Behind Closed Doors

Garbage houses made the news briefly nine years ago when police discovered the notorious Eggert house in St. Paul. But the truth is that Twin Cities-area inspectors have been finding them for over 20 years. How do lives fall so completely--and so privatel

What police found inside on that day--May 29, 1988--became a local legend for a short time, and has remained one around the city inspections department. The first hint of something wrong was a stench emanating from the living room, a pungent mixture of urine and mildew that sent one officer back through the door for air. As they went in, he said later, "The place turned into a kind of funhouse where the ground rises up and the walls seem to shrink."

Piled four feet high on the floors of the living and dining rooms were bags of garbage, strewn clothing, rotted food, busted toys, small appliances, mail-order catalogs, and newspapers that dated back as long as five years. A photograph, taken by an inspector who was immediately called to the house, shows the two uniformed officers hunched over at the waist, arms up, to keep from hitting their heads on the ceiling in the dark--the electricity had been cut off for three years by then--as they made their way through the house.

In the kitchen, they found three other children, 9-year-old and 6-year-old girls, both functionally deaf, and a 2-year-old boy in diapers. The baby sat on a stack of mashed papers and candy wrappers in the middle of an excavated pathway. The girls sat together near the refrigerator, from which years-old food and roaches spilled out. The pair seemed to share a rapid-fire sign language no one else could comprehend.

Farther back, in the first bedroom, behind a five-foot barricade of milk cartons and debris, they discovered a bunk-bed where the girls slept. The mattresses were buried under soiled clothing and food containers, packed down over the years by the weight of their bodies. To get into bed, as another inspector still remembers nearly a decade later, "these little girls had to climb up a mountain of trash and slide down the other side, which was slick with human feces."

The other bedroom was no better. The bathroom door could be opened only a few inches. Inside, the toilet and bathtub were overflowing (water service, too, had been cut off long ago) and the sink was barely visible by flashlight under a heap of stained papers.

Brian Eggert, the girls, and the baby were escorted outside. A photograph from that day shows the four of them standing on the front stoop huddled and squinting against the afternoon light, the teenager with a kind of bewildered smile on his face, the baby on his hip and his sisters staring straight ahead into the camera. The head of St. Paul's housing inspection department issued an immediate condemnation order, citing "gross unsanitary conditions" inside the house as a public health hazard, and began making calls to arrange for a clean-up crew the next morning. The children's father, when he was finally located, told a local television reporter that the garbage in his house started piling up years ago and had "somehow gotten out of control." Somehow, Michael Eggert said, he'd just lost track of it all.

Within days, city workers had shoveled out six 40-foot dump trailers full of refuse from the main floor and basement--about 20 tons in all. Several public officials went on record announcing their shock at "the lack of a social safety net for these people," "the utter breakdown of the system," "the failure of any trace of civic responsibility toward those whose lives consign them to a dump." Meanwhile, both the St. Paul and Minneapolis health and housing inspections departments found themselves swamped with calls about other gross unsanitary houses from residents who'd been following the story on the news. Sometimes it was a neighbor, sometimes a relative. A pastor. An anonymous voice. Even a pizza-delivery driver who reported having to hand the box in through a side window because the customer couldn't get to his door anymore. It quickly became clear that the Eggert house was not the unique occurrence everyone thought it must be.

Things fall apart. You mean to, but then you don't. Or you do, but then you just lose track of it all. For awhile, perhaps, there was the desire. Later, a kind of fatigue. Time gets away. Something slips--a disconnect--and the heat goes. Tomorrow you will have to set everything right. But the idea gets lost underneath, in the piles. No one is watching, anyway. No one's coming over. No one's been notified.

"First, let's talk about the secret." Frank Staffenson, who headed St. Paul's environmental health department until 1995, is sitting in his den running through his "dirty picture show," which consists of slides from various garbage houses. For the past half hour, we've been touring basements and kitchens discovered by postal workers, pizza drivers, scouts sent out to check the premises after the utilities were cut off. This one, he says, eyeing the screen, inspectors went into on a condemnation after a call from the neighbors, "which is like having your door kicked in by cops--not a nice way to go. It means somebody's found out."

Inside, flashed up in the projector's illuminating beam, is a baby's crib coated in gray mold. Beneath it, scattered across the carpeted floor, are boxes of breakfast cereal--Wheaties, Life--and a pile of snagged lingerie. "Conception," Staffenson says, nodding at the next slide, "believe it or not, occurred here," on a stained mattress covered over with crumpled newspapers. "This was the home of a young couple who'd left the farm. The husband couldn't make it there--this was the late '80s and the economy was pretty rough for some. They came down to the city and he couldn't get work. She was 16, 17 maybe, pregnant, and just couldn't keep up with things. This is the toilet"--click--"past full, spilling over, so they just shut the door and started using a bucket in the kitchen. The nurse who drove out to the house went in the backyard and puked before she called me."

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