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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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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