A Man I Never Knew
December 31, 2011 4 Comments
It’s was 7:45 a.m. I woke to Andy poking me, gesturing that it was time to go. I peeled myself off the couch and headed out the door, en route to the airport to rent a car.
“I have to make a stop at a job site in St. Paul to hook up a water line; it should only take a minute,” he said.
We arrived at a moderate looking home in Lowertown, just north of the Mississippi River. Andy gave me a little backstory on the home prior to our arrival so I was eager to poke around the lot, as this was not their average house demolition.
After a little nosing around, neighbors and workers helped me paint a picture in my head of what happened on that quiet street, however, there are bits and pieces of the story that I still do not completely understand. The story consisted of an elderly diabetic man, a crazy woman and a hoarding problem that was clearly long overdue for City intervention.
The man originally lived in the house next door (which is currently being cared for by the Minnesota Historical Society) when he let the woman move in with him. The woman, who had an extreme hoarding problem, filled the man’s home to the brim with garbage and possessions alike. When the home became unlivable, he bought the home next door (the home being demolished).
Just like the neighboring home, the woman once again filled it with anything she could get her hands on. From what I learned from the neighbors, the man attempted to kick the woman out on multiple occasions. Somehow she always found her way back in. One way or another, this man became a vulnerable victim to both this woman’s hoarding and her alleged drug problems.
Andy and his workers spent the last week cleaning out the home; nothing remained on the main floor but an eerie feeling and a stench as repugnant as a corpse. I stopped in the middle of the entryway as my eyes scanned the empty rooms around me. I followed Andy around the home as he helped me visualize the condition the home was in just one week ago.
“You had to crawl up a pile of garbage to get through this doorway, with only about a foot of space between the ceiling and the pile,” he said.
We moved into what was the man’s bedroom.
“The pile was at lease five feet tall in here, his bed perched on top of it all. He had an a-frame ladder that led to the top of his bed,” he continued. “This is where they found his body.”
His words lingered as I felt an unexplainable feeling rush over my body, leaving me chilled inside and out.
We moved to the back of the house as I questioned the structure. I am familiar with the process of house demolition and wondered why they would tear down the structures inside the home prior to the demolition.
“We didn’t, Mar, this is just what the house looked like. This home is unlivable, which is why it was condemned after the body was recovered,” he explained.
We continued through the house as he pointed out the back stairway to the basement. I didn’t see a staircase. What I saw was a pile of junk in a hole. The basement was so packed with garbage, that what I saw was the trickle of it up the stairs.
We made our way back to the front of the home and carefully climbed the stairs, dodging newspapers, plastic bags and empty cans. I stopped in my tracks when I reached the top of the stairs. I was too shocked to move. Not only was the stench now powerful enough for me to be gagging, but the sight had changed as well.
Andy began to grumble that the workers had not finished hauling the garbage out. I nodded in agreement as I climbed around knee-deep piles of garbage.
Andy threw me a pair of gloves, hinting for me to ease my shock and make myself useful. I began to shovel through the pile of rubbish as my eyes scanned the items I was scooping up, newspapers dating back to 2001, unopened 1996 calendars, sealed mail, empty tomato soup cans, clothing, and change. Lots of change. Andy claimed over $300 in loose change and a single $100 bill throughout the week that he cleaned that house. I left with a mere $3.75.
I took a break from shoveling and began to poke around the contents of the top floor of the home. I moved slowly, attempting to take in every single item around me. The house slowly started to transform right before my eyes. What started as a repulsive living environment had turned into a giant cry for help. The garbage disappeared, the stench removed, all I saw were small, broken glimpses of hope.
What thoughts possessed this man? Why was he so weak to the woman who controlled his life and his home? Why did these little “things” need to adorn his broken home?
According to the Hartford Hospital, compulsive hoarding affects up to 2 million people in the United States and is most commonly found in conjunction with other diseases, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and dementia. Most people who hoard are detached from family, their disease eventually leading them to homelessness. In this special, and extreme case of hoarding, the hoarder was removed from the home, leaving the man to suffer alone.
Shortly after we had the remaining garbage removed from the home we went outside to begin the demolition. I helped Andy hook up the water line and closely looked on as Chris began to remove the house, one crunch at a time. We laughed as neighbors and passer-bys gathered and exited their cars to take pictures and videos. I laughed, but I was just as amused the first time I saw it.
Andy and I finally left the job site after spending nearly three hours in that home. We met a friend for lunch at Lucky’s in Mendota, soaking up the warmth and releasing the shock and uncontrollable sadness that was simmering inside of me. I had started to center my mind when Andy told me we needed to go back to the job site. I felt a sink in my stomach, the day’s memories flashing in my mind. I felt like I had grieved through a confusing situation and felt a notable fear knowing I had to return to it.
We pulled up to the lot; a lonely, single staircase was all that remained.
I stood in silence for what felt like an eternity, staring at the concrete stairs. These old, cracked stairs are all that remained from that man’s home, and his life. No one succeeded him, few knew his name, no wills were drawn, no adornments of his life will decorate his loved one’s home in remembrance of him. None of these things, only a set of cold, concrete stairs that will soon be gone as well.
I somberly stood in wonder. Wondering what his favorite color was, what he wanted to be when he grew up, if he was a cat person or a dog person, and why he never had the strength to stand up and fight for his life and his home. I began to pull myself out of my mental frenzy, hopped in the car and pulled away, the concrete stairs slowly shrinking in my rear view mirror.
This was two days ago. I have carried on with my week, meeting with friends and enjoying the rest of my vacation, but I can’t shake the feeling, underneath my skin and deep within my heart, that something bad happened. I have yet to figure out exactly what it is that I wanted to take away from this experience. There is the obvious: the fact that this disease affected this man in an unfair way, the reality that there are so many people in this world that are living in dismay, and the truth that everyone has a story, regardless of whether or not they tell the story, or if they have anyone to tell it to. There is something more, a bigger lesson that I can’t seem to grasp, and possibly never will.
All I have here is a simple, yet heartfelt tribute to a man I never knew and scarring visuals that are now haunting my sleep. I’m not sure that I could have moved forward, without these words, knowing that there wasn’t a soul out there that is remembering him today. I may not know anything more about this man than what I learned from him in his home, but I can peacefully carry on knowing that something was done. I guess that’s all any of us can really hope for, that something was done.