The Things We Need

When you go onto private property unexpectedly, you’d best do so with some caution. There are all manner of things you may encounter. Once I spoke with a convicted murderer who had been released from the hospital where he had been treated for mental illness; he was living in an abandoned house with the roof open to the sky. Haste isn’t your boon companion; better you employ careful observation.

There were no dogs visible, no dog food bowls, doghouses, or lengths of chain attached to stakes; probably no dogs outside. The house was set back into the property at least a quarter of a mile. I drove down two dirt tracks with dried Johnson grass and earliest wildflowers growing up around them. Four old Chevy trucks sat on the south side of the entrance, in varied states of decay, and there was a pile of old tires under some pine trees on the other side of the drive. I inched past a hill of rotting cardboard boxes that later I’d find were filled with canning jars, summer’s dead weeds growing up and over and through.

A complaint has to be filed before The City can go onto private property to investigate, and it helps if you can see a violation from the street. Had there been a gate, I might have just documented what I could see from my jeep with binoculars and called it good. But there was no gate, and the property looked like a veritable hoarder’s paradise, with a cornucopia of health and safety violations. Such a collection of violations that I would work the property for several months, really sink my teeth in and get the property cleaned up.

I’d verified the broken down trucks, dripping their internal fluids onto the ground, inexorably polluting the ground water. The piles of stuff were almost too many to count: old lumber that had been salvaged for some long-forgotten purpose, steadily degrading and returning to the earth; about fifteen washing machines, all lined up neatly in two rows; a collection of rusting bicycle frames, tossed heedlessly in a pile.

The house was almost at the western edge of the property. The jeep slowly rolled to a stop near the house, at the end of the drive. As I carefully stepped out I touched my baton and slipped my ID case out of my back pocket; what had begun as a routine preparedness check had become ritual. My boots crunched on pine needles and dried oak leaves. The late winter air was cold enough to leech any trace of scent. “Hello?” I called. Birds were singing, and for a change, the wind was gently whispering through the hackberries, pines, and pecans. “Code Enforcement!” No response. No sound from the house, or the nearby ramshackle shed.

There were relatively new, wooden steps up to the front porch. On the door there was a “stop work” sticker, put there by someone else from The City, in building inspection. I knocked on the door, waited, and knocked more insistently. Still no sound of human habitation. I tried the knob, and the door opened easily. The house was only partially finished, with a foundation and floor, exterior walls and roof, but only bare wooden 2 x 4s where wallboard would be hung. There was a rough wooden work bench in one of the larger rooms, with crude construction plans on it.

Back outside I set about cataloguing the numerous health violations, taking pictures of some of the most outrageous mounds of things to prove my stories when I got back to the office. When I returned to the city proper, I’d run the property ownership records so I would know to whom I should address the collection of violation notifications.

All the certified as well as regular mail letters that I sent came back; the property owner’s address was listed as a P.O. box, long vacated by these elusive people. I covered the front of the property with bright signs detailing the violations that the City would abate, one way or another, if the owner didn’t. Still no response.

The next step was to re-inspect the property. It had been three months since I had first hesitantly set foot on the property, spring was eagerly invading winter, and fresh green growth had joined the remaining decay of the last growing season. The signs had been removed from the front of the property; I felt a flutter of hope as well as the slight foreboding I always felt when going onto another person’s property. Again the jeep and I inched slowly in, only this time there was what appeared to be an operational car up by the house.

As I pulled up next to the car, a woman stepped out of the house. She walked over and introduced herself to me, and shook my hand. Her story was one of shocking sorrow. She had lived on the property with her husband in an old single-wide trailer house while working to save money to build a house; they had been saving for 15 years. They had begun working on it when the trailer caught fire and burned to the ground, fatally injuring her husband. They had no insurance.

She had been living with family in Midwest City, trying to put her life back together.

Her brown eyes in a plain, round face were so kind. Her hands reached out for mine, and she smiled warmly at me. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want you to think bad about my husband. He was a good man.” She shook her head, ruefully. “He had started tryin’ to clean up the property before the fire, but it was hard on him, workin’ and tryin’ to build the house, so it wasn’t goin’ so good.” Then he had died in the fire when a worn electric blanket shorted out and set his bedding aflame. She had been asleep in the recliner in the living room, “because he snored like a chainsaw.” She had been unable to go into the rear of the trailer once the fire woke her.

“I couldn’t bear to come back for awhile. We didn’t have no insurance. I went to stay with my sister in Shawnee until I could get myself together,” she explained somberly. Her face clouded momentarily as the memory possessed her, but she visibly collected herself and continued her tale.

She had decided to finish her house. Her brother-in-law was taking over, and had an appointment with building inspectors to determine what exactly needed doing to continue construction. Some friends from her church were going to come out and help her clear away the flotsam and jetsam of her husband’s life. She was happy, she said, that the City was making her deal with the mess. The woman told me she felt God had sent me.

There were lots of things I felt at that moment, but godly wasn’t one of them. I had been relishing towing the vehicles away, having the junk scraped off the soil, and filing charges because of the state of the house. Usually I felt a genuine desire for folks to just clean up their mess, but experience had taught me that many would not, and would leave it for the City. Over time my heart had hardened towards my “clients;” defendants, rather. I had been spit on and threatened enough times that the collective vitriol had scoured away their faces and names, removed their humanity.

I had identified my “others,” those I could safely disdain, holding myself to be better than they in some way. This was an idea that had been creeping most obtrusively into my conscious mind for a couple of years, the concept that I wasn’t truly acting in a charitable, Christian manner. Instead, I openly joked about their disgusting habits, and participated in that most hateful of group activities, ridiculing others.

My eyes stung bitterly. My chest hurt from holding in the anguish. This woman, whom I had openly disdained, had thanked me for helping her. She sent me a little floral notecard when she had finished cleaning up the property, so I could come out and close the file with my last re-inspection. She hugged me. I cried.

I came to believe that I needed to return to working for those who struggle with life, instead of against them. This epiphany changed me permanently. It made leaving the job easy, even preferable. My investigative work had burgeoned again, as it is wont to do. During a flush cycle, I left the City and went back to work doing criminal defense. That work was not easier, but at least I believed in the charge to do the best you can for your client, regardless who they are or what they are accused of having done.

The woman had broken my heart; the hard outer surface cracked and fell away. The exposed tender flesh ached for some time, but at least I could feel it beating, I could feel again.