I was recently watching an episode of Project Runway season 4 where Tim Gunn visited the designers in their homes to discuss the progress they had made while working on their collections away from the cameras. One of the designers had adorned his line with human hair. Like most of us Tim Gunn was repulsed by the idea of human hair as part of the clothing. When trying to talk the designer out of using the hair, he noted that it was kind of like the monkey house at the zoo. The designer gave him a perplexed look. Tim explained, (I'm paraphrasing here, but using quotes anyway... But it helps if you read it in that Tim Gunn voice, if you know who Tim Gunn is and what he sounds like.)
"Well, when you first walk into the monkey house at the zoo, and you smell it in there, you think to yourself, 'Disgusting! I can't believe anyone wants to go in here!' And then after twenty minutes or so, you start thinking, 'Well it's really not all that bad.' And if you stay in there an hour you don't even notice it anymore... I think it's the same way with this design, you've lived with it this long, so now you don't even notice the disgusting part. But if there's someone who is just now coming into the monkey house, to them it's still disgusting."
Tim Gunn was onto something. If you've lived with something foul for so long, you probably do become desensitized to it, and even get comfortable with it. That is the only rationale I can come up with for the folks who actually LIVED in the poop house. But as someone who merely ventured in for a small portion of the day I can tell you that there is no desensitizing for the normal folks. Even if you can handle being in the place for twenty minutes, (HIGHLY UNLIKELY for most normal folks,) the smell doesn't go away, and at no point do you find yourself saying "It's really not all that bad!" As someone who spent more time than I care to remember, and more time than anyone should ever spend in that toxic waste dump, (sometimes more than 2 hours a stretch,) I can tell you that I never got used to it, and from the second I walked in until the second I was home and fully showered, sanitized and scrubbed, I choked on every breath I took. And even as I would sit at home after my shower, with the laundry running, and my hair washed and dried, most evenings I would still psychosomatically itch and get chills of disgust from the mere IDEA that I'd been exposed to that foulness. And while I sat there, itching despite being clean, I would ponder. And the more I thought about it, the less I was able to wrap my head around it. The residents of the poop house DID venture out on occasion. Mitch told me he went to group therapy sessions, little Millie went to a state sponsored head start program, and from what I gathered, mom had a job. This means that they went out and functioned in some of the better smelling parts of the world around them, and upon returning home, one would think that the foul odor of their residence would assault them the same way it brutalized any other person... One would think that upon noticing that your home smells worse than say, oh, I don't know, a city dump perhaps, that one would be inclined to do something to remedy the situation. Even a mediocre remedy such as purchasing an air freshener or two, or, dare I say CLEANING UP the direct causes of the festering foulness seemed totally unheard of to these folks... Like I said, I was BAFFLED by the concept of remaining in the proverbial monkey house when you have to be aware of the stench and yet, not doing a damn thing about it.
I knew I'd have to go back again. And the stench haunted me even when I wasn't there.
The day after my initial meeting with Mitch, I knew I'd have to go back later to actually see the child, and to meet "mom."
I called up state case worker Dave.
"Hey, Dave! Met with our favorite clients last night."
"Oh, yeah? How did that go?"
"Disgusting. Naturally... There is just no way that that house meets minimum standards."
"Well, actually it kind of does."
"How is that possible? You had to go in and inspect the place before they ever got Millie back from foster care. How did they pass?"
"Well, they had food in the house, and there wasn't anything structurally wrong where she was going to fall through a gaping hole in the floor or anything, and they have functional utilities, so technically it made the cut. I wasn't happy about it, but I had to sign off on it."
"You're kidding me! The menagerie of animals in that place, and all the poop and garbage and bugs didn't disqualify that rat hole?"
"Well, that's tragic... Seriously... But speaking of the bugs, I was talking with Mitch and he seemed to think that you had something in the works to deal with that roach situation they've got going on in there. Care to comment on that?"
"Well, yeah, I've been talking to my supervisor about getting some waiver money to get an exterminator or something in there."
"Personally, I'd opt for a wrecking ball."
"Yeah, but the waiver money hasn't come through yet, so you might want to just tell them to get some spray and try to control it that way."
"That place is so far beyond spray! If those bugs can thrive so well in the toxic fumes of that house on a daily basis, I don't think any kind of chemicalized bug spray is going to do much good."
"Can't really hurt though."
"I guess not."
"I'll get back to you on the waiver money progress when I've got something to report."
"Thanks... Oh, wait, what about all the animals?"
"What about them?"
"There's got to be some kind of statute saying that they have too many, right?"
"Well, I don't know. I'll look into that. I don't know if there are set numbers anywhere on the books, and to be honest I've never been able to get a solid count of all the animals."
"If the roaches count, it's too many! Hell, even if the roaches don't count, it's too many!"
"Well, I'll take a look at the books and see if there are any limits."
And that was that. The house was technically structurally sound, although I suspect that the structural integrity of the place really just consisted of the roaches holding hands to keep the place upright. They had food and utilities in the house... That was enough to make the grade. Tragic but true.
Knowing that Dave was unable to get a solid count on the animals living in the house, I figured this would be an interesting endeavor the next time I went into the poop house... Incidentally, it was to be later that same day!
So I went about my regular daily business. I saw all of my other unappealing clients first, and then drove over to the least appealing clients of all. As I put the car in park, turned off the engine and looked at the house, I turned, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, (knowing it would be my last for the day,) sighed heavily, cursed under my breath, shuddered, and went to face the beast...
I walked up the cracked front walk, uneven from the tree roots which had burrowed underneath when the trees were still alive, (they were long since dead and lopped off at odd levels somewhere above the 8 foot mark). I breathed less deeply with each passing step, as the odor intensified the closer I got. I went up the three crumbling steps to the garbage-cluttered porch. I knocked on the once-white, now dingy beige door. The dogs barked. A chill went up my spine. I heard someone approach the door from the other side. I heard a woman's voice yell at the dogs to shut up. The lock disengaged. And a genuinely large woman stood winded before me as the door opened. I marveled at the fact that she could be winded, because I knew the dimensions of the house, and knew that there were no stairs nor exercise equipment in the home... She couldn't possibly have walked more than 60 feet. There was no place in the house further than 60 feet from that door... And 60 feet is probably pushing it. It was far more likely that she'd been parked on her sizable rear end on the couch, a mere 30 feet from the door. Yet here she was, totally winded like she just finished running a half-marathon.
I knew this was "mom." I knew her name from the info sheet I'd gotten from the office. We'll call her "Martha." Martha, as you may have already guessed had a pretty significant weight problem. I'm by no means a small girl, but next to her, I'd have been considered Allegra Versace. (Google it if you don't already get the reference.) Seriously. This woman was no taller than I am at 5'7" and HAD to be tipping the scales at well over 400 lbs. I wish I were kidding... Once I got a good look at her, I understood why she was winded after hauling that load off the couch and walking all of 30 feet to the door... Lugging that around would wear me out too! When the wonder about her windedness wore off, (whoa, alliteration!) I marveled that she was in real clothes, and not the mumu which is stereotypically sported by women this size.
"Uhmmm, hello, Martha?"
"Yeah. I'm Martha."
"Hello, Martha, I'm Liz. I'm Julie's replacement."
"Yeah, hi. Ok, so you know why I'm here."
"Ok, well, since this is my first time meeting with you, I need you to sign a consent form saying that you understand that I'm here because you're involved with the department of child services, and that any information I get from you, or from coming to your home can be shared with your state case worker."
"Ok. You got a pen?"
"Yes I do."
(Knowing that she lived in the poop house, and knowing the likelihood that she probably hadn't washed her hands in 6 months, I opted to let her keep that ten cent bic pen.)
"Ok, so I got a fair amount of information from Mitch when I was here yesterday. I'd like to ask you a few questions too, just to round out the picture. Would you mind joining me out here on the porch for a few minutes?"
"Well, Millie is in her room, but Mitch is in the kitchen... He can watch her."
[At this point she yelled something unintelligible to me back into the foul recesses of the house, but I assume it was letting Mitch know that she was meeting with me on the porch, and that he needed to watch Millie.]
"Ok, so Mitch tells me that you're working, where are you currently employed?"
I'm sure that my horrified expression was laid bare as I tried to compute this new information... Fortunately, being totally spoiled by the delights of Chicago style pizza, and never having been a fan of Domino's, I could not recall having consumed Domino's Pizza any time since I'd left Chicago... And I certainly haven't had it since learning of their star staff member! (I think it's fair to say that I'm ruined on the concept of EVER eating a food product from any franchise where I know a poop house resident has worked.)
"OH... Uhhh... OK. Domino's Pizza. And how many hours a week would you say you work in a week?"
"Well, usually thirty or so, but we've been really busy lately, so probably closer to 40 or 50."
Again, I was horrified. I think people should know when someone comes from the poop house to prepare the food you're ordering... And if they're logging 30 or more hours a week there, then that's a whole lot of tainted pizza and breadsticks!
"Ok. So you're there quite a bit..." (I couldn't think of anything else to say)
"And I imagine that most of that time is in the afternoons and evenings, so I'm guessing that Mitch is really the primary care giver here while you go out and work."
"Ok... Well, I did talk to your case worker earlier today, and we chatted about the issues in this case."
"Ok. What did he have to say?"
"Well, it's pretty evident to all of us that you guys have a pretty significant bug problem."
"Yeah. He was talking about getting an exterminator for us, but he hasn't done that."
"Well, that's what we discussed. He told me that the waiver money to cover the costs of an exterminator hasn't come through yet, so in the meantime he wanted me to ask that you consider getting some bug spray and trying to at least attempt to manage the problem that way."
"Well, I don't get paid until next week... But I'll look into getting some spray when I get my check."
Another shiver ran up my spine at the thought of her being so nonchalant about the bug situation, and letting it persist for at least another week.
"Ok, another issue he wanted me to discuss with you was the number of animals you have living here. Exactly how many are there?"
"Well let me see... There's 5 dogs."
"Five! Oh! I'd only seen four."
"No, we've got five in there."
"Uh-huh... And how many cats?"
"I think probably eight or nine."
"Probably? You don't know?"
"Well, we can find out."
"How is that?"
"We can feed em."
Instantly my heart sank, my stomach quivered, and my gag reflex fought to be heeded. I knew that since none of the animals ever went outside, I'd be forced to go in to get a count during feeding time.
"Well, let's go in... Oh, and you can meet Millie."
And in we went.
I followed Martha through the close quarters of the front room, through the maze of little dung heaps on the floor, through the putrid den area, and into the more open area of the kitchen.
Martha stood a few feet from me, close to the kitchen sink heaped with dirty dishes... It was at this point when I got my first really good look at her, despite having spent the previous few minutes talking to her on the front porch. She was roughly my height, every bit of the 400 pounds I initially figured her for, and every bit as disgusting as her husband. This was clearly not a case of opposites attracting. She wore no shoes or socks, which repulsed me because I knew the state of that carpet, dirty khaki pants, a stained t-shirt with partially ripped off pocket on the chest area, and CLEARLY wore no bra despite her size. She had yellowish-brown teeth which bore all the tell-tale signs of decay and hard living with no dental care. Her complexion was pale and lightly freckled, including all three of her chins, and she had long, stringy, greasy brown hair which seemed to be pulled back in a ponytail, as a means of prolonging her time between showers. It was evident that hygiene was never a strong suit for anyone in this family... And when one combined this revelation with the state of the home, it really didn't come as any genuine shock.
She yelled something unremarkable in the general direction of Mitch and Millie, and then addressed me.
"You want me to feed em?"
"Well, um, if that's the only way to get them together to count them, then I guess."
"OK! Watch this! ...Oh, you might want to move away from the door there."
I sidestepped slightly to a more interior part of the room, and slightly away from the door, looking rather puzzled as I didn't know why this was necessary.
Martha then grabbed a tupperware bin the size of a large stock pot, and shook it.
In an instant, cats came darting through the kitchen door from all directions, sprinting to the feeding area with all the fervor of refugees greeting a truckload of food and supplies.
Martha cackled at this.
"See why I told you to move away from the doorway?"
I marveled at the number of cats. And as they vied for a prime spot at the food dishes, and writhed around each other, I attempted to count them. And when I was through counting them, I was in disbelief at the number I'd tallied and began counting again figuring that some of them had to have moved around and gotten counted twice... The second and third counts were the same.
THEY HAD FOURTEEN CATS AND FIVE DOGS.
"Umm, you said you only had eight or nine... by my count, you guys were way off! I see fourteen!"
"No! There's no way we've got fourteen!"
"Well, they're your cats, and they're all here... Count them for yourself. Name them off... I'm seeing fourteen."
"Well, there's Sable, Pretty Boy, Fancy Face, Pearl, Precious, Midnight, ...."
The names were rattled off. All fourteen of them. Many were rattled off two or three times because they would lose track of who had been counted on their extended fingers, and who hadn't. Meanwhile, I stood aghast that anyone could have fourteen cats at all, let alone in such close quarters, and that all fourteen had names, yet even the family couldn't fathom that they actually had fourteen cats.
Having been stirred up by the cavalcade of cats streaming by, Mitch and Millie had come into the kitchen... I was about to meet Millie.