Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment. –Mark Twain
I have a predisposition to bizarre, out of the ordinary true stories. It is not schadenfreude that compels me to read about or watch TV shows that deal with some deformed corner of the human condition. I find no relief from other people’s misfortune. But I am drawn to them – the way a campfire child already paralyzed with fear begs for yet another ghost story. “Please stop scaring me some more!”
I am uncertain of the genesis of my macabre fascinations. Perhaps, it started when I read my first “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” paperback book. The stories ranged from the feral child raised by wild dogs to Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who each married different women and sired twenty-one kids between them . (I still wonder what they had to pay for a hotel room). I recall my magnificent obsession with weird, disjointed cult movies like “Eraserhead” and the 1932 Tod Browning cult classic, “Freaks” - a horror movie about sideshow performers with names like Half Boy, Bird Girl and the Human Skeleton.
My spouse simply cannot understand my ghoulish predispositions. She has nothing but empathy for the objects of my fascination and resents their exploitation by the media. My nighttime malingering around television documentaries that profile people afflicted with exotic and improbable circumstances annoys her to no end. Despite her scowls of disapproval, I plop down each evening in my great green chair and channel surf scouring the programming horizon line for anything tattooed, incarcerated, insane, disfigured or possessing some bizarre or debilitating condition. There is one show in particular that draws me in like no other. It is simply called “Hoarders”.
Each week, A&E drags its dysfunction hungry viewers into a hard to comprehend docudrama chronicling the lives of psychologically challenged human pack rats whose lives have become so unmanageable that the department of Health, Human or Child Protective Services is in the process of evicting them from a home that is literally consuming its inhabitants with junk.
A certifiable ‘hoarder’ cannot distinguish between valuables and “stuff”. Hoarders compulsively purchase, collect and accumulate every imaginable material possession – often filling their entire home and yard with useless junk. Some hoarders actually appear normal to the outside world. They are not always reclusive mental patients. Some hoarders just lack the synapses that seem to regulate the emotional and mental connections that help us sort through our needs and wants. In other cases, a trauma, old age or an emotional event may trigger or exacerbate a person’s predisposition to hoard.
The condition of these homes is hard to describe and even harder to imagine. The rooms are usually uninhabitable, yet the hoarder chooses to burrow among the debris like a hamster. In one hard to fathom episode, a woman had over a dozen cats entering and exiting her house through openings created by goats that had chewed holes in her family room wall ….(yes, goats)
To help rehabilitate the hoarder, it is critical to help them solve their own problem by ridding their home of the trash. They must agree to allow a special cleaning unit to dispose of a large percentage of the debris. Often, the hoarder cannot handle the intervention and becomes despondent, combative or hysterical at the prospects of having their bizarre clotted world dismantled.
Ok, I confess. I am totally fascinated and at the same time, appalled at the living conditions of these seemingly normal people. Last week, an apparently together thirty-something guy made the mistake of inviting his new girlfriend of six months to see his townhouse. There was just one problem. He was a hoarder. His bachelor pad looked like the Salvation Army had thrown up all over his house. His soon to be ex-girlfriend wandered his home like a post nuclear blast survivor – - staring with a frozen smile that masked her horror. Finally she mustered a question, “ How can you live like this? “ I sort of sided with the guy as my college dorm room was not too far from his house. Who knows? If I had known him in 1982, I might have borrowed some of his trash until I could accumulate more of my own.
The all-time nadir hoarder story involved a woman whose toilet had broken three years earlier and had solved for this problem by wearing adult diapers and tossing them into an adjacent room – where the stack had now grown to eight feet tall and blocked the door. At this point, I made a low squeal of disgust. I looked up and realized my youngest son was watching over my shoulder. We were temporarily united in our revulsion and both decided that cleaning the cat’s litter box was child’s play compared to removing the mummified carcass of a cat from under a two-year crush of junk. As the cleaner lifts the dead cat with a shovel from under some shelves, the hoarder brightens momentarily, “Oh, that’s where Twinkles went off to…”
At this point my son turns away in disgust. I hear him distinctly mutter, “I want to go clean my room.”
I begin to worry. Could I become a hoarder? I have always attached great sentimental value to things and my office is cluttered with an odd menagerie of toy soldiers, books, baseball cards, old Sports Illustrated magazines, maps, paintings and well, just stuff, lot’s of valuable stuff.
Fortunately, I am married to an anti-hoarder. Each spring, she throws open the windows and gets a crazed look in her eyes. This pre-purge game face is all business and it appears just before most of our possessions are given away to the Goodwill or Salvation Army.
I am usually handed a broom, list of chores and a hefty bag, and forced to confront the detritus that we have accumulated over the prior year. Her goal is simple: shed items like winter weight – - ridding our lives of things that have long since become empty mementos of our past. As master and commander of our ship, it is her prerogative to rid from our lives any inanimate objects that slow our forward progress.
The spring clean initiates each year usually after some disgusting encounter in the boys’ bathroom. I can hear her debating upstairs with the children about old toys, stuffed animals, clothes and books. In the end, she always prevails and the first snowflake of what might have become a hoarder’s avalanche innocently melts under her resolute stare.
I am next in her crosshairs. I am rarely successful defending against her cleansing blitzkrieg. She would rather die than become even a junior hoarder. We wrestle over a stack of Military History magazines and an old set of stereo speakers. Hey, I might need those some day. My partner moves stealthily toward my closet. I move to intercept her.
“I’m going to toss those shorts that you wore last week to baseball. They are a little “too” short.
As usual, I am offended but also embarrassed. Somewhere along the way, I lost my sartorial sense of what a man with my physique can now wear without looking like the blond cop in dolphin shorts on Reno 911.
” I think they look fine.” I say defensively. “They are running shorts.” She just smiles that ” I am doing you a big favor” smile and continues to rummage through my workout clothes, gathering up torn and undersized shirts and shorts.
“I am sure someone else could use these. What about this shirt?” It is a tie dyed Grateful Dead shirt replete with skeleton wearing a crown of roses. ” When did you last wear this ?”
“Um, probably 1985″, I say incredulously. “That shirt is a classic!”
“Jerry Garcia is dead.”
“Bob Weir is alive and I can probably sell that on EBay for $100!”
“That’s a great idea!”
Just then my son walks in and asks me to go outside and play catch with him. Forever being haunted by Harry Chapin’s ” Cat’s In the Cradle”, I have never refused a child’s request to play anything in seventeen years. I am trapped. I leave her alone in my closet.
She smiles, waiting for us to leave. I have been too busy defending my Dead Head shirt to notice all the other things she has targeted for Goodwill while we are playing outside.
You see, she knows there is a little hoarder in all of us. And she is determined to keep it that way.