My friend lives in a Section 8 senior apartment in Berkeley, one he could barely qualify for when his wife left him several months ago. At 82, he hoards. Piles of litter totter toward the ceiling, which he is unable to sift through or discard. With a Ph.D. in linguistics, professorship at UC Berkeley, and the authorship of the dictionary of Borneo and Western Austronesian Linguistics, he is a genteel and intelligent man fallen on hard times.
I met him through “Count Me In,” an event where Solano Community Church attendees volunteer in the community. I continued to go to his place weekly to help him clean up. Usually, he only allowed me to swab through the kitchen, no more. Dismantled, bulky shelves were stacked in the corner, but putting them together was beyond me.
He purported to be “returning” to the Christianity of his childhood in Australia, but years of living in Southeast Asia made him a comparative religions expert. Every belief had its companion faith, all with the same face value. Christianity bent beneath a load of fallacies and failures.
Then came the bedbugs.
People not living communally are innocent of the bedbug. But infestations swarm through senior centers, and can only be rooted out by bedbug-sniffing dogs. The dogs need complete silence to sniff, no music, no talking, nothing to distract them from their nose-to–baseboards task. Sniffer dogs are a growth industry—going from one or two sniffs a week to five times a day.
The bedbug situation brought in management. Shocked at the condition of his room they threatened eviction. Panicked, he went to his special therapy group for panic disorders.
I didn’t see him for several weeks. When I returned to bring him a computer, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Window curtains waved. Green plants bloomed on the table. In fact, there was a table, usually buried under four feet of newspapers. There was also a sofa, now uncovered, and a carpet…it was beautiful!
“What happened?” Disoriented, I felt like I’d walked through the wardrobe into Narnia.
“God has blessed me!” He nearly yelled. “I am a Christian!” His enthusiasm overflowed. He told me about the panic group, how a woman attendant—a professional organizer—needed her cat sat for a month and offered to “clean” his room in exchange. At first glimpse, she nearly bolted, but finally forced him, hour by hour, to examine every paper and then discard it. She was tough, organized, relentless and even mean. But it worked, because the morning after she finished, management made a surprise, 5:00 a.m. “raid” to catch him in his hoarding. A clean room gleamed back at them. They grumbled away.
“God has put helpers in my path” he said. “God has blessed me in every way.”