Next door to my home base in Portland, Oregon there was a black house that sat on the corner, a sweet little overgrown bungalow built in 1920. This is the story about a hoarder who lived in the black house and destroyed a corner neighborhood. I never thought I would be writing an account of what happened there but here it is.
She had an ankle brace on.
Oh yes, the ankle brace. It seemed to be on her leg forever. A cumbersome, lumbering walk it was, as I watched from my friend’s kitchen window next door, as she went from her car in the carport to the back steps. I can tell you that to date, she has been wearing that ankle brace for 5 years. It played a big part in her mind as to why she eventually abandoned the house; it gave her her best excuse, the ultimate crutch, a leg to lean on. She had had surgery on her foot and wore an elephant sized shoe attached to a brace that went up to the knee. It was meant to ease the getting around, but the house had steps leading to the door on both the back and the front. She had said, later, that she had to move where it was more convenient, to a place with easy access.
“I just can’t get up those steps” she explained.
But the real story is very different and I discovered it through a long journey becoming intimate with her life story from childhood to the abandonment of the black house.
Through the years I had known that an elderly woman lived in that black house, next door to my friend, where I stayed on and off for nearly 10 years. I had seen her only a few times sloughing in her house dress and slippers to set her American flag into its porch side bracket. I waved a few times but I don’t think she ever saw me. I know that she had a daughter who came from New York City, to Portland, to take care of her. This story is, after all, about the daughter.
The last few years of observation revealed less and less activity at the black house. The yard became over grown with tall grass that the city called a fire hazard, and with blackberries that the neighbors called an eyesore. Sightings of the elderly woman stopped as the daughter took over the estate. Most of the neighbors were carrying on with mowing their lawns, walking their dogs, and not taking much note of the black house, but I was watching.
One day my friend had become increasingly concerned about his cat who had gone missing, perhaps for nearly a week. Then one day he saw it meowing from the basement window of the black house. When knocking at the door failed to get anyone’s attention, he broke the basement window to rescue his frightened cat. But for days after I was left wondering…why had no one said anything about the broken window?
The more time I spent, that summer, looking over at the black house watching for anyone coming or going, the more obsessed I became with a nagging desire to put together a story of events.
“I’m just going over there to check, to make sure the mom is not dead in there!” It was nice of me to pretend, but it was pure curiosity that led me to the back door window. I mean, I think it was going on 6 months since I had seen anyone over there. Though I am aware of the strange ways people navigate themselves in the world, I was still very surprised to peek in the back door window to find the kitchen buried in its own debris. For a long while I stood there with my hand on my brow shading the light for a better look, occasionally glancing around to see if the other neighbors were watching. I was locked in time by both disgust at the mess and the thrill of curiosity.
I couldn’t help but to consider all the moments and days in which each item was stacked upon other items, either overlooked or tended to preciously as some part of a ritual or sculpture; treasured, loved, and simultaneously abhorred. I had made it a regular routine to peek in the windows, though I was ashamed to tell anyone what I was doing, and limited my activity to times of quiet in the neighborhood. Was I the only one curious?
Once I saw a family member of the daughter outside the house, a cousin who had put her up shortly after she had surgery on her foot. I dashed over there pretending to just happen upon her.
The cousin said, “I finally had to ask her to leave because she just couldn’t throw anything away!” They had parted ways, and the cousin said the daughter had found residence in another part of town.
I asked the cousin if she had seen the inside of the black house, she said no and that she didn’t want to. She was only coming around to fill a request to check and make sure all the doors were locked. They were, I had checked them all myself hoping for a way to get in and look around. Anything interesting is worth observation and I was all over it.
My “in” to the house came when I decided to crawl into that broken window of the basement and make my way into the main part of the house. The basement was musty and though I wanted to look around it was difficult to breath. I went up the stairs that would take me to the kitchen. There was so much garbage stacked in front of the door that it took me every bit of 15 minutes to get through, pushing a few more inches with each heave.
My first walk through was quiet. Unsure and tentative I did not want to crush, break, or disturb anything living or dead. It was so still in there! Curtains faded by the sun sagging on bent rods, a window fan crawling slowly toward the floor heavy with dust. Light creeping through any crack uncovered. And yet some things were neatly resting as though in an entirely different dimension; a keepsake cup and saucer in a glass case. I picked up a few items here and there for a closer look, as if it may reveal some reason for its place in time; a shoe worn by a professional woman, an unopened case of plastic hangers and replacing all of them back in their dusty niche.
I began to spend a lot of time over there at the black house. I started to get familiar and hollowed paths through debris; I knew where to skip over and where to map new territory. I was becoming intimate with details that any sane person would want to overlook. And I eventually found myself frustrated by the short story I had, which was this: Someone had spent hundreds of dollars on food that went to waste. Unopened boxes, cases, and packages of food items that could have fed a family of 4 for 2 years had expired and been left to bugs and rodents. Barely used cookware abandoned with its cooked contents still inside. Boxes full of belongings had been packed and moved across the country only to be the subject of ruin by tomato sauce and yogurt dripping from their containers. A lifetime, two lifetimes, laid waste beneath emotional disaster.
I too started, though gently, stacking items upon other items getting a closer look. Not just at the disaster but at the belongings of a family. Sometimes I was looking for something beautiful, sometimes clues to what happened that causes one to hoard, and sometimes just investigating personal items. Curiosities include a stack of used Q-tips in the bathroom. A pile of wrappings from toilet paper rolls by Kirkland saved in the hallway. There were dozens of chicken bones in the living room that had survived bugs and rodents and now had turned to dust. To someone who has a hoarder in their family or tendencies in themselves may shake their head and walk away. But to someone who has never seen the actual items that become treasured it is unbelievable.
I found a group of folded papers that revealed the date and time of the mother’s death. But her room was still intact; a tray on wheels that loomed over the bed with an emergency alert, “word find” books, a hanky, and finger nail clippers. On the childlike single bed frame was a box of Kleenex, parts of a doll collection, and some Bakelite jewelry. There was nothing unusual about her house dresses, crocheted vests, or her quilted sweatshirts. What was striking about the room was the boarded up window behind her bed and a pink wall of Teddy Bear postcards put up with ordinary tacs. I had thought many times about how long she may have stayed in that dank room with no light, whether she was using the sink with some assistance, next to the pile of Q-tips, and speculated as to whether she knew that outside her door her daughter was terribly unhappy.
With my neighborly way, and with a bit of selfish claim, I decided to start cleaning up the yard. I pulled the weeds, trimmed the grass, rid it of blackberries and replaced the siding shakes that the weeds took out. The neighbors never really asked why I was doing it. Only saying thank you and letting me carry on.
But I didn’t stop there; I began to clean the inside of the house. This was a decision born out of frustration and anger. Why a perfectly capable person would consume, buy, and waste so much when there were so many in need.
And so the cleaning began. I started with the kitchen.
You may ask why my determination to clean the house so strong. Maybe the most honest answer I can give is that I was curious. A curiosity that was overwhelming fascination. I wanted answers to all the questions. And the questions arose from curiosity.
Cleaning the black house was an archeological dig. Beyond the top layers of debris lies the beginning of a hoarder’s illness, the very history from whence it began. On the floor of the house, that is to say the bottom layer, I found neatly folded receipts from the grocery store mindfully placed in small plastic bags, one on top of the other. It was a record of almost everything bought for years. There was a mountainous pile of carefully selected Food Day articles from the Oregonian newspaper folded with edges matched. Discarded but well-loved piles of plastic food containers. Without even knowing the woman who touched these items, I could only determine that these things are part of her history, appreciated as memories, and treated like family. Even as her impulses became stronger and less controllable, the disorderly mess that piled on itself was still part of the friendship circle that was hers. Cherished and looked at. It’s really not so different from my desire to explore the house, from peeking in the windows to touching almost every belonging that was hers, an obsession therein lies.