When I washed up in South Dakota—home to Mount Rushmore—I felt as though I’d washed up on Mars, alone. There, I had to build up a life from ground up, like a modern day Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t sure if I’d be a permanent resident there or a serious sojourner. So, it made sense for me not to collect too many effects, for when it was time to move again, the more their number, the more the money that I’d spend in transporting them and the greater the risk of their breakage in transit.
I decided it was best not to be burdened by the weight of possessions. I lived minimally. The class of minimalism encountered in science-fiction movies, set in gloriously tech-driven futures is, often, dreadfully expensive. But there are more ways than a red Knoll chair ($4,000) or a Herman Miller workstation ($1,500) or a litter of technological baubles to make an elegant, clean and Spartan pod of a home.
As a singleton living in a one-bedroom apartment, where there’s a cap on floor area and cash, I bought a few essential objects, which would let me live elegantly, green, very economically—and remarkably, without Wi-Fi and electricity. (I could always wardrive around campus for Wi-Fi, but chances of a steady connectivity 24/7 were as fat as Ally McBeal.) Most of the stuff I bought hark back to the age of the vinyl (and beyond.)
Lodge’s Iron Skillet. Making dinner, to some, is a dark art, best left to a microwave oven or a domestic helpmate. And failing either of these, they order takeout. But some people, like me, enjoy cooking. When one is living solo, one needn’t have a constellation of cookware. Owning Lodge’s iron skillet does the trick wonderfully. It’s a versatile receptacle that one can both cook in—sauté, sear, bake, or roast—and eat out of. Sear a slab of steak in it, pop it into the oven, and serve it directly on the table. After the meal, wash it with hot water and a soft cloth, coat it with a layer of oil, and replace it on the rack. Cost: $20
Really Useful Boxes. The “Really Useful Boxes” are truly “useful” in keeping one’s abode organized and free of dust. I got six big red and blue boxes, stacked one on top of the other, alternating a red with a blue, and set it up in one corner of the living room, creating the effect of a geometric cairn. I stowed away my quilts, comforters, luggage in those. For squirrelling away all manner of odds and ends, I got a dozen tiny ones, no bigger than a gift card holder, in candy colors: red, blue, pink, lime, aqua, green, and purple. They took good care of everything from paper clips, measuring tape, loose change, IDs. Cost: Depending on the volume, they can set one back anywhere between $2 and $15.
Valet Stand. When you don’t have a treadmill, you have a problem. You can’t prop your clothes anywhere. That’s where the valet stand comes in. It’s a piece of furniture for men, popular in the Victorian yesteryear, when sartorial choices were far more formal than today. Placed in the dressing room or the hallway, it was where gentlemen would hang their apparel and accoutrement: tailcoat, trouser, pocket watch, pince-nez, bowler, etc. But I, a 21st century women, felt the need to own one. I found it to be the perfect companion for arranging clothes to be worn the next day or for placing those garments that have been worn, but aren’t soiled enough to be laundered. Cost: $35
Cheval Mirror. A kind of looking glass that can be tilted, a cheval mirror isn’t a space saver as is a quotidian mirror that can be affixed to the closet door. But it spares one sweat. As I didn’t have the resource to hire a handyman, I got a portable silver oval that I could just set down anywhere, without hassle (though the boudoir is the perfect stage for it.) Cost: $50
Étagère. A piece of furniture with cascading shelves, placed, typically, in the parlor, for displaying porcelain figurines, marble busts, and objet d’art, all of which, of course, one wants, but doesn’t need. But books? Yes. So, I filled mine up with as many volumes as would fit. After all, “what is a bookshelf other than a treasure chest for the curious mind?” Besides, when you have to spend your leisure hours without even a radio, what could be the most profitable way to keep yourself entertained than by immersing into a book? Cost: $25
Escritoire. For those of the intellectual bent, a writing desk is another precious possession, for you may want to sit down, and pen thought or a billet-doux on a Moleskin notebook. It also helps to recall that without the Internet, there’s no opportunity to e-mail either, nor is there WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter. The only way to stay in touch then is through letters, handwritten or typewritten. Cost: $40
Futon. Hardy as one is, it’s still immensely difficult to sleep on a pallet of newspapers. A sleeping bag is a notch better, but it still won’t keep one off the hard floor. For lumbar care, you’d need something studier and softer. A bed is comfortable, sure, but it’s cumbersome to lug around. With a luxurious futon, on the other hand, the draw is that with the purchase of one, one also gets a bed—free. A sofa by day, a bed by night, it offers a terrific return on investment. Cost: $150.
Clock. Of course, one would need one of these to keep track of the passing of time. Cost: $ 10 or less.
Toas-Tite. Before we knew about panini press, there was the Toas-Tite. This throwback is an efficient device for making grilled sandwiches. Of the days that I either too fatigued to cook or not in the mood for it, I’d fix myself a sandwich. Lightly grease the clamshell-like aluminum forms, place a slice of bread in each, add a filling, close the device, and place it on a burner or over a campfire for a short while. Turn it over, and you have a round, hot, and melty sandwich. Cost: $30
Moka Pot. This is a clever contraption—invented in Italy 1933—for brewing coffee on the stovetop. The smallest pot of the series produces one demitasse of rich, velvety espresso. Cost: $14
Rubbermaid: Rubbermaid is today’s Tupperware (developed in 1946.) These airtight, waterproof plastic canisters and tubs are fabulous for keeping food. Cost: A 40-piece set will come to less than $10.
Candles. For a cozy fug, burn a cluster of scented candles. Cost: $10 or less.