By A.J. Llewellyn
My author buddy Stephani Hecht and I have become obsessed with the TV show "Hoarders." It is my one guilty pleasure along with "American Idol" that I allow myself each week. I've mostly given up TV to accommodate my deadline crunch so when I do watch, I'm like a happy little kid playing hooky. I can't even tear myself away from the endless TV ads (is it just me or do they go on and bloody on?).
Steph and I always say the show makes us feel normal. It's also nudged me into cleaning up cluttered corners - do I really need those old copies of "Viz" comic?
Last week, my friend Cate decided to watch "Hoarders" on my recommendation and called me to confess that she realizes she suffers from this problem. She said she was ashamed of it and was relieved to find it's an actual sickness and that she's not the only one (according to the show's stats, millions of Americans are hoarders).
I was very surprised to hear this since she is always immaculate in her grooming and the front of her house is a Japanese zen garden.
"Inside," she assured me, "It's a different story. It's a catastrophe."
I wasn't sure how I was supposed to respond.
Cate is an employed TV writer and a woman of means. She immediately found a feng-shui expert who for the whopping charge of $400 arrived at her door and almost (according to Cate) fell over.
The expert said Cate needed to de-junk the house before she could help her with the necessary feng-shui 'remedies'.
Along came the cleaning crew.
And yours truly.
I arrived this morning and found my normally efficient, hilarious friend in hysterical tears over a box of wire coat hangers she simply has to keep.
I knew she collected stuff. We both do.
I collect old typewriters and books and yes, there a few piles of books in my home office but Cate has piles everywhere. I was stunned by what I saw. She has thousands of newspapers piled up from years ago. She's never opened any of them. Many are still in their plastic delivery bags with sample packs of toothpaste, shampoo and cereal boxes attached to them.
I spotted a five-year old LA Times and felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw the "Outdoor" section long dropped from the paper.
"Oh, this is bad feng-shui," the expert kept muttering. She charges a bomb and like some demented Queen Bee, took charge but didn't actually lift a finger to help.
Cate's husband, who moved out last year and lives in the guest house in back of the property told me that he filed for a new home owner's insurance policy several months ago. The insurer insisted on a home inspection. Cate's husband waited until she went on location for her TV show and emptied the entire house, taking photos of every single room first.
He had the house cleaned and it looked fantastic for the inspection.
As soon as it was over and the paperwork signed, he put all the rubbish back.
In spite of his careful replacement, she knew stuff had been moved - but not to what extent.
She won't throw out anything. Cate collects...well...anything.
Teapots, mirrors, picture frames...I am guilty of collecting 50s Hawaiiana that perhaps isn't considered useful or even tasteful but in fact, I use my trays and tiki glasses.
She has a house full of bolts of fabrics, hundreds of boxes of cereal out of date and crowded with weevils. I was sick to my stomach when I saw her cat's sad face. She was sitting on top of a box filled with God knows what.
"I can't throw away any of it," Cate said. She's a hidden hoarder. Her home-owning, bill=paying status means nobody's coming after her to clean the crap up.
Oddly, her work table where she belts out episodic TV is pretty clean - for a writer. She has rings on it from coffee cups, files and folders, notebooks...but it is tidy.
The rest of her life...man oh man...the kitchen almost made me throw up. It is so infested with bugs she's pasted yellow insect paper everywhere, and tiny black bodies are stuck to the many surfaces.
We couldn't figure out where these insects were coming from and threw out the overflowing garbage and still they circled the room.
I was given the task of cleaning the walls, the fridge and the oven.
After two hours, I started to realize the stove is white.
It is currently sitting under layers of oven-cleaning foam and my arms ache.
We cleaned off one section of living room and her carpet is emerald green.
"I tell you what's weird," the feng-shui lady said, bending over to examine it. "It's pretty clean. She has so much crap on top of it, it's stayed pretty clean and green is the color of money, which is why she's been able to make an income."
I rolled my eyes around this woman so much that they were about to tumble out of my head.
Progress is slow and every box Cate packs for storage has to be examined and half-emptied behind her back.
That's the only way we can help her. The show "Hoarders" features legendary battles with its subjects who scrutinize boxes. When we allowed Cate to do so, she held up progress.
I threw out 17 green garbage bags full of half-filled cereal boxes and 10-year old cake mixes. Rancid meat made me retch so badly, her husband took over the fridge cleaning so I could take a break.
So much was going on Cate grew more frantic, but then she realized she was uncovering things she thought had been stolen.
She is finding lost gems and I suspect when I go back and finish my job of the stove, there will be more tears and triumphs.
Unfortunately I suspect too, in six months she'll have accumulated more crap, but for now, I hope the good feng-shui wins over the bad feng-shui.
And I hope her cat has somewhere much more comfy to sleep tonight.