Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.

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12 Responses to “Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death”


  1. 1 Louis April 15, 2014 at 20:36

    I have been punched delightfully in the chin with this post. Lovely writing. And I thank you.

  2. 4 marni April 16, 2014 at 11:43

    I’ve often thought I might be tempted to trade my hoarder for someone else’s, but in your case….nope. I think the only thing mine is collecting is mold, and spores of mold. Oh, and trash. And there are those 20 year old tubs of roof tar up on the scary roof. And hazard tape. And assorted broken things in the front yard. She used to collect newspaper in both of her rundown cars but they got towed–too much newspaper.
    To be serious, I am all too aware of how easy it would be to turn into my next-door neighbor. It just takes a few months of letting it all go downhill, and then one day you shut that one door because you just can’t handle the pressure of all of those things in that room that you haven’t quite gotten to yet. Soon, there’s another room with a door you have to close so you don’t have to deal. Eventually it spills into the yard. Sometimes it’s will or a lack thereof, sometimes a physical disability can contribute, but quite often it’s just good ole depression, those dark thoughts–a lapse in the ability to bolster mind and mood. I hope your situation stays contained and that you all stay safe–and I hope once the “mess” is cleaned up that someone is able to help that sad, old lonely couple.

    • 5 Matt April 16, 2014 at 20:18

      I know, it is sad, isn’t it? The thought of them. That’s what drew my pen. Probably sweet people. Who knows, though. Maybe they’re over at the hotel laughing, watching free cable and agreeing that procrastinating sure paid off, since someone else is cleaning it all up.

  3. 6 Mom April 16, 2014 at 13:17

    Hi there!! This is your elderly relative speaking. I, too, sit and survey the vast amount of “treasures” that grace my environment and wonder what to do with it all before my own “departure” occurs. I’m farther along the path than you are. Sad to say what we old folks see as treasures no one particularly wants these days. If it doesn’t go in the microwave or the dishwasher, well, it’s too much bother. I hear that among all the elders with whom I commiserate. But I will continue to ponder these things. Perhaps some sudden enlightenment will come from above and all of my problems (and yours, too, son-of-mine) will vanish!! P.S. This is supposed to make you smile!! You can always have an estate sale!!!

    • 7 Matt April 16, 2014 at 20:28

      Mom, it must be frustrating to have held on to stuff and then have people “down the tree” not appreciate it. I’m probably setting myself up for that same disappointment, since I so often buy or keep books based solely on my perception of their value to my daughters someday. And the girls might turn out to be kindle-worshippers and have no love of bound books. What to do? Thanks for the comment. I smiled.

      • 8 Spencer April 19, 2014 at 06:04

        Many of the best books in my collection came from my dad and were stored for years in Granny’s basement. I’m very thankful that she didn’t get rid of them.

        China and silverware are tough, on the other hand. They’re beautiful and sentimental, but it seems that too often their only function is that of heirloom, to get stored in the basement and eventually passed to the kids.

  4. 9 Spencer April 19, 2014 at 06:13

    Wow, life is crazy sometimes. It imagine it’s refreshing for the EPA to handle something benign as opposed to cleaning up meth labs.

    I wonder what they do with the chemicals afterwards. Sell them to Sigma-Aldrich?

    • 10 Matt April 19, 2014 at 11:40

      Hi Spencer!
      A delightful surprise seeing your face here. Given the wide terrain that the world of books covers, it can be considered a big win when a person’s child values their library — it validates the whole enterprise of book gathering. Hooray!

      As for the chemicals, there’s no selling any of it. The photos suggest that almost none of it was unopened and unexpired (do nitrites have a sell-by date?), and the EPA reps said that most of it was unidentifiable. So it’s basically toxic waste.

  5. 11 James Crossley April 19, 2014 at 15:00

    “[W]hen we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death.”

    –Thomas Pynchon

    And toward the stuff in one’s basement, no doubt. One threshold of maturity, or at least grownupness, might be reaching the point when you worry about having too much stuff. Kids certainly don’t do that. The more toy soldiers the better.

    I’m a pretty ruthless anti-hoarder these days. That roasting pan that gets used but once a year on Thanksgiving? Chuck it and buy a new one next November; rinse and repeat. This drawing that came home from kindergarten? Some sentimental value, sure, but not exactly an example of quality draftsmanship, so into the recycling it can go. Or it could if I were the only member of the household who voted on these issues.

    There’s one glaring categorical exception to my ruthlessness, of course. It could fairly be asserted that I seek to pare all other belongings to the bone so I can accumulate more books. I’d like to pretend that I’m establishing a library to pass down for generations to come, but I’m planning to take the books with me when I go if I possibly can.

    • 12 Matt April 20, 2014 at 17:04

      James,
      Long life to you, not only for all the usual reasons, but also so that you outlive me, lest I be drafted to help build the viking ship that would carry you and your library across the water, or the pyramid big enough to house it all for eternity.


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