Behind Closed Doors

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."

We spend another hour in the dark, tracking cases whose addresses no longer matter much. The particulars inside, after a while, appear like set objects in a series of still-lifes: the industrial strength garbage bags, the spoiled food, the buckets, the stacks of newspapers. Broken glass and a toddler with bleeding feet. Wrung-out diapers drying on a radiator. Kerosene lamps. Captain Crunch. Fly-paper. Aluminum cans. Cat litter trays made from detergent boxes. Coke cartons. TV Guide. The Eggert house, with a hide-a-bed buried four feet deep in trash, its sheets still on. The kitchen of another house where a 70-year-old man, living alone, was found in the middle of winter frozen to death, surrounded by junk mail and pet-food cans, with his feet stuck in the oven.

In the days before visiting Staffenson, I'd dug through dozens of photographs, case files, and court records at various city departments. In the wake of the news spectacle on Sherwood Avenue, these garbage houses seemed to hit the media radar screen with alarming frequency and, with each subsequent report, to take on an uneasy, morality-tale tone. As a series--a "beat"--they constituted a ready-made story that came to stand for a whole host of suspicions that many readers of daily papers were probably harboring about the breakdown of what one report called "the environment of civic order." There was, too, in many accounts, the notion that these personal narratives could be traced back to some unmanageable crisis--the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, bankruptcy--that had by its tragic nature overwhelmed the victims (or the perpetrators; the media couldn't seem to decide) and sent them into retreat, resignation, surrender.

In August 1988, following the discovery of "yet another garbage house," St. Paul City Council member Janice Rettman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that these stories "blow people's minds, because any one of us could face a personal tragedy that would cause us to lose track of reality." In June 1992, city inspectors in Richfield located a man by the name of Richard Schalekamp, a retired widower, living in a garbage house whose contents, in the days following his removal to an assisted-living apartment, filled two dumpsters. "It's a real mess here," he told one reporter who'd come along on the raid. "I don't know how it got so messed up. I guess things just got out of hand."

Of the slides I viewed at Staffenson's house that morning, many were shot before the "original" garbage house surfaced in the spring of 1988. Disturbing cases had been around for as long as he could recall, Staffenson said, back to the early 1970s, though none was reported in the press. It wasn't until the late '80s that the public attention needed to turn a handful of scattered, unsanitary houses into a phenomenon reached critical mass. The secret began making news.

The Eggert house, or at least the one built by the media, seemed to hold a larger resonance; seemed to offer, in the words of writer Joan Didion, a "conflation... of personal woe and public distress." The father, we learned, was a Vietnam Vet, a former city worker who had recently lost his job. The mother, a registered nurse. Somehow, on the way to a normal enough American life, something had gone terribly wrong. Failing in their vigilance--against the accumulation of everyday junk, against mundane dread--they had, as one national TV reporter put it, "simply thrown up their hands, closed their doors, hung an invisible Do Not Disturb sign out, and gone into private hiding."

Said another: "In this era of free-floating anxiety, when the world of hyper-technology, infinite information, environmental overload, and constant assaults on the individual psyche is too much with us, it seems this family, and others like them, just let go and got buried." A local psychiatrist, after reviewing the salient details of the Eggert case, suggested "anti-depressants, perhaps something on the order of Prozac, as a possible out for these people."  

Last year, the Housing Inspections department in Minneapolis fielded 203 calls on its complaint line about potential garbage houses. It's hard to tell, says supervisor Mike Osmonson, how many of those turned out to be valid--meaning so full of litter as to constitute a fire or health hazard to the residents. The office's current computer system isn't capable of culling them into a category separate from, say, "clutter houses," with pathways through organized rubbish, or garden-variety "cat houses," the worst of which, he recalls, had more than six dozen animals in its basement. Among the garbage house cases that did prove true from those calls and from police department referrals, the lessons suggested in the Sherwood Avenue reports kept playing out.

* On Valentine's Day, 1996, the house at 2119-21 Fremont Ave. N. was found to be occupied by an elderly woman whose bathroom sink, toilet, and bathtub had been filled with "human waste" years ago and the room sealed off. A grand piano sat in the living room under piles of aluminum cans, microwave food cartons, and filthy clothing. It seemed, inspector Jim Strong said after reviewing the file, "that nobody went to visit her anymore, so any reason to keep things from turning into a chaos were gone. Nobody'd seen her in weeks. With houses like this one, you know, we've to go in and search on the chance that, under all the stuff, there might be a body."

* That same year a search warrant was issued on Oct. 2 to the Minneapolis police, the inspections department, and Animal Control, allowing them to forcibly enter the house at 2758 Sheridan Ave. N. An orange cat was found on the doorstep "literally covered with fleas." Inside, the search party came across over 50 other cats and the occupant who, according to a later report, "had scabs and sores on her hands and appeared to be ill." Her husband had phoned the inspections department three days earlier, a Monday, canceling their arranged visit because, he explained, "someone had died on the back steps Sunday night." In the snapshots, the living room floor is a squalor of newspapers, ashtrays, TV sets, lawn chairs, bottles of vitamins. In the basement, which was inaccessible, garbage bags and pans of cat litter obscure any view. In the kitchen, shoes, plastic bags of human feces, Jell-O boxes, Dawn detergent. A loaded shotgun, as one inspector mentioned in the file, was retrieved from a back bedroom, with "one round already in the chamber."

* In May 1996, inspectors left their calling card on the door at 2809-11 Harriet Ave., with instructions to clean up the shopping carts, clothing, and miscellaneous debris from the premises. By the end of September, the female occupant, who was buying the property on a contract-for-deed, was issued official clean-up orders. Two 30-yard dumpsters had been parked in the driveway, but were removed that month for "nonpayment," though, the file notes, she was working at two jobs to cover the cost. A search-warrant application, signed in late fall, stated that "the inside of the house is filled with garbage and trash to a height of four feet throughout the first floor." On Dec. 5, the occupant was officially notified that her house had been condemned, with apologies from an assistant city attorney that "due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, there was a delay in communicating this decision to you." In the Polaroid photos shot the day she was evicted, three police officers stand in the entryway in what looks like outer-space gear--plastic full-body suits, heavy duty gloves, rubber masks, and white boots, with their walkie-talkies and guns strapped to black belts around their waists. In another shot, a Hennepin County Medical Center ambulance sits idling at the curb, waiting to take her in. A handwritten note, presumably penned by an inspector, mentions that the woman "wants to know, bottom line, what she has to do."

The first night I drove down to Farmington to visit Brian Roman Eggert, who is now 23 years old, I stopped at a service station for directions. The woman working the counter pulled out a local map from beside the cash register and flipped it open, running her finger over the creases and tracing the vague border between suburban Apple Valley and rural Farmington. "The trailer court you're looking for is called Country View," she said, pointing to the cross-streets. "It's in this kind of no-man's land between towns that everybody seems to want settled but nobody wants to claim."  

On the way, the road winds along past acres of new tract housing in enclaves with names like Deer Meadow. There are bright yellow banners for Twin Cities Model Homes, and a sign announcing the opening of a SuperAmerica "arriving soon to serve you." I knocked on the trailer door several times before a woman who turned out to be Eggert's girlfriend opened the door.

"He's not home right now," she told me. "What do you want?"

I said I'd come to visit with him about--what should I say? A story? The garbage house he grew up in? His suicide attempt a Minneapolis inspector had mentioned to me the week before? "I wanted to ask him about the time nine years ago when he lived in St. Paul," I said. She stared at me for a minute, then offered, quietly, "Well, that's a difficult subject for Brian to talk about." She jotted down my number, but said they didn't own a phone.

The next morning, Brian Eggert answered the door and invited me in, apologizing for the mess inside. Sit down, he said, gesturing to the couch. Nothing in the room was out of place. We talked for a few minutes in stops and starts, about his two kids, about his job at Domino's pizza in Farmington, the habit he'd picked up lately of ironing and folding his socks and lining them up in a drawer, his plan, maybe next year, to train as a sign-language interpreter "so people who've lost their senses won't feel so cut off." Finally, I turned on a tape recorder and asked him to talk about what it had been like.

"The house I grew up in was full of garbage. When I was 12, my mom and dad moved out. They went off to live somewhere else--her with a new boyfriend, him with a girlfriend. So it was just us kids. I took care of my sisters and my baby brother then. Sometimes my folks would come around and bring us clothes from Goodwill. I guess they just left, and abandoned us to the garbage.

"The last three years we didn't have water. So we didn't have heat. I tried to collect some blankets I found to keep us all warm. There weren't any lights. Sometimes the phone was on, sometimes off. The stove and refrigerator, you know, didn't work. I'd go around the corner to the Holiday station and steal food--bread mostly, and candy. I got real smart. I had to feed my family and stay alive. Also, I'd take my baby brother down to the gas station for a bath. The people who worked there must've got to wondering what we were up to.

"Nobody came to our house. Inside, it was just trash, newspapers, pizza boxes, buckets of, you know, stuff, every type of litter you could imagine. Somebody later called it chaos. I tried to get it cleaned up but that was hopeless. I thought for a while it might be normal, but then I figured out it wasn't. I got scared that people would come in and find out. We had a front door, then an entry way, then another door. So I'd slip between the two and stand there if somebody knocked, like when my uncles came over sometimes. They'd just wait outside.

"Raising my little brother, Michael junior, was a hard thing. He used to call me dad. I taught him how to talk, because my sisters couldn't really. I tried to teach him how to walk, too, but there was so much garbage that he couldn't balance or stand up right.

"Somebody said, I can't remember who, that there was more trash in our house than there was in the stadium after the '87 World Series. What happened was it just kept growing. We filled up spaces, but we couldn't really get it organized. The day the police came to my door, I was so scared. They were looking for my dad. I said he's not here. They said we have to come in and look. When they did, one man just let out a long breath and said, 'Oh, my God.' They put us all in the squad car then, and took us to the station. The next day, and this was pretty weird, I went to school. I was sitting in social studies class and the teacher pulled out the newspaper to read out loud to us. Like current events--politics, sports, the environment, crime, that type of thing. And there it was on the front page. She started reading it. I just sat still. I wanted to turn invisible. It told my address and my last name and all about the garbage and I just sat there listening to the story about my house, like sitting in hell. After that, it was like our own little world just blew apart."  

"Is there a cure?" Dr. Thomas Mackenzie, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School, turns from his office computer and poses the question, to no one in particular. It hangs a moment in the air as he clicks the next slide up on screen. "Well, you would know there isn't. There's no relief from your life," he answers, switching to a checklist that runs the spectrum from hoarders to pack rats to bag people to syllogomania (the pathological collecting of rubbish). "There's whatever your life's become, you try to distract yourself, find times when you can feel productive or passionate. Do people recover? Yes. Is there a cure? No. And that's where things get interesting."

Let's get a feel for the terrain here, Mackenzie goes on, leaning back in his swivel chair. First, let's get in the model of accumulation and disposal, the ebb and flow of how we live: You take stuff in, you feed stuff out--food, information, belongings. Maybe you own a house. You put in some furniture. You fill up the closet with clothes. You commit the day's news to memory. There's room for what's necessary. It's purposeful. You survive, carry around what you can, dispose of the rest. Now, for a twist, let's throw in the notion of imagination, which on the American landscape these days can be a highly mediated territory. You flip on the TV: rain forests, the latest genocide, noise downloaded online. You flip on the radio: genocide in the Balkans, terrorist cults, Flight 800 plunging on fire into the sea. Advertisements, accidents, events piling up that you couldn't even imagine might occur, and it seems that they all occur eventually if you just stay tuned in.

"That's the culture we're traveling in, late '80s, mid-'90s America," Mackenzie says. "Not much about its effects can be demonstrated scientifically, remember, but we can agree it gets to feeling pretty crazy after a while. How do you know what's of value and what's not? All the ads, all the news scream out that 'this is important, this is essential!' And somewhere in the imagination the idea gets planted: Without this stuff, I'm without protection. I'm lost. Anything could happen. The possibilities seem infinite, in part, I suppose, because there's so little evidence that as individuals we can control much of anything. Take technology--it's hyped as 'access to information,' as x, y, and z, the solution to the crises. As freedom--from anxiety, from fear. But it turns out that instead of being liberating, it's imprisoning. It's overload."

In late 1989, a 67-year-old woman, living alone in St. Paul, let city inspectors enter her home. They found inside nearly a ton of newspapers piled halfway up the living room walls, filling all available floor space save a pathway into the kitchen, where her stove was buried under more stacks. She'd meant, she told a social worker later, "to clip out the recipes, but for some reason I never could get around to it." In February, 1995, as reported by the Star Tribune, a young suburban couple were taken from their garbage house after the sheriff's department discovered "so much clutter and mess that there was nowhere to sit down in the house." According to the complaint, William Pfozer, the husband, admitted during questioning that "things are getting weird" and that conditions inside had "passed beyond hope."

"It's a wonderful notion," Mackenzie goes on, "to hold that the human nervous system, under the conditions we're talking about, may not be evolving at the same speed as technology and information." That we may be living now past saturation level, at overkill. "The question then becomes, where do we look for meaning? How do we create meaning in the midst of all this confusion, this inability to get rid of all we're made to take in? Look, the function of every spiritual model that civilizations have ever created has been to relieve the pain of staring into the abyss. They make meaning out of the chaos. So in this sense, how does one connect it to the woman who saved every newspaper for 20 years, intending to cut out the recipes? It was, I suppose, functional for her--a way to secure meaning. It was a solution once--a way to ensure a future. And then, in time, it became a kind of surrender. With garbage houses, we surmise that the resources their occupants have and the demands of the universe are badly mismatched."  

The behavior of garbage house residents, figures Mackenzie, absurd as it may appear in passing news reports, appears to be intentional. "You dive into a dumpster and come out with a pizza box. Is that random? How many monkeys working like that would've done this act?" You could argue, he says, that human cognition is all about organization, about discrimination: This is of value, this is not. But remember, we're talking here about a society in which discriminating between what's essential and what's garbage is nearly impossible. So, he adds, you develop the tendency to accumulate everything--in case it might be useful. It might, on the off chance, be of value, even critical to your existence.

"I tend to work an economy where there's got to be a pay-off, even if it's pain. And the pay-off, for people who collect, must be the security of knowing. Knowing what is the question." That somehow, even if it's garbage, it's a sort of security against panic? "Perhaps.

City Pages news intern Todd Renschler contributed to this story.

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