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The value of space: The crowded and unhappy life of Henry Fontaine Jackson


Henry Fontaine Jackson wanted to see the world in black and white. No furniture. No Audrey Hepburn.

He dreamed of emptiness.

If that vision was Spartan, it was by design. Lack of foresight complicated everything. Even if he looked lived like a twenty-year-old dope smoker with a job at a fast-food franchise, nothing he ever did was simple.


Whatever he did always equaled the exact value of breathable air—there’s less of that air every day, but it’s not exactly rare.

He’d have done less if he had the time.

He hated Audrey Hepburn. Mousy. Weak. Movies crowded with things. Henry wanted no furniture. No Audrey Hepburn.

What he wanted didn’t matter. His house was full. There were forests of furniture. More than he could shake a stick at. Chairs, couches and beds, carpet and potted plants, and all sorts of consumer pleasures and non-necessities that wasted floor space.

It wasn’t always like this. Henry once lived in a house that had six hundred feet of infinity in two rooms. He had a couch in the living room and a futon on the floor of the bedroom—the only other room in the house. His 12-inch, black-and-white television sat atop a wooden peach crate in front of the couch. In the kitchen area—it was only an area to one side of the living room—he kept a sauce pan, two plates (one for visitors), a few thrift store utensils, and an expensive chef’s knife. He boiled coffee in the pan and drank it from a coffee mug he found that read, “Light a fire under your ass at Jalisco’s.” He had no idea who Jalisco was. He liked the idea of Guadalajara though he’d never been there.

It wasn’t luxury except it was spare, which, to Henry, was bounteous comfort.

His new house was much bigger. About seven times, if he counted the unfinished basement. And there’s no room in it. Whenever that woman who lived in his building wants to buy more storage, it means only one thing: More stuff coming in the front door. Empty space, just free floating air and sunlight, was like a vacuum to her. She needed to fill it up. More “storage” meant making room for more things.

Henry felt things like weight. Possessions are heavy. Right now, for instance, he can feel the concrete table tops he made a couple of summers ago. He made them for the community center when we were talking about putting those park chess tables up in front of the library. You know them. We can’t watch a movie about New York without seeing people playing chess in New York’s Washington Square Park.

Philip Johnson, Glass House
Well, Henry made some. He thought he was making them for the community center and the library. But he was making them for himself. He found that out later.

He constructed them on a table in his basement. He hacked together a form. Found some plastic sheeting to line the form with. He poured concrete in it, and, bing, a day later . . . concrete slab.

Those things are heavy all by themselves. They haven’t moved more than ten feet from where he made them. It took him making crappy concrete table tops to get the parks people to move on a project they had been dilly-dallying around on for a year. They really didn’t want Henry’s tables with different color tiles in the middle of them. So they built on their own.

He was out six or seven bags of concrete—480 to 560 pounds without the rebar.

And they sit in Henry’s basement. He feels them right now. They are as heavy as the files, cardboard boxes, tools, toys, old computers and printers, spare lumber—scraps mostly—paint in various cans and spray cans. Yard tools, trash, kitty litter box, photographs from thirty or forty years, broken picture frames, desks . . .

And so on.

The whole of everything but the tabletops outweighs the table tops by about three tons. But they all have the same weight to Henry.

He wants to hire some of these working guys around here to help him carry it all—table tops, files, books, everything to the curb. Let the neighbors, who are good people, have it all. Pick through and find what you need, Henry’d say. All it costs is the energy it takes to take it away and add it to your pile.

Henry wants to count his successes in how much he doesn’t have.

But not having much must be expensive. Every one of his friends has worked as hard as he has. They all have as much stuff as Henry does. But when he goes to rich people’s houses, they hardly have anything. Light and airy. Open spaces. Lots of light. Walls with paintings of almost nothing. Cotton candy-ish things.

If anecdotes were whole truths, Henry would conclude that he should have developed a career and stuck with something until he entered the middle class. If he had, he would have a fat bank account and his basement would be a yawning void.

Career. Henry doesn’t know the meaning of the word. He’s only had jobs with no significant opportunity for progress, whatever that is. Jobs mean a basement full of crap, full of bits and pieces of lives. Slabs of concrete with no definable use. There is no salvation in work. All his work has produced gravestones and landfill.

Henry must not be very successful. After all, he has more stuff and less floor space than he can shake a stick at. Sometimes he think he doesn’t have enough space to shake a stick around in.

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