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.
"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.
"Where's your old man?" Emge asks.
"At the doctor's."
"Where's he sleep?"
"In there," the wife says, pointing to a tiny bedroom.
"What about you?"
"Oh, I sleep in the chair."
"Listen," Emge says, his voice beginning to climb into a higher register. "There are still flies in here. They are going to make you sick! I don't want to drag you out of here dead one day!"
"Well, I am sweeping up," she replies. "I'm going to give all this"--she points to a counter covered with rotting food--"to the neighbors. They have children, you know."
Back outside, Emge wipes the soles of his feet repeatedly on the grass. "I have absolutely failed," he sighs. Half an hour later, however, his spirits improve as he surveys the yard of a "schizophrenic gal who lives like she's still in the Ozarks and makes her house payment by selling food stamps" and finds it much improved. "Why, she's cleaned up," he says. "This is wonderful."
Unfortunately, the house's interior--seen through the paneless windows--still deserves trash-out status, smell and all. But the gal is not around to explain why. The only movement comes from a plastic Safeway bag swinging from the front porch. "Why don't you take a look inside?" Emge says wickedly. "Could be a cat head or something."
Emge's inspections next take him to a more urban neighborhood, where an old, run-down apartment house has been charged with having bad sanitation and possibly dangerous electrical wiring. And that could be the tip of the iceberg, Emge thinks. "What do we have here," he asks himself as he approaches the building, "a few little crack apartments?"
In the hallway a young woman with wild eyes talks to an imaginary friend and ignores Emge, even when he asks if she's a happy camper. The apartments are about the size of walk-in closets, twelve to a floor, with toilets at the end of the hall. Several doors have sprouted extra locks.
"That means how's the drug business, pal? A little on the dangerous side?" Emge mutters. He stops in front of a door and knocks. "Health department!"
"Huh?" replies a disoriented older man. "No, don't bother me."
"Drunk as shit," Emge whispers, moving on. By the time he reaches the second floor, the building manager arrives and launches into a litany of excuses.
"No, we don't got outlet covers, but that's because the tenants steal them...stole the fire extinguishers, the smoke alarms, I mean, these people..."
Emge listens politely, then writes the building up for roaches and unsafe electrical outlets. Other than that, slim pickings. "But interesting," he says. "What that place looks like to me is a landlord squeezing out the maximum amount of money per square foot, and a lot of people stoned and belligerent. Interesting. I love people."
Farther uptown, acting on a tip from the Colorado Commission on the Aging, Emge leans over the back fence of a half-boarded-up house, whistling at dogs he can hear but not see. "Smell it," he says, "it's a trash-out, isn't it? I think I smell fly shit. And look at this, someone tried to kick in the door."
No one answers when Emge knocks. No shades move. The neighbors, speaking from their manicured yard, say a young man has been coming in each morning to feed the dogs, but no one's seen "the old man" in weeks.
"Shoot, this could get interesting," Emge observes. "We could end up with one of those complaints like `There's an odor, and Mr. Smith hasn't been seen in sixty days.' Also," he adds, "if a person dies with their pets in the house, well, the pets get hungry. I remember one where the dogs had chewed away enough of the guy's face that it looked like he was smiling."
On a modest but neat street lined with Victorian cottages, Emge finally hits pay dirt. "It's a reinspection, and this guy was supposed to clean up his yard, and he did," he says. "Hey! Not a single dead cat! But the house looks worse." He's assessing it from a distance, held at bay by a German shepherd chained to a tree and a Labrador mutt--his hindquarters stiff and his lips dotted with foam--running loose. Emge considers the situation from the front gate.
"I bit a dog once," he finally decides. "He didn't bother me after that. Let's go." Clutching his metal clipboard to his chest, Emge reaches into the yard, grabs a heavy shovel, opens the gate and walks in. Throughout the next ninety minutes, the diseased dog sniffs around his ankles. Whenever the dog gets too personal, Emge simply bares his teeth.
There's another logistical problem, however. It is Emge's practice to stand to one side of a door after knocking on it. "Guys have been hurt on this job," he says. "One of us was shot. You never get callous. You never relax." But the entryway to this particular house is so clogged with trash piled in sedimentary layers--Christmas ornaments, ancient bakery products, soiled clothes and furniture--that there's nowhere to stand but directly in front of the door.
"Health department!" Emge yells. "Hey! Your yard looks great!"
Three knocks later the unlocked door swings open, revealing a wall of garbage lurking in the darkness, along with its attendant stench and the murmuring of several TVs tuned to different channels.
"Health department!" Emge yells again.
"Hey!" screams a voice from behind him. The resident has snuck out the back door in an attempt to surprise Emge. He is about fifty, very large and almost certainly deranged. Immediately, Emge closes the gap between them.
"Your yard looks terrific," he yells in the man's face. "I'm very pleased. Let's take a look inside!"
"You don't understand!" the man yells back. "The thing of it is, my autistic son, he's seventeen, and he comes over and breaks things, and I can't control him, and--"
"Sir, if your son is living here, let's definitely take a look inside!"
Without a backward glance Emge marches into a warren that makes the basement in The Silence of the Lambs look like a cheerful suburban rec room. The autistic son's bed is a slab of plywood covered with a filthy scrap of blanket. All sinks and toilets have long since sunk beneath the tide of squalor. Few of the windows have glass; the man claims this makes it easier to vent the kerosene heaters going full bore to counteract the lack of a furnace.
"You can't live like this, sir," says Emge. "I'm going to have to placard your house as unfit for human habitation."
"Oh, great," the man says, beginning to cry. "I been down to the bridges and all the good places are taken. Now I'm gonna have to live in my van. My doctor wants me to take more tranquilizers, but I DON'T WANT TO! There's gonna be BLOOD ALL OVER, that's what my DOCTOR's afraid of! I don't sleep but THREE HOURS A NIGHT!"
"Now calm down," says Emge. "You don't have to move if you can clean this up by..."
"You don't understand!" the man yells. "I don't got time! You only come here during good weather, and she comes by all snooty and tells me it's MY fault, and my wife, she's flipping burgers all day, and I put notes for her! I did! ON the TV! I wrote notes that said HELP ME, and stuck 'em all over the TV!"
"Now look," says Emge. "What's our deal? You're going to clean this up by when?"
"February," the man replies. "And then you can...?"
"Stay." As Emge drives away, the man is leaning on a tree, staring into space. The Labrador runs around his feet in a tight circle.
"I detected anxiety syndrome back there," Emge says. "That's when you really gotta watch it. You can't let these guys get excited or they'll hit you over the head with a pipe. You gotta keep control."
The last time Emge visited his next client, he was struck by the sight of a nine-month-old baby being bathed in a five-gallon bucket fed by a hose that came from a neighbor's outdoor tap. "On top of that," he says, "there were able-bodied people around, but they were all drunk. It was a trash-out--with children. I feel different when kids are involved. Kids are our blood."
But a pleasant surprise awaits him. Not only is the house's exterior freshly painted, but the teenager who answers the door is polite and clean. His grandmother, who owns the place, is lying on a neatly made bed eating a corned beef sandwich. Furniture is crammed against the walls--but tidily.
"Well, well, well," Emge says, so happy he appears ready to kiss the grandma. "What happened here?"
"I cleaned up," she says with a shy smile. Although the bathroom has no floor to speak of--much less any plumbing fixtures--you can actually see the walls. And they're clean. This is a rare sight in Emge's line of work.
"Now this next one," he says, "is a Crip-and-Blood deal. We got a single mom living here, her two sons killed a guy at her house, and the cops told us there were other children being kept in a dungeon." Several months ago Emge established that no such thing was happening, but he continues to worry about the single mom. She is so afraid of gang retaliation, he says, that she has barricaded herself inside a house that was already on its last legs. "Look at this," he says, swinging open the front screen door. "She's not coming and going by this door, but someone's been trying to kick it in. She's got all the windows covered with plywood. She must be terrified. Looks like she fixed the brickwork, though."
His knocks draw no response. If the woman is home, she is hiding.
"Well," says Emge. "Looks like we have time for one more. You want cat feces or leaking raw sewage?"
Leaking raw sewage would seem the juicier prospect. The very description reminds Emge of a past assignment. "This gal called and said she had sewage running down her walls from the bathroom upstairs," he recalls. "It wasn't. The guy up there had died sitting on the toilet and it was hot. After a few days, he ripped open at the seams. What was running down her walls was him."
But he doubts this new case holds anything that interesting. The cat feces complaint, on the other hand, cites "general unsanitary condition" for an entire apartment building.
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"General unsanitary condition," Emge muses. "You can't go wrong with that."
He is met at the building's door by the nervous, wiry biker who manages the complex. At a quick clip, the man runs Emge up onto the roof to inspect gutters, down into the basement to view the boiler, and up and down the hallways, where no cat feces can be seen. After half an hour of this, Emge hangs back and knocks on a few doors. He meets several elderly couples in poor medical condition who are struggling against swarms of roaches. He meets a young death-metal dude and his collection of beer cans. He walks through a cloud of pot smoke, laughing all the way. And then he meets an Occupant and his Odor.
The Occupant has lived in the same garden-level apartment since 1978. His legs are withered, and he lisps. When he has to move, he uses a walker--but he doesn't walk much. At the moment he is watching Geraldo on a small TV. A grease-soaked carpet stretches out before him--green, with gamboling roaches.
"Oh, boy," says Emge, "we have to get rid of these roaches."
"Well," says the manager, "I want to, but he won't get out of here so I can spray. Not even for four hours."
"Well, where am I thupothed to go?" the Occupant says, indignantly. "I'm crippled."
"Do you have any relatives?" Emge asks.
"See?" the manager says. "He don't cooperate."
"You don't like these roaches, do you?" Emge asks the Occupant. "No," he says. "And I'm glad you're here. I wanted you to come."
"Could you get out for just a couple hours tomorrow morning?"
"Thit no," he repeats. "I ain't about to mith my thtories. I got to thee All My Thildren."
"What time's that come on? Eleven? Hey," Emge tells the manager sternly, "you better get this place sprayed by eleven tomorrow. And this guy needs a paint job and a new carpet. This isn't the best you can do for him, is it?"
"Uh, no," the manager replies.
"You thee?" the Occupant crows. "You thee?"
"I'll be back to check on you," Emge assures him.
"Oh, I liked that man," Emge decides, as he drives away. "I like anyone with a legitimate problem. He's crippled, he's got roaches, and he doesn't want to miss All My Children. I like that. Those roaches are going. He is getting new paint. I live for this kind of thing. The more tragedy and trash, the more I love it. You feel," he says, "like you might accomplish something.