Have you been watching “Hoarders” on A&E? If you’re unfamiliar, each episode documents the lives of two of the estimated three million Americans who are so compulsive about accumulating crap of all kinds that they’ve lost the ability to function normally.
Until I was assigned this story, I didn’t watch it. I like crappy reality shows as much as the next lady, but this one didn’t appeal to me—I’d already lived it.The first time I went home with a long-ago ex we’ll call Don*, he warned that I wasn’t allowed to laugh when I saw his apartment. His wasn’t my first bachelor apartment and I figured it would most likely be messy, possibly a bit smelly and, at the worst, have some sort of pornography tacked up on the wall.
Don’s tension grew palpable, as the elevator creaked us up to the top floor. I was excited. He lived in a penthouse in one of those rambling old Upper West Side buildings. Though he told me that “penthouse” was just a fancy word for the servants’ quarters of old, he still had roof access and that all-important “riv vu.” I was certain I could overlook any boy-related grossness—I mean, I grew up with two brothers. I know from skid-marked drawers on the floor.
Don took a deep breath as he pushed open the door. I noticed it only opened a foot or two. He stepped aside, steeled himself, and let me go first.
Far from laughing, what I saw inside filled me with a mixture of pity, revulsion and fright. The place was packed. There were no visible surfaces that weren’t covered with stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines. The floor was carpeted with chest-high piles of The New York Times and mountains of books, records, and plastic bags holding god-knows-what. Depending on how long they’d been there, the piles and stacks were covered with differing thicknesses of dust. Like a cavern through the filth was a narrow, winding path that led to what I’d soon find out was the bedroom, and in the other direction, the kitchen
“Before you say anything, yes, I know. I don’t want to talk about it,” he said firmly. I gulped.
Don seemed both embarrassed and defiant, and while he shut me down that night, this was not the last time his living situation would come up. We were together for six years and for the last two years of that, I lived in the squalor alongside him.
When we eventually decided that I’d move in with him (there were compelling reasons, low rent being the major one) he assured me we’d clear out some stuff. I alerted Eddie, the super, who optimistically brought up several huge garbage bins to fill. Like so many people profiled on the show, Don was extremely reluctant to lose even one precious page of his elderly newspaper collection. We fought daily over my need for space versus his need to acquire more stupid, useless crap. Example: You know those flimsy clear bags you put fruit in at the supermarket—he had a kitchen cabinet filled with thousands of them.
Once I’d cleared a slightly wider path in the living room, I asked Eddie if he could help me fix the truly disgusting bathroom. It was so decrepit and foul that I’d have to shower standing in the middle of the tub, making myself as small as I could to keep the fingers of peeling, mildewed wallboards from touching my body. Like most hoarders, Don was embarrassed by the state of his apartment, so the super hadn’t been inside in years. I’d never met a superintendent who actually wanted to work, but Eddie was eager to help. I think the condition of Don’s apartment really offended him.
I tried every trick in the book to convince Don to keep throwing crap out, because, predictably, once I moved in, all progress slowed to a stop. I’d show him reports that said crumbling newspapers released dioxin into the air. I’d toss stuff while he was at work. I’d scream and cry in frustration after knocking over a mountain of Newsweeks on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I loved Don, but living amongst the mounds of what was essentially garbage was a trial. Any couple who’s been together for more than a few months goes through rough spots. But his obsession with printed matter was a dusty cloud hanging over us.
You’re probably thinking I got fed up and left. You’d be wrong. I kept trying, kept plugging away, trying to make our relationship—and our living situation—work. Then one day he came home from work and announced we were over and I had to go. I was gutted and homeless and not a little pissed off. Ironically, the man who couldn’t throw anything away had finally found something he could trash.