I was surprised when the phone rang. Nobody ever calls these days. A phone call means that something is wrong. I was even more surprised to see it was my father. My hermit, Lake Country dwelling, off the grid, no paved roads having, removed his mailbox and hid it in the bushes so that nobody could see his house numbers because he didn’t want to be disturbed father. If he was calling something was seriously wrong.
When I picked up the phone my father’s gruff pack of cigarettes day for 50 years straight voice barked out “Would you have any interest in saving the ancestral family home from being repossessed by the city of San Francisco?”
“I wasn’t even aware that we had an ancestral family home” I replied.
“That is a long story there” my father wheezed.
As it turns out, I had an 84 year old great uncle Jack I didn’t even know existed until that phone call. Uncle Jack had come to the attention of the authorities due to the fact that his neighbors had called the police. The neighbors had called the police because my 84 year old uncle was using a ladder to climb into the second story window of his house. The reason he was using a ladder to climb into the second story of his house was because he could not get his front door open. The reason he could not get his front door open is because he had not taken out the trash in over half a century.
Thus began my introduction to the world of hoarding. And Jack was truly an expert hoarder. If they gave out degrees for hoarding he would have a PhD. He took his hoarding so seriously that every single day he carefully swept his entire city block with a disintegrating broom, both sides, collecting everything into plastic bags and then bringing the bags into his house for safekeeping. It took him hours. He had built a wall against the world. A wall of trash. Actual trash, not metaphorical trash.
The root of Jack’s problems was that he never moved out of his mother’s house. And the more the years passed the harder it got for him to move out. Other than a brief stint in the navy that ended when he threatened a superior officer with a potato peeling knife his journeys were limited. He solidified into the safety and security of the walls of the house until leaving became impossible. He became a lifer, obsessively collecting things by mail order and focusing on his passions, which included drawing, books, collectible china plates and cross dressing. Once my great grandmother passed away, the collecting spiraled out of control.
By the time an intervention was staged, Jack was living in a two story 4 bedroom house that contained over 6 feet of trash in every single room and had no working electricity. He had not sat down in years, as all of the furniture in the house had long ago been buried under piles of drifting paper, letters and magazines. His bed was a nest of torn and used tissues out in the hallway as he had long ago lost access to his bed under hundreds of dime store pulp paperbacks. Cold San Francisco air blew in through the broken windows which he compensated for by wearing so many layers of clothing that he resembled the Michelin Man and he had worn his baseball cap for so long that his hair had grown right through the mesh. I had to use scissors to cut the hat off of his dreadlocked head. Nobody passing him on the street would of realized he was the owner of a million dollar house in San Francisco. Just don’t move out, get increasingly more eccentric and let the properties around you accumulate in value over the course of 60 years is not one of the standard paths to millions, but it had worked for Uncle Jack.
The deal we were given was that if we could get the house clean enough to not be rated as an environmental hazard, we would get to keep it. If not, the city took it over and institutionalized Jack, selling off the house for his upkeep. Jack was not delighted with either option he had and voted for option three “Everyone leave me the fuck alone.”
Option three was not picked up and the entire family showed up with shovels to excavate out his house. It would take weeks. None of us truly realized the magnitude of the task before us when we first got started. I didn’t even take into consideration the need for gloves until halfway through the first day when I was working in the kitchen and my hand plunged into a half buried plastic bag that turned out to contain a large collection of used dirty dildos slathered in Vaseline and…other things. Why men can be so resistant to cleaning their own sex toys or why the kitchen floor was a reasonable place for used dildos I do not know but it was gloves and a face mask from there on out.
By the end we ended up removing over 2 metric tons of trash, taking it out can by can down the old wooden stairs. We stood on the slippery and unsteady ground that was stacked up so high our heads brushed the ceiling and dug it out by the shovelful. My legs ached. My hair stunk. My lungs burned. The papers were stacked up in geological layers like sediment. At the top was the 2000s, then the 90s, 80s, 70s and 60s and some rare Life magazines at the bottom from the 1950s. The original hardwood floors under all the junk were actually in pristine condition as they had not seen sunlight in over half a century.
The house was a monument to Jack’s two great obsessions, collectibles and sex. Mail order collecting allowed him to gather possessions without having to leave the safety of his house and he focused mainly on china plates and large dolls. Not that he ever took the dolls and plates out of their shipping boxes or anything like that. He would gather a description of what was inside the box from the accompanying paperwork, write the description on the outside of the box in his unsteady handwriting and then stack the unopened box on top of all of the other unopened boxes. There were hundreds of them all throughout the house, creating walls up to the ceiling. It would of driven me crazy to not get to see what it was I was buying, but for Jack just having them in his possession was enough.
His other great love was women, but surprisingly enough women didn’t seem to find him super dateable and he remained a lifelong bachelor. In desperation for female companionship he turned to cross dressing, reasoning that if women didn’t want him he would just become his own damn woman. However, with a lack of women around his life to draw on for inspiration, he patterned himself after the only woman he really knew…his mother.
As a result, his cross dressing was all pantsuits and mumus and grey wigs and support hose and girdles. Even here his obsessive collecting was evident as he had to buy everything in triplicate or more and most of it was not opened. So it was not one package of thick support hose, it would be a box of them. Stacks of wigs. Cheap makeup. Dime store jewelry and pearls. He did not make a particularly sexy woman, judging from the various black and white snapshots of him in drag scattered throughout the mountains of papers drifting though the rooms and hallways. Why one needs to dress up at their dead mother and stick dildos up their ass is a desire I will never understand, but the more I got to know my family the more twisted I realized my family tree happened to be.
His sexual interests were more than just old lady drag however. This was before the advent of the internet, and there was once a thriving market for women to send letters to men and hit them up for money under the guise of “helping them out.” The women would send provocative photos and letters, but the underlying message in all of the letters was to ask for money. If you sent money, they wrote more letters and sent more photos. Lonely men could at least get the excitement of some attention and tell themselves that this damsel in distress was writing to them and them alone. The house was coated in hundreds of these letters and endless photos of squinty eyed women draped awkwardly over couches and cars. The internet destroyed this market and now it is just “hi sexxxyy, I am good women seeking strong honest man, my love calls for you” emails that pile up in my spam folder. I do not think I am the strong honest man that they seek.
8 millimeter porn films, nudist magazines featuring people distinctly under the age of 18, he had it all. This was a man that loved the sex, despite the fact that he had nobody to do it with other than himself. The house was a testament to how snarled up one could get into their own head if they had no real interaction with the outside world. It was just one big scrapbook of self obsession and masturbation.
The total clean up took over 2 weeks but it was the 4th day as my shovel slid through another pocket of old lady wigs that I was solidified my desire to never ever have children. There would be no fruit born off my particular branch of my gnarled family tree. We were riddled with blight and root rot. My DNA was not something that I would wish on anyone else. Someone had to draw the line somewhere, and I was taking a stand. My baby factory was shut down. At least I was not contributing to the problem.
My uncle did not survive the clean up. Stripped of his Michelin man layers and dreads and stacked possessions that were a wall against the outside world, he was like a premie without an adequate immune system. He shrunk and deflated before our eyes, withering away by the day. He lost the will to live without his trash walls to protect him and was dead in under six months. His tiny body in the coffin, so different from his angry ranting knife carrying ways when he was alive, was an empty shell. All the crazy had leaked out and all I felt was pity. Well, and gratitude that he was dead because he was a huge pain in the ass that kept threatening to kill us all and would smear shit on the door handles in an attempt to keep us from entering the house to clean. Seeing as he had no dog, there was only one way that he could have continued access to fresh feces, but it was not a line of reasoning that I really wanted to pursue. Thank god for rubber gloves.
I still have the photos of my dead great uncle preening about in mumus and practical shoes. I keep them as a memento of paths that I do not want to wander down. He remains as a signpost of poor life decisions that I am happy I did not make. Bless his broken crazy heart, he was not meant for the rigors of this world.