By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The noises coming from Unit #69 are ominous: a few loud bangs, then a sort of dragging sound. The smell, too, is intense--it has floated up from the threshold to sock Dave Emge squarely in the nostrils. To his educated palate the odor appears to be a combination of unwashed body, mouse and cockroach infestation, and unventilated cooking grease.
"Health inspector," Emge barks, knocking at the door.
"I like that!" a voice beyond replies. "I say, I like that!"
"See there?" Emge says. "He already likes me. I think I like him, too."
The door opens to reveal an emaciated black man who looks to be about twenty but is actually twice that. "My testicles been shot off in 'Nam," he explains. "I got hormone troubles."
"Well, shoot," says the fortyish Emge. "You look young enough to be my son. You got roaches here?"
"Yes, and rats are coming out of this hole here and running all over me at night. I got a cold 'cause I done sat up all night pounding my own chest and being scared of these critters."
Emge creeps behind the bed, shining his flashlight into the dark corners of the room. "Here," he tells the man. "Check this out. Mice have no urinary sphincter. So whenever they squeeze themselves out of a place, they'll leave a little trail of piddle. If you shine a black light on it, it's real neat-looking, you see trails all over. And right here, where that black stuff is, you can see where your mice are coming in through the radiator. This is the best they can do for you? A veteran?"
Outside Unit #69 a small group of managers, all wearing rubber gloves, has assembled--ostensibly taking a break from spraying for cockroaches, a job they undertake either every 14 or every 21 days, depending on who's talking. A few disoriented tenants walk behind them, talking to themselves. In the room across the hall sit a very young tattooed boy and his girlfriend, who is doughy and dazed. Emge wanders over for a closer look.
"I got mad and threw my food all over the place," the boy explains. Indeed, the floor is littered with dinner.
"Oh, hell, I do that myself sometimes," Emge says. "This ain't no white-glove thing, anyway. Just looking for roaches, mice...Hey," he asks the girl. "Are you happy here? Are you a happy camper?" The girl doesn't answer.
"So," Emge asks the managers. "What's your policy on drugs, anyway?"
"Oh, we see it, they get kicked out," one replies. "That's probably why you're here. Every time we evict someone, one of you guys comes by."
"That so?" Emge says. "Hey, you all ever get raided for prostitution?"
Technically, this is none of Emge's business. As a representative of the Denver Department of Health and Hospitals, his responsibilities are limited to searching dwellings for threats to the mental and physical health of the city's residents. On the other hand, Emge and his six fellow inspectors are within their rights to search dwellings without warrants. "We're sort of subliminal," he explains. "If something weird's going on, and they know we can pop in anytime, things have a way of cleaning themselves up. Trouble moves on."
So does Emge, popping into different rooms in this three-story residence hotel crammed with cockroaches and welfare cases. He visits a large man wearing even larger boxer shorts and cooking bacon on a hot plate--and finds more roaches. Bugs are also in evidence next door, where two bullet-headed men share a tiny room with an angelically sleeping toddler. They, too, cook on hot plates hooked up precariously with extension cords.
"You gotta tell your tenants to stop doing that," Emge says. "I don't want to read about this building in the paper."
"Oh, we tell 'em..."
"I understand you got a mental element going on here," Emge observes, his tone friendly. "Your tenants are part of your problem, of course. I understand that. And your boiler room--it's one of the nicest I've seen. But," he continues, a hint of steel creeping into his voice, "you gotta look at that veteran's room. The walls need paint. These roaches are not going away. Get rid of the mice. He's re-entering society, he tells me. Well, my God, give him a decent room to re-enter it in!"
By now Emge's jawbone is within inches of the hotel owner's face. He holds this position for a beat, then backs off. "Do we have a deal?" he asks. "Oh, you bet," says the owner, who then explains that all he has ever wanted to do is help the homeless.
"Now," Emge asks, once he's out on the sidewalk and heading for his car. "How much of their bullshit did you believe?"
Like the department's other inspectors, Dave Emge was hired for his extensive background in biology and psychology--and his utter lack of squeamishness around roaches, maggots, putrefying bodies and other olfactory assaults.
"Between the seven of us," he boasts, "we have 203 years of experience on the job. We have one of the top guys in the nation at controlling urban rats. Hey, Denver doesn't have rats. We're great at what we do. Denver doesn't even have slums! We have socioeconomically depressed areas, but we don't, per se, have a slum. We even have the leading swimming pool man in the state, and you wouldn't believe the bacteria in swimming pools."
Emge himself is more of a generalist--except for his highly specialized nose. "I can instantly smell the difference between rats and mice and roaches and cat feces and dog feces," he admits. Only last month, though, he encountered a new and horrible mystery odor.