I almost fell through the first floor of the Farley’s living room. Several floorboards gave way when I was trying to upend an overstuffed armchair to look for a label, and my entire right leg dangled into the dark basement. Had I known my landing would’ve been soft, that I would have fallen onto three and a half feet of soggy gumballs and sheets of cute little stickers, I would’ve been less rattled by the prospect of falling through a house. It might’ve even sounded fun.
Inventorying what remains inside the home of a hoarder requires two personality traits I happen to possess: the ability to carry out excessively tedious tasks and still think you’re making a difference in the world, and the ability to act as if everything is perfectly normal when someone opens their front door and you’re met with towering mountains of baled newspapers, rivers of bicycle spokes, and valleys of plastic Target bags.
Several months before the Farley home caught fire, I spent three weeks in a hoarder’s living room chipping away at her walls of Depends, rat turds, inhalers, framed certificates, bottles of lotion, rubber stamps, china plates, empty soda cans, boxes of Kotex from the ‘70s, Vaseline, plastic medical tubing, polyester slacks and wedding cake decorations. Each item that could be inventoried was, and when she hauled me off to a neighboring mountain range of junk, which she referred to as her office, pointed toward the middle of its smoked blackish brownish lumpish mass and demanded to know who had put something on top of her computer, I pretended to see a computer—or how twenty square feet of miscellaneous objects could be called a "something"—and said "You know, I don’t know."
The Farley place, however, was different from other hoarder homes. The main floor looked normal. A family lived there; a family whose house caught fire right after someone left some dirty dishes in the sink. I finished the inventory in two hours. Then I opened the garage door so I could access the basement, and out fluttered a dozen #10 envelopes. Around my shoe puddled a pink viscous liquid that smelled of smoke and candy. Before me stretched a sea of gumball machines.
Bruce Farley is a pear-shaped high school basketball coach, a vendor for supermarket toy and candy machines, and a professional sweepstakeser. His garage and basement, like the homes of other hoarders, no longer had identifiable rooms, just small footpaths winding through mountains of flotsam. Bruce’s flotsam was 1,300 square feet of loose envelopes and stationary (for entering sweepstakes contests), basketball jerseys, bags of 250-count plastic vending machine toys, five-pound bags of bubble gum and candy, boxes of 3,000-count vending machine sheets of stickers, bags of 250-count two-inch and one-inch plastic bubble tops and bottoms (for encasing vending machine toys), and hundreds of sweepstakes wins, like the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine or a year’s supply of Soft Soap—all in their original boxes, never opened.
Everything was wet and moldy. There was a sucking sound when I stepped down on the footpath that was pooled with gumballs and ashen debris. When I reached into the middle of the mountain and tried to pull something out, it resulted in exasperation or a domestic avalanche. I requested help.
Bruce recruited a couple of his “guys” (high school basketball players), and I asked my company for some wheelbarrows and industrial-sized dumpsters. The plan was this: The high school basketball players would go into their coach’s home, load up a wheelbarrow, wheel it out to me in the driveway, lift up the dripping contents so that I could record anything of monetary value, then they’d slam dunk it into the dumpster with their shovels.
The plan worked perfectly for a month, which is how long it took to inventory Bruce’s basement, or to fill five industrial dumpsters (however you want to look at it). What didn’t work as well was that Bruce showed up every morning and stood in his driveway, usually on a piece of cardboard, and monitored every sweet-smelling sludge-filled shovel scoop making its way toward the dumpster.
Clients have the option to keep things instead of getting the money for them, and they often save damaged, but sentimental items. Bruce, like other hoarders, couldn’t distinguish between what was sentimental and what was not. Even if he hadn’t at first remembered something, he found a memory of it. Everything was “worth quite a lot” or “going to be valuable someday.” Items that were wet and smelled heavily of smoke “could make a nice gift for someone” or “just needed to air out.” I held up sweepstakes prizes Bruce didn’t even know he’d won: two margarita blenders, a panini press, a 6 piece set of Emeril cookware, an autographed I Know What You Did Last Summer movie poster.
“Oh, how ’bout that,” Bruce would say, seeming proud of his winnings, shoving his hands into the pockets of his track pants and swinging his beer belly back and forth. “Better keep that,” he’d add nonchalantly. Yet, I somehow knew that if I tossed the item, he’d coach one of his guys into the dumpster, tell him how to retrieve it.
I used to think a fire in a hoarder’s home was one of those blessings in disguise; the hoarder’s chance to have their problem taken care of without any sorting or heavy lifting. But as I watched Bruce take his newfound prizes from the wheelbarrow and put them into a growing train of irreplaceable items that were beginning to choke his driveway, it was quite clear that fire doesn’t destroy a mental problem, only some of the evidence.
Bruce’s wife Elizabeth tried to temper her husband’s insatiable need to find value in everything, but she almost always failed. It didn’t help that she was a librarian and fulfilled the stereotype. She arrived each morning with Bruce but went inside her former home, doing who knows what, and every fifth or sixth time Bruce would say, “Might as well keep that,” she’d open the screen door, poke her head out and say in a hushed tone, “No, Bruce. You don’t need that.”
Standing on his cardboard throne, swaying his belly back and forth, Bruce would begin to argue with his wife. At first, he’d do so with the same nonchalance with which he spoke to me. “Well, this is kinda valuable.”
Elizabeth would look up to the sky and then back down at her husband in his undershirt and track pants, the engineer of a long, smoke-damaged, soggy train, and she’d take it up a librarian notch and say, “No. It isn’t anymore. LOOK at it. Just get the money for it, Bruce.”
Then Bruce would get firm and start articulating syllables. “E-LIZ-A-BETH, don’t question me on what’s VAL-U-A-BLE!”
Elizabeth would let the screen door slam on her final muttered sentence, usually something like, “See, this is the problem, Bruce.”
These arguments happened about twenty times a day. The only thing that Bruce and Elizabeth agreed upon was that their cat was valuable. Had I seen their cat, Sadie? Could Sadie have possibly escaped? I told them that it was possible Sadie had run off and would return. This was mostly a lie. Animals in a burning home rarely escape, especially if they have to skirt around 200 pounds of gumballs.
So, when the day came that the high school basketball players walked a wheelbarrow out to me looking smug and a little excited, like they found some porn or a gun, I prepared myself for whatever a cat that’s been through a fire looks like. I’ve always been warned about people’s cats, but I’ve never actually found one.
“I think I found your cat, Sir,” one of the high school basketball players said, setting the wheelbarrow down gently.
“Oh. Ha! Really!?” Bruce said, then he paced around in a quick circle on his cardboard square. The other basketball player looked carefully at his coach as he began to delicately pick up soggy envelopes and vending machine bubbles out of the wheelbarrow and throw them into the dumpster. A dripping bag full of plastic vampire teeth was two-handed, a five-pound bag of Runts was underhanded, then we all saw a pink paw. It took a moment to realize the flat grey mat it was attached to was Sadie. Why was she so flat? Then again, she wasn’t burned which meant she died of smoke inhalation, which doesn’t sound too bad.
Bruce took a jerky step forward, “Ha, yep, that’s her all right.” He stepped back, moved his hands around something imaginary in his pockets and said, “Well, what should we do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you want to set her aside and put her on piece of cardboard or something?”
“I don’t know, should I?” It shouldn’t have surprised me that Bruce—who could come up with a memory about each object and justify “setting it aside for now”— didn’t know what to do with his cat, but it did.
“Do you want to get Elizabeth?” I asked.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth! E-LIZ-A-BETH!”
“What, Bruce?” her voice sounded from some far off place.
“Well, hold on Bruce, I’m in the basement,” she said, sounding closer.
“Come here. It’s Sadie.”
Elizabeth hobbled out of the garage and began walking down the driveway. (She’d had cancer and some major thing important for walking had been taken out of her left leg).
“You’re just so touchy lately, Bruce,” she said, making her way toward us, grabbing onto various burnt gumball machines for support. I prepared myself for the possibility that she would cry or perhaps come undone in some shocking way. She had revealed so little of herself, anything was possible.
She peered into the wheelbarrow and said, “Oh, dear” on an exhale, like she was looking at a computer screen telling her a book someone wanted to check out had been overdue for weeks. She asked where the boys found Sadie.
“Under a chair in the basement kitchen, Miss,” one of them said. Elizabeth pivoted on her good leg to look up at Bruce.
“What should we do?” she asked.
Bruce looked at me, “I don’t know, what do you think we should we do?”
I said it was up to them. Five minutes later, Sadie was in the middle of the dumpster.
“Might as well,” were Bruce’s final memorial words about his cat. He was responding to one of the basketball players who was knee high in dumpster debris, asking if he could set Sadie down where he was. As soon as he climbed out his friend grabbed him by the hoodie, yanked it over his face and fake-kneed him in the balls.
“Guys, guys, quit…” Bruce said, already turning around so he could spend some more time with fifteen years worth of soggy National Geographic issues. Elizabeth was making her way back inside and was three burnt gumball machines away from being able to grab onto the front porch hand rail.
A day later, Bruce and I did a final walkthrough of his basement. He was looking for something he claimed he hadn’t seen for ten years. I wished it had been his floor because that would have been easy. There it was: 1,300 square feet of slimy linoleum that made Bruce’s sneakers squeak as he shuffled in and out of each room, ducking his head into every dark nook, searching for the Willie Nelson autographed guitar he’d won. After a couple minutes, he stood in the middle of the largest room, shook his head and said, “Well, I guess it’s gone.”
“But look at all this space you have!” I tried. I meant it. Bruce stuffed his hands in his track pants pockets and nodded at various corners of the room, turning almost in a complete circle. He looked smug, happy. Either he was seeing the freedom of space or the freedom to begin building his mountains again.