Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Poop House Chronicles (Part One) ...Brace Yourself

Imagine if you will, that you left your hometown to attend college in a major city. Over the course of the next several years you find that you are in love with the city, it's charms, and all it has to offer. Suddenly, 6 years later the city you've come to love beyond reason turns its back on you, and you are forced to return to your hometown.

This alone would be more than enough culture shock for most people. I assure you that despite the tears over the financially forced move, this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

I returned to the hometown and performed a pretty standard job search, not setting expectations too high, knowing that the hometown has limited offerings, being the festering cesspool of mediocrity that it is. I was taken on by a social work firm which you all have heard about before, but just so you understand fully, the concept of the job was to work with families who, for a myriad of reasons, were singled out by the department of child and family services. Our role was essentially to do the leg work and heavy lifting for that agency in order to assist the families with achieving goals set by the state case managers to get the children back into a more stabilized home environment, preferably with their natural parents.

I had done a ride along with a long-term staff member during my initial interviewing period. Based on what I'd seen I wasn't overly enthralled with the job, but I understood the concept was to get involved in a "down in the trenches" kind of way in order to improve the lives of the children involved. It appealed to me on the level that I would be using my degree, and on the level that I really desperately needed to start earning a paycheck. So when they called to say, "Your training begins on Tuesday." I went for it.

I went in on Tuesday, got my handbook, filled out standard paperwork, went to take the standard company drug test, and get fingerprinted by the state so that they could check me out and make sure I wasn't a homicidal, child molesting crack fiend or anything like that. They then sent us home to return on Wednesday to watch parenting videos, talk to a lady about Aflac coverage, and do other in-office training. Thursday rolled around, and it was time to venture out into the field as a trainee. The first couple of days of field training were pretty uneventful, and based on the work I'd seen with my new coworkers, I was starting to think that this wasn't going to be such a bad way to earn a living. Little did I know, the other shoe was about to drop.

A few days into my field training, I went out with Julie. Julie is a wonder woman who does incredible things for her clients every day. She works miracles with clients who can't seem to produce results with anyone else, and she does what she does out of deep love and human compassion. My first day with Julie wasn't at all bad. We did a couple of supervised visits, and pretty basic parent aide cases. The next day was a different story. It started out with a basic supervised visit... After about three hours of work, we got into Julie's car, and she got serious.

"Lizzle, I need to warn you about this next case."

"Uh-oh, that statement and that face are already starting to scare me."

"They should. You've been great so far, but this next case is BAD. In fact, it's probably worse than anything you've ever seen in your entire life, and this is by far one of the worst cases we have on the books. The fact is that you will most likely never have a case this bad in the entire time that you work here."

"Oh, Jesus, what the hell is going on?"

"Well, this is a dirty house... But not just any dirty house... More like THE dirty house."

"Uhh..."

"Ok, so here's the thing. These folks have a lot of animals. And they aren't really good about keeping up with them. And they have a lot of clutter and garbage in and around the house. And they have a pretty nasty bug problem... But the first thing you're going to notice is the odor."

"Odor? ...Odor first?"

"Yeah... It might be the dead of winter, but you'll smell this place the second you open the car door."

"Ooooooh."

"I'll try to keep this appointment as brief as possible, so hopefully we'll only be in there for a few minutes, but these warnings are to prepare you so that you're not going in expecting anything else... The only other warning is that since this house is as dirty as it is, I'm just going to tell you not to touch anything that you don't absolutely have to touch... Which basically means don't touch anything. You won't be tempted to, but don't sit down, and just try to suppress the natural horrified reaction, and keep a poker face like you've seen this a million times."

We drove to a rundown neighborhood in that area of town on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, and parked in front of THE POOP HOUSE.

Julie was wrong. Upon pulling up to the curb, looking at the house I saw the mess first. The house itself was decrepit. Putting it simply, the house itself looked as if it was defeated, sagging on it's foundation, long past appearances of being condemned and currently looking as if it was minutes away from being slated for demolition. The trash on the lawn, a "lawn" which was dead not only because it was winter, but (if my suspicions were right) was always dead because of the toxicity of the structure on the property, and the liberal coating of assorted garbage which remained plastered firmly on the ground despite harsh winter winds. I then opened the car door, and knew what Julie had said wasn't nearly enough preparation for what was to come, because despite the warnings about the odor, standing out on the curb, across the expanse of the litter-strewn front lawn, the smell nearly knocked me over. My initial thought was to say something to Julie, but knowing that we were outside the safe bubble of the car, I would do better to hold my tongue, (and my breath,) for the time being. I wanted to tell her that any time I'd been in a neighborhood like this, and smelled a smell like this, I had just always assumed that there was something wrong with the flow in the sewer line. I didn't say a word.

We walked up the front walk, and ascended the broken concrete steps to a front porch which was crammed with garbage piled waist-high, broken and dismantled bicycles, broken toys, a folded up wheelchair, a dirty child's plastic play vanity with few, if any, pieces intact, and the ever-present and intensifying putrifying odor of sewer, rot, and vomit inducing foulness. Behind a beige door which I suspected had at some point been white, I heard the sounds of several small dogs barking. Julie knocked, and the door creaked open a few inches. The resident male (I'm reticent to call him a father by any stretch of the imagination, because any real father would not allow a child to exist in this squalor, and we're not even in the front door,) saw that it was Julie, and let us in. As he opened the door, several small dogs came pouring out barking and growling at us and at each other.

We passed through the front door, into a cramped- bordering- on- claustrophobic, dimly-lit space, where the air was slightly warmer, completely stagnant, and to use the mildest term, instantly nauseating. This space, in an ordinary home would be a front room, or living room area. Instead, to the immediate left was a makeshift bedroom setup. There was a bare, dirty, dumpster-ready full or queen-sized mattress on a box spring and frame (I'm basing the assumption that there was a box spring and frame present solely on the height of the structure, not because I could actually see a box spring or frame, because there were heaps of stained, soiled clothing and garbage piled almost level with the top of the mattress.) There was a closet on the far wall, but it was readily apparent that it had not been opened in years, due to the volume of assorted items piled between the closet doors and the bedside. There was one window which was clearly nailed shut, a desk littered with papers, garbage, empty food containers, and cheap trinkets and keepsakes. On one shelf of the desk, among the papers and other clutter was a pile of animal feces which appeared to have been there for some time. Much of this space was obscured by a makeshift room divider, which consisted of a mismatched pair of sheets hanging on a rope strung from the front door frame to the frame of another door leading into the next room. To the right, there were rusted steel shelves, again littered with papers and cheap trinket items. Around the base of the shelves was a collection of several broken, dismantled, outdated computer towers, monitors, and other non-functional electronic items, as well as trash bags filled with god only knows what, papers, boxes of clothing, and other indistinguishable bric-a-brac. Among the bags and boxes was another pile of animal poo, this one significantly fresher than the last, and perched on one of the rusted out shelves was a large, mean looking tan and white cat, which I suspected was the culprit, and which hissed at us as we passed.

Under foot was old, thin, industrial carpet which was really just a collection of medium sized remnants pieced together, and which showed every indication of being caked, smeared, and stained with animal dung very extensively for quite some time.

We proceeded forward into a narrow room which could, in theory, be described as a den or TV room. To the left was a pieced-together old computer, a particle board entertainment center housing a television, gaudy knicknacks, and enough garbage and papers to fill several 30 gallon trash cans to the brim. The garbage was not only on the shelves, but impacted and heaped around and behind the shelving unit. There was a small kitchen table pushed directly against the entertainment center, making it readily apparent that this was where the family ate meals while watching television. And to the back of the room there was a door to the child's bedroom which remained closed. To the right was a ratty, heavily-soiled lazy boy recliner, a low couch which belonged in a landfill, which sat under another window which showed obvious signs of rot and structural damage, which was also nailed shut. To the rear on the right there was another recliner, this one in even worse shape than the first, and upon which there was another fresh pile of dung on one arm rest, another cat perched on the top of the back cushion, and two of the small dogs which barked furiously as we continued to walk past into the kitchen.

Immediately upon entering the kitchen on the left was a rusted metal rack loaded up with bags of rotted food. A transparent bag of what appeared to be some kind of cereal or possibly kibble which was degraded beyond recognition, and moving, as it became apparent that there were cockroaches milling around, eating and doing what cockroaches do. Further to the left was a pantry door, partially open where it appeared several colonies of cockroaches had taken up residence. This was evidenced by... Well, the moving brown and black mass which covered the interior walls and shelves of the pantry. Another shelf of tacky knicknacks, garbage, and animal waste sat in the corner to the left. There was a door to a small bathroom which remained shut, peeling, dirty wall paper, exposing crumbling plaster, and another small kitchen table which was piled to chest level with soiled laundry, upon which there was another pair of cats and more piles of dung which appeared to have been there for varying amounts of time. Beyond the table was a washer and dryer where more cats congregated. To the right of those was a heap of soiled clothing stacked from the floor to nearly eye level in the far corner. Along the right wall was a refrigerator with nothing on it but dirt and rust stains. I didn't even want to know what was in it when the outside looked so foul. Nearer on the right was a double basin sink full above the brim with dirty dishes, pots and pans. A window over the sink was covered in plastic on the outside, and the inside was open a crack. On the window sill was a child's toothbrush and a putrified tube of toothpaste which looked like it hadn't been used in quite some time. More roaches skittered about among the dishes in the sink and up on the windowsill where the toothbrush lay. To the right of the sink was a stove under a row of ceiling mounted cabinets. The cabinet doors were closed, but it was still readily apparent that the roaches lived in there too, because they crawled in and out through the cracks. Looking down at the stovetop, I noticed that there were more dirty pots and dishes, but nestled among them was another cat.

Nearest to us on the right was a waist-high counter stacked with empty bags which once contained food, non-functional kitchen appliances, roaches both alive and dead, and of course, another cat.

On the floor of the kitchen area were at least four piles of animal crap which had clearly been there for anywhere between a few days and a few minutes.

And there I stood, completely horrified... Horrified and trying to concentrate very hard to control my gag reflex in as low-key a manner as possible.

I don't recall what all was said during the few minutes we were in the house, other than Julie stating that the family needed to do the dishes, and pick up the poop.

After making our way back out the front door, and getting into Julie's car, she soaked both my hands and hers with hand sanitizer. We then both used anti-bacterial baby wipes to make sure we covered and killed everything possible. As she turned the car on, and began to drive away, she looked over at me. I can't even imagine the look on my face. I sat there, trying to figure out what I was going to do from here. Trying to figure out how the hell I was going to tell my mom that I'd quit the job I'd gotten only days earlier. Trying to figure out how I was going to get this smell off of me and out of my nose. Trying to figure out how I was going to be able to work the rest of the day knowing that I was contaminated from having just been in that environment.

It was Julie's case, and Julie is known for working miracles with people... There are no miracles at the earthly doorway to hell.

This is only the beginning of your epic journey into the hell I dealt with...

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