Neatniks' final frontier is the junk drawer

Wednesday, April 9, 2003
It may be time to clean the junk drawer by the phone again. I know this because we've gotten to the point where only the pens and pencils that don't work fill the drawer.
I think everyone has a junk drawer (or 10). We have one in the kitchen and one in the breakfast room by the phone. Each has its own ecology and its own pattern of getting junked up.
You don't want to clean them out too often, however. That takes all the fun out of this little archaeological expedition. It would rob you of the joys of finding that phone number you knew you had written down or that receipt you had misplaced, or of sharpening all the pencils at once and throwing out every nonfunctioning pen.
Maybe I don't have enough excitement in my life, but there is something so satisfying about looking at the finished drawer. Notepads in a row, sharpened and functioning writing tools in a little box, emery boards all together in an envelope. All the stray rubber bands from the morning paper now neatly wrapped around the rubber band ball that will soon be too big for this drawer. A little film canister filled with thumbtacks. Won't it be nice when I need one and know just where it is?
I think I learned my junk drawer traditions from my mother. Her major drawer by the phone was fascinating. Every time I went to visit her I cleaned it out just for the intrigue. In her system, one of each useful item in the house was kept in that drawer. One screwdriver, one ruler, one tube of lipstick, one tube of super glue, one hair clip, etc.
On a Christmas visit years ago, I collected all the nonfunctioning pens from drawers all over the house and wrapped them up as a gift with the attached note, "This is only a gift if you throw it away as soon as you get it. " My siblings got the joke, and my mother spent the rest of the evening testing each pen to make sure she wasn't throwing away anything useful.
One day a friend was visiting when I opened the junk drawer to get a notepad. This friend is, for the rest of us, an icon of order. Her house always looks perfect -- beautiful furnishings, great fashion sense and vases of fresh flowers. I had forgotten that I cleaned the drawer the day before. She exclaimed, "Wow, your junk drawer is so neat and organized."
It was a triumph of timing. But I didn't tell her that. Perhaps now I am her icon of junk drawer maintenance.
I admire people who actually learned to put things away in the same place each time. It seems so grown up. A state to which I aspire. But then, they miss the fun of delving into the mysteries and surprises of the junk drawer a few times each year.
In our busy family it stays neat for only a week or two, but that's a week or two longer than when I clean the house. So, it's definitely worth the time.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator. E-mail
This article appeared on page HO - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle