I’ll start with a hot summer night in June 2001. I am eight months pregnant.

For starters.

It’s eleven-thirty on a Saturday night and the hot, damp Portland air is pressing against my bloated skin, greasy hair and–yes, my friends–maternity overall-shorts. I promise they were cute at the time. Kind of.

I am on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor of an apartment who’s now-missing tenants have fled in the night. They informed us they were moving, but apparently didn’t understand me when I told them I we had to walk through the place with a checklist to make sure everything was in order before they left. They just left. And though they didn’t leave a forwarding address, they did leave their apartment covered with knee-high piles of trash and a terrific odor of rotten milk and fresh placenta. (Sorry for the graphic image, but all you mothers [and milk drinkers] know what I mean.) It was horrible.  I wore a mask over my bloated face to not only protect the fetus from harsh cleaning chemicals but to protect my own olfactory virtue from the pornographic vapors which  now assaulted it. It would have taken at least ten Hail Marys to exorcise those wicked fumes from my nasal passages.

And we need to talk about those “knee-high piles of  trash.”  Right now you’re thinking: okay, so there were some potato chip bags and crumbs on the floor, maybe some old newspapers. Icky, but standard for this kind of tenant.

No. That is not what I mean when I say “knee-high piles of trash.” What I mean is that my husband walked into the apartment and was instantly wading in a wall-to-wall ocean of spilled Cheez Whiz jars, dirty underwear and used q-tips. By the time I came in for reinforcements he’d bagged much of the debris but had left several mysteriously large, rectangular plastic bins filled with liquid of some sort sitting in pools of more such liquid in the kitchen. This liquid was pale yellow with dark yellow flecks floating on top. I looked at the floaties. I smelled the placenta.  Who were these people?

Fast-forward three hateful days of cleaning, which brings me to my hands and knees and the crux of the story. I had finally reached the final phase of Operation Nasty, which was scrubbing down the kitchen floor. I had to do it on my (well-gloved) hands and knees because the linoleum was too crusty to be sanitized with a mere mop. It actually felt good to kneel down and let gravity pull that huge belly away from my tailbone for a change. This luxurious feeling, of both belly-weightlessness and almost-finished-nastiness, should have made me happy, but it didn’t. A singular thought kept sprinting across my mind as I scrubbed back and forth, back and forth, getting angrier with each swipe of the Brillo pad (for that is what this floor required.) What was this thought that scoured my brain with the same vengeance that I scoured the floor? It’s a thought that I know many of you mothers have had while scrubbing floors of your own:

Why did I ever go to college?

Why? Why? Why?

No canned answer came to my mind, despite the thousands of them I’d used to comfort myself since quitting “work” in order to–what was it I was doing now? No quote from the Ensign, no Anne Geddes image, not even a measly Erma Bombeck anecdote popped up into my brain to ease my troubled heart. I just stayed mad and kept scrubbing, the yellowed floor soon revealing a surface as blank and white as the once-colorful pages of my mind now felt.

I neared the last quadrant of the linoleum which placed my large self directly in front of the screened back door, opened to let some night air into the stifling apartment. A single kitchen bulb was lit overhead, illuminating the homely (that’s with an L) scene for any midnight passersby. Just as I was wringing out the last rag over the last bucket, I heard two young men walking through the courtyard in cheerful conversation. Probably headed for a fun night out, I thought glumly, hating myself for no longer being eighteen. As they grew closer their voices came into focus, and I overheard with crystal clarity the one sentence that my best professors had never prepared me for in all my years of study:

“Oh, look,” said one guy to the other, pointing my way. “The cleaning lady’s still up.”

I did not look up.  I hung my head and just kept scrubbing, perversely grateful to have at least been referred to as a lady.

That was a new low.

10 thoughts on “SLUM LORD: Day One

  1. Ewwwww.  Did they trash it on purpose?  Who would actually live like that? I’ll give it a second thought before I ever agree to manage a building.  The worst part is that you have more stories coming. *bracing myself*

  2. Oh, Jen.  I can’t even laugh at this story.  I should be able to, but I can’t.  It just sounds too familiar, and I’ve never even managed apartments.  But I have been in on the “cleanup crew ” of a few situations kind of similar.  Um, actually, not that bad.  Did you get any photos?

  3. you’re kind of freaking me out due to the fact that we’re about to embark on being landlords for the next like 30 years.

  4. what brought that horrible memory back?  hope it goes away and you never have to remember that again!

  5. OMGosh! I have been there (minus the placenta, thank the Lord)! Thought those same thoughts! Oh- if they could all see the homecoming queen now!?! Actually had an HS underclassman smugly grin as I frantically tried to stop her overflowing crap filled toilet- pregnant as well!
    The piles of trash reminded me of one such incident. Our next door neighbor was a recluse who had been living there for longer than we had. He seemed a  pleasant enough fellow, but very secretive (I started to wonder if he worked for the CIA- but would have to be waaay undercover to be living in such a slum). Well, one day our bathroom was flooded.  I threw every towel we owned on the floor and scolded my 4yo. for flushing the toilet too much when I realized it was coming from the wall. I ran next door and started pounding on the door- no answer.  I ran and grabbed our master keys and -guess what?… the guy had the locks changed!  Not very nice words started to spill  from my mouth as I tried to open the front window.  No luck- I grabbed the  hammer and broke the window.  Keep in mind that my 4yo. and 2yo. are now completely unattended doing who knows what.
    Well, I found out why all the drapes were always closed. Ever seen the show “Buried Alive: Hoarders” on TLC?  I’m not exaggerating- I had never seen anything like it. Books, newspapers piled TO THE CEILING! Boxes of who knows what?, piles of clothes, bags of recycling piled everywhere (and a CAT!). I had to knock down a stack of papers just to get in the window. I figured it must be the kitchen so I climbed my way toward it, got under the sink and turned off the valves (broken hose). I climbed back out and called one of those emergency flooding (catastrophe) companies to come down. His reaction upon reaching the scene, “HOLY S#*T Ma’am! I don’t even know what to do here…I’m going to have to call in ANOTHER COMPANY to help with this…this is CRAZY!”
    Thankfully, we only had to repaint once everything was hauled away in a dumpster and replaced, but we had to moved everything out of two of our rooms so that our carpet could be pulled up and dried out. This was my “Why did I go to college!?! Why did I choose to become a TEACHER (working half-time/job share then) that can’t even afford a house payment!?! Heck, we probably qualify for welfare, but I’m the one cleaning up after all these lazy welfare recipients!!!” low of lows…you were so not alone, just 500 miles away 😉
    This was also when I made an executive decision and informed my husband that there was no way in he!! I was going to let him become a teacher and put us into a two-income bracket family…harsh? Yes…worth it? YES!

  6. Oh man I have heard some horror stories from friends who manage apartments but nothing like this! I can’t help but wonder what was the strange yellow liquid that smelled of placenta,did you ever find out? Also, even though they didn’t leave a forwarding address can’t you still report them to the police or something? I just can’t imagine trashing a place and getting away with it. (Not that I would do such a thing because I am a clean freak and I dont’ produce yellow placenta scented liquid that I like to leave lying around).

  7. Jen –
    I am so sorry years later.  You will given sainthood in the near future!  Loved the story especially the part where my brother does any cleaning – he should do more!!!

  8. I am shaking silently with tears running down my cheeks.  For a Christensen that’s laughing hard.  Really, really hard.

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