Monday, September 20, 2010

Things Left Behind

They left behind things. A hodgepodge of things. A helter-skelter of things. Things we wondered about. An unopened ten pound bag of rice. A pruning saw. A little red ceramic pitcher half-filled with pennies.

They left behind a $500 electric bill and a shutoff notice.

They left behind a stack of papers and empty food boxes a good four feet high just carelessly tossed in the small pantry in the kitchen. School papers, old bills, court papers. Photos of the kids.

They left behind two battered tennis rackets, a flat soccer ball, old shoes, broken toys, and three cell phones, one of which blinked a message that the owner needed to deposit more money in order to retrieve any messages.

They left behind empty prescription bottles for meds I know are prescribed for mental health problems and not physical ones.

Dad, mom, and I were cleaning out the things they had left behind when they abruptly vacated the apartment on the heels of an eviction notice for two months unpaid rent. The apartment is one of three in a rundown little rental my brother - the one who recently broke his leg - owns in a down-at-the-heels town about an hour from here.

My mom did not understand why they had left the apartment in such disorder. Her questions peppered the day.

"How could you live like this?"

"Have you ever seen such a mess?"

"How can people live with this kind of filth? I can't imagine, can you?"

After an hour, I ran out of answers. They live like this because…because what?

They live like this because they ran out of options a long time ago.

They live like this because depression, mental illness, and not enough resources will do that to you.

They live like this because these are people who never had a break in their lives.

I filled garbage bag after garbage bag with the papers in the pantry. The eviction notice for an apartment in a town 15 miles that way. The eviction notice for another apartment in another town 14 miles the other way. The court services plans filed by different agencies in different counties for the protection of neglected, dependent children.

My dad and I knelt and ripped up the carpet - stained, dirty, reeking - and carried it to the truck, along with the tennis rackets, the bills, the dirty dishes, and the court services plans. We threw the two different box springs - stained, broken, reeking - on top, cinched the whole thing down, and then drove slowly to the community landfill.

The rental is not a nice one in a good part of town. It is one you would move into if you are just scraping by, or down on your luck, or just fell from "making it each month" to "gotta cut back because my hours got cut." The house is clean and cared for, but it's shabby. My brother, a blue collar guy himself, bought this house with three units in it just before the housing market collapsed in Ohio. He had hoped to work hard at it and make a decent return on his investment, but even before he broke his leg, it was starting to pull him under. His tenants sometimes have to pay the rent in installments, as their unemployment checks come in. Some don't pay at all for as long as they can. With his busted leg, my brother can't get to the house to make the repairs - the broken windows, the new carpet, the scrubbing and cleaning - on this unit, so my parents (and Warren and I when we can) are trying to get it fixed up for him to rent.

The current hard times in this country gnaw at me. I write about them from time to time. The Census Bureau just confirmed what so many of us have known for a long time: the number of poor in this country keeps rising. One in seven adults now lives in poverty. One in five children lives in poverty.

I just cleaned up the detritus of two of those adults and three of those children.

At day's end, I brought home the pruning saw, the rice, and the little red pitcher. The pennies from it went in our loose coins jar. The rice went into canisters.

The little red jug is now sitting on my desk, waiting for better days for us all.


Sharon said...

Perhaps I'm a bit more cinical, but even if you are down on your luck, there is no reason to keep your home, or another person's home is such filth and disarray. Perhaps it is mental illness, but in some cases it is pure laziness. My parents, when they were first married, had n o money, yet they kept my sister (the only child at the time) immaculately clean, and the house well kempt. I think we live in a wasteful society where people don't take care of what they have.

You are a great sister to help out.

April said...

Sharon: I agree with what you say in many situations. I was raised (at least in the early years with two parents who had very little $$ but we always had a clean house, clean clothes, and food on the table. Just because you have little money does not mean you have to live in dirt and trash.

In this case, though, the papers and empty med bottles left behind told a different story. Maybe there was laziness as well, but it was exacerbated by the mental health issues that were clearly going on.

It was a long, hard day that day!

I am the working poor. said...

I once rented a place that was left like that. Since I cleaned up after the previous tenants, I didn't have to pay a deposit. These people actually lifted a corner of the carpet and placed a raw chicken there so it could rot and become covered in maggots. What causes a person to place a raw chicken under a carpet?

Deedee said...

Wow - that was an eye-opener. How sad. I'm so sad for the children in that situation. I'm also sorry for your brother-how nice that you and your parents are willing and able to give him a hand.

It is hard to imagine people living like that, but there are a lot of reasons. Mental illness, as you mentioned. Also drug use and alcoholism. And sometimes people have never known anything else, that was the way they were brought up. Like the poor kids in this situation.

Anonymous said...

Deedee-I don't know in this case, but you are right-drug/alcohol abuse goes with mental illness in so many cases. It complicates things...medications don't work right....and people become dependent on them to self-medicate. I understand this, and it hurts how much I understand it. When a mental illness comes into play, the person can feel like this is the only time they feel "normal" I know that sounds weird or wrong, but it can numb the feelings of desperation and sadness to the point where you can "live" Even though the person is living in a complicated world of abuse. To some, it's the only life they can see-that nothing will ever get better. Thank You, April, for writing about this-you know how deeply this touches me. You are a wonderful woman for helping your brother out-and helping these people out. Others might be inclined to have the place professionally cleaned and bill the old tenants. Thank You.

Ellen Rosentreter said...

April, your empathy is why I continue to enjoy your writing. Thanks for this post, and for being caring enough to help. Your brother is lucky to have you as a sibling.

my town too said...

Many years ago, we had a very leaky roof on our house because of shoddy work done by a roofing contractor who refused to make it right. We had to sue him and while waiting for the court hearing (after many postponments),our ceiling continuously dropped paint chips onto the floors nd the ceilings were rough and ugly. Our attorney told us not to get the roof repaired since it would "distroy the evidence". For nearly two years we lived like that and you know what, I grew so tired of coming home each day to floors covered with flakes of paint that I stopped trying to keep my house clean. I felt that my house was always shabby and that no matter what I did I couldn't make it look crisp anymore so I stopped trying.
Perhaps this is what happens to people who can only afford to live in worn, run down homes - they give up.

April said...

I spent another day there yesterday with dad--scrubbing down walls, patching holes, determining "what's next?" A lot remains yet to be done. It also gave me a closer look at the whole unit--and I stick with what I said earlier: this is a lower cost rental in a lower cost part of a depressed town. My brother works hard at it to keep it in good shape, but it will never be "high end" or even "middle class."

When you are scrubbing walls down for 4 hours, it gives you a lot of time to think. Everyone who commented here hit on some of the threads running through my mind, from mental illness to just being too worn down to care, to what about those kids in that situation and the lessons they will learn (or not learn).

After working all day at the house, I came home and went to our monthly legal clinic (which longtime readers know I volunteer at, helped with intake, and heard short versions of how people get to be at the end of their ropes. All too easy to end up there in today's economy, unfortunately