The Great Indoors

You know the type. They're Martha Stewart's worst nightmare. They're (usually) men of a certain age and outdoor inclination who track in mud, dump wet gear on the carpet, and clean God-knows-what in the kitchen sink. Isn't it beautiful?

messy house dog

    Photo: Justine Parsons

Houses that don't have catchall closets or rooms in which the inhabitants can dump outdoor stuff always seem sinister to me.

I used to have an idea of myself as a person who never came inside. I thought I was someone of no fixed address, at large, free—spiritual kin to Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man who was said to have gone 17 years without once sleeping between sheets or tasting white bread. This was, of course, a fantasy. Actually, I spent a lot of time hanging out in basements listening to records like everybody else. I didn’t understand that my mostly indoor existence was defined by a hard law of nature, one I have only recently grasped. It is the law that says: Everyone who is outside eventually must come indoors. You have no choice and there are no exceptions; the indoor world will get us all. Jim Bridger himself spent his later years rocking by the fireplace in a community of other retired mountain men in Westport, Missouri. Furthermore—and I might have glimpsed this, too, if I had taken off the headphones and looked closely at the particular basement where I was sitting—the law says that when an outdoor guy, real or self-imagined, finally does come inside, the result, almost always, is household turmoil.

For many years I lived surrounded by such disorder that it made people seasick to look at it. Sometimes I wondered idly why I couldn’t seem to live any other way. Why, for example, were there always big black plastic sacks full of paint chips, relics of some abandoned renovation project, in a corner by my television? Why were there duck decoys on my bureau, and a pair of chest waders hanging from an overhead pipe like the lower part of a hanged man, and an old wooden bookcase with nothing in it but birdshot a friend and I fired into it one night with my 20-gauge, leaving it a sorry, shot-up hulk at the far end of the living room? The simple answer, which I did not know then, was that guys who think of themselves as Jim Bridger are always going to have dwellings that look like mine.

I kept that stuff around because deep down I liked it, uncomfortable and off-putting to guests though it was. I even became kind of a connoisseur of decorating schemes that brought the outdoors indoors—what you might call the Jim Bridger school of interior decor. Friends who visited my first apartment recall the shriveled dead bat that hung from the light-pull in my bathroom, but that was really only a sketch of the form’s possibilities. Big items, especially those involving large animals and cars, made a stronger statement; I admired saddle blankets drying on a friend’s radiator, jars of Bag Balm and stacked-up cases of motor oil in someone’s dining room, carburetor parts soaking in plastic tubs of cleaning fluid on a neighbor’s kitchen counter. Not long ago, at the house of a friend who is far more Jim Bridger than I, I saw a design innovation that left me in awe. The mirror in this friend’s bathroom had come loose from the wall, and rather than trying to affix it again to the crumbling plaster, he had attached the clamps of a set of automobile jumper cables to each of the mirror’s top corners, and had nailed the cables to the ceiling with U-shaped fence staples. The mirror now hung level at its former position, swaying slightly, held by the bright copper of the jumper-cable clamps, the red cable leading upward on one side, the black cable on the other—a perfection of modern-day Jim Bridger design.

The reason turmoil follows outdoor guys when they come indoors is that the two worlds are deeply at odds. Indoors and outdoors are enemies that coexist, uneasily, but are never reconciled. Perhaps you’ve noticed that nowadays, regardless of the weather, many cars on the road have their windows rolled up all the way. Many people today live entirely in sealed-up, climate-controlled spaces, from home to work to gym to mall. Sometimes when I walk in the densely populated New Jersey suburb where I now live—on Christmas Day, for example, when everyone is inside playing with their new electronic toys—I feel as if the sky and the crows and the roadside weeds and I are part of an invisible, abstract dimension of no present use to man. The fact that the outdoors will always be so much bigger no matter how the indoors replicates itself adds a sense of desperation to our sealing-up and walling-in, as if at any little tear in the fabric the whole indoor enterprise will give way.

And when the tears in the fabric do appear, often they take the shape of a person coming indoors after weeks or months outside. The tears often have their own sound. It is the sound of the zipping and unzipping of zippers. Those high-pitched, insistent, drawn-out zi-i-i-ps cutting through the indoor quiet are the first warning signs. Then the zipping pauses, temporarily, because the person who is about to leave has finished packing; then the door opens and shuts, the lock clicks, and there follows a silence lasting a long while.

Then the lock clicks, the door opens, the backpacks and duffel bags drop on the floor, and not long after that, you hear the zipping again. Zip! The musty sleeping bag is strewn open to air across the back of the sofa. Zip! The wet tent fly is spread from chair to chair. Zip! A whole bunch of miscellaneous gear—wet socks, too-large hunting knife in handmade wooden scabbard, extra bootlaces, plastic plates still covered with an orange film of spaghetti sauce that camp washing couldn’t remove—rolls onto the linoleum. Suddenly those nubby little ends of pine branches that collect in the corners of tent floors are all over the place. Chaos has arrived.

Once, at a dinner whose circumstances were too fleeting and complicated to describe, I happened to sit next to the actor Dennis Hopper. Whatever my actual opinion of specific famous people may be, when I’m in their presence I always lose my head and say ridiculous things. Early in the conversation with Dennis Hopper I told him I was working on the script of a movie in which he would be perfect for the starring role—a complete lie that came out of my mouth with no assistance from me. I have blurred out the rest of what we talked about, except for two pieces of information Dennis Hopper conveyed to me. One, he told me that he was related somehow to Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman; and two, he said that Daniel Boone, despite his outdoor image, was also a skilled carpenter who invented the built-in closet. Before Daniel Boone, Dennis Hopper said, built-in closets didn’t exist, and people kept their clothes in freestanding armoires.

I believed Dennis Hopper unquestioningly. Daniel Boone, inventor of the closet: It makes perfect sense. Of course America’s original outdoor guy would create that important piece of indoor architecture. Without closets, outdoor guys could never have come indoors at all. We’d have had to keep them and their stuff in some rude structure out in the yard by the corncrib and the barn. The guy himself, all smoky and tallow-smeared and unpresentable, is bad enough; far worse, from the point of view of proliferating chaos, is his stuff. What to do with the powder horn, jar of foul-smelling trap bait, bullet molds, inflatable India-rubber pillow, small foot-shaped stones ideal for heating and dropping inside wet boots, and on and on multiplied indefinitely? Into Mr. Boone’s convenient closet with it all! Dump all the stuff every which way, not even taking the old worms off the fishing hooks; then close the door and forget about it! Your descendants will thank you, Dan’l, and henceforth will honor this tradition always.

Once the stuff has been disposed of, the outdoor guy himself is easier to manage. A little hosing-off, a quick dusting with louse powder, and civilization can go on. The six-shooter, dynamite, and carbon-steel railroad rails were important to settling the continent, it’s true; but without the closet, Euro-Americans would never have crossed the Alleghenies.

I know a few people the floor space of whose houses is about one-third closet, technically speaking. Often the closet area is an entire room of its own, perhaps a former pantry or sewing room convenient to a back or side door. This space may be called, a bit shamefacedly, the "mud room," perhaps to explain why a portion of it is devoted to sticks the dogs brought home. Usually I find this room more congenial and affecting than any other in the house. I have a weakness for the ambiguous, the neither-nor; this room is not outside, of course, but neither does it succeed as the kind of indoor space in which most people would actually want to be. Years ago I sometimes had fun in rooms like these, sitting on stacks of firewood and drinking shots of whiskey with friends. The comfort a mud room offers, however, is hard to appreciate sober. Such a room is meant for passing through, not staying in. In the war between indoors and outdoors, rooms like this provide the buffer zone.

Houses that don't have catchall closets or rooms in which the inhabitants can dump outdoor stuff always seem sinister to me. You see these houses more and more in movies nowadays, usually with Michael Douglas living in them, plotting hard-to-follow financial crimes. When I reflect that most of the kids I know would be happy to live forever in these houses watching TV and playing video games and fooling on the computer, I fear for the world outside. Sure, the kids hear about the environment every other day in school, and they know polluters are bad, and their fruit-scented shampoo has pictures of endangered species printed on the bottle. But if the Everglades, say, disappeared under a giant parking lot tomorrow, are these kids really going to care?

Well, the Everglades themselves probably wouldn't care either. They can afford to overlook such details, extending as they do so far beyond us in time. It's a fact that while we can destroy plenty of beautiful and irreplaceable parts of nature, we can't do much about its mess. Pave the unruly swamp, and it reappears as the brown water rising in your basement, the rare African virus borne by mosquitoes in the park. However we attack it, the outdoor world will always have the advantage of its messiness and its size. And no matter how high-tech and convenient and comfortable and wired our indoors becomes, the mess and the size out there will lure us, and we'll keep tracking our muddy, unplanned boot prints across the floor.

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