Last week Alex and I traveled to New Jersey to visit our storage unit and clear out the last of our stuff. People sometimes ask why we got the storage unit in the first place, and all I can say is: it made sense at the time. We were moving to London and we didn’t know how long we would be here. If we hated it (or our visas weren’t renewed) and we moved back to the US after a year or two, it didn’t make sense to either A) ship all our stuff over and then back again, or B) buy entirely new stuff. Plus, we didn’t really have the money for either of those options!
I think that’s probably one of the most crippling problems for young people or those without disposable income: you have just enough money to make stupid decisions. We had enough money to pay the $45/month fee for the storage unit, but not the $3,000 it would have taken to ship all our belongings. (But of course, after five years of paying for the storage unit, we’ve paid out a total of $2,700, with none of our stuff to show for it.)
So that’s why we decided to get a storage unit in the first place. But why did we decide to get one in Howell, NJ, when we lived in Brooklyn? Again, it was all about the money. A storage unit in Brooklyn or Queens, or even out on Long Island, would have been 3 or 4 times more expensive, and we really needed to count our pennies. And since we figured we wouldn’t need to access it very often, it was okay. We chose the place in Howell, NJ largely because it was cheap, but also because it was on a bus route from Manhattan. So if we visited NYC and we didn’t rent a car, we could (theoretically) take a bus down there. It seemed logical at the time, but we failed to consider what we would be DOING with the stuff when we visited: each time we’ve gone through a few boxes to sort/donate/bring stuff back in empty suitcases – which would have been nigh-on-impossible on a bus. So we’ve rented a car (and paid gas and tolls) each time. If you add the price of the car rentals and gas/tolls to our overall storage unit bill, it would skyrocket over that $3,000 mark.
When we first went down to sign-up for the storage unit, we discovered that the second-floor units were significantly cheaper than the first-floor units. And despite being warned that it was up 14 steps, we again made the decision based on frugality. A decision we would come to regret as we have schlepped (really heavy!) stuff up and down those stairs over the past five years.
Alex has specifically asked that I try and describe the hell of dealing with a lot of stuff in a small space. I think I’m pretty good at logistics, but it was like a never-ending game of Tetris trying to get the boxes to fit. And when we were going through stuff, it was like this:
Take these 10 boxes out to get to the one on the bottom, and then shift those 8 boxes over so that they are up against the wall, then pull out the one you want, and then try and get the 10 original boxes back in. But without the one on the bottom, they all fall over (especially as the cardboard gets weak and soggy over time), so quickly run to HomeDepot to buy a plastic tub/container, empty the boxes and repack them into the tub, and then shift the tub back into the unit. But a tub is bigger than a box, and therefore heavier and harder to shift. Oh wait, before you can go to HomeDepot to buy the tub, you have to get everything back in the unit so you can close and lock it. So shove it in as best you can, run to get the tub, and by the time you’ve come back, all the boxes have fallen against the door in the front so you can’t actually open it anymore. And when you do get it open again, you realise that the tub you’ve bought has a different shape than the tubs you bought last time, so they don’t stack securely, and the wobble is pretty worrying… it’s probably all going to collapse again as soon as you close the door…
Times a zillion! And do that in the heat and cold, with no facilities, and you’re guaranteed a few cranky exchanges.
Once we got our permanent UK residency cards last fall, we decided that enough was enough. So we made two trips (one disastrous attempt in January, during a blizzard when it was freezing cold) and one just last week (when it was ridiculously, boiling hot) to clear the thing out. In our shared calendar, the trip was called “STORAGE UNIT OR DIE!!” I’m pleased to say we didn’t die.
For the record, we had at least 14 boxes of books in the unit to deal with. We estimate it was about 1,000 pounds (weight, not value!). Of that, we ended up taking 10 boxes to a book re-seller in Pennsylvania… he paid us about$130 for all of them. There were a lot of painful decisions to be made, but ultimately we only brought back the books that were valuable financially or sentimentally. Anything that could be replaced or repurchased was sold or donated.
In addition to the books, we have all the china, flatware, and wine glasses that we received as wedding gifts. I’m really pleased to say that managed to find a way to bring it all to London in our carry-on baggage. I’m sure it looked funny going through the x-ray, but no one questioned it, so I guess they are used to seeing Champagne glasses in bubble-wrap!
Of the other things remaining, the only problematic item was my wedding dress, which I wasn’t expecting. No one wants old wedding dresses. Or rather, they want properly old wedding dresses, but 8 years isn’t old enough to be considered “vintage”, but it’s not young enough to be in style. None of the charities would take my dress – not even Brides Against Breast Cancer! So we risked putting the giant box in the cargo hold, and brought it with us to London. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with it here, but I’m sure I can eventually find someone who wants a lovely dress.
So that’s that! The last of the ties that bind us to the US (other than friends and family of course, and student loans…and taxes…). It feels so good to get rid of the storage unit. It’s like a giant, 5×5-foot monkey off my back. It started off a haven where we stored the things that were precious to us, but over the years it became an albatross. Making the (increasing!) payments every month and every year, visiting it when possible to ensure that nothing was wrong, sorting through our previously-treasured possessions which – after five years apart – felt more like the detritus of a life abandoned … well, trust me. Don’t ever get a storage unit.
Bringing it All Back
The only way we were able to bring as much stuff back as we did is that Alex has status with British Airways, which means he gets more bags, and heavier bags, than usual. We could bring 8 pieces of checked luggage, and each could weight up to 70lbs. We didn’t quite use up our entire allotment, since the wedding dress box was large but light, but I feel really bad about those tubs of books. We sealed them up with duct tape, but I still had visions of the boxes opening up and all our books being loose on the runway! Luckily they made it safe and sound.
- Don’t get a storage unit!
- If you absolutely have to get a storage unit:
- Inventory all the boxes.
- Keep the inventory in a safe place. (We lost ours!)
- Number/label all the boxes and match it to the inventory.
- Take pictures of everything that goes in each box. That way you can sort remotely and make the hard decisions in advance, rather than dealing with an emotional sucker-punch every time you open a box.
- Don’t get cardboard boxes. Get plastic tubs instead. With handles.
- Get plastic tubs that are small enough to shift easily.
- Get plastic tubs that stack securely (i.e. same size/shape/edges)
- Go for the ground floor unit. Your back will thank you.
- Be seriously, sadistically ruthless when deciding what to keep in the unit. If you can buy a new one, do so. It’s not worth the price of saving that toaster. Trust me!
- Consider hotel availability near the unit – where are you going to stay when you visit? The nearest hotels to Howell are a 30 minute drive away, which means we lost an hour each day just to commuting.
- Negotiate a lower price and longer terms when you first move in. They will increase it every year, but if you start at a lower base, you’ll pay less overall than if you just take the first offer.
Two days after the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings, and about two months before the planned start of all-night tube services on Fridays and Saturdays (“The Night Tube”), unions are staging a 24+hour strike that started to disrupt services during the Wednesday PM rush hour and led to no tube service at all on Thursday. This is the first strike to completely close the London Underground network since 2002 (although there have been plenty of quite disruptive partial closures due to so-called “industrial action” in our years here).
All four major unions are taking part in this strike, which is why the impact is so total. And why? Disputes over pay related to the introduction of the overnight services. Before you get too sympathetic for those poor train drivers having to work overnight, let me just remind you that the average driver salary (according to a report from the union itself!) is about $77,000 per year. Where else can you make that kind of money with no need for any special education or skills, and with excellent benefits (some reports suggest that they get around 50 days off per year)? The offer on the table is for a 2% raise along with a £2500 one-time bonus for those drivers on lines that will operate overnight. Plus, they are hiring 137 additional drivers to support the extra service, which means more jobs for the unions (isn’t that what they should want?). I can’t see how the public can really be on the unions’ side, given the massive disruption and real cost to the city as well as the terms of the deal and the fact that they don’t seem to be getting much of a message out there. I really think such strikes should be illegal here like they are in New York!
Anyway, I was originally going to work from home to avoid the mess, but after some stern words from my employer insisting on relatively broadly defined “reasonable effort” to make it in, I decided to walk. I am in better shape than many others, as we live only a little more than 3 miles as the crow flies – but when walking that along streets and through the park that inflates to about 4.25 miles.
Last night the strike was supposed to start at 6 or 630 pm, so they advised everyone to complete their journeys by 6pm. I had a late meeting and was in the office until about 630pm, but decided to still give the tube a shot. It was amazing – best commute home ever! Peak service levels were still running, but there were hardly any passengers! I should have gotten some pictures of the empty trains, but didn’t. By the time I exited at home at King’s Cross around 7pm they were starting to ramp down some services – the Metropolitan Line seemed to be the first to go, not surprisingly as it has the longest reach outside of London and also tends to be the most unionist stalwart (senior drivers seem to prefer this route because it is relatively long, has fewer passengers, and mostly outdoors in the countryside!).
To try to keep the city moving, Transport for London has mobilized about 200 extra buses – not a huge number compared to the approximately 8000 buses on the street each day, but targeted can be helpful – as well as additional Thames riverboat services. The key issue is that most* of the suburban rail services are still operating, leading to large volumes of passengers needing to travel from terminals to their final destinations (*there is a separate strike on First Great Western, the operator serving Paddington, due to concerns over reduced on-board train staff on the new long-distance trains that will be introduced in the next couple of years).
After the long walk this morning I don’t think I’ll want to do that again tonight, but I have a work social event after work and I should be able to get a bus or use the operating Overground service to get home later in the evening. The real question, I suppose, is whether there will be additional strikes over this issue and how the dispute gets resolved (and whether it impacts the start of the night tube services in September or not!).