Every morning when I walk Stella, we pass a house on a corner that looks like a hoarder house.  You can see stuff stacked up in the windowsills, pressing against the glass, and there are large tarps all over the back porch covering more piles of stuff.  The car parked out in front of the house is filled with junk as well.  According to other neighbors, a woman lives there alone, but I’ve never actually seen her.

The yard however, is well maintained.  The porch may be covered in crap, but she pays someone to take good care of the lawn and shrubbery.  So it did occur to me that maybe she just had some back porch clutter, and what could be seen in the windows was not indicative of the whole house, and maybe I was jumping to conclusions.

However, last night, our neighborhood was full of fire trucks due to a fire that started in her house, apparently while she was gone.  It blew out the windows in the upper stories and shot flames up into the night sky.  The news headline about the fire read, “Clutter Hampering Portland Firefighters at North Portland House Fire”.  She had a cat that they could not get to and it died in the fire.

A house cluttered to a degree that makes it unsafe for firefighters to go in and do their job is probably accurately described as a hoarder house.  And from obsessive watching of the show Hoarders, I can only imagine there were a lot of emotional/mental factors that led the home owner to this point.  As we walked past the house this morning, I felt sad for her, the loss of her cat, and what will happen to her now. Was this house her only option?  Would she repair it, move back in, and work on her clutter?  Or would she keep doing the same thing, either here or in a new house or even a relative’s house?  Did she feel responsible for what happened, or just unlucky?  Of the things she lost in the fire, what did she miss?

When I was in college, I had a really bizarre summer job through a temp agency doing fire restoration.  A crew of us would go into a house where there had been a fire, and we would take everything out of a smoke damaged area, clean the space and all the objects, and then put everything back exactly as it was, smelling sweetly of this orange blossom scented water we would spray on it.  Sometimes instead of going to a burned house we would stay at the factory and clean boxes and boxes of people’s possessions that had been through a fire.  Once cleaned, we would put them into new cardboard boxes, spritz the boxes with the orange water, and send them back.  One of the guys who worked there, I think his name was Louis, had worked there forever and said that the idea with the cleaning and the orange spray was to erase the sense-memory of the fire for the family.  We used heavy duty chemicals that would strip even crusted soot off of stuff, and Louis taught me how to wash everything from toys to umbrellas to paper.

Louis had great stories from his years in the job, a lot of them involving hoarded houses.  He was one of the people who would go into the houses to pack up the boxes of stuff and bring them back to the factory, and he loved to piece together the backstories of the families by looking through their possessions.  Like an archeologist on a dig, he would triumphantly hold up a marriage certificate he was carefully washing and proclaim, “Aha!  They’ve actually been married TWICE – to each other!  See the date on this one?  It’s earlier than the first one I cleaned.  Looks like they split up for a little while, then got back together.  They’re real huggy and lovey with each other right now, but that’s typical after a fire.  Huh.  Wonder how long this second one will last.”  He also told stories of houses with shimmering walls of cockroaches, or  houses where the stuff was stacked chest high with narrow walking trails and the kids would squirrel away food in little hidey-holes all over the house.  Louis was one of the most fascinating people I’d ever met, and even if he did spend a lot of time trying to get me to go square dancing with him, listening to him really made the time fly.

The fire in our neighborhood has made me think though, what story would my stuff tell if it was packed up in boxes and examined by a stranger?  Would it accurately represent me?  Would I be embarrassed by the things they found?  It’s an interesting thing to think about.  And a little sobering/cringy/alarming.


I think I might do a little clutter clearing tonight.

House on Fire

(Photo credit: dvs)