Every Basement Tells a Story

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 2/9/07)

Winter has finally arrived and many of us are spending a lot more time indoors. And in this part of the country that means migrating down to the basement. Whether your basement is used mainly as a place to store “stuff” or a place to store kids, your basement likely reveals your family’s true personality. Upstairs might be the face we show to the public, but down below the designer kitchen anything goes.

The most desirable basements, in my continuing informal survey of how people live, are those maintained by older, retired couples. These basements are monuments to order and cleanliness. Pristine, and smelling slightly antiseptic, everything is neatly stored on shelves in sealed and labeled boxes. One box might read: “Family photos: 1953-1955.” Another might be labeled “Easter Decorations.” In this basement you would never find Easter and Christmas in the same box.

In this same basement, tucked neatly behind a partition, there is likely to be a workshop area. You might smell the wood shavings but you won’t see any. Everything here is labeled neatly as well, in jars lined up: “fourpenny finishing nails, 3/8 inch screws, plumb bobs, hinge pins.” These basements belong to people with too much time on their hands.

The next step down, but nearly as desirable, are basements that have been turned into decorator-sharp family rooms. The owners have spent as much money as they can to make the basement not look like a basement. But somehow, you can’t completely disguise a basement. Lurking behind the air freshener will always be a faint odor of mildew and earth, and artificial light just can’t replace natural. These designer basements are usually the result of women who have finished decorating the rest of the house, but still want an excuse to keep shopping.

Then there is the “theme basement.” For example, let’s say the family is of Irish ancestry. You might not notice any hint of the homeland upstairs, but the minute you venture down below you will be struck by the pervasive use of the color green. There will be a scratchy green plaid couch, and a green vinyl bar. There will be a large family coat of arms on one wall, a big pub mirror on another, faded travel posters of the Emerald Isle, and a sports memorabilia collection devoted to Notre Dame.

Some people use their basements for collections. I got the biggest scare of my life once when I was looking at homes with a realtor and when we switched on the basement light we found ourselves face-to-face with hundreds of Barbie dolls. They were all staring at me like something out of a Stephen King novel. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

One of my favorite decorating themes is “It’s Going to be Winter for Six Months, So I May as Well Sit in the Basement and Drink Until It’s Over.” This is an idea that actually makes practical sense. Here you will find the basement used for one purpose only – as a place to escape. The only furniture down here will be a red leather bar, four red leather bar stools, and a big-screen TV. You will also find a stainless steel sink, a refrigerator/freezer, and shelves full of every liquor known to man and enough bar accessories to stock the set of “Cheers.”

The most common use of basements, however, seems to be for storage. Storage of children. It’s crucial to have somewhere you can tell them to go when school has been closed for two snow days and you are ready to start speaking in tongues. Most basements seem to be designed for this purpose; they are giant playrooms where kids can go when they can’t go outside. Preferably they have video games (for the kids) and padded walls (for Mom), and carpeting the exact color of dirt mixed with grape juice.

This is where you stick the couch you got when you first got married. Where you put the old TV and the stacks of magazines you never had time to read, but you are going to get to some day. This is where you put the cat so he doesn’t shed all over every piece of furniture in the house.

The smell of a family basement is a combination of litter box, old gym shoes, and the peanut butter sandwich that fell behind the couch two weeks ago.

The basement is where stuff goes to be organized and stored on that ever-elusive day when you will have time. If you are like me, you will somehow never actually have this time. So when I do need something important like my tax returns from three years ago, first I have to paw through boxes of Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations (mixed together somehow), rusty camping equipment, my son’s old Care Bear (he’s about to graduate from college), golf shoes (I haven’t played in a decade), and, inexplicably, a Jane Fonda exercise video. There are strands of tinsel running through everything. It’s like an archaeological dig of my adult life, and I hate to think what that says about me.

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