Credit: Andrea Bauer

A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

“Our specialty is hoarding cleanup, and our record is fifteen 50-cubic-yard Dumpsters out of one three-flat. I’ve had hoarders call me six weeks after the job and say, “Can I go to the dump and look for my cassette tapes? I didn’t mean to throw ’em out.” It’s a little bit of crazy I gotta deal with.

“But I like to help people. You have to like humanity in this business, and you have to have a real strong stomach. Sometimes we go into a hoarder’s place and there’s feces and rotten food. The smell is so bad, but the hoarder has no clue. We go in there with respirators on, but the hoarders live in it and a lot of times die in it.

“Now, it’s not always gross and nasty. Sometimes it’s kind of cool. We find gold coins, stamp collections. We’ve found World War II tear-gas canisters. I cleaned out Mike Ditka’s house when he moved, and he threw away the Super Bowl play chart.

“I have to use a lot of psychology on my customers. I try to empathize with them real well. We’re not gonna judge ’em; we just get to work. One lady, she needed me to tell her all day long: “You haven’t used this in five years, you don’t need it, throw it out.”

“In my experience, the majority of hoarders are women, and the most common career they have is schoolteacher. And a lot of them are history teachers, including my own aunt, who’s a hoarder. She had it piled high and deep for 35 years. A pipe broke, and it destroyed everything. That’s a common thing—hoarders being forced by floods to clean their stuff out. Like a kick in the ass from God.

“The majority of them love cats. Usually Animal Control gets there before we do. One time, the cats were still there. We were cleaning out this property, and we’d pick up a couch, and kittens would fall out of it.

“Most of the time, hoarders never change. I don’t think there’s a cure for it. I think it’s a human instinct gone awry. Because back in the Neanderthal days, you had to hoard your food to get through winter.

“The first thing I do when I get home? I get out of my clothes and take a shower. I do laundry a lot.”