The Intricacies of Things Left Behind

There is an Old English Proverb that goes along the lines of:

“A person is known by the company he keeps”.

Traditionally, company refers to the people he hangs around and keeps near him. But what about the state of his environment in which he keeps that company?
This past month I’ve had the opportunity to take an inside look in a man’s life through this type of company. To fully understand, we must back up a few months.
April 2011: The housing market has recently started coming back from an all time low. Smart people, with a bit of money, would take advantage of the lows and invest. Jacob’s parents are smart people, and therefore decided to invest. Earlier this spring, they took us aside and explained the condition of the market and that they wanted to invest in this, but that there was no way they could cover all of the costs alone. In essence, they would need help in going in on this and would prefer that we be the ones to help them out as they knew us personally and would prefer that we keep the house, pay the mortgage, etc.
Thus began the hunt for a house to invest in, fix up. A house with the most promise towards yielding the greatest profit. At first, we scouted out houses in the best location, not taking much care to examine the insides until we had come up with quite a sizeable list. Many of the houses on our radar quickly dropped off, as they were too expensive or had numerous offers that we did not want to compete with. I remember we looked inside about 5 different houses. The first and last were the only two which were still inhabited: the only two which offered an explanation of the people living inside. The first looked as though it belonged to a woman who held spirituality and the old fashioned cinema very near to her heart. Each room painted so as to convey a specific sense of purpose and unique feeling of comfort within those walls. The living room was key: dual toned walls, a charcoal gray and deep maroon were the backdrop to a Buddha and either the “We can do it!” Poster or something very similar (the details are beginning to fail me). The house did not speak to us, as there were cracks in the foundation on both sides and the chimney was blocked off.
The last house was by far more interesting (and filthy). Finding it felt like a sheer stroke of luck, as it was only one of the houses I wrote down while flying by in a gold mini van. I almost didn’t catch that it was up for sale, as it was on the corner and tucked away from the main part of the road.
We called the realtor, and she was happy to show us the house. I remember we pulled up behind a shiny, black sedan; the grass was dying, but mostly tame. Stepping up onto the porch offered the first glimpse of the man inside: weather worn and chipping paint lay beneath totes of unknown items and a few antique photography machines.
And the smell: I’ll never forget the smell. Stepping up onto the porch smelled as though a septic tank had errupted in the middle of a mice colony too busy to remove their dead from among them. Inside the house added the scent of wet and uncared for dog to the mix. The house reeked (and honestly still does to some extent).
The house itself….well, take a look, if you dare.

And then a piece of his story, offered by the realtor kind enough to take on a house of this magnitude. Recently, his wife had left him and taken his kids. His job was unfulfilling and he may have lost what was once meaningful to him. At his own fault (or ignorance) he had made some poor financial decisions which had cost him his house. Loneliness reeked through the floorboards, far greater than any physical stench that house held in.
Through a combination of luck, timing, general good will and the willingness to dance with the realtor for a few months, we closed on the house. Now came the real work: Rennovations.
The first task necessary was to sweep through the entire house and dump out all that made the place unlivable. The carpets, lineoleum, and much furniture was stripped and thrown out. The floor, coated in dog hair, cigarette butts and old bank statements tackled with gloves yielded a worn, hardwood surface. I remember the first day we wore elbow length rubber gloves that encased our hands in such a way that only after half an hour, the sweat made the gloves cumbersome and sloshed around between our skin and the rubber. Seeing the floor after hours of clearing out filth was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve yet seen.
After the general clean out, there were many household items and furnishings that were in usuable to great condition that we just had no use for. Despite that, all of us came away with a prize. Among mine; a set of runes, a pair of wool-knit fingerless gloves and a pair of leather ones, and a Beaker plush from the Muppets.
All in need of sorting.

I had a week (on top of my new semester’s workload and wedding plans to finalize) to sort, wash, toss out, and size up any and all items left behind. I sorely wish there was more time to go through this process, as I learned much more than any realtor could tell me.

A handful of dreidels, a Happy Hannukah blanket and assortment of religious books (some christian, some new age, some jewish). Broken and aged photography equipment of such caliber that his dark room was well supported. Many photo journals indicated his depression and lack of friends, tracing his spiraling trail from a man to a lost soul. And many, many toys: Transformers, Fisher Price, Marvel, books upon books. This man provided entertainment for his children. On top of that, this man had some interest in the internet when it first started. Many books on the beginnings of the internet and old (yet broken) computer equipment.

The most revealing items in his house were the books left behind. There were major categories in which most books belonged, but there were books on just about every subject. The two biggest categories made sense; books on photo technique and composition, books on hacking and how the internet works dating 1988, children’s books targeted at a wide range of ages. And then there were the books which pointed to how lonely this man really was: books on color therapy, how to find a better job, chakra, kharma, Even The Gay Pages. This man read up on anything and everything he could get his hands on. Yet none of it worked.

Setting these items out for a yard sale really made me wonder at what had happened to this man to cause such a drastic life change. What had started this big chain of events that lead to his eventually losing all that he had? Sadly, I have no answer to alleviate the severity the question suggests.

Then there were the people who came to size up these things left behind. The majority of them were Hispanic, speaking little if any English, looking for something they desperately needed. A few of them were young, like college students. None of them looked as though they had much money on them.

One man in particular sticks out in my mind. As I was cleaning up on the first day, most of my help had to leave at some point earlier in the day and I was alone. He showed up and stayed with me for two hours until I could get a ride home. Now this man looked very shady at first: tall,tattooed, white lower class from the west side. Yet he posed no threat to my safety. For those two hours, he basically quoted to me one of my own basic, vital beliefs. Many of the LDS faith know it as the Plan of Salvation. The very first thing he told me was how his uncle tested him by putting $20 in a coat pocket at a different yard sale. His name was Steven and he struggled with what to do about the money all day, until finally he decided to tell his uncle that he had found the money. Upon doing so, his uncle told him that he was testing him, and that because of his honesty he could keep the money.

Meeting Steven confirmed my belief that good people are everywhere, in any package imaginable. Most of them just don’t get much of a chance.
I did make some money off of this yard sale, but the insight I gained into the lives of other men was by far more valuable than any dollar amount in the world.
“The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own.”
Lao Tzu


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