A Story of Stuff

Ron and Chris Ryerson keep watch over America's junk drawer.

Laura Putre can be reached at [email protected].
The Ryersons at their safe haven for Little Debbies, U-Store-It. - Walter  Novak
The Ryersons at their safe haven for Little Debbies, U-Store-It.
People who drop off the face of the earth tend to travel light. Whether sucked up by the cosmos or gunned down by an underground drug cartel, they don't bring their golf clubs or patio umbrellas along for the ride. So there's a lot of stuff left in the lurch, and a lot of stuff-wranglers conscripted to deal with it.

Ron and Chris Ryerson, husband-and-wife managers of miscellany at the U-Store-It self-storage facility on Miles Road in Warrensville Heights, are two such soldiers. They not only supervise other people's wilted Christmas decorations and barbecue grills, they coexist with them -- having lived above the front office for three years, in a prefab apartment with a shiny red roof.

"I was raised in the country," says Ron, tooling around the property on his company-issued go-cart. "So maybe that's the only reason I can handle this." A drive down repeating rows of aluminum shacks can be a real mind-clearer, not entirely unlike a boyhood spent exploring the game reserve near Castalia, Ohio, where he grew up.

At the game reserve, Ron says, the kids were always on the lookout for "Red Eyes" -- the local nickname for Bigfoot. The Ryersons' first date, some 25 years ago, even involved the "looking for Red Eyes" premise, "though that's not what I had in mind, ho ho," admits Ron.

Now, rather than Sasquatch incarnate, he keeps his eyes peeled for that elusive thug with the crowbar or the shifty-eyed character who could be a modern-day Mr. Whipple simply squeezing the Charmin or could be up to no good.

"I had one person that was renting from us, he would come in every day, he would open the back of his trunk, and he would meet somebody by the facility," Ron recalls. "I thought, "Hmmm . . . we dealing drugs here?'

"Finally, I waited till he was there, and I talked to him. I says, "What are you doing back here every day, meeting people?' And it turns out he was a little soap salesman or something."

"Food bank," corrects Chris.

"Well, I saw soap tied in there," says Ron, obsessing on the squeaky-clean. "He'd store stuff in there and then take it to the food bank. But it looked so suspicious."

Married 21 years -- they spent about 10 as apartment managers, but quit when they got passed up for promotions and burned out from evicting people -- the Ryersons don't look sideways at everybody. Actually, they actively don't ask questions of their customers, who might be weird, but weird is relative and usually not criminal. In the self-storage business, privacy is a commodity.

"What it really comes down to is, we don't know what people put in their storage units," says Ron, his plainspeak only slightly ominous. "We try to police it, but there's only so much we can do."

Hazardous wastes, flammables, dead bodies, and tires (which can give off toxic fumes) are all off limits. When trucks pull up, Chris or Ron will eyeball the load inside.

"First of all, to see what size unit they might need. And I'm also looking for something that doesn't belong there," Ron explains. "It could be buried in the back. I mean, I don't dig around in there."

While Ron talks, Chris navigates her way around mountains of paperwork, bantering with a steady stream of agitated customers with minor "situations." One is trying to talk his way into a sick aunt's unit without a key, while another gives an exposition on why he hasn't paid last month's rent yet.

"Oh, the excuses here," sighs Ron. "I think, one of them, his grandmother died three times."

The most popular? "I've been incarcerated!" the Ryersons shout in unison.

About 15 percent of their clientele don't pay their rent each month, and about half of those ultimately square up. The rest die, disappear, or at some crucial point resign themselves to life without 18 boxes of paycheck stubs and a broken microwave oven.

Or five units of raw garbage with sentimental value. "Old cereal boxes. Egg cartons. Milk jugs," lists Ron, scrunching his nose at the memory of a longtime customer who got $3,000 behind on her bill.

The trash was treated democratically, advertised, per state law, in a "notice of public sale" published in the Daily Legal News. Eventually, it was offered up for sale at one of the U-Store-It auctions, held every six weeks to recover unpaid rent.

"Needless to say, we didn't get any bids on it," says Ron. "But to top it off, [the owner] came to the auction. She stood back there, sort of cowering. She didn't bid or nothing." Not knowing she was among them, the bidders, mostly thrift store proprietors, had a grand time making fun of her. "I think she left early, she got insulted so much."

Ron says he feels for the people who can't keep up. "But you've got to learn to harden your heart, or you will not be successful. I've gone through hard times in life, too, but somehow I survived."

Though leathery on the outside, he says he's not beyond being baffled by people who inexplicably go AWOL -- or being curious about what they leave behind. When a bidder buys a unit with, say, a desk in it, the bidder usually doesn't want the love letters in the top drawer, so they're handed over to the Ryersons, who keep personal papers on file for a month and sometimes read them.

"We had one old car that was left; there was all kinds of letters in it," he remembers. "The lady swore she was being chased by the Mafia, and [at least according to her letters], she had traveled the United States running away. She knew a lot of big names. I'm going to see so and so. I've gotta go there."

"Sort of in the form of a diary," Chris interjects, "but she had most of it typed out. They were in these big Tupperware containers, like laundry baskets."

"We found rolls of quarters," Ron continues. "Like she would always have to make phone calls. We had to auction it off, because the bill wasn't paid, and we weren't able to find her."

Chris assumed the woman was probably sick or dead.

"Who knows, maybe she was just a fruitcake," concludes Ron.

Ron and Chris officially met in a Dairy Mart in Sandusky in the late 1960s. After several years of marriage, they found that they had almost had a more romantic first meeting. They had been sitting near each other at the final Beatles concert at the Cleveland Stadium in 1965.

"We started talking -- oh yeah, I was there, what row were you? And we realized we were just a few feet apart."

Now, it's a rare day when they're not a few feet apart. "Actually, we're kind of private people," says Ron. "And that's the kind of people that are good self-storage managers. We're not really interested in socializing. We've got a few friends here and there, and of course, we talk with the other self-storage managers. Occasionally go out to dinner or something."

They keep an unlisted number, and weekends, they park their car in an empty self-storage unit.

"We've gotta have a life, too," says Ron. "That's really the hardest part. We've gotta hide the car, because that's what really cuts down on people knocking on the doors. Otherwise, they'd be banging away."

Recently, they surrendered an extra bedroom on the first floor to the company so U-Store-It could cheaply expand the front office. Now, on off days, the only time they go downstairs is to change the tape on the video recorder, which is hooked up to the security cameras. It mainly broadcasts, live and in color, nothing from about 12 different angles.

"If the alarm goes off, we would review the tape to see who set it off," says Ron. "About the only other thing we do is, if we find a bunch of trash piled by the dumpster, we'll review the tape and see if we can catch the perpetrator. It's part of the lease that they are to take out with them what they bring in, so if we find that, and we're able to figure out which tenant it was, we do bill them accordingly."

The police have called on them a couple of times, wanting to get into locked units when they're hot on the trail of an antiques sting operation or blowing the lid off an insurance fraud scam.

"When that occurs, we take the police officer back to the unit," Ron recites. "Usually it's overlocked with our lock, because the person hasn't paid the bill. I remove my lock, and I say, "Goodbye. You have a nice time. I'm going back to the office. Let me know when you're done.'"

Otherwise, the only stirring is the wind whistling through the trees -- oops, there aren't any trees, so it's the routine whir of the Little Debbie semis, dropping off a day's supply of Swiss Rolls and Devil Squares. The snack cakes are stacked inside a row of storage units, awaiting the delivery drivers, who make several pilgrimages a day. Nearby, rogue repair people from a major computer company work in a makeshift corrugated-metal office, which the corporate types have rented for $125 rather than put out $500 for a real one in an office building.

"Wanna flip the gate, Chris?" asks Ron. "There's a Deb."

"People ask me questions," he continues. "They'll say, "Gee, it doesn't seem like you do anything.' I'll say, "Excuse me, we have to go out and sweep units, we have to do lock checks, we have to do tons of paperwork.'" You try it, and let him know how it goes. During regular business hours, please.

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