As I said last time, this last blog post isn't musical theatre related. Instead I'm writing about my job. When I'm not crying over musical theatre, I clean apartments. This is some of the most memorable moments. It's 2000 words, so be warned.
The dead man’s apartment was nothing like I thought it would be. Thanks to some television I had expectations of what it would look like, but I found something entirely different. Something much more startling.
No one except us was fine with going in there. The painters, the electricians, the contractors, the plumbers—everyone refused to step into the place until it had had a pre-cleaning. My boss, who is also my dad, made me put on a mask to go inside. I could hardly blame him for his caution. I’m sure the germs of a week-old decomposing body would make anyone sick. Thankfully for us the body wasn’t there anymore, but the mess the body had made was. My dad was contracted to clean it up.
On our first visit, we just needed to take a few pictures for upper-management and insurance purposes. We unlocked the door with the key we were given, and together we began to walk around the tidy apartment.
We documented most of what we saw. The man’s unmade bed, and the model racecar on the grey windowsill. His nice dining-room table, a walker beside it. It seemed he liked to read newspapers and watch VHS tapes.
The place looked like it was still lived in, as though at any moment the tenant would walk right in and ask why the hell we were in his home. That has happened before.
But I knew that that wouldn’t happen this time.
After photographing most of the apartment, we headed to where the incident occurred. The kitchen was a disaster compared to the rest of the place. Containers, plastic bags, and other unidentifiable objects were piled on the floor. I have no idea how they got there. That’s one of the worst and best parts of cleaning these places. I’m always left to wonder, and never have enough concrete evidence to know the whole story.
Maybe these things were on the floor when he fell. Maybe he tripped over them, or grabbed them to try to keep himself up. Maybe family members or paramedics had thrown them to the floor in their haste. I have no clue and probably never will.
The counters were clean. The man had looked after himself, despite his old age. There was a stained coffee maker beside the stove, with a Nescafe can right beside it. My dad remarked from somewhere that it was too bad the microwave on the opposite counter was in this apartment. Since the ex-wife of the man abandoned all the stuff inside, it was all destined for a garbage dump. In any other apartment we’d probably save one or two things before scrapping it all. But nothing could be saved from this place. It was all too contaminated to take home with us.
Too bad. That stainless steel microwave would have been a great thing to bring home.
I moved to walk inside the kitchen, but my dad grabbed my arm. He knew that if I got any closer I would get sick. I told him that would mean I wouldn’t get the best pictures. He told me that when he got in his Hazmat suit to pull up the floor, he’d take close-up pictures. That’s what he was going to be doing later; cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom, including ripping up the floor. I kind of admired that he could do it without a fuss. Lord knows I probably couldn’t have. He’s always been calm around death though. And he had already done that about three times in his long cleaning career. It was like any other job to him.
I leaned over to get as close as I could, and stopped just shy of the kitchen floor.
I almost missed it, thinking it was just a stain. It was black and looked like charred grease from my angle. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve said it was just the floor that had been underneath a stove, a spot that hadn’t been cleaned in years. A stove that just happened to be shaped like someone in a fetal position. Obviously, it wasn’t that. According to my father, it was a mix of rotted flesh, various liquids that had dripped through any hole in the corpse they could find, and hair.
I’ve told this story an embarrassing number of times, and every time the reaction is the same. At the image of dead man’s imprint, people tend to reel back. Their faces scrunch up in disgust, and sometimes they even dry heave. That is a normal reaction, apparently.
I didn’t react that way. Instead, I just stood there for a few minutes and asked my father, “This is it?”
It’s easy to ask what the hell is wrong with me. Believe me, I asked myself that for a long time too. Eventually I came to a conclusion. It’s not me; it’s my job.
The job is simple. Know that I don’t deal with these types of apartments or homes on a regular basis. Normally I just go into empty apartments (or sometimes rented apartments) and clean what I’m told to. Windows, radiators, kitchens, bathrooms, vents. You name it, I probably clean it.
We rate the apartment on how it looks on the inside. It’s a fairly simple scale. "Very Good" is a wipe down with a wet rag. “Good” is some scrubbing. “Bad” is some scrubbing with lots of gloves and masks. “Very Bad” is the dead man’s apartment.
We only get “Very Bad” apartments to clean every few months. They are passed on to us when no one else wants to do the job. That alone shows what kind of apartments we clean. If it isn’t clear to you, just know that we’ve cleaned apartments with used diapers on the floor, bed bugs in the furniture and piles of garbage everywhere. Thankfully dead bodies aren’t usually in the equation.
At the beginning I hated them. Going from cleaning bathrooms and kitchens to rotting garbage wasn’t easy.
I remember putting on my first Hazmat suit, with my dad warning my brother and I not to touch anything in the place. I slid the suit on outside the door, then put on the goggles and mask over it.
Despite the suit, I didn’t think it would be that bad inside. But it was.
Almost everything was left behind. Food, a couch, clothes. The tenants took what was of value with them, like the television and the beds, but almost everything else was left behind.
Worse, it had been left behind for quite awhile. The food was mouldy, everything was covered in dirt and dust, and flies buzzed everywhere.
I wondered how people could live like this. I still wonder that sometimes.
We cleaned up pretty spectacularly, considering the mess. It took us three hours, and out of boredom I began to wonder about the people who used to live there. I don’t remember what I thought of, probably something about super spies.
The truth was worse.
A couple and their child had lived there. I knew that much from the diapers on the floor and the fact the place was a two-bedroom.
There were many rumours about them. The one in particular that stuck with me was that the mother and the child had never left the confines of the apartment. Maybe it was an abusive husband who banned them from leaving; maybe they were vampires. I don’t know.
The workers in these buildings, mostly men, like to gossip. So I can’t know whether or not the rumour was true. What I did know, from the state of the baby’s bedroom when I cleaned it, that there was no way he or she was taken care of well. After all, the place obviously hadn’t been cleaned in months, and the child’s clothes had been left behind. Added with the poop on the floor and the scratches on the doorframe, there was simply no way.
It was tough to move on from that. I did of course, after having a good cry about it, but it took me awhile. I had to get used to the fact that it was all out of my hands.
The job became easier after that. Repeated exposure to some of the strangest and gloomiest stories humanity can offer does that.
Take, for example, The Hoarder. The poor woman had way too much garbage in her apartment, and was ordered to get rid of it or get evicted. I can see why. The piles of things there were higher then I was. Cards, letters, Christmas decorations, little knick-knacks. Garbage too. There was enough of it that it had to have affected the people below and above her.
She was so upset while we cleaned. She followed us around, and we humoured her when she asked to keep something. Eventually, after more then a dozen garbage bags and a floor that suddenly appeared underneath our feet, she calmed. She wasn’t necessarily happy with it, but she was happy with us. That made it worth it.
There was also The Box Man. He wasn’t a hoarder like the little old lady. He was just a man with three boxes who rented an apartment in one of the buildings. He then promptly dropped off those boxes and left. He didn’t move in and didn’t come back. He only returned for the boxes when the lease was up a year later.
I don’t know what was in the boxes, or why they were so important that they needed an entire apartment to live in. And I’ve never had the fortune of meeting the man, so I don’t know who he was or why he did what he did. But we had fun trying to guess.
We had many theories. Mine was that he was a secret agent hiding something where no one would think to look. My co-worker insisted that the man just wanted a storage place, or somewhere to hide away from his life. Another person I talked to insisted he was an evil mastermind who needed a lair.
While it may be frustrating to never know who the man was, it did give us a pretty cool story. Just like the many apartments I’ve cleaned over the years. It’s amazing how many things I’ve seen and lives I’ve looked into without leaving my street.
Now I must ask myself: have I witnessed too many stories? Is the lack of sympathy a tell of how far I’ve gone? Perhaps too far?
I found myself back inside the dead man’s apartment two months after the fact, just before it went back on the market. It was surprisingly beautiful. After my father cleaned inside, several other people came and renovated the place. Everything was new.
It had become a “Very Good” apartment, and all I had to do was clean the new windows and the bathroom. After a few hours it looked brand new. Technically it was.
Before I left it, I looked over from the front door and tried to picture the black stain that had been in the kitchen. The imprint of a lonely man, curled up on the floor as he took his last breath.
I felt sympathy for him, but it was detached. Like I was feeling it from far away. Is it because I’m cold-hearted, or is it because I’m trying to adapt to the requirements for the job?
Does it matter?
Maybe what does matter is that I was, and am, telling their stories. Maybe that’s enough.
Crying for what’s happened to people in the past actually isn’t my job. My job is to clean the way for a new story to begin.
Student. Writer. Likes to rave, rant and cry about television shows. Sings popular show-tunes loudly and happily. Has a huge family and a huge book collection. Is trying to find her way in the writing world, and in the world in general.