At Cafe Europa on West 57th Street, Wendy Shanker was having an iced coffee and listening to me talk about what a mess I was. I had lost everything in my wallet the other night at Marylou’s, slept through a dinner, lost my keys.
“You’re holding onto your childhood,” she said. “You don’t want to grow up. And a lot of people can live that way, live in the tumult. I can’t.”
Ms. Shanker, a 27-year-old TV writer for the upcoming women’s cable channel Oxygen, cannot live in the tumult because she is one of those organized people, one of those people unbowed by the daily demands of life in New York.
“To me,” she said, “the Brother P Touch machine-that label maker you can get at Staples-is erotic.”
Don’t get Ms. Shanker started about stores like Staples and Hold Everything, those havens of order …
“I love office supplies,” she said. “They’re so clean and beautiful and organized, it’s like, exciting to me, it’s very weird. You can walk through the aisles at Staples and get a rush, like a sexual rush from the idea of all the different sizes of stickers and labels for things, all those choices of pens. It’s like men-there’s a million different kinds of men out there to date and see and do and there’s a million kinds of medium binder clips and tiny binder clips and giant binder clips.”
Give her a new clean notebook, untouched, and she’s ecstatic.
“You know you’re going to get into it and it’s exciting and compulsive, but, you know, it feels good. You get an adrenaline rush that’s more in the sexual vein, but, because it’s sort of a solo operation, it’s maybe more of a masturbatory experience than one involving enjoyment of another person, because it’s definitely in your own head and you’re in control.”
Oh, to be crisp and neat, and unruffled, and unhurried. Oh, to have a nice smell and no spaghetti sauce stain on one’s shirt. Oh, to know that the shirts in the drawer are here and the socks here and that everything in the shaving kit is new and … just so . Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the crispness, the exactness, the precision of character out of Hitchcock or Mamet? For some of us, it is not to be … while for someone like fashion designer and socialite Carolina Herrera, it seems to come easily.
“I think I am a bit compulsive about things organized,” she said high above Seventh Avenue in her nicely aligned penthouse office.
“Tell me about your famously organized closets,” I said.
“The shirts have to be by colors, and by seasons, and blouses all together, but everything is all by color,” said Ms. Herrera, who came to New York from Venezuela. “Is black-all black. Is red-all red. Purple-all purple, you know. So it makes my mind calm. I feel much better.”
Does Ms. Herrera spend a lot of time in her closets? “No, they are organized,” she said. “My maids who take care of them, they know exactly what to do, and they have to be trained that way-they have to be everything in order.”
“Do you ever go too far?”
“No! No! No! No, no. It’s the way my sisters and I were brought up. It’s a discipline.”
Puru Das Adhikari, a cab driver turned disciple of His Divine Grace, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Trabhutada, feels the same way. He was hanging out with his niece and daughter by Tompkins Square Park on a Saturday afternoon. Wearing a long cotton kurta and drugstore shades, Mr. Das Adhikari, 50, was playing freaky music and handing out religious literature and pink fruit juice. He had the look of a man who had well-ordered thoughts in his head. He was unharried.
“I rise at the same time every day,” he said. “Take a bath, put on my cloth, then we have an altar at a home where I do certain regulated worship, and then I chant every day.”
Mr. Das Adhikari believes being organized keeps you peaceful. “If you take rests at the same time every day, if you keep your clothes neat and clean, then your mind won’t be disturbed. If you lived in clutter, your mind might be cluttered. In Sanskrit, the word’s called bukha .”
While Mr. Das Adhikari achieves a spiritual peace, Jennifer Levine gets a pure adrenaline rush from outwitting chaos. “Out of massive confusion, I bring order,” said Ms. Levine, 25, who works for trend-spotter Faith Popcorn at Brain Reserve Inc. on East 64th Street. She said on a recent Friday night at 1 A.M. she cleaned out her closet and felt pretty good about it. “It’s control. My shrink would tell you in a second that it’s a way of controlling anxiety.”
When she held a seder at her apartment this year, the table was set and everything was ready to go-four days early. “Everyone was joking, ‘Do you have to dust off the plates before everyone comes over?’ But I couldn’t have slept at night knowing that all this wasn’t done.”
Her daily planner was on her lap. “This is my demon,” she said. “I am a Filofax junkie. This is like my life.” Being organized, she said, just feels right. “That endorphin rush after exercise or sex? That moment where everyone jokes that it’s the calmest you’ve ever been-that’s the feeling. Like when I walk into a day that’s organized by me from top to bottom and it runs like clockwork, I sleep like a baby.” She closed her eyes. She had a rapturous expression on her face.
It was early one evening and Raju Mirchandani (blue blazer, rep tie, brown suede shoes, 70 numbers on his speed dial) was having his first meal of the day at one of the nightspots he owns in Manhattan, Le Bateau Ivre, named after a poem by Rimbaud. Mr. Mirchandani-described in Market Watch magazine as looking like “James Bond’s contact in Bombay”-was sitting at the bar and talking about his Chelsea brownstone.
“Everything’s lined up,” he said. “Ties are color-coordinated and arranged by patterns and stripes, etc. Then you have, all the shirts are lined up, white collar, plain stripes all in a series. I have about a thousand albums, vinyl, all alphabetized, and that’s a collection I’ve had since I was about 18, back to Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf. Everyone who visits me says, ‘Does anyone live here?’ Because it looks like a little showroom. Every little thing is in place! ‘It looks unlived in, untouched.’ Right down to the cufflinks, they’re all in the box. And watches. Got 30 watches. One thing I don’t categorize is the women. I don’t have them organized yet!”
Everything in the restaurant really was … dizzyingly … just right.
“Crisp and tight,” he said.
“What does being organized lead to?”
“Productivity, progress, profit,” he said. “Profit!”
Over at the midtown editorial offices of Town and Country magazine, Pamela Fiori was having a crisis: Somehow, she had gotten ink on her hands. “You know what that does to an organized person,” she said. “It drives her crazy.”
In a moment or two, lulled with the thought of her closets at home, she seemed more at peace. “It’s a very therapeutic thing to do, just to hide in the closet and clean out and organize and put your life back together,” she said. “It feels wonderful. It’s like going into a cocoon. And then when you walk out, you see that all of the white blouses are in one place and all of the skirts are in another, and all of the jackets are in another and that lasts for about three and half days and you start all over again. It’s the effort that counts and it never ever, ever, ever stops.”
Her husband is not the same way. “I always remember the great moment some years ago when we shared a bureau, and the doors to the bureau were opened,” Ms. Fiori said, “and I said, ‘Well, there is a perfect example of the difference between you and me-look at my sweaters, they are all color-coordinated, neatly folded, stacked up, one by one, and yours are disheveled, and they’re all over the place.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but mine are having more fun.’ And I said, ‘Touché.’ And nothing has changed.”
Kevin Conners, 45, is a stockbroker at a midtown brokerage house. Like Ms. Fiori, Mr. Conners has a thing about closets; he also has a collection of 225 T-shirts. “I’ve told my wife, ‘Keep all my black T-shirts in one area,” Mr. Conners said in his office one Friday evening. “All my gray and other colors in the middle, and all the whites on the right, and anything in black to the left. Let’s say I go out on a Saturday night and I’m wearing a flannel shirt and I didn’t like to wear a black shirt underneath the flannel shirt, so I go in there and turn to my left-my black area. Know what I mean?”
“Your wife adheres to that?”
“Sure … My wife’s responsibility is when I get home from work, I’ll take off my suit, I’ll hang up the suit-at the end of the rack. All the suits are in order of rotation, so the next available suit she takes, takes the shirt, matches up the tie, matches up the belt, matches up the shoes, and puts it in a carry-all bag. The next morning, when I wake up, it’s dark, everything’s in there, my boxer shorts, to my tie, to my suit.”
Rivaling Mr. Conners in his zeal for exactitude is Fran Capo, a single mom, standup comic, freelance writer and purple belt in karate who finds time for scuba diving with sharks, walking on hot coals and bungee jumping, not to mention learning the trapeze. She also happens to be the Guinness Book of World Records ‘ fastest talking female (10 words a second). But Fran Capo’s biggest point of pride may be her organizational feats.
“I literally stay up every night,” Ms. Capo said, in her brand-new house in Howard Beach, Queens. “I’ve always been super-organized, to the point that my shoes will say ‘green platform heels.'”
All her books (Bible, film, sex, parenting, etc.) had their own sections in the book shelves, although How to Train Your Pet Flea (which she wrote) was situated next to a volume entitled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare .
“I know where every single thing is,” Ms. Capo said. On the desk in her study were mini-containers of glue sticks, safety pins, paper clips, daisy wheels and so on. Even scrap paper had its own file. There was a stack of business cards she got at the Chicken Soup Convention. Her term papers from Queens College, circa 1978? Readily available in a file cabinet.
She printed out a to-do checklist for her 9-year-old son, Spencer. The boy’s room was spotless. “All his Goosebumps have to be together,” she said. “He gets allowance based on how neat he keeps everything.”
“What happens if it’s a mess?”
“I get panicked. I’m like ‘Spencer, you need to go in the room and clean up!’ He’s like, ‘Mom, I’m playing!’ To this day, my son has toys I had as a kid. He’s actually broken some. I said, ‘Spencer, I had this toy for, like, 20 years. How could you misplace the thing!'”
Ms. Capo said she feels “peaceful” and “in control” when she’s organized. “It’s satisfying,” she said. “I can just look around and go ‘A-a-h, this feels good.’ I can feel relaxed. Serene. So it is a philosophy-it is a moral thing of being organized and it makes me proud, proud that I can do all these things.”
Ms. Capo said she has kept a diary since fourth grade and has missed writing in it only three times. In school, she would begin term papers the same day they were assigned-and have them done two weeks early! Everyone hated her for that. Spencer was assigned a paper recently and … guess what happened.
“I said, ‘Spencer, we’re going to stay home all day Sunday and we’re going to finish part one, next Sunday part two, part three,” Ms. Capo said. “‘Mo-o-o-m!’ He moaned and bitched, ‘No, Mom! This is cruel! Inhumane!’ I was like, ‘But Spencer, you’ll see.’ And he finished it. And he was like, ‘Hey! This is pretty cool, Ma! All the other kids are doing their work, and I get to play. But I have no one to play with because they’re still doing their work!’ But I said, ‘See, isn’t it worth it?'”
Rabbi Andrew Bachman, the executive director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, said there is indeed a connection between organization and spiritual values.
“There’s no question that order is a value and a religious value,” he said. “But in the Rabbinic text itself, there’s this great tension that arises between something that’s ordered, keva , something that’s done on a regular, rhythmic basis, and kavannah , best translated as spiritual intention. The goal is to find a balance between having order in your life but also being able to maintain a certain spontaneous openness to the world, to the serendipitous, to the moments that arise that you can’t control, and that you are also able to face them with a certain amount of flexibility and fluidity and appreciation for the surprises that life brings.
“From a rabbinic perspective, the whole purpose of Judaism is to sanctify the everyday, is to sanctify the mundane. You could actually make the argument on a fundamental religious basis that keeping a Palm Pilot or a daily planner can actually add a certain level of religious or spiritual discipline to your life. It orders your world.”
“When do people go too far?”
“Certainly [in] post-Holocaust scholarship, there’s pretty much a consensus that one of the greatest tragedies-no, tragedy’s not strong enough-one of the most disturbing manifestations of organization as a principle is the Holocaust, that organizational principles were used to mass-murder people, and that the tools of the state and the technology of the state, from the telephone lines to the rail lines, were all used for the sole purpose of executing people.”
He continued: “That’s an extreme example. It’s even made fun of by Seinfeld , the whole episode of the Soup Nazi. The notion that you take someone who is so wedded to the idea of being organized that they are rendered into a Nazi, in our popular culture. That was a great joke on Seinfeld , but it resonated with people that we have in our minds that someone who’s so organized has got to be a Nazi, because they can take the human element out of the ultimate purpose of what they’re doing. You go too far when you forget that organization itself is only a tool to make people’s lives better and easier.”
Alexis Agathocleous, 23, has always been organized, but now he’s not so sure it’s a good idea. “I think for the most part when people say other people are organized or neat, it’s actually an insult, something that’s looked down on,” said Mr. Agathocleous, who grew up in Belgium, attended British schools there, and graduated from Brown University last year. Now he’s a civil servant but is thinking about law school. “I feel like it plays into the whole notion that’s espoused by sucky pop psychologists who are like biological determinists who say that women or the feminine focuses on detail and organization and putting things in order, whereas men think about the big issues, the larger problems and the more conceptual, which is obviously a crock of shit and ridiculous. Then I was like, Well, O.K., how do I fix this? Then I thought about how the word ‘neat’ is a total euphemism for ‘gay.’ ‘He’s really neat.’ Nudge nudge, wink wink. And it’s all about interior decorating and having everything put together and your appearance and anal and in order. So for that reason, I’ve decided to fight the power and no longer be an organized person.”
He continued: “Who cares if a bookcase is organized or not? It doesn’t affect anyone else. It’s a completely weird, arbitrary sense of self-satisfaction.”
He said he had just moved to Prospect Park, Brooklyn, from the “very tidy” East Village. His new place is not so orderly as his old one. “Specifically, I purposefully misorganized my books,” he said. “I’ve started leaving my clothes on the floor. I’m going to pay my credit cards bills late-I’m going to let everything go! There is nothing advantageous to being a super-organized person. It’s just stressful and whenever you enter situations a little out of your control, that you are unable to organize, it’s impossible to relax.”
He thought of another possible change in his behavior. “I used to be told that my handwriting looked like a font . I would take notes in college and the faster the professor talked, the neater my handwriting got. That’s the other thing! I have adopted a disorganized, incoherent and totally haphazard script. No longer will I be accused of having a fontlike handwriting!”
He was getting worked up.
“I just forget things now,” he continued. “I’ll just forget to be somewhere!”
He looked happy to be letting go.