Yesterday the NY Times ran an article that reminded me of why the paper is so indispensable even if it is easy (and true) to dismiss it as the voice of the liberal wing of the ruling class. It was a long and thoroughly researched piece on how city employees clean up after the corpses of isolated individuals whose deaths remain unannounced except for the stench of their decomposing bodies:
They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet. The police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911. The apartment was in north-central Queens, in an unassertive building on 79th Street in Jackson Heights.
The apartment belonged to a George Bell. He lived alone. Thus the presumption was that the corpse also belonged to George Bell. It was a plausible supposition, but it remained just that, for the puffy body on the floor was decomposed and unrecognizable. Clearly the man had not died on July 12, the Saturday last year when he was discovered, nor the day before nor the day before that. He had lain there for a while, nothing to announce his departure to the world, while the hyperkinetic city around him hurried on with its business.
Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.
Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.
Imagine the training in journalism school it took for the reporters to come up with the telling details about the men who came in to examine the dead man’s apartment and what they saw:
Mr. Plaza had been a data entry clerk before joining his macabre field in 1994; Mr. Rodriguez had been a waiter and found his interest piqued in 2002.
What qualified someone for the job? Ms. Rosenblatt, the head of the office, summed it up: “People willing to go into these disgusting apartments.”
The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.
The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”
The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.
Frankly, I find this reportage ten times more compelling than anything on the NY Times Fiction Best Sellers list especially since it reminds me of the grizzly encounter I had with such an incident when I was living in Kansas City in 1978 in my final days with the Socialist Workers Party cult.
I was living on the ground floor of an old house that had been converted into a multiple occupancy building at the time and working for the United Missouri Bank. At nights I was taking classes in lathe and milling machines at a vocational high school so I could acquire the necessary skills to “go into industry”. It was a last-ditch effort to stay in the party. The whole experience evoked hanging from the edge of a cliff while someone stomps on your fingers.
One afternoon I came home from work and was stunned to see a fire truck and police cars on the street in front of my building. A ladder was resting on the side just underneath an immense hole in the wall as if someone had used a wrecking ball to get into the apartment above mine.
As I got out of my car and began walking down the front walk, my super—an affable Chicano whose name I don’t recall—came up to give me the news. The man who lived upstairs and who weighed over 600 pounds had died of a heart attack. When the cops came, they found his body simply too massive to move through the apartment and down the stairs. So they called the fire department that had the necessary equipment to carve a hole out of the side of the building and use a cherry picker to hoist his corpse to the ground.
My poor super, just like the men profiled in the Times article, had to clean up after the dead man’s remains. He told me that he had only figured out that someone had died after a smell had wafted out from beneath the door. I guess I was so preoccupied with cult life that I managed to overlook it.
But once I was apprised of the man’s death, I could not get pass the smell, which was a mixture of the remains of the rotting flesh and the heavy-duty disinfectant that the super had used. At night I laid in bed pondering over my future in the SWP as the smell from upstairs played counterpoint to my brooding.
This was just the latest incident in a life marked by the macabre and the pathetic on one side and the comically absurd on the other. I tried to capture all this in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar even as some idiots in the ISO tried to understand it terms of the typical revolutionary memoir. I was doing Pekar and they expected something that a sectarian would write filled with boring anecdotes about fighting the cops and making speeches to the masses, like Tariq Ali’s dreary “Street Fighting Man”.
For those interested in what it was like in Kansas City in the tail-end of a futile exercise in revolutionary politics, I invite you to read this excerpt from my memoir that I reproduce here under the provisions of Fair Use legislation.