FEBRUARY 2009 – NO. 30
The Crime Scene Cleaner
A day in the life of Neal Smither.
We are on our way to Richmond to price up the clearance of a garbage house. You have more than likely seen them on TV. They pop up now and again in films and docudramas. Whenever there's a need to portray a local nut whom all the kids in the neighborhood are scared of (though there's always one little fat kid who pretends not to be scared in order to win some kudos), the hoarder in the house full of trash and cats is a character often opted for.
Garbage houses with lost and forgotten, sometimes crazy, sometimes just old, proud and lonely people inside litter every state map in America. Cleaning garbage houses after the long-forgotten occupants die and decompose in their beds is a big part of Neal's business.
As we arrive at the house, the owners, or at least the very, very new owners — the ones who flew in from out of town to organize the clear-out and the quick-as-you-can sale of the house — are waiting for us on the driveway.
The windows have all been boarded over and the front door fitted with new locks. The new owners won't be going into the house with Neal and me. They say the smell is too strong.
Such houses are called garbage houses not least because they are full of garbage; it also has a lot to do with the fact that the garbage is arranged exactly as it is on a garbage dump. It's as if somebody plucked the roof off and then an oversized truck came along and dumped the garbage inside the house. It's packed in really tight. It even looks like it's been bulldozed into position, but of course it hasn't. This is the human hand at work. The plastic bags are piled up high and mixed in size and color and contents, exactly like at the local dump. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I know what happened here. The occupant, while out for a stroll one day, saw a nice garbage mound and decided, to save on time and labor, to build a house around the mound itself. The only thing this enclosed dump site lacks is several hundred scavenger birds circling and squawking above. There are living things circling, though they are not squawking. They buzz and fly at face height.
But the smell is of greater concern and importance. I follow Neal through the house wondering how long I can hold my breath for. I haven't forgotten his "I nearly died" story, and I am not wearing a mask.
In the first room there is a bed piled high with garbage bags, blankets, magazines, bottles, letters, and empty air-freshener cans. On the other side of the mound is a dressing table, still equipped with beauty products, which are covered in dust and cobwebs. There is also a TV. The standby light glows, but the screen is a mass of dust. More cobwebs hang between the television and the wall. It's as if the occupant got bored and stopped living in the room one day without as much as a glance back as he or she started tossing garbage in there.
The kitchen is an abominable mess. Here the occupant decided to dispense with the formality of garbage bags. Sauce bottles, drink cartons, food packets — just about everything you can imagine — have been tossed here loose. Flies flit back and forth, hopping from plastic bottles to empty cans. I am not convinced that they are going to find what they want anymore, but they show no sign of giving up.
The smell is always there, but sometimes it manages to get deep down in the lungs. My stomach gags. I have to go back to holding my breath if I want to keep my latte down.
The bathroom is the only room that has been kept free of debris. At least the occupant realized that human waste should be disposed of in the traditional manner. But this room, while free of empty ketchup bottles, is still rank. It's like something you might expect in a film about people left to rot in dank, infested prison basements.
"Alan, keep it in!" I hear Neal say over my shoulder. "Dude, you can't throw up here. Hold it in. Hold it in. Alan, concentrate … Hold it in!"
Neal sounds like a counselor as he coaches me through the process of not vomiting. Still, it works. It does take several gags before I have myself under control, but I do get the better of the reflex. The problem is that there are six other rooms to inspect.
Neal reaches all the rooms ahead of me, kicking doors open on arrival. They are all jam-packed. I don't want to go into the rooms anymore, so I just peek in through the doors. I have the feeling that it will never end, that as we continue down the twisting hallway, pop in and out of rooms, we will always be greeted with more doors and, hence, more garbage.
Even the hallway is packed full of garbage, scum, and flies that send me skittering about in my bids not to touch or tread on anything. But this garbage, it's not all food cartons and sauce bottles. Jutting out at odd angles are signs of life: an old clock, a jacket, a birthday card. There are signs of a life lived here, but where there's space for a human being to have lived in it I don't know. I can't even begin to think where this person slept.
In one of the last rooms, I find out. On a small tan fabric soda, opposite a television, are the body fluids of the recently decomposed. This room is deep inside the pit. Whenever this person went to the toilet, opened the door, or pretty much did anything, it would have involved quite a trek from this room, through mounds of garbage and clouds of flies.
Back outside, on the driveway, I want to fall to my knees and drink the clean air. But the clients are waiting for us there and so I put on a brave face and try to maintain my calm.
"Okay, we're looking at — at least six large dumpsters here."
Neal begins to tell them what is needed and what the cost will be: "I'll put four guys on it and it will take two full days. It's going to cost you about $4,500. Now you don't have to answer right away. Like I said, my name is Neal. I'm the president of the corp. You need anything, you just get me on the phone."
For a minute it looks as if Neal is going to walk off. Does he want the job or is this part of another Jedi mind trick?
"No," one of the women says quickly and firmly. "We want you to do it. We want to get the house on the market. Can you do it this week?"
It strikes me as a little odd that the two women are so well groomed for this occasion. Their clothes are well made; hold brooches and diamond rings sparkly in the sunlight. Their hair is styled in big dramatic balls. You can't get your hair buffed and buoyed up like that without professional rigging, specialist tools, and a team of trained assistants. It is clear that they both have visited the hair salon recently, I would even go as far as to say today.
And why not? I suppose. Maybe they are going to a party after. Maybe they didn't know their relative was dead and they just popped around to pay a surprise visit on their way to a gala. You could hardly expect them, on finding their dead relative, to turn to each other and say, "I don't know about you, but I feel overdressed."
"How does Wednesday grab you?" says Neal, making me jump, making me realize I have been staring at his clients. Even though I turn away, I am still focusing on them. I can't picture the relationship between the two women before me and the person who must have lived in this house. Where do they connect? Two are overly turned out to meet a crime scene cleaner and the other was living in foul conditions.
"Oh, that would just be great," one of the women says. "I am so grateful to you, you don't understand."
"You bet. Anything of importance we find we'll put to one side, any deeds or money."
"You will? Because we caught one of the neighbors in here. We think they were stealing money."
Neal is on the phone as we drive away in the truck, but he is paying enough attention to notice that I am once again about to vomit. Without discussion or signal he pulls sharply into the edge of a grass verge. I open the door, lean out, and throw up. He hands me a tissue while still on the phone. I lean out, gag once more, and wipe my mouth. Neal starts driving off while the door is still open.
"Dude, if I was that way inclined," he tells me as I close the door, "I could've hit her up for another grand at least!"
I start laughing immediately. Neal thinks I am laughing at his words, but I am not. Are there to be no inquiries into my well-being? I was only hanging out the door being sick, after all.
I feel sad about the situation we left behind. Why are the family members there so quickly after death when there is a house to be claimed, and not when there's a life to claim? It's very easy, of course, to sit here wiping vomit off my chin while rewriting somebody else's life, making decisions based upon my empty conclusions. Maybe there are a thousand valid reasons why. But still, at this point, with a body stain on a sofa, a house full of garbage, and two well-dressed and at times embarrassed relatives on the driveway, it is cutting and depressing.
"Why did you say that about finding money? Is it normal to find money in such places? I ask Neal, wanting to get away from my thoughts.
"Fuck yeah. You gotta understand, these people are old. They all lived through the Depression, where all the banks went belly-up. These people lost their houses, their savings, their lives. So they don't trust banks. So yeah, in houses like that where somebody elderly has died, you generally find a lot of cash, or lots of bonds. We found like 20 grand in one house just like that, just envelopes everywhere full of cashed benefits and bonds. It was just so much money. Did you hear she said they thought the neighbors had been stealing? That's common, too. Neighbors get in there and pretend to help, maybe they go grocery shopping for them once a week, but really they're just robbing them."
"Why do you think people choose to live this way? Buried in their own garbage, I mean. Do you think they are mentally ill and should be in a home?"
"I don't think it's a choice as in A-B-C. Some of them are mentally ill, but, dude, often it's because these people are just proud fucking people. It's pride that gets them in this mess. They get old and eventually they can't contain themselves and they don't want people to know. They don't want people to see them like that. They're too proud to ask for help. They lose their grip on the house, can't physically cope, but they wouldn't dare call anyone in because they don't want to be dependent on anybody. They don't want people to know that they can't cope. Then the place gets to a point where they're too embarrassed to let anybody in. Before they know it, they're completely bedridden and that's that.
"I am not going out like that. I hope to raise my boy to be a good person. I just can't believe people live and treat each other the way they do. I mean family, you know?"
"Does it make you sad, seeing these things all the time?"
"I don't really think about it like that. I mean, when you ask me directly, yeah, of course, but day to day — I just think about how many dumpsters I'm gonna need."
"What about the situation like the one we just left. They seem quick to move when there's a house up for grabs."
"Alan, you haven't seen shit. For some reason, a lot of these people become adversarial with us, and it's generally not the people that we've had contact with to schedule and all that. That person's generally too distraught to deal with it anymore. So we have to deal with the idiot relatives who for some reason make us the enemy. They're fighting for belongings and they don't want us there to hear it. They're just not good people. They're dirty, filthy frigging animals with no sense of courtesy or decorum, you know? Dude, your grandma's spot is now the floor. Fight over the belongings when the janitors have gone, okay! I mean God Almighty. You haven't seen her for at least 30 days. She was on the fucking floor, dead! So how the hell do you know that she wanted you to have that bureau, like it's your fucking birthright?"
"Sometimes, Neal, you sound like you really do care. You get worked up."
"No, I don't give a shit. That's not the way my life is. They choose to live that way, man. I mean mentally, absolutely it affects you, but what? Are you gonna let it eat you up, or are you gonna make your life better or work not to be that way? I couldn't live the way most of our clients live. I just couldn't do it. I really just could not fucking do it."
"Do you think you would feel that way if you had a regular job — like in a bank?"
"No. Probably not. I'd just be going along like everyone else. But with this job you are confronted by death every day, and you are confronted by how people treat each other every day. It's an eye opener. You get to see how the loved ones behave once you're gone, or behind each other's backs. It changes you. But I'm a pretty driven guy anyway. I mean, once I have it in my head as a goal, I have to achieve it or it's gonna kill me. Mentally it will eat me alive. It's like, I have a certain money goal right now and I swear to God it's all I think about all day long."
"That's pretty sad, too, Neal, to be so driven by money."
"Oh absolutely. It is. I know."
Excerpted from MOP MEN: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners by Alan Emmins. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
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