Moments: Cookbooks & City Living

[As promised, I’m trying out some nonfiction. This morning I had a fleeting interaction that felt meaningful to me in the moment, and decided to write about it here. I think the hardest thing is the editing — deciding how much to say, which tangents are worthy and which are just… clutter. And also — how to end it.]

“Going down?”

My neighbor holds the elevator for me, and as I hurry in I can see that she has a little handcart that contains a packed lunch, among other workday necessities. She’s older than me, and always friendly. I think she has kids.

I myself have just started carrying a backpack to work, something I haven’t done since high school. It makes me feel a bit like a student again.

Despite our shared destination, the elevator has been called up, and as we ascend two floors she holds up a large, hardcover Mrs. Fields cookbook. It has the familiar red logo.

“Do you like to bake? I’m taking this down to the table.”

Visitors always remark about the table. It’s a simple card table in our building’s parking garage, usually spilling with secondhand books for the taking. Sometimes people leave other items on the table — once, memorably, a kitschy framed picture of Jesus — but they’re quickly reprimanded by the powers that be with a written reminder, books only. (Occasionally there are offerings of food, like grapefruits from an overflowing tree at someone’s weekend house in Palm Springs, or chocolate-dipped fortune cookies, red and green for the holidays. These are not typically called into question.)

I smile but shake my head. “I like to bake, but I’m not sure we have the space for it.”

The woman nods, clearly in the same boat. “I say to myself all the time, if only I had a garage!”

The doors open at the third floor, and another neighbor — an older man in a baseball cap — joins us. Now we’re all heading down together.

“I wondered about the people who put up the big Christmas displays,” I say. The holidays have just passed, but the courtyard displays — lights, wreaths, giant candy canes, inflatable animals — will not soon be forgotten. “Where do they have the room to keep it all?”

“Storage units,” the woman says, and the man nods. He adds, “I used to have one.” It’s a straightforward statement — I can’t tell if he’s wistful, or glad to be rid of it. I’m not sure I’d want a storage unit, myself — I’ve heard they’re susceptible to water damage.

We reach the lobby and the woman and I head into the parking garage. “I guess it’s good not to have too much extra room,” I say. “Less space means less clutter.”

“That’s the hope!” the woman replies, and we both share a little laugh that seems to say, even still, a clean home is an uphill battle. She deposits her Mrs. Fields book on the table. We wish each other well, and go our separate ways.

I think of my neighbors two doors down, a gay couple who have lived here for 30 years. When they stopped by after we moved in, they told us that they have a rule — for everything they acquire, they have to get rid of something. The key to a tidy home — and to their collective sanity.

When we lived in our previous place — another unit in the same building — I probably would have grabbed the cookbook. That unit had built-in bookshelves (possibly an illegal addition, I’ve been told, tres scandaleux) that seemed to have a place for everything — games, photos, books. I took those shelves for granted, stacking detritus in the empty spaces.

In the new unit, smaller shelves felt like the right aesthetic choice. I cried as Sam stacked book after book into the “to donate” pile. Some of them were unread, were gifts. And here we were, two writers, divesting of the written word! It felt sacrilegious. What if the next place has ample shelves again, and we wish we hadn’t done this?

But this is life in Los Angeles. What are the odds that we will live anywhere bigger, anytime soon? We are told we struck gold, having two bathrooms in Silver Lake

In the end, we kept a few more books than we had room for, stored in boxes in the closet, to be dealt with later. When it comes to cleaning, I am the queen of deferring the deep cuts — but a reckoning always looms, most likely when kids enter the picture. I’m told they require stuff.

As I approach my car, I recall that when I was a kid, my favorite babysitter used to bring a Mrs. Fields cookbook to our house. Maybe that same edition. I remember, in particular, rolling balls of dough carefully through cinnamon sugar. We’d pass the hours testing different recipes — chocolate chip, snickerdoodle. They came out reliably good.

I wonder if I should text Sam about the book. Maybe he will vote yes. But I stop myself — the books that we chose to display are now neatly organized. The shelf near the window houses books arranged by color. The one near the dining table holds travel books and cookbooks.

We have plenty of cookbooks, almost filling our designated space. And there are a million recipes on the internet.

I think of a phrase that Sam uses often, and not just about cookies: Don’t tempt me. 

As I drive away, that brief exchange in the elevator buoys my spirits — I’m not alone in my struggle against clutter, in my sentimentality, in my yearning for just a bit more space. On the other side of a shared wall, my neighbors feel it too.

And yet, I do not entirely envy a garage. I think of my parents’ garage, and the many weekends they’ve spent cleaning it out, only to turn around and find it once again filled with stuff. 

My in-laws recently moved and downsized within their neighborhood in Philadelphia, and when we visited the new space my mother-in-law recounted that they struggled to throw out old boxes filled with decades-old treasures — homework, drawings, movie stubs. She had to be the strict one about it, as Sam tried to be with his books.

I told her about how I cried over the box of spare books. In the moment I had been frustrated, ashamed of my emotion — but this time it was cathartic when I twisted my face, pretending to cry. It was funny — a relief — to bond over this human desire to cling to even our most inane possessions, often until well after we need them.

As we talked we wound our way through independent shops, decorated for the holidays. I wanted to buy a golden pretzel-shaped bottle opener but deferred the decision to another day — once I bought it, I knew, it would be a sentimental object. It would go from being just some thing to belonging to me.

At this moment in my life, I think learning to live within the space I have is good for me. For every thing, there is a season. For every item acquired, another must be bid adieu.

Part of me wants to turn back, to take the cookbook, to promise my neighbor that I will give it a good home. But I already said no, and I have to stick to my guns. Don’t tempt me, I say to myself.

The memories — of a different Mrs. Fields book, no less — are enough. I own them forever, and they don’t take up any space.

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