Monday, February 25, 2008

Taking Out the Trash

In 1989, after my Dad was diagnosed with cancer, but before the surgery that he died of, I went to my parents’ home in South Georgia, in the house that they’d built on land from my Grandma’s farm. Grandma had been dividing it up and giving it to her children before she died, and as it was divvied up, one of my Aunts was managing to somehow come into possession of most of it, but my Mom managed to get just under three acres, almost her full inheritance. When she and Dad had built the house in the early 80s, the only family members around were my Grandma and my Aunt Hester (not the acquisitive one), but by the time Dad died, they’d been more or less surrounded, first by one uncle who built a house, then by house trailers of two more aunts, then another uncle.

Since my Mom didn’t get along real well with most of her family, when Dad died she sold the house and moved away, first to a small town in Tennessee, then later to Ohio, to be near my sister and her family. But that’s a tangent, and not what this essay is about.

Another tangent would be the fact that I could take the time to spend several months with my Mom and ailing Dad because, after my bout with the disease that we won’t call chronic fatigue syndrome, I’d set up my professional career around a series of research and consulting contracts that mostly did not require my on-site presence. In fact, most of what I was working on at the time was analysis of smog chamber data from the University of North Carolina, so I was actually closer to the main project when in Georgia than when in California. In any event, my physical presence was rarely required, so I could travel or not, whichever I desired, so long as I had a portable computer and email, etc. I took full advantage of this setup when I went-a-courtin’ Amy in New York some time later.

But the crux of what I’m getting to is that, during the few months I was there, I helped my folks evict some people from a house we owned.

The actual circumstances were a little complicated. Theoretically, the people in question, whom I shall call the Jukes, because it’s easier to spell than Kallikaks, owned the house, and we were foreclosing on a mortgage that my Dad had held. He certainly didn’t ask my advice about personally holding the note; I’d have told him to sell it the regular way and put the money into a mutual stock or bond fund. But Dad wasn’t thinking straight for the last couple of years of his life, owing to the massive amounts of serotonin that his carcinoid tumor syndrome was pumping into him, and he was trying to provide an income for my Mom after he was gone. And I’m pretty sure he knew that something wasn’t right, and he was feeling mortal. So he’d bought this old house, fixed it up nice, and sold it, with the idea that it would provide an income stream. This isn’t a totally stupid idea, and the Jukes looked like a good bet, at least on paper, family of four, father with a decent job with the county, etc.

The first time I ever met them, I knew they were trouble. But the deal had already been done, and that was before Dad was diagnosed, and who knew? Besides, dealing with people in real estate is always a crap shoot. I’d bought a house down there earlier, with the idea of my folks practicing their “property management skills” on it. Over the six or seven years I owned it, we had four tenants, two pretty much okay, one who did so much fixing up that I could raise the rent after they moved out (I was damn well not going to raise the rent while they were there; they were a landlord’s dream come true), and one that so trashed the place that I had to drop the rent back down again. I made some profit when I finally sold it, but not much, because real estate in South Georgia isn’t the money machine that exists in California or the Northeast.

But back to the Jukes. Papa Jukes had lost his job, and they were up to their eyeballs in credit card debt, so mortgage payments had stopped several months before I got there. So I drove my folks to and from the lawyer’s office, and to and from the courthouse, and did my little testifying when I had to, and “repurchased” the house in the foreclosure proceedings, because there was no way that anyone was going to pay what we were owed after the Jukes had been in the place. The “repurchasing” consisted of trading the debt that we were owed for the house; in other words, no money changed hands because we were just repossessing, but theoretically someone could have outbid us for it (yeah, right).

Then I went over and began to assess the damage and try to clean it up.

They’d used an old discarded toilet as “lawn sculpture” in the front yard, a little poke in the eye to their neighbors, not that I really cared that much about the finer sensibilities of the neighbors. But the pile of old, wet carpet out in the back didn’t sit well with me, because I remembered the work my folks had spent installing it in the first place. They’d also pretty much demolished the tool shed, and installed a dog pen that still reeked of dog and dog waste.

Once I got inside, I found that they’d replaced the wall to wall carpeting with “vinyl carpeting,” the stuff you usually find in kitchens and bathrooms. It was in the kitchen and bathroom, sure enough, but it was also in the living room, halls, and a couple of bedrooms.

Apparently, because it was called “vinyl carpeting,” they’d installed it with carpet tacks. This made the bathroom really interesting, because the water spilled in the floor had seeped through the tack holes to get under the carpeting, thereby rotting out the floor. After I removed the vinyl, I went over the bathroom floor, pounding it with a broom handle to test for rot. When I was done, there were maybe two boards left; the rest was just joists and air, and some of the joists were half rotted through.

Then I went out and pulled up the rest of the floor covering. I’d noticed that the damp carpet out back was stained, and reeked of dog crap and urine. I figured that they’d removed it and replaced it with the vinyl because the vinyl was easier to clean.

What I didn’t figure on was that they hadn’t bothered to clean the wooden floors underneath before they put down the new vinyl. Yes, you have that right. When I removed the floor covering there was dried dog urine and feces underneath.

I spent the next two days basically mopping floors, repeatedly. First I’d use bleach, then regular detergent, then ammonia, then more detergent, etc. (You'll notice that I never used bleach and ammonia back-to-back, as that is dangerous). I really don’t remember how many cycles it took before the stench subsided. I don’t even want to try to remember.

I told very little of this to my Dad, and I made sure he never went over to look at the place. He was due for surgery in a few weeks and he didn’t need to be bothered with that crap.

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