I realised just how bad Dad's living conditions were about a year after his death. I was talking to a cousin of mine who had recently become a police officer. It’s not often that you get a chance to have a firsthand glimpse into the seedy underbelly of the society you live in. So I jumped at the opportunity, asking for recounts of some of her more memorable highlights on the job.
After describing some interesting car chases and instances in which she had to draw her weapon, she began describing a case where she was called to a disturbance at house in a fairly shady area. The neighbours had heard a questionable noise and were concerned enough to inform the police. My cousin was the one who answered the call and arrived with her partner at the scene.
When recounting stories about her work, my cousin’s language is very matter of fact. She would describe the events that happened and the people and the places involved in a very detached and emotionless manner. Almost like she was writing a report to her superiors. This time was no different.
She started with her arrival. As she pulled up to the premises she observed a very poorly maintained lawn and a garden with overgrown weeds, scattered children's toys and mounds of indiscriminate trash. Lots of garbage bags, broken furniture and random newspapers. Declaring who she was she knocked upon the door, after a good minute or so a middle aged man greeted her. This guy was:
“Dishevelled with an unkempt appearance, unshaven and dirty. He was quite emaciated, looking gaunt in the face and having significant bags under his eyes. He wore only loose fitting shorts and one sock. On his arms were what looked like fresh track marks. Opening the door revealed a faint smell of marijuana and I could hear the cries of a young baby inside.”
I listened with fascination and remember thinking,
“Wow, poor child! I couldn't imagine living with somebody that messed up.”
It was, and still is, very easy to discount the significance of my past. I often have to remind myself that just because I survived my dad relatively unscathed, doesn’t discount the events that happened or the real danger that my brother and I were exposed to.
So when my cousin mentioned that the man had track marks, I immediately put that story into a completely different category than that of my own. I mean it is one thing to deal hard drugs and use weed and pills in front of your children, but this guy was on another level. He was using intravenous based narcotics. Completely different right? At least my dad was not that bad.
It's funny how easy it is to nit-pick the small differences and to maintain the status quo of our thoughts. To keep consistency in the stories that we tell ourselves, rather than face the overtly apparent truths that would be otherwise too confronting to deal with.
Ultimately, I don't know the full story of this guy, or my father for that matter. Thus it is very hard to subjectively judge whose situation was 'worse'. What I do know is that either way, I am so very sorry for that child and I really hope that their situation improved. It is not something that anybody should face, particularly not an innocent child.
It was when my cousin began to describe the inside of the house, that some of her opinion began to show through. She dropped her characteristic report like reproduction of events and began to personalise what she had seen. She went on to basically describe Dad’s house verbatim. It was clear that she was moved by just how bad the state of this house was. It hit me the moment she said,
“These were the worst living conditions I have ever seen; I can't imagine anyone living there.”
My cousin’s childhood couldn't have been more different from mine. Both of her parents worked and had successful careers. Coming from an ethnic background her house was always spotless. Her parents supported her in every way. She got all the sports coaching and academic help needed and was quite successful in this sense. She held numerous university degrees and uncountable numbers of sporting trophies and accomplishments. Admittedly she worked very hard for these achievements, but on the other hand she had a very strong and secure base to operate from.
I always looked up to my cousin, considering her to be a good role model. Representative of what you could accomplish if you had parents that actually cared. Parents that worked and whose inebriation stopped at a couple of drinks over dinner. So when she of all people basically described my father's house, labelling it with choice words like 'horrible, unheard of, disgusting and vile' another part of my world shattered around me.
What really opened my eyes was how normal her description seemed to be to me, compared to the stark contrast of how exceptionally abnormal my cousin believed it to be. Despite everything, I still didn't realise just how bad Dad’s house was. Up until that point I still had some unfounded, illogical belief that he was not that bad. It really was an eye opener. Other people who had seen Dad’s house would just say things like:
“It's a bit messy” or “You think that's bad, you should see my house!”
Maybe they were too close to the situation to see it for what it really was. People often prefer to believe their own lies, because accepting the hard truth about somebody you love makes that truth real, and that can be unbearable. Or maybe they were just being polite. Regardless, it took my cousin talking about the house of an anonymous junkie for me to truly realise just how decrepit my Dad's living conditions were.
If you have ever seen the TV show 'Hoarders' you will have a vague idea what it was like in my dad's house. But the problem with the TV shows are that they don't paint the full picture. It is one thing to see a house on TV from the comfort of your own home, and another thing to live in it.
The sheer volume of stuff that he owned was staggering. Piles and piles of junk stacked one upon the other at times reaching the roof. Four foot piles of newspapers slumped haphazardly against the walls. Volumes of antiquated magazines and books that from their condition were seemingly published last century. Fishing gear was stored next to old clothes and gardening equipment was placed precariously on top of pillows which themselves were on top of large boxes. Containing endless numbers of ashtrays and other paraphernalia that no house needs more than one or two of.
He seemed to have five times as many benches and shelves than any sane house planner would conceive to place in one property. In a room that would struggle to fit a couch and a TV cabinet, my dad also managed to cram in a coffee table, two tallboys, three cabinets, a spare fridge and an old-fashioned road bike. Suffice to say it was not easy to move through his house. He did put all that extra storage space to good use mind you, I remember counting over 50 empty glass coffee containers. What did he need them all for? What was he planning to do that required so many empty glass containers? Who knows.
His taste in reading content was eclectic to say the least. Hidden throughout the house, not in the bookshelves mind you, was a library of books on every conceivable topic. Content ranged from Hindu and Buddhist Holy Scriptures to outback survival. He had manuals on car repair as well as instructional booklets about the application of Kung Fu for women. High level physics textbooks stood side by side with flower identification handbooks. Then there was the vast variety of fiction from every genre as well as poetry and picture books. I wonder how many of them he read? I can't believe I never asked about that. For some reason I assumed that he had just collected them like everything else in his house. Just for show, kept because they were gifts or just random acquisitions accumulated over the years. Being an avid reader myself I feel like I have missed a massive opportunity. Maybe we could have bonded over the plot of some novel or learnt a new skill together. If only I had asked.
I don't know how he got so much stuff or how he perpetually increased his hoard. Particularly when towards the end he hadn't driven himself anywhere for years. Maybe people gave him more and more as a form of barter in exchange for drugs? That would explain some of the women's rings I found, but not the excessive amounts of furniture.
I chuckle at the thought of some skinny junkie rocking up to Dad’s house, struggling under the weight of a massive bookshelf strapped to his back, pleading with Dad for another hit. My dad, initially rejecting the trade, saying he only takes cash. But upon re-entering his house he looks at a small patch of unclaimed ground in the middle of his lounge room, between a pile of newspapers and the four-foot brass kangaroo and says to himself:
“Yes, that would go well here, I really do need a third bookshelf for the centre of my lounge room.”
He goes back outside to the eager junkie and makes the trade. Dad looks over his new acquisition and smiles, content in the knowledge that he made the far better deal.
“I could sell this for a massive profit one day.”
The junkie places the item on the ground beside the doorstep and takes his prize with glee. He knows that tonight will be a good night.
Still standing outside, Dad's smile quickly fades. It dawns on him that there is no way he will be able to move such a massive item up the stairs and into his house. Regret starts to fill his mind and he desperately looks around for help. Finding no one he returns inside downtrodden. It seems that piece of unclaimed ground in the lounge room is destined to stay available for some time. To overcome the regret of his purchase, he decides to light up. Once the effects of the high take over, he goes back outside to revaluate the situation. Looking at the massive bookshelf, a smile slowly returns to his face.
“Oh well it is okay I guess. My front yard really did need a new bookshelf. Besides, it does seem to fit quite nicely over there beside my spare coffee table and the extra car tyres.”
On a more serious note, the amount of stuff lying around was not all bad, it was actually sometimes fun to look through the endless mounds. Being that there was never much else to do at Dads, I would spend countless hours looking through all of the trinkets and doodads that his house contained. Some of it was interesting and all of it had a back story, but it was mainly just junk. Chosen and held onto like a magpie searching for the perfect accompaniment for his nest.
Dad would always say to us that you would never know the kind of valuable things you may find, hidden in there. He said it grinning, implying some kind of fantastic treasure hunt would ensue upon his death. As if his house contained anything of tangible monetary value. Nevertheless, I remember appreciating the vast variety of collections that he held. Among my favourites were the plethora of random coins from around the world, aboriginal memorabilia and obscure wooden artefacts. It felt like every time you went exploring you would find something new.
But then there was the smell.
You know when you go into a florist and walk around how the whole store has that lovely fresh smell? A random mix of perfumes permeate from each flower combining to have an overall pleasing effect on your senses. As you get closer to each section you can start to differentiate between the specific scent of each flower. Roses here, petunias there, daffodils a bit further away. Lovely.
In a way, Dad's house was like a florist. Walk through the door and you would be instantly hit with a stale aroma. You can't quite place each piece but you know you don't like it. Depending on where you went in the house you could start to discriminate between each putrid scent. Dog excrement over here, bong water there, urine on the floor and mould wafting in from the kitchen. Musty air and marijuana smoke lining the roof with a healthy slathering of body odour dripping from the couch for good measure.
On good days Dad did his best to keep the house at an acceptable standard. Granted, his version of acceptable was not quite at the same level that most people would be accustomed to. He still managed to clean up after his dog and deal with the most pressing chores. However, on bad days when dad was very high or depressed, the cleaning would not get done at all. On those days the smell intensified to such a degree that you would want to vomit.
Ironically the toilet and bathroom were the only clean spots in the house. By clean I don't mean free from bacteria, God no, they were as dirty as the rest of the place. But for some reason they didn't smell. Considering the overall state of that house and the people that frequented it, I cannot understand how that was possible, but somehow it was. I remember spending a lot of time in the bathroom and shower just to escape the putrid rankness of the rest of the house. Particularly in summer when the hot sun would awaken the hidden aromas of seasons past. Staying on the toilet for hours reading or doing homework was a common activity for me. I would have long showers and ensure that I took my time to get dressed. Anything to avoid having to spend more time immersed in that smell.
Overall Dad’s house was like a disgusting thrift store. Fun to look through and filled to the brim with interesting and unique memorabilia just waiting to be discovered. But stay too long, and the smell will grow on you in a very bad way.