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July 25, 2007
Barb needed help. In fact, she had asked our friends, her next door neighbors, to help her clean up her house a bit. She was having trouble with her finances and wanted to sell off some valuable items in her house, but first needed to tidy up a bit. I decided to pitch in. Our friends regarded Barb as more of a charity case than a friend. They did not truly enjoy her company but they did want to help her the best they could. They wanted to be good neighbors and, as recent professed converts to Christianity, good Christians. Barb looked perfectly normal. She took good care of herself, wore nice clothes and didn’t at all stand out from the crowd. Apparently a psychologist earlier in life, she now holed up in her house, only rarely leaving the property. With no car, no bus routes and few friends, she had little reason or ability to leave. No one knew how she made money, but the fact that she had been divorced a couple of times probably offered the best clue. Before we set out my friends mentioned that Barb had a clear addiction to catalog shopping and that her spending habits had gotten out of control. I wasn’t prepared for what that meant.
After my friend’s wife drove Barb to the store to catch up on some grocery shopping, I walked through the door and had to pause for a few moments just to take in the scene. The house was a two bedroom bungalow, a typical post-war family home. Built on Lakeshore Drive in Oakville, it was on one of the most desirous properties in Canada’s wealthiest city. Already many of the neighborhood’s houses had been purchased and promptly flattened to make way for newer, bigger, more exclusive homes. Barb had held on to her property, perhaps waiting, as had many of the neighbors, for just the right offer. Our good friends lived next door to Barb, in a rented home that was also just waiting to be flattened. It was a nice enough house but we all knew it wouldn’t last long simply because it was too old, too small.
Barb’s house was an absolute disaster. Where the properties in that area were all well-groomed and showed that the owners took pride in ownership, Barb’s place was different. The house was just barely visible from the road, surrounded by uncut trees and untrimmed bushes. A strange odour came from the place and on a warm day when the wind blew north to south, the neighbors would complain that it made their yards smell too. A rickety fence ran along one side of the property where it joined with a brand new section and a locked gate. Cut into the gate was a hole and a note telling delivery services to simply push their packages through the hole. They were not welcome on the property. An old, old dog patrolled inside. Perhaps he was supposed to look angry and vicious, but in reality he was too old and friendly to make anyone afraid. The house showed signs of neglect. Windows were unwashed, walls were unpainted, gutters were rusty and cracked. As I walked through the front door I noticed that it did not fit properly on the hinges and that it did not open or close all the way.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I paused in amazement. The house was packed, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, with stuff—stuff of all shapes and sizes. I could see only small glimpses of the floor, here and there. Even the portions of the carpet and hardwood that were visible were covered in the excrement of thousands of rodents. Immediately inside the front door was a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes. As I pushed beyond that into what must have been the living room I saw that it was filled with an assortment of things—an unassembled bedframe, still wrapped in its original cardboard and plastic; stacks upon stacks of shoe boxes, each of which held a pair of shoes or boots, apparently unworn; clothing boxes, many of which contained clothes, most of which were good brands, but all of which were unworn; statues and furniture, books and sealed boxes. Two narrow paths led from the front door and through the piles into the house. One pushed straight ahead towards the bedrooms while the other veered to the left where there was once the dining room. Barb slept in the dining room, on an old, beat-up, mouse-chewed leather couch surrounded on all sides by great piles of junk. The path led to the couch where she had to climb over the arm in order to get to it. Not a single piece of that floor was visible. Beside her bed/couch was a Rubbermaid container with several drawers, each of which contained an assortment of Hermes scarves. Each of these scarves, we later learned, had been bought for several hundred dollars and Barb had assembled them as a kind of savings account, convinced that each one was going to increase in value. She considered them an investment. Little wonder that she slept right beside them and always checked on them as soon as she came into the house.
We found our way to the bedrooms and noticed that one was so completely filled with junk that we could not even make it through the door. Boxes and clothes and other trash stretched from the doorframe all the way to the window beyond. A new mattress and box spring was piled hopefully in a corner and an umbrella hand from the ceiling. The other bedroom held a giant bird cage, the kind suitable for a parrot, and while there was no sign of the bird, the floor was littered with birdseed and bird droppings. It stank. A closet in that room was stuffed full of hats and winter clothing, most of which looked unworn. Many of the clothes had been chewed on by mice and rats and were completely destroyed. Though I did not step into the bathroom, I could clearly see a hole through the wall and could glimpse the yard beyond. We moved on to the kitchen and saw that Barb did not have a fridge and that she had obviously not used her stove for a very long time. A cooler on the counter contained rotting food that was the remnants of fresh chicken by the looks of it. The only food in the house appeared to be diet food, primarily milkshakes, and the remnants of fast food that had been delivered. Through the kitchen was a small landing where there were several bird cages filled with noisy, screaming birds. Bags of garbage spilled down the stairs and we had to walk outside and around to the back door to make our way into the basement. There was standing water on the floor down there and the whole basement, at least as far as I could see, was filled with clothes, empty bird cages and cardboard boxes. Needless to say, it smelled damp and disgusting. Barb had no working laundry facilities, choosing instead to wear her clothes until they were soiled, then stuff them in garbage bags and buy new ones.
My friend and I, having made our way around and having formed a plan of attack, began our work with gusto. With masks over our faces and a giant box of garbage bags, we began to separate the junk from the items that had value. We quickly filled bag after bag. What was good and had some value we organized carefully, placing the items in boxes, bins or bags. We worked for several hours, toiling in the dusty, dirty, vermin-infested house.
And then Barb got home. She was angry; really angry. As soon as she saw her stuff, her precious stuff, she began to babble and to mutter about how we weren’t being careful enough. After running inside to count her Hermes scarves to ensure that we hadn’t stolen any of them (she washed her hands before touching them), she began sorting through the garbage bags, looking to make sure we hadn’t thrown away anything of value. She also rummaged through the boxes of clothes we had marked as “sell,” remarking that she simply couldn’t get rid of those things, even though they were far too small for her. Barb was quite a big woman but wanted to lose weight. To motivate her weight loss program she had purchased an entire designer wardrobe in her desired size. I realize now that she probably learned the idea from Oprah or some other positive thinker. A long time had elapsed since she had purchased her size six wardrobe and, though she had made no progress, she just knew that she would before long. Eventually she agreed to allow us to sell a very few pairs of shoes and boots on her behalf (though upon later inspection we found that several of these, even though never worn, had been chewed upon by mice and were, thus, valueless).
At the end of the day we were tired and dirty but felt that we had done something to help Barb’s plight. The house was still a disgusting disaster, but we had brought some order to the chaos, at least in one of the rooms, and felt that the house was just a bit more livable than when we had arrived. I guess Barb disagreed because she never allowed us to return. In fact, she thanked our friends by beginning to throw trash over her fence and into their yard. One time she came over a brought them a gift of some rotten chicken. We eventually sold the items she had allowed us to sell and brought her the money. She was livid and threatened to call the police, saying we had ripped her off. She was insistent that the clothes were worth more now than when she had purchased them—that clothes appreciated in value. She decided she was going to hold on to the rest of her things. Perhaps her money problems had eased by then.
I don’t know what happened to Barb. A year later, or so, her house went on the market and quickly sold. We knew that a developer must have bought the property only for the land as the house was far beyond saving. But Barb reneged on the deal. A few months later it was on the market again and, as far as I know, she must have moved. Our friends moved a year or two ago after a developer bought all of the surrounding properties, planning to build a series of retirement condos. Barb must have left shortly after they did. I have not been back to the neighborhood since then but I do think that Barb has gone. I’ve often wondered how she moved. Did she take all of her stuff with her? Or did she leave it all behind? What did she do with all of the money (since I’m sure her property must have fetched at least half a million dollars)? Did moving from her house help her break free of what was clearly a serious addiction and a serious mental problem? Or is she, even right now, sleeping on a couch with her Hermes scarves and other treasures piled all around her? Somehow I’m inclined to think she is.