Rodriguez says on occasion they get slimed from the backwash; especially bad are sprays from shallow manholes. Both men wear flexible grip-mesh gloves; Rodriguez has on disposable pants, their tarplike white plastic fitting loosely over his jeans. "If it's on you," Kirkendall says, "it's rough." They carry cleaning solutions and, at home, leave their boots outside and shower right away.
They bring up the scoop: there's sludge (sand, rocks, semisolid waste) and root-balls. In the root-balls, they've found cell phones, pagers, silverware, jewelry, tampons, drug paraphernalia. Finishing, Kirkendall and Rodriquez hoist up the sled. From its end dangles a pair of thong underwear. "Hey, Henry," Kirkendall calls out, grabbing the torn pair. "It's Calvin Klein."
A law of nature, we leave our messes for others to clean. When a local person dies or is removed from a home and his or her mess can't be tidied up by next of kin, the County of San Diego's social services gets the call. A crew of two estate movers comes to "marshal the assets" -- salvage what's personal and saleable and trash the rest. Performing such home autopsies is the job of James "Sam" Samson.
Samson and his partner Hymie have been working on a trailer on Jamacha Boulevard in Spring Valley. They've been at it for three days: "We've popped a pretty good hole in it already," Samson says. Using chest-high wardrobe boxes, they've made a trash run. "We're finding the floor." The day I arrive Hymie's out sick, but Samson needs to keep going. He's backlogged: landlords want him to finish several places by the first of the month (a week away); unsold or unrented property is an asset dying on the vine.
His work order says that a week before, the County moved out a 90-year-old woman with a debilitating disease. Now under the conservatorship of the County, she's been put in a nursing home with her permission. (In many cases, relatives won't or can't help; a court order then allows the County to become the person's public guardian or, after death, public administrator.)
Inside the trailer Samson asks, "You don't mind rats, do you?" "No...," and then I enter a stink that must have been common during bubonic plagues: rat urine and feces. The stench is repulsive. On the linoleum floor lies a young rat, flattened and moist: it might have met a bootish death. Surrounding the sink, rice-sized turds stipple the counter; rat-munched bits of paper dot the floors. The carpet's soaked with rat urine. The tiny turds are everywhere. "What's that?" A live one rustles in the corner. Samson estimates there are a half-dozen rats here; every cereal box (there are many) has a finely chewed hole through the cardboard, its contents gobbled.
The first day, Samson recalls, Hymie "was emptying the linen closet. He pulled out the top linen pile -- he's a bit shorter than me -- and there was a rat on top of the towels that came out; he had to jump out of the way while it bounced off the wall." Samson's a "reptile person" with a pet boa at home; he's caught rats (he wears leather gloves) and fed them to his snake. "It's the only thing I've ever got free out of this job," he says, laughing. Though Samson washes his hands often, he forgoes cleaner's garb. The stench doesn't bother him either. Yes, it gets in his clothes and hair: "It's with me all the time." Can he describe it? "A human death, a rodent death, a snake death -- it all smells the same. I can't describe it."
Rat and dead-human smells are nothing for Samson. In a collar-close aside, he tells me the most gaggable story I would hear. In one woman's home that he was emptying, he discovered that the son, who lived in the garage, had stored his own feces in five-gallon buckets in an attached room. "We had walls and walls of it. Lined up, boards and buckets, floor to ceiling." Why? "I don't know," Samson says, "but it was a bad smell," and he laughs raucously at the ridiculousness of what he's just said. He didn't end up with that bucket duty: "A private attorney took the house over. And we were very happy."
The trailer has a kitchen, living room, two small bedrooms, two bathrooms. Unopened boxes, canned goods, dressers whose drawers won't close. To case a bedroom, Samson must shoulder the door to get in. Coolers, furniture, lawn chairs, rolled rugs, draperies are strewn about. Grease slathers the range top; a smear beside the door, probably a grimy hand, dirties the wall. In a shed out back is an upright freezer, its six shelves bulging with packages of meat: thankfully, the power's still on. (Many senile seniors stash as much food as they hoard junk.) A tub in one bathroom, a shower in the other, are storage shafts -- bric-a-brac, laundry baskets, hangered blouses, a plastic Christmas tree. "She didn't shower, she didn't bathe," Samson says. I hear no hint of judgment in his voice. At 53, he has clear eyes and a trim moon-white beard; a long, graying ponytail streams out the back opening of his ball cap. In 1997, when the Heaven's Gate community committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, it was Samson who disposed of the home's contents, including the purple fabrics, triangularly draped on the victims.
Neighbors knew about the old woman's plight and tried to help, Samson notes. But she wouldn't let anyone in to clean up. How bad it had gotten is evident by her mattress -- one side is covered with merchandise and pillows, electrical cords, and shoe-boxed photos; the other side is worn to the stuffing, flattened at the spot she sat on getting in and out of bed, and badly stained. When he first arrived at the trailer, Samson discovered a little path that the woman had worn from her bedroom through the living room and kitchen to the workable toilet. He recalls that the bathroom sink -- like the one in the kitchen -- was heaped high with stuff; presumably the sinks, also, were unused, perhaps unusable.