Ron Alford at a crisis site on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
At 8 AM on a sunny Tuesday morning I am on my way to a crisis site on East End Avenue at 82nd Street. The call had come in an hour or so earlier. “I presume you’re in good physical fitness,” Ron Alford had warned me over the phone. Ron is the director of Disaster Masters, a crisis-management firm that specializes in treating a group he’s dubbed “disposaphobics”—known to the rest of us as hoarders. The company’s motto is “Spiral Into Control.” Like a cop or a gym teacher, Ron has a voice made for mandates.
I told him I was in fine shape. “Good,” he said. “Dress for work and get here quickly.”
The address he gives me is a Yorkville high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a lobby furnished in sand tones and a doorman in livery. Inside my bag are two bottles of water and a PowerBar (oatmeal raisin), and I have worn a work jacket, jeans with a hammer loop, and sturdy shoes. An unmarked gray truck is parked in front of the building, and when I knock on the driver’s side door it pops open. Ron is stationed in the driver’s seat and a pretty blond woman is sitting next to him. He is almost 70 and has the compact, world-weary look of a military veteran—he in fact served six years in the US Coast Guard. The woman introduces herself as Melissa.
Ron scoops me into the truck and shuts the door so that I am wedged into the six-inch triangle between the steering wheel and the door. This is where I’m briefed on Ron’s client, a 50-something man with the initials CM who lives on the tenth floor of the apartment building. He has lived with his mother in the one-bedroom space his entire life. The woman, in her 80s, recently fell down and bonked her head. CM called the police but panicked when they arrived and refused to let them in. The door was broken down, the mother removed on a stretcher, and the squalid condition of the apartment noted in the police report. The old woman was placed in a nursing home and an attorney was contacted to marshal the assets. After a cleanup by Disaster Masters, the apartment was to be placed on the market and CM moved to a different location. The client’s mother would not see her apartment again.
This, Ron explains to me from several inches away, is a typical job, although no two hoarding jobs are exactly alike. Except for the client. The client, he says, will always try to manipulate you. The A&E show Hoarders, he adds, is horseshit. “Shrinks, social workers, and psychotherapists have never cured a smoker, drinker, overeater, gambler, or sex addict, yet the media has these folks working with the clients as if they are providing some kind of valuable service.” Like any junkie, a client can’t be helped until he or she asks for physical help and coaching, Ron tells me. But never therapy: “Coaching is about tomorrow. Therapy is about yesterday.”
A team of four men hang around the back of the truck, which is caboosed by a rented dumpster. Ron calls them the caballeros, and they are his muscle. One of them, a man named Hercules, runs five miles a day and does 500 sit-ups every morning. Melissa tells me that she thinks of the caballeros as hospice workers. “They don’t judge, they don’t talk, they don’t steal,” she says. “They’re made of gold.”
While we wait for the signal to head up, Ron hands out green latex gloves and breathing masks. Melissa warns that the apartment is full of porn and filth and asks whether I might like to go upstairs for a minute to get accommodated before the others follow—in case, she clarifies, I need to vomit. I say no, and that I will probably be all right. When the doorman from the building signals to Ron and unlocks the service door, we all hop out of the truck and assemble near the door for a second briefing. “We start slow and finish fast,” Ron says, and hands me a red notebook to carry. We file into the elevator, where Ron makes a Mets joke and riffs on the copy of the New York Post that the elevator attendant is flipping through. It’s an oddly anticipatory mood, almost like Christmas Eve. The muscle is silent, and so am I.
Then we are at the front door. “Ready, champ?” Ron asks. I nod, and the door opens slowly.
Ron unearths the least racy literature in the entire place.
CM is a heavy man with the expression of someone who has been left alone with his weirdness for far too long. He doesn’t seem unhinged, just dully resistant. His hair is shoulder-length and greasy; his breasts are much larger than mine. Behind him are two square feet in which to move, but the hallway is otherwise crammed with shit. Ron enters first, leading with his stomach. (It’s an amazing stomach, by the way, protruding like a beer belly made of solid muscle. Beneath a plaid flannel he wears a tight black t-shirt, which he terms his man-girdle. “I gotta suck in my belly like J. Lo,” he later tells me. “As we get older we bag, sag, and drag.”)
We start slowly, evaluating the mess. Establishing routes. Deciding what goes first. Maneuvering isn’t easy, since the space is crammed with Corona bottles, pizza boxes, soda bottles, a piano, White Castle boxes, Lysol cans, and stacks of other random waste about four feet deep in some places and much higher in others. There are pennies, receipts, Table Talk cherry-pie boxes, empty Skippy containers, plastic spoons, and lighters. There is an empty sixer of Smirnoff Ice Green Apple. Somewhere beneath the mess there is a nice apartment with good bones and southern exposure. Right now the walls are sprayed in what looks like shit, cum, and blood, depending on the room. The smell is striking. It is thick. The breath that condenses in my mouth is a swamp of it. It’s like shoving your head into someone’s mouth, armpit, and crotch all at once.
Only one in five of the apartment’s light fixtures are functional and the windows have been covered, so the caballeros bring in lights. CM is skittish and protective. “Everything in the kitchen stays,” he yells. “Everything in the closet is private.” He shifts through the rooms, marking off sections that we are not to touch, until Ron sits him down on the couch with orders not to interfere. There is silence for a moment, and then some scuffling noises as everyone gets back to work.
The bathroom doorway provides a good vantage point on the work, so I nestle in and watch Ron and the muscle transfer handfuls of junk to black garbage bags torn off from a giant roll. One of the guys passes me and glances at the toilet, stained the color of feces, and slams it shut with his foot. The bathroom sink holds a blow-dryer, a packet of chicken flavor, an Entenmann’s box, a fly strip, and a DVD called Candy Striper, which depicts on its back cover a hospital worker being anally penetrated. Ron comes in to dump a load of porn in the sink. “Guy’s a trust-fund baby,” he says, seemingly to explain the smut.
I look at the titles. Slavemeat IV, Latex Mania, Blonde and Anal, Bad Bondage Dream. There are plushy DVDs, big-ball-fetish DVDs, dirty-sock-fetish DVDs, ice-dildo DVDs. Ginza Sex Slaves, Mouth Meat, Bondage Dolls, Submission Complex, Curry Cream Pie, Girls of Pain II, Punishment of Goth Girl, Tortureshop, Droolin’. In the living room there are stacks of raunchy DVDs that reach the ceiling, which makes me wonder whether watching porn is like watching horror movies or heist thrillers. Does it get less effective, I mean, the more you watch it? Does your porn metabolism speed up?
From my niche I can see CM rooted spudlike on the couch. He has placed a cell phone on his stomach and above him is a wall covered with a million boogers and what are probably food and jizz streaks. He refuses to have his picture taken, but Ron still pauses to search for his camera. “You’re wearing it,” Melissa points out after a minute, and they begin to shoot photos of the area, being careful to exclude the client from the frame. “You gonna use this for advertisements?” CM demands, a hand on his belly.
“No,” Ron says.
“Because it sure looks like advertisements to me.” He’s growing upset. I look at the walls and wonder whether the smears might have originated in periods of rage.
Melissa attempts to talk him down. “You know how a doctor takes X-rays for a case file? That’s what this is. Just X-rays.” CM mutters something under his breath that I can’t hear, and Ron exchanges a look with Melissa. From then on, she does not speak to the client. Ron explains later: “He has problems with women, anyone can see that. We play good cop, bad cop. Melissa’s the bad cop today.”
I wonder what the relationship between Ron and Melissa is—she is young enough, certainly, to be his daughter.
“Ron’s my husband,” she giggles when I ask her. “He used to be my competitor.” I giggle too. It’s funny and cute. They do almost every job together. The two met online through an advertising campaign that Melissa ran to promote her professional-organizing training courses, and they live together in Queens and in New Milford, Connecticut. Short of that, neither is interested in going too much into the details of their personal lives.
“I love working with him,” she tells me. “He always makes everyone feel better, no matter what their situation is.”
Amid the take-out aftermath, Ron takes a long minute to evaluate.
After photos the work speeds up. The pace makes sense—no one responsible for cleaning up such a place would choose to stay longer than necessary. Layers of shit that have not budged in 20 years are gone in five minutes. The action happens assembly-line style: Ron, Melissa, two of the caballeros, and I bag garbage and line it up neatly in the hallway outside. Another guy throws the bags in a cart and wheels them to the service elevator down the hallway. A fourth guy throws the bags into the dumpster and jumps on top of it to stuff the bags down. Anything that looks important—antiques, bank statements—is set aside to deal with later. It doesn’t seem like the term hoarder would apply to CM—he seems merely to have an aversion to taking out the garbage. The term crisis, however, is entirely appropriate.
In minutes we’ve cleared the foyer table to reveal a glass surface smeared with what might be poo. A pizza crust—how many years old?—is submerged in the maybe-poo, like a wizened finger. There are condoms and butt plugs on the floor. Ron identifies the butt plugs, which I do not recognize on sight. Melissa points out that Ron isn’t wearing his respirator and hectors him about it. The request is a reasonable one: Ron spent Christmas in the hospital with pneumonia.
Ron takes a look at the rat’s nest of wires he has uncovered near the television. “Why this son-a-bitch ain’t dead is beyond me,” he says. Sweat drips down his face. He looks, for a moment, like a 70-year-old working a job fit for a much younger man. We sag against the wall, relieved for a temporary break from our masks. The caballeros carry a chaise longue out of the apartment. Melissa’s hands begin to shake. “I’m losing the strength in my fingers from all this grabbing,” she explains. “I tried to learn how to play guitar but I’m too weak.”
A neighbor in plum lipstick emerges from the elevator, spots our activity, and begins to creep down the hallway at turtle speed. “Here come the yentas,” Ron mutters.
The neighbor points timidly at the door as she reaches us. “Does he still live there?” she asks. Ron nods. The neighbor asks questions: What’s going on? Who’s paying for the job? Is he going to stay?—but Ron is tight-lipped. She eventually moves on, unsatisfied. “I run interference with the busybodies,” Ron says later. “We just tell the neighbors that we’re doing spring cleaning. It’s none of their business.” I mull on this and Ron picks up on it. “The neighbors, they’d look at this apartment and go, ‘Holy shit.’ But everyone alive has this problem. Everyone’s compulsive. I gotta compulsive urge to pee every day. I’m a compulsive pee-er.”
From inside comes the sound of a wooden screen being kicked to the floor. “This caucus is over,” Ron says, blowing his nose with sheets torn from a tube of toilet paper and heading back in. We put our masks on and follow. The ground has been cleared by this point, and I see that the floorboards are warped into a beef-jerky-like state. It’s difficult to imagine what a restoration might cost. It’s also difficult to imagine a person causing so much damage all by himself, much less living there with an elderly mother. A maintenance bill for $71,000 has been unearthed in the foyer while we were on break.
I open a closet, and DVDs spill out cartoon-style. One of them hits me in the head. Of masked girls, dressed in latex, masturbate with frenzy, says the back cover. Largely open thighs, they introduce the disproportionate cock to the deepest of their pussy quartered. Pleasures and solitary pleasures. Hallucinated!
Hallucinated! I put the DVD in the sink with the others. It’s a strange feeling to spelunk among somebody’s personal possessions with state-ordered authority. Despite the protections, it cannot be kosher to pry into a foreign closet and toss the contents into a garbage bag. Doing so provokes the same sense of embarrassing, unwanted intimacy that you get from interrupting someone on the toilet. I glance at CM, sitting on the couch, and he looks back at me with zero interest. My face is mostly covered. The breathing mask, along with filtering bad smells, provides anonymity. It makes a cleaning robot out of a sentient girl who might otherwise express horror or disgust at what she saw.
CM’s love of Sunkist soda extends to the toilet seat.
The bedroom is more of the same, with one exception: There is money everywhere. Dollar bills have hardened into rigid strips underfoot. There’s also a big box of some substance that is unidentifiable except for the fact that it is decomposing. A woman’s platform shoe rests atop a pile of greasy cartons, and suddenly, like a Magic Eye drawing, I observe a pattern that unites the mess. Studded platforms, strappy stilettos, nylon-laced thigh-highs: Women’s shoes are everywhere. Most are cobwebbed. They are not the kind of shoes that an 80-year-old woman might wear. I hold my foot up to a lizard-patterned platform shoe, and it’s about the same size as my foot. The client is clearly not a tranny. I dig around for other shoe clues, and when Melissa joins me in the bedroom I ask for her theory. “Hookers?” she says, bending to examine the pile. But a lot of the pairs are incomplete, it seems, and from this we determine that a standard foot fetish is the likely suspect.
As time passes, a layer of feminine touches rises from the grime: a porcelain flowered kitty, a framed print of an iris on the wall. At lunchtime we take a break, and Hercules hands Ron a clear plastic bag filled with papers. Most of the clients, he tells me, have a decent amount of money. Just last week they found documentation of a bank account with $30,000 that the client had completely forgotten about. An $80,000 chess set appeared the month before.
Neither Ron nor Melissa will give me statistics about their work. They will not, for example, say what the average job costs, or how long it takes, or what the average hoarder is like. They say that it is not unusual, in cases where the plumbing has failed, to encounter bags full of shit and soda bottles full of urine. Or piles of used tampons. “There’s nothing I haven’t seen,” Ron says. “Dead cats. Dead pigeons. Dead people. When there’s fresh protein, you smell it a mile away. It’s vile.” At one location last year Melissa contracted hantavirus, a deadly disease transmitted by contact with rodent droppings, despite wearing full hazmat gear. They tell me that a third of their clients work in what they call “altruistic” professions: nurses, government employees, schoolteachers, social workers. This is borne out by the A&E show, whose subjects include a retired psychologist, a veterinarian, a firefighter, and a police officer.
We close the apartment door and unpeel our gloves. On the way down we all silently observe a garbage disposal located 20 feet from the client’s apartment door. In the elevator Ron tells me a little about his life, about how he was born in Georgia and moved to New York in the 70s. “There were hookers on 42nd Street,” he says. “They were fun to watch.”
When we leave the building and tear off our masks, the New York City air smells like flowers and mist and waterfalls. It is the best-smelling air I’ve ever smelled. I am soaked in a sweat that instantly dries and chills me to the core. Hercules and Melissa are coughing. It is late January and cold, and I’m still holding Ron’s red notebook in my hands. “I’m Captain Garbage,” he says out of nowhere, and then asks around to see what everyone would like for lunch. Although it is long past noon, I can’t begin to handle the thought of food. But I’m the only one. Ron, Melissa, and the crew, despite it all, are starving.
Ron and his wife, Melissa.
CM, who insisted on remaining anonymous, relaxes on the couch with his porn library in front of the cum-and-boogers wall.
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