Personal and Otherwise — October 13, 2014, 12:00 pm

On Getting Wasted

Among the hoarders and junk haulers of Charleston

In this story: mountains of garbage,[1] hoarders,[2] considered drinking, [3] and arguments over other people’s trash.[3] For access to Harper’s 164-year archive, subscribe here.

I had already decided I was going to be a writer.

I knew that meant going broke, drinking alone, and working shit jobs. Going broke and drinking had proven simple—I was well ahead of my peers in both fields—and so, midway through college, I decided it was time to put a résumé together. I needed some terrible work for stimulation. But I burned through my first few jobs so quickly that it was almost as though I’d never worked them. Two months as a night clerk at a hotel (caught sleeping), a week and a half in catering (spilled on a bride). Then there was the car wash, a month-long bid, but the boss said I wasn’t pushing the interior shampoo with enough fervor, I wasn’t invested, and soon I began to worry I was unsuited for occupation. I was certain I was a failure, some critical piece of character missing from my makeup. I was bound for destitution. My father had been right.

Then, by cosmic intervention, a job appeared from nowhere that fit the bill perfectly. A friend had taken over Charleston, South Carolina’s largest junk-hauling franchise and needed someone to handle operations. It paid well, guaranteed hours, and would silence my despondency for a bit. So I took it.

Junk hauling is the best job for writers. Writers are not necessarily the best junk haulers. My first day at work I became so engrossed in the boxes we were taking away that I almost got fired. One was filled with letters written during WWII, from father to adolescent son. He gave the boy advice on women, work, and the world in simple, frank language: Don’t go to sleep angry with your mother. Don’t swing first unless he’s got twenty pounds on you. Long johns make a world of difference, believe you me. Beautiful writing that nearly made me jealous of the man who penned it.

Often we were the first people on the scene to clean up after a family member had passed or a tenant had fled the scene, so we collected not only the scraps of someone’s existence but also often the totality of his or her belongings. Every box of moldy letters was ripe with inspiration, as were old bikes, coverless books, photographs, notes, and tools.

I was so taken by my new job that I offered to work extended hours sorting through the junk for pieces of value. I stripped copper, dug through jars of coins in search of some precious piece. I sold the furniture as best I could, to friends and relatives first, then Craigslist customers. What was left I’d take to the flea market in Ladson for a last-ditch attempt. The metal went to the scrap yard separated by type: tin, aluminum, bronze, pewter, copper (both insulated and clean), stainless steel, silver, and gold (rarely).

I wrote almost nothing during this time.

I saw my first hoarder house after two months, in September 2009. I had heard enough about them to be nervous—respiratory masks required, long sleeves, hazard pay. I’d been warned about the hoarders themselves, a sad class of hermits, unnaturally obsessive with a distinct misunderstanding of value. My boss and I had stayed up late the night before, drinking beer and talking about other hoarders he had seen. When I finally stood up to leave he said, “Bring an extra shirt or two. You never know.”

The television show Hoarders has made hoarding disorder something of a hot topic, and as such, much of the cable-watching public has seen the inside of a hoarder house. But seeing doesn’t capture the totality of the experience. Among the scents (cat piss, mold, and, occasionally, feces), the dust, and the general aura of decomposition, something reeks of death in the house of a severe hoarder.

Mrs. B lived in a small, isolated house at the end of a long, cypress-lined drive. It was a moneyed place gone dilapidated. On the front porch several potted plants sat either dead or dying, a few of them tipped over, weeds growing from every visible crack. When we arrived, the three of us stayed in the truck for a moment giving each other mini-pep talks. I wasn’t the only one who’d never been to a hoarder house before, and it struck me that I’d seen plenty of houses that looked like this, at least externally.

Mrs. B was not surprised to see us, nor was she happy about it. Each truck would cost approximately five hundred dollars to fill and haul away. If we came across anything hazardous (insulin needles, black mold), anything we were unwilling to dispose of, or if we felt endangered in any way, it was our right to call it off. Standing on the porch, Mrs. B’s daughter spoke for her—okayed the whole deal—and then it was time to get going. Mrs. B had started crying.

Twice, I would spy her shuffling out to our trucks to inspect the goods taken. There was nothing functional in the truck, but the first time I caught her, I watched as she pushed aside a pile of phonebooks to extract a broken umbrella. An old box of Barbie outfits fell and opened at her feet. The dresses went everywhere. She picked them up one by one and stuffed them into her pockets before coyly slipping the emptied box back where it had come from. The second time, though, I rushed out the front door—“Excuse me, ma’am, you’ve got to get down. Liability issues.” She threw an old shoebox over her left shoulder and ignored me. “Excuse me,” I tried again, but nothing. Obviously manual removal of a seventy-year-old woman was out of the question, so I just stood there sort of helplessly.

By then she was muttering to herself, having completely transitioned from the quiet woman we’d first met into a powerhouse. Agile for her age, she reached across the trash and continued to toss things aside, cursing better than I could, until eventually she came to an old, shit-covered blanket. With that, something in her snapped. “Out! Out!” Her voice was so loud that her daughter came out of the house. “Out! Out! Out! I want you out!” She didn’t look at anyone as she said this, but it was clearly intended for me. “Who said you could take this!” Still, blank-eyed, and fearless, she threw the blanket toward me and I jumped out of the way. Her daughter was not so lucky. The blanket caught her across the chest and face, and she spat so quickly, instinctively, that she didn’t think about where the spit was flying until a glob of it struck my leg. The three of us stood there motionless for some time.

Much of what was in Mrs. B’s home was what I’d call refuse: old and broken furniture, hundreds of phonebooks torn to shreds by rats, lamps without bulbs or shades, boxes of batteries, bags of multicolored pills and pill bottles, wrapping paper for every holiday (Christmas and Halloween most prominently), sheets, blankets and pillows on every square foot of the floor. One room was filled to the brim with thousands of tiny, white boxes. “QVC jewelry,” her daughter told me. “She buys it obsessively.” None of the boxes had been opened. “Mother hasn’t worn jewelry in her life,” she added.

That was when I realized it wasn’t Mrs. B who was most upset by her compulsion. As we stood there in a lake of QVC jewelry, the younger Mrs. B kept her head tilted down so that I wouldn’t see it, but I saw it—a teardrop running down the bridge of her nose.

“Don’t worry,” I said, trying for consolation, “we’ll get it cleaned up in here.”

“It’s too late though.” She shook her head. “She’s sick from it now. I should have done something. I knew it was bad. I did.”

That night I sat in my apartment drinking beer. Compared to Mrs. B’s place, mine my seemed empty. Two chairs and a table, one couch, one TV, and a blow-up mattress—besides that I had nothing but books, microwaveable foods, and beer. Everything I owned could have fit in one truckload.

“Maybe I could opt out of jobs like these,” I told my girlfriend, Shannon, a nurse.

“I had to wash the shit out of a patient’s hair today,” she said.

It was a valid point. We watched some television and fell asleep on the couch.

Day two was guaranteed to be worse. Southern rain was falling in waves and many of the low-country streets had flooded. The cloud cover was low and fog was heavy; one had the feeling of moving through an unending cascade of damp sheets hanging from some celestial clothesline. Before we’d even arrived one of the guys had developed a suspicious stomachache. Another had forgotten a late doctor’s appointment. I was tired, hungover, and in one of my moods.

When we arrived at Mrs. B’s house, it was clear that something had changed. Mrs. B sat stoically on a rocking chair on the front porch, watching the rain fall, and as I neared her she didn’t even glance at me before pointing an index finger at the front door. Inside, her daughter was rushing around in sweatpants and a men’s T-shirt, stuffing trash bags full of anything and everything she could find within reach. “Mother is not allowed to participate today,” she told me. She handed me a box of trash bags. I gave one out to each of my guys, and we were back at it again, this time beginning with the staircase so that we could make it to the second floor before evening.

The staircase was a landslide of old, moth-eaten clothes, piled three feet high from banister to wall, but somewhere in the middle a tunnel had been bored out by Mrs. B’s dog, Lucy. When finally we uncovered her—a tiny spaniel with thick dreaded hair—she was sleeping in a den she had dug out atop the staircase. She woke slowly, as though drugged, and then made her way down the stairs, where she didn’t know what to make of all the empty space that had appeared.

“How old?” I asked the daughter.

“She was a rescue. We got her for Mother two years ago, when all of this got crazy. We thought it might help, but it was a big mistake.”

The dog stumbled through the exposed landscape of the living room and then out the front door. I chased her outside, worried that she might run off. I figured she was desperate to escape. But when I stepped outside I saw her curled up beside Mrs. B, back to sleep in the quiet rain, her owner’s hand gently stroking her mangy knots of hair.

We took three hours to finish the staircase and then left for lunch. Not once did I see Mrs. B stop petting Lucy, not even to swat at the mosquitoes that came to life once the rain stopped.

Since then I’ve been to more hoarder houses than I can recall. Some were less upsetting than Mrs. B’s; others far worse. I’ve had my life threatened by a man with senile dementia. He sat in his armchair, cane at his side, bronchial tube jutting from his neck, and said he’d taken down bigger fellas before. I had at least twenty pounds on him. I’ve fallen through decayed floorboards, scooped up a family of dead possums with a snow shovel. I’ve watched them all cry. I’ve sold their goods. I’ve told them lies to keep them happy.

On the home front, I’ve refurnished my whole place. I have more furniture than I need now, writing desk included. So many bookshelves I can’t fill them. More books than I can ever read. I’ve had to empty my garage twice so far.

I’ve taken to collecting.

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’s writing has appeared in Slice, ADULT, and other publications.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Chance that a woman in one of the U.S. military’s three service academies claims to have been sexually harassed:

1 in 2

Stimulating people’s brains with an electric current while they sleep can improve their powers of memory.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racket.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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