I was sitting on a stoop in Glendale, California, because actually the cartoonist’s place I was staying in, one door down from the Holy Roller and right next to the underground senior couple, was fairly filthy, so I sat around in front a lot. C came by the stoop with her little Alaskan dog (I forget the brand name) every night about seven o’clock. N, the ex-spook right next door, was usually out too. He’d supposedly done shit work for the CIA with the cover of being a private chef. We were all in the bottom half of a beaten up, non-earthquake-proof building, at the end of our run.
This was the first little social group that welcomed me in my entire life. Lonely life. A Freak, as they say in the states, but definitely not a Super Freak or a modern savvy sideshow connoisseur. Quentin Crisp said to embrace what one can’t avoid, and I did get lucky in becoming a sort of consummate outsider. I get to hang out with people like my visionary cartoonist friend in Glendale, California, which is where I met C.
C has a greasy clump of short hair, huge breasts drooping under a housedress, and scuffs. She talks really really loud, which drives the Holy Roller next door crazy. C’s place was bad. She admitted this to me herself one day when we were hanging on the stoop.
“Maybe I can help,” I answered.
“No, it’s really bad,” she clarified. Now C became a challenge, a helper challenge, and I pressured her in a low-key way for days.
“Well, maybe one day you’ll let me see!” I kept saying
I’ve got an eight-year old girl and a spinster school marm that live in my vocal chords, and that’s just two of them. There’s a New Yorker, a Southerner, a Poor Person, a sing-song-don’t-be-scared-of-me-middle-class-voice-beggar-an-opportuner, a crooner, and, dare I brag, a blueser. In addition, though I am moderate in my habits, I often sound flat out drunk.
C did let me in one day, past the screen door.
The thing is to swallow your reaction, the first shock. When I was in the UK, a man at the local tube stop, face charred black from a fire, down to the skull, actually thought I was flirting with him. I was that good at suppressing a first reaction. Maybe I was just the only person who said hello as he haunted the train station. Expressing true shock is bad form. Fake shock is okay.
Well I certainly know about the lonely life, and some of what hoarders do is block themselves off from the world, no company, no visitors, and it’s not unusual for rescuers, neighbors, landlords, and fed up relatives to have to search a domicile for hours to locate a seldom-seen-in-life human body, sometimes with a cat carcass or two thrown in there with the newspapers and tinsel. I read the tabloids, and have lived in the South — I knew I was looking at a not-uncommon tragedy, having grown up in one myself, what with a sociopath father, British hoarder grandmother, and their constant battle over the semiotics of everyday objects, with him wanting to go back to the Bering-Gould ancestral home and her wanting the glam of the ninety-nine cent store on 14th Street.
C has empty boxes, bubble wrap, and ad hoc mobiles of shiny things placed non-strategically on every remotely high surface. She’s got fake parrots and one wall lined with punishment-color file cabinets, a white vinyl couch with no room to actually sit on in the living room area, and hundreds of pill prescription bottles that represent an imagined and hoped for meeting with a perfect doctor who will want to know every single detail of her prescriptionary past.
Hobbies they will take up one day are a big hoarder trait. Some of C’s interests and potential hobbies are: owning a parrot, returning to the working world by consulting ten-year-old newspaper classified ads, and maybe even using the five printers or several computer keyboard templates dating back from 1987. She also wanted to revise and sell a script the late soft-core pornographer Russ Meyer once expressed an interest in.
C was also planning to make jewelry from hundreds if not a couple thousand gems, a project she and N had embarked on. Every pile is a project or a concept, unrealized, so putting a couple of issues of Dog World in a dumpster or sweeping a pile of change into just one baggy can break a hoarder, tear them right up. The type of dog on the cover of the magazine means something they might need to know, while the piles of change on dusty paper plates are, of course, organized by the state or the year or some damn thing. If you mess up any of this, their world is shattered and they will not let you, the destroyer, ever forget. The thought of the magazine back issue, the change, the tiny gem, runs through their brain like the worst kind of barbed wire prison. You must let them know that you know this. The big picture is you might be able to get rid of some of the Styrofoam but they, like the world, are not getting what an expert or landlord might refer to as Better.
Compounding C’s case was the shock therapy she herself had gone to the local hospital and demanded a decade or so ago. Sustainability doesn’t work for medical treatment. “Think globally, act locally” definitely should not apply to something so delicate as repeatedly zapping a person’s cranium. Might want to shop around for that one. So sending her to, say, the other side of a Goat Trail with a garbage bag is not a real world scenario. She’s gonna get stuck. Stand there with the garbage bag, brain cycling painfully.
It wasn’t the worst job I ever had, crouching there with C, living in her world, chiding, cajoling, and sharing. She liked me as well as the mentally ill can. Cautiously, now and then. Growing up with a mood-addled psychological and physical tormenter has made me real good at reading the vibes of the troubled and paranoid, having a kind, depressed mother to entertain out of the blues for my very safety, makes me a perfect type for this work. I’ve worked for a woman thug and also a jacked-up office hoarder, and we never called the job by its description, but I was there to alleviate some of the ruckus of the Hoard. At least that’s what I wanted to do, possessing love and fairness and just the right amount of laid backness to be extremely patient with these colorful time bombs. In this instance, I actually got C to learn a new inner thought:
“Those products haven’t existed for nine years!” I told her one day, looking at the dates on some of many mail order catalogue back issues. When I left, as one must, C started looking at some of the catalogues I organized and telling herself: “These products do not exist!”
Did I mention you can break them? Well, they can break your heart too, when they do a thing like that. Still, I think that C preferred to think of me as a type of coolie or brain-addled servant. It made the revelations less embarrassing.
On an Oprah episode, I’d seen the hoarder counselor asks this woman what she would ideally like her house to be. “A place my grandchildren can visit!” she wailed, sobbing.
I tried that with C. “What would you like your apartment to be?” I queried.
“Well,” she replied thoughtfully, “Somewhere I can display my stuff.”
Hoarders can be cute. For two days, she got stuck on a weird Christmas display that could make a triggered holiday sound if all the cardboard and Styrofoam was working just right, and sat out on the top of her stoop tinkering with it for a few hours.
“When I was in group therapy, they told me to do one thing a day that makes me happy,” she explained.
You go, C. Like every artist in LA, she likes Christmas. A lot of the ones who live there have a little artificial tree that stays out for the whole year, choosing not to stash this most cinematic of holidays away in a closet for 11 months. Those people are at the end of the world, at least in terms of borrowing an item and returning it, keeping their word, having a conversation that doesn’t connect to a labyrinth of connections real and hoped for. Right near the mythical screenplays you will always find a Christmas ornament, and I had a mythical hope of my own for C, which was this:
Maybe her apartment could have every Christmas thing on display, ornaments, glitter, tinsel tin tree boas, the whole nine yards, and be a mini Santa Town visitors could enjoy. Not gonna happen. Like so many dreams, brothers and sisters. Anyway, are you perfect?
There is never a happy ending. As Steven Brown of Tuxedo Moon sings, “Sometimes I think that this short life…is just one long disease.”
I missed a touching denouement, however, when C dodged that big D Day for hoarders, eviction. Trumark Realty was going to send Jose over to see if there was any way to get to, say, a fire exit, or make an emergency repair, but of course they knew there wasn’t. The building manager might as well have been checking to see if he could make it to the couch, which would have proved equally impossible.
Landlords and neighbors have a not irrational fear of hoarders. Cops and fire men will tell you that a hoarded place is like a bomb formula, layers of paper stacked in between bubble wrap, another of C’s favorite items. Fire catches rapidly and explosively. Therefore, housing inspections and the resultant eviction are the most dangerous part of a pack-rats’ life.
My favorite term of landlord tenant law is “Notice to Cure,” which can be used by either side. It’s a “Cover Your Ass” notification of me telling y’all about the problem. Now if you don’t fix it, the hammer’s coming down hard and the housing court judge has no choice but to agree. My least favorite term dotting America right now is “Legally.” As in: You have to get your stuff and get out. Legally.
Hoarder evictions are the reasons you see so many homeless wheeling around nonsensical items on purloined shopping carts. You know the look: stuffed animals, half a wrench, wrapping paper, all pouring out of the top and obstructing their own view of what might be coming up ahead, besides just the disdain of passersby.
Conversely, impending eviction is really the only thing, besides maybe being in cognitive therapy every waking moment, that really motivates the hoarder. I sneakily called a company named Steri-Clean that served the San Fernando Valley area, and pushed C on the phone with them. I felt hopeful, because she was on there for awhile, but then, in retrospect, she would talk to just about anybody about anything, including a free-floating sense of prejudiced indignation about the Cyrillic-using population that had quickly taken over Glendale.
“They were asking me the right questions,” she reported of her Steri-Clean chat. One of them, apparently, was, “Do you have a bathroom you are unable to use due to toxic waste?”
Why yes, yes she did.
“Do you have a pet, and, if so, are there piles of animal fur everywhere?”
Check. She wouldn’t go for the complementary meeting with a counselor, though. At the time, she trusted, unfortunately, only N and me.
When C’s D Day, the inspection, came, N went to Home Depot, and gathered up five Mexican day laborers. He arranged for storage space in a nearby garage, brought the men over to her place, and sat there and holding her hand while the team carried out box after box to a truck N had amazingly also procured. C cried, wept, shook, and took, no doubt, many pills, which is how they got through that earthquake of a day. She rightly tipped each man $60 to be part of a trauma.
Most people have a pack-rat in the family or neighborhood back home. They know the deal. In this case, minimum wage and $60. C passed her apartment inspection. She knew her things were safe. N knew that he and his wife were safe for a time, because C was covering their rent. In return N cooked her hundreds of gourmet meals, was a cunningly subtle rent-a-friend next door, and, when the game was over, N and his wife ducked out of the Trumark Realty umbrella and got themselves to a gated building out of sight and out of reach of C and her imploring phone calls. She was coming to the end of her Kentucky inheritance, less willing perhaps to invest in their get-rich-quick schemes, plus most hoarders are a pain in the ass in general, if you get too close. You’re not supposed to. I don’t think C, N, or definitely that ill wife of his are going to be around in, say, 2019, but her stuff will remain, long after our species suffers its lethal count down.
Let the dark water swamp our poisoned terrain as the Earth takes some time to detoxify, a quiet infinity, and C’s decorative crystals will sink down past the Styrofoam, soundless, as her leftover psychiatric medications leech through what’s left of the soil, right past the sparkly yuletide greetings and dream catchers. It’s possible C, whose literary collection includes a book about things people do in natural disasters, feels this at her very core.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.