[caption id="attachment_290" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Hoarding or just clutter?"]
A coupon for 50 cents off Nabisco cookies was taped to the frame of the bathroom door. At the behest of the Health Department, a suburban city had asked us to clean a home, to bring it up to "inhabitable" condition.
We normally work in foreclosed homes. Regardless of the condition we find them in, there is one constant: the residents are gone. This job was different. "Blanche", the owner, was there, watching us as we worked.
The police and fire department were there, the former to assist us in accessing the home, the latter to ensure it was safe enough to work in. We got in, and it was deemed safe. Barely.
Blanche had done some work before we got there, cleaning out tons of miscellaneous items so that there might be discernible walkways through the living room, kitchen and bathroom. "It looks a lot better than when we were here last week," the firefighter said. "She's been working."
Still, her living room was a study in clutter and filth. All the doors and windows were closed and the curtains drawn, keeping sunlight out so effectively that one might think a vampire lived there. The couches were piled high with clothes, magazines, lampshades, paper clips, a bowling bag, and countless other unknown items. We didn't touch anything in there, however. The City only wanted us to clean the kitchen and the bathroom.
Both were in bad shape. The kitchen was piled high was rubbish, and the sink was full of dishes that housed stagnant water, vermin, roaches and who knows what else. Blanche helped Mark and Robbie go through what she wanted to keep and what we could throw away. She picked through all of our "garbage" piles and decided that she needed to keep a bottle cap, some clothespins, an old newspaper circular.
Hoarder houses have a certain smell, a musky blend of rotting garbage, underground soil and human refuse. This house had it, although it was no worse than other hoarder houses we've been to.
I was instructed to clean the bathroom. No problem, I though, I've cleaned a hundred bathrooms. At first glance, this one didn't look that bad. Sure, everything was covered in a decade of dust, and the walls and ceilings were greasy and moldy. The toilet didn't look too bad, though, and the tub, while discolored and encrusted enough to appear misshapen, wasn't anything that I deemed impossible.
Blanche came and watched me get to work. "Don't touch that coupon!" she said urgently as I went to clean the door frame. I left it, but not before noting its expiration date: 08/31/97.
"I haven't used that shower in ten years," she said, explaining that she showers elsewhere. "My joints are bad, and I can't crawl into the tub. I tell ya, when they first did surgery on my knees..."
She was talking, and I got into the tub and started scrubbing. Hard. First I used a disinfectant, tried wiping that down with rags, and then opted for hot water, Comet and a Brillo pad. The tepid mixture splashed up my arms as sweat poured off my face. I was working fast to get out of there.
"And the toilet," she continued, "well this thing leaks, so I haven't used it in years." This gave me pause.
"Well, I'm not a plumber, but you might want to call one to get that taken care of," I offered.
"I'll have to, 'cuz in two weeks I'm getting hip surgery and then I won't even be able to sit on the tub and use the bathroom," she said, before turning and walking back to the kitchen.
I looked at the murky liquid running down my arms, at the sludge I was scraping out of the drain, and at the dried yellow-and-brown rivulets leading down the side of the tub. I almost vomited. Dirty Dave was in the living room, retching silently to himself. It's gross, but it's someone's home, and that someone was here with us, watching us dissect her creation. Somehow I was able to keep myself together, and my disgust was tempered with a profound sadness for this situation. How does one get to the point where all semblance of an organized, healthy existence is completely gone? What happens in minds like Blanche's?
I'm not a psychologist. I'm little more than a specialized garbage man, so my knowledge on this kind of thing comes from the blue-collar side of things. National Public Radio ran an interesting piece on hoarders
last year, that touches on the subject. In this report, experts say that up to one in thirty Americans are afflicted with a hoarding compulsion. That's an extremely high percentage. Think about it this way: we service around 4,500 properties. At those numbers, 150 would be hoarder houses. I'd posit that we actually work with more than that. It's staggering.
Still, I'd like to know more about this disease. According to the psychologists and authors John Ryan and Alan Durning
, simply cleaning up a hoarder's dwelling changes only the physical appearance of the home. It does nothing to modify behavior. After the cleanup, the resident will slowly transform those spaces back into cluttered, dirty areas. It's like an abandoned property reverting back to nature.
The four of us worked furiously, efficiently and very professionally, I thought. The bathroom and kitchen turned out great, "better than we expected," according to the firefighter. A city crew cleaned up the yard, trimmed the trees, and made Blanche's house look good from the curb. At least now it blends in with the neighbors' places.
As we left, Blanche thanked us, but not before criticizing us for not being able to get all the ancient newspaper ads off the kitchen floor. We tried to explain that they were glued on there, and we couldn't get them off without damaging the floor. "My husband was always too cheap to put in a new floor," she said. "I guess this'll do for now."
Normally, a particularly dirty, difficult job is cause for raucous banter afterward, but today found the four of us rather somber. We had helped make a home inhabitable, but only for a while. And with all the outside involvement, police, fire, health, and us, none of us could offer Blanche the help she really needed. We'll all be back, I fear, sooner rather than later.
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