastic grocery bags. I mean, those are the most disposable objects in the universe, unfortunately, and I was one of those people who kept them so that my place looked like a stage set for a western involving tumbleweeds. I also had a thing where I had stored up empty liquor store boxes (laughter). So I looked like some kind of a, you know, storage help center that, you know, that was gradually being covered with dust.

MARTIN: And we'll probe into the inner depths of your psychology later, but what did you think you were going to do with these things?

YOURGRAU: Well, you know what, I thought they'd be useful when I eventually sort of tidied up my place. But in a funny way, I think the stuff was company, not explicitly anthropomorphic, but it had just some sense of being companionship. It had those elements even though it looked like a horrific mess that I didn't want any person to see. And my girlfriend hadn't been in my apartment for years.

MARTIN: Your girlfriend, who, we should say, is a food writer, you call her by various pseudonyms throughout the book. She, in that moment though, is fed up. She demands that you clean up your act. And this, you know, she goes on to suggest this isn't just about having a messy apartment. She starts to lambaste you for not having a job.

YOURGRAU: Well, it wasn't so much that she doesn't expect me not to have a job, it's I'd never quite solved the issue of earning a steady living. I mean, you know, I'm a writer, and I lived out in LA for a while. I did some film stuff. I did an independent disaster of one of my books. I've always been someone who lives from check to the next check and really kind of scraping by. When you're alone that way, you can sort of, you know, you can handle it. But when you're in a relationship with someone you really care about, you have to start pulling your own weight.

MARTIN: As part of your own process of cleaning up your apartment and your life, you went back and explored your own personal history and biography and were looking for clues as to why you had become the way you were. Can you attribute your hoarding, or cluttering rather, on early experiences?

YOURGRAU: When I was a kid, as I write about in the book, I really became very attached to objects. There seems to be some kind of a developmental stall in people who have hoarding problems, particularly, but clutter problems, too, and they get some connection to objects that other people don't. And I realized that I establish objects as kind of avatars of myself, and they start to have sort of magical qualities, too. So for instance, I could never loan people pens that I considered my pens. You know, objects became not just a pen but a Barry pen, and somebody else's handling it would sort of contaminate it or intrude on it or violate it.

MARTIN: Your girlfriend set a deadline for you to complete this big cleanup of your living space. How did you actually come to grips with this stuff?

YOURGRAU: It took a long time but what happened was, I think, the accumulation of experiences and encounters and wisdoms - all these things sort of built up a cumulative impetus in me.

MARTIN: Do you look at grocery bags the same way? Can you get rid of them now?

YOURGRAU: I just got rid of a whole lot of them.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

YOURGRAU: You know, I look at them with scorn now. I don't think - I used to think they were valuable (laughter). There's always this fear you'll run out, you'll run out, you'll run out of, you know, oh, supposing I needed a box, just when I, you know - so if you need a box, then you walk to the store and get it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Barry Yourgrau, his new memoir is called "Mess: One Man's Struggle To Clean Up His House And His Act." Thanks so much for talking with us.

YOURGRAU: Rachel, a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.