By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"You could smell this house from the street," he recalls. "It was an elderly couple, and I got their church to come down and help. They took out fifty boxes of trash, cleaned the cat box, cleaned the dog feces off the floor--and still the smell remained. Finally, I took a good look at the walls."
At first they appeared to be mustard-colored. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be white paint overlaid with 200 fly feces per square inch. "A unique smell," Emge says. "Now I'd recognize it anywhere."
And there's a good chance he might encounter it again. Emge's department handles up to 800 active cases a year, its leads coming from councilmembers, police districts and citizens who can no longer stand the sight or smell of their neighbors.
"Our code is totally aimed at the mental and physical health of the occupant, that's all we're supposed to care about," Emge explains. "If we find something wrong, we issue orders to comply, and then do reinspections. If you don't clean up, I take you to court, but I hate to do that. If I have to go to court, I've failed."
Instead, Emge relies on his own unique system of reinspection and re-reinspections, during which he begs, threatens and cajoles his clients to please, please, please make their homes suitable for human habitation. He calls this process "making the situation favorable. Some of these people clean up so much they go all anal retentive on you. Suddenly it's `Would you please take your shoes off before you come in?' But that's success, and I love success," he says. "The difference between me and a cop is I'm here to help you. My philosophy is more than `Let's just enforce the code.'"
In fact, his philosophy avoids the more obvious "Hey, you, you're a pig," and proceeds directly to "Hey, you, are you happy?"
"As for nitpicking," Emge adds, "it's not worth the effort. I like my trash organic. Carbon monoxide poisoning and feces and disease. Cockroaches are a bore--compared to a trash-out, anyway."
A trash-out, he explains, is marked by the following:
Trash flow: from the dumpster into the house, not the other way around.
Traffic pattern: tiny, scary trails through looming mountains of slowly decomposing trash.
Smell: strong enough to be detected from the sidewalk; pungent enough to make grown men faint (or puke) as the door is opened.
Feces: two (or more) species, underfoot.
Light, heat, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping accommodations: nonexistent or buried.
Added extras: no one answers the door, but upstairs window shade twitches. Pit bull on a six-inch chain attached to a half-pulled-out nail. Occupant, having taken self off psychiatric medication, vents intense anger at the world.
Emge begins his day on his pig farm--"Is it any wonder I find four-legged pigs soothing?"--and then moves on to his second ex-wife's house for coffee with two of his four children. He arrives at work by 7:30, but generally stays at the office less than an hour because he hates offices in general and is often "crosswise with the administration." As soon as possible he grabs his stack of files and heads for his car. From then on he can be sure of variety, if nothing else. "Because this is real-life experience out here," he enthuses. "Man, I can't stand the same."
His first stop of the day was once a state-of-the-art trash-out, filled with debris dating back to 1919, the year its last resident moved in. "Kind of a lifelong bachelor," Emge recalls, "with his little tie and vest. The first thing he said to me was, `I've known you were coming for ten or fifteen years now.'"
It took at least that long for a neighbor to file a complaint. The final straw could have been the yard--a classic rodent habitat--or the ancient cedar-shake roof riddled with volleyball-size holes. Either way, Emge figured, the guy deserved a little help rehabilitating the place he'd faithfully paid taxes on for more than 75 years. He gave the old man an unusually lenient four months to clean up. "But I think I might have given him an excuse to move out," Emge says now, a little sadly. The place has a hollow, abandoned look; the old man is nowhere to be found.
Emge next heads to the House of Fly Feces, owned and occupied by "a guy who actually worked as a custodian for the City of Denver. So he actually knows how to clean, but in this case, I admit it, I have failed." This house is in the midst of its third trip through the public-health system, and Emge is close to despair, even though the custodian's elderly wife, clad in a grime-stiffened bathrobe, comes to the door with a broom in her hand. "Why, hello," she says, in a cultured, almost British accent. "Won't you come in?" "Cleaning up, are you?"
Why, where? The mustard-colored fly-shit texturing is intact, and long strips of no-vacancy flypaper hang from the ceiling. Cats and dogs run through the two small rooms in packs, skittering around their own poop, piles of old clothes and other detritus. At least a dozen half-eaten cans of cat food sit on the tables, alive with maggots.