About a year ago, I found myself unemployed again. I’d had a string of counseling assignments, intertwined with periods of joblessness. I had even been an employment counselor, so supposedly I knew the ins and outs of becoming re-employed. But how many people — especially counselors — actually follow their own advice?
At first I tried. I networked and sent out cover letters, résumés, and résumé packets. And after an interview I would follow up with a good ass-kissing letter. No luck.
I finally went to work for my brother in his landscaping business. By the second day, reality rendered me motionless. I was pathetically out of shape. I had gone from an office job to a labor-intensive one. There had to be a better way.
I have always been fairly good with my hands and somewhat mechanically inclined, so I started getting a few odd jobs from some of my brother’s customers. Then it occurred to me to advertise myself as a general handyman. I borrowed some money and put an ad in the paper. My first call was from a very nice family who wanted an entire room addition.“Yeah, right,” I thought.“I have no tools, no truck, and I have no idea where to start.”
But not long after, I got a call from a man named William from La Jolla. He wanted me to rehang some miniblinds. He sounded breathless and excited and asked me if I’d had any experience with aquariums and tropical fish. I said, “Sure, I had several aquariums when I was a kid. But what does that have to do with mini — ” He cut me off, gave me his address, and asked me to come over immediately.
I drove over there thinking “fish and miniblinds — what the heck do they have in common? Maybe the fish are spawning and he wants me to install the blinds on the side of the aquarium. But why was he so excited?”
I arrived at a townhouse colony in the La Jolla Village area, and after driving around for ten minutes debating whether or not to park on the lawn or in someone’s numbered spot, I chose the latter and climbed the steps to this guy’s place.
The front door was open a crack, but I still knocked. No answer. So I banged on the door. No answer. I checked the address again and stepped into the foyer. The eight-by-ten floor was covered with a single slab of off-white Italian marble. Very expensive. The heavy smell of old leather — very old — and old books flared my nostrils. There was an old leather arrow quiver being used as a walking-stick stand and an ancient leather shield mounted on the wall above it.
When I turned around, the guy was standing right behind me, looking at me intently, as if he were sizing me up. This was quite unnerving. He looked to be in his 40s but was probably older. He was about average height, with a medium build and a thick crop of gray hair. He had a steady gaze, unblinking and powerful. He was dressed in suit pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his elbows. He was wet but didn’t smell of sweat. He curtly apologized for not coming to the door, invited me in, and asked me to follow him. This was not the out-of-breath man that I’d pictured on the phone.
The living room had a cathedral ceiling perhaps 30 feet high, and one wall was completely lined with built-in shelves filled with old books. In fact the whole place was decorated with artifacts and books. Most of the artifacts were medieval weapons: battle axes, lances, crossbows, swords, and other implements of death and torture that didn’t recognize. William said he was an antique dealer and book collector.
He hurriedly directed me through the living room to a staircase made of the same white marble as the foyer. He fairly leaped up the stairs, while I followed him to an office in a loft overlooking the living room. In one corner was a huge aquarium, half full of water. Under it was a smaller feeder tank. On the floor, encircling them, William had placed rolled-up towels to form a dike. A five-gallon bucket and several sponges sat next to this small lake.
“Looks like the aquarium has a good-sized leak,” I said.
“Not quite; look closer.” Behind the aquarium was a small open window. The window covering had been pulled completely out of the wall and was nowhere to be found. The aquarium water was murky, as if there had been a serious disturbance inside the tank.
In the dim light from the window, I could make out a very large fishlike creature swimming in the tank. I turned to William and said, “Someone tried to break in through this window, they fell into this aquarium and drowned, and I just missed the coroner as they took the body away, right?”
He said,“Don’t embarrass yourself with stupid guesses — all the evidence is there. First, do you know what is in the tank?” I cautiously moved closer. All I could see was a large, dark object silently swimming about. “Some kind of fish.” The fish snapped its tail as it swam by and got me wet. “Some kind of huge fish.” I looked over the top. It was at least 25 inches long, with thumb- nail-size scales, mostly gray-green in color. It had inch- long blue whiskers and a long fin that ran from its belly to its midback. It looked at me with nickel-sized eyes.
The fish was an arawana, but I’d never seen one this big. In captivity they’re usually about 18 inches long — but they can be over three feet in the wild. Arawanas are freshwater, surface-feeding fish from northeastern South America and the Amazon basin.
Suddenly the arawana opened its huge trap-door mouth and reared up out of the water. I leaped back as casually as I could. The fish sounded, when it came down, kind of like a whale. A gallon of water must have washed over the side.“That,” William said, “is one of the problems I want you to solve.”
“Like I said over the phone, I’ve had some experience with fish, but I don’t know if behavior modification works on them.”
William moved into the lake next to the tank. “There, there, Attila, he is only here to help. Calm down now.” Attila swam toward him. He stuck his hand into the water and began to stroke the fish across the belly.“He is really very tame, but he has this problem of liking to jump out of the water.”
As I looked closer, I noticed the cord from a set of miniblinds was hanging over the back of the tank. I grabbed the cord and pulled on it. One end of the miniblinds came out of the water. The soft plastic had definite signs of having been chewed on.
“You mean to tell me that this — Attila pulled the blinds off the wall?”
William shrugged and said, “Please remove the blinds from the tank while I keep him busy.” I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.
“Attila was after the end of the cord from the minib- linds. It was probably swaying in a breeze from the open window, moving very much like an insect.”
“What is it, exactly, that you want me to do? Retrain Attila to stay in the tank?”
“No, no. Besides rein- stalling the blinds and helping me clean up this mess, I want you to fabricate an Attila-proof hood.” We started to clean up with the sponges.
“The man I got Attila from said that he used to keep a feeder tank right next to this tank and that one day he came home to find the big guy occupying most of the feeder tank by himself. You see,” William said with pride,“he jumped from the big tank into the feeder tank and had a feast. He could see his food swimming around, and after smashing his head into the glass enough times, he figured out how to get what he wanted.
“The jumping gradually became a regular thing, and he was doing it several times a week when I got him. When he told me that, I just had to have this fish. But of course, at the time, I didn’t realize the problems that would arise, too. I was just so wrapped up in having this unique fish with its strange behavior that I didn’t prepare for them.
“At first I put the feeder tank in the right spot for him to jump into it. The problem was, he would only jump when I was not around. The splashing ruined the floor.”
“So you moved the feeder tank out of his sight hoping to stop the jumping.”
“Right, but who could’ve guessed about the blinds?”
We had just about finished wiping up the water and filling the bucket a fifth time when I asked, “How did you manage to acquire such a valuable pet?”
“I was up in San Francisco on business with my best supplier from South America. He knew that I had an odd set of body armor in my collection — a set that he wanted but knew that I wouldn’t sell. This set was reportedly worn by Attila the Hun on one of his rampages through the ancient Roman Empire. Did you know that he was an achondroplastic dwarf? Short arms and legs, a normal torso and a large head. Well, the armor consisted of a massive breastplate and two short, thick tubes that were worn to protect the upper arms. He must have looked very strange indeed, being almost as thick as he was tall.”
“And your friend wanted the set?”
“It’s more like he became obsessed with owning it. Each time we met for business for almost an entire year, all he could talk about was that armor and how much he was willing to pay. Then the last time I was there, he had this fish. He said that he got it from an old robber baron in Brazil as a gift. He brought it all the way back on his private yacht. So I traded him the armor for the fish and named it Attila, plus I got exclusive importation rights for sev- eral things to be brought in in the future.”
I went back a week later to install the splash guard; William was too busy to talk much, but he did let me feed Attila a dozen or so little goldfish.
Not long after that experience, I got a call from a lady (I’ll call her Mrs. Smith) who said she had some “things” for me to do. But she didn’t say what they were. She would only say that “things had got a little out of hand” and she needed help with some minor repairs, cleaning and the like. She absolutely refused to elaborate; she’d show me when I got there, she said.
We agreed to meet Tuesday morning at 11:00. Her address was in the Soledad Mountain area of La Jolla. Mrs. Smith lived in one of the ’60s tract houses built on steps carved into the side of the mountain. At first glance, the house seemed fairly well kept, with a new shake roof and new exterior paint. The yard was well tended, with mostly drought-resistant juniper, jade, and slightly shaded by large pines. The care of the outside of a house is usually a good measure of the inside. But as I walked up to the front doors I noticed that the curtains were weather-stained and drawn tightly on the front windows. In the farthest window, they were even pressed flat against the pane, giving a strange kind of bulging sign that all was not well inside.
I rang the bell next to the windowless set of double doors and listened. Nothing. I knocked and waited. The tarnished brass mail slot on the right double door squeaked open. “Who’s there?” purred out.
“It’s James, Mrs. Smith. I’m here for our appointment.” I stuck one of my cards through the slot.
“Oh, heavens, I’m not ready yet. Could you so kindly come back at one this afternoon?”
“No, ma’am. This is the time we both agreed on.”
“Well, I’m just not ready yet, and that’s final.”
“You’ll just have to come back another time.”
By now I sensed that I was probably not the first person denied entrance into this house and that she would probably never be ready. I started to turn and walk away; she was still talking to me through the mail slot. But then I thought, why not use some psychology on her? Besides, even if I don’t get to do the work, it might be worth it just to see the condition of the inside of her house that could cause her to talk through her mail slot and to keep me, and probably everyone else, out.
“Ma’am, I’ll bet that I’m not the first one to stand here and be denied entrance, am I?”
“Yes, today you are.” Tricky.
“Other people have stood on this porch and have been denied inside too. Right?”
“Maybe.” An admission.
“Why won’t you let anyone into your house?”
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve cleaned.” It’s got to be more than dirt.
“Can it really be that bad?”
“It’s pretty bad.”
“Nah, it couldn’t be that bad — but I do know that the longer you wait, the worse your problem will get.” Whatever that is. “I’m here now to help you get the job done. Now will you please open the door so we can get started?”
“I’m not ready yet.”
“Just think how good you will feel when the job is done. Just think how much will be lifted off your mind — how much less worrying you will have to do.”
“You just don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.”
“Do you mind?” said the mailman, suddenly, from behind me. He stuffed the mail into the slot and stepped back off the porch, out of her hearing range, and motioned for me to come over to him.
“The last man I called was just so rude to me,” Mrs. Smith continued, “after I tried to change — are you still there?”
“Yes, ma’am. You wanted to change the meeting time.”
Yes, I couldn’t believe how rude...”
“Fifteen years on this route, and she never once opened that door for me,” said the mailman.“Talks to me the same way — through the slot. Even have to pass the signing board through that damn slot. The Mail-Slot Lady we call her down at the office. I wouldn’t waste your time.”
My determination was only increased.
“You’re not a rude man, are you?” Mrs. Smith asked.
“Not usually,” I replied.
“What’s that? Could you speak up?”
“I said no, not to you, ma’am.”
“Good. That mailman is. What did he say to you?”
“Oh, nothing important. I think he’s tired of his job.”
“I’ve often thought so too. Okay, I’m going to open the door now.” Unbelievable.
The door creaked open and stopped with a clink. A security chain. I should have known. “Mrs. Smith, what about the chain?”
“Let me see you. Have you got a card or some kind of identification?”
“Ma’am, I’m sure I gave you one already.”
“Really?” I got out another one anyway and stuck it through the crack. After a moment the door shut and then opened far enough for me to squeeze sideways into the house. I tried to push the door farther — no luck — something was in the way. The light was dim, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust.
“Please don’t call me ‘ma’am’ again, I’m not from the South.”
I turned to shut the door, and she asked me to lock it. I could see the corner of my business card sticking out from under the pile of mail that was just delivered. The mail was on top of a stack of boxes that formed a table under the mail slot. This was the lowest of the stacks of boxes that formed a floor-to-ceiling wall on one side of the room. The other side was just as bad — piled with boxes that covered what later turned out to be a nicely crafted built-in teak cabinet.
“This room is not the problem,” she said. Thank goodness, I thought.“Please don’t lean on anything, or touch anything. Despite what you see, we know where everything is. Our stacks are perfectly balanced. But if something should fall off one of our stacks as you walk by, please put it back exactly where it came from.”
The stacks were more like five- or six-foot walls that snaked on and on, from one room right into another. So far, they were generally composed of piles of mail on top of bags of books carefully arranged on top of boxes of who knows what. As I entered the kitchen, my sleeve snagged the corner of an envelope. I caught it before it hit the floor. A Christmas card postmarked 12-22-82. Unopened. I put it back where it came from. She saw me. “Thank you. I can see you respect things the way they are. I expect you to do that every time you knock something down. If you are uncertain about a location, then please let me know. I will place it in the appropriate location staging box.” I later found out that she had these all over the house. They were mostly the cut tray tops from liquor boxes.
“Follow me into the kitchen.” In the kitchen, some light came through an unblocked window. “I would first like to start in here,” she said.“I would like to be able to cook in here again. I used to cook all the food for a party of 30 people, you know. And with very little help too. Fancy food for important people — respected politicians, Hollywood producers, local scientists. I liked to do most of my own catering. We would all have a nice time out back by the pool.
In the light, I could see that she was a slender brunette; her hair was her most striking feature: frizzy and disheveled, it gave her an unsettled look. She could have been anywhere between 50 and 70 years old. “The kitchen, you were saying?”
“Oh yes. It is first on my list. How much would it be for you to sort and remove all of these newspapers? And then to clean the floor, stove, sink, countertops and the refrigerator?”
There was only a narrow path into the kitchen, to the fridge, to one side of the sink, and to the dining room. On either side were four-foot columns of newspapers. The only way I could get the papers out would be to take small bundles under each arm through the narrow winding path to the front door. That alone would take at least a day, assuming I could get a truck big enough to hold them.
“Why don’t you show me everything on your list, then I’ll give you a price.”
“Okay. Next is my bedroom. Follow me carefully, please.” I leaned back against a column to let her squeeze by and then followed her down the dim hallway. One side was lined with large bookcases, nearly hidden behind stacks of books. The other side of the hallway was lined with more boxes. This left a path slightly more than a foot wide, winding down into the darkness.
“There is a light switch here somewhere, I just know it,” she said, irritated.“That’s another thing, I want you to help me find all the hidden outlets and switches around here. I’m tired of groping through the dark. You know, James, it used to be sort of romantic, not being able to turn on all the lights, but now I just can’t see as well anymore.”
“We’ll find them all, Mrs. Smith.”
She stopped, examined a bookcase for a moment, then pulled out several books, stuck her hand into the space, and flicked on the hall light. One dim lightbulb came on, giving sharper patterns to the shadows. “It’s down here at the end of the hall.” I could see two more door- ways, one disguised as a clothes rack.
blouses and skirts — they were all on wire hooks perched precariously on the edge of the molding. It was hell getting them to stay back up there.
Once inside I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her. Clothes hung from every- thing imaginable, including bookshelves and other clothes. There could not possibly be a bed in the room anywhere. I could hear Mrs. Smith on the other side of a six-foot-high wall of clothes hanging off bookshelves stacked on top of several dressers. I found her waist-deep in boxes and still more clothes. She was looking at her closet.
“Well, what do you think? Can you fix it?” She had as many clothes as one could get hanging, again, on the molding that framed the closet entrance, with several more rows of clothes suspended from those hangers. Of course, the weight, combined with time, had warped the molding into a weird smile and had begun to pull the closet from the header.
“You mean the problem with the closet?”
“A few screws in the right places and a new strip of molding will take care of the closet.”
“That’s all? I thought it would take a lot more.”
That day I worked on the closet and started removing the papers from the kitchen. She stayed with me, hovering about as I worked.
“Why don’t you ever throw things away?” I finally asked.
I don’t know. It’s really very simple. I know that all you have to do is to throw the same amount of stuff away as you bring into the house. If you don’t, then you accumulate and accumulate until you have — my house. I think that I read somewhere that it is called the Pack Rat Syndrome.”
“Do you have any theories of your own?”
“Only one. I call it my WWD Syndrome. From my earliest childhood, my every whim, wish, and desire was fulfilled — sometimes several times over. I used to feel guilty about it. But I got over that a long time ago. I think the right side of my brain — you know the side that controls WWD — was overstimulated. Most of the decisions that I made were simple ones — yes, I will do it, or no, I will do something else equally desirable.”
“Don’t be so quick to judge. Look around you and see what it did to me. I can’t make the simplest decision — like when to throw something away — without thinking of something to do with it first. Oh, I’ll use it for a future sculpture or a future this or a future that. I’ve got so many future projects sitting around here that I would have to live to be 150 to complete all of them. That is taking into account that I don’t come up with any new ones in the meantime.”
"What a burden to place on yourself, Mrs. Smith.”
“Not anymore. That’s why you’re here — to help me throw things away.”
“Have you ever thought of collecting intangible things?”
“Well — experiences. You could be the first to collect experiences and make a sculpture out of them.”
“A sculpture? How?”
“I don’t know, I’m just teasing.”
“I think you’re on to something. They would take up a lot less room. They would fulfill my desire to save something. An interesting thought. I will consider it.”
Several months later, a month after we finished with the inside of her house, I got a postcard from Mrs. Smith. She thanked me for my idea about collecting experiences. She was currently in New Zealand collecting different kinds of wool to ship back here to remember what a great time she had.