A Haitian Pet Store

{Note: This one isn’t particularly funny. It’s about some harsh life experiences in Haiti. Just a fair warning.}

In 1983 I spent 4 months working in the north of Haiti. ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was in power, the Tonton Macoute struck fear in the hearts of every sane person, the Houngans and Mambos revered the Vodoun Loas and I was an ignorant white boy coming to terms with realities unknown in my life in the United States.

I lived in Cap Haitian and worked some 20 miles west in the verdant Plain Du Nord. Unrelenting poverty in every direction. Beautiful people working harder than any people I have ever met. Friendly faces despite hunger, fear and need. Daily life struggling with burdens I had no chance whatsoever of understanding. I was from a different planet, a different century, a different life.

It took me most of my 4 months to shake a few of the scales from my eyes. I went to Haiti a liberal, a believer in respect for all people and a champion for human rights. I left Haiti disappointed with myself, having come to a clearer understanding of what a spoiled child of the richest country on earth I really was. I saw many things that I found shocking or amazing that are part of daily life for the majority of people on this planet. I learned a little bit about what is possible in a land of privilege and wealth and what is not in a land that lives close, so painfully close to the bone.

There were many little things that are different about life in a country like Haiti. This story is about a dawning awareness, surmounted by a startling epiphany, regarding one aspect of those differences. Pets.

I flew into Port-au-Prince and drove up to Cap Haitian. (http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/caribb/lgcolor/htcolor.htm) After stepping off a DC-10 jetliner, the steady slide into the reality that is Haiti moved through an un-air-conditioned terminal and customs building, into a street of Tap-Taps, taxis and traffic. (There is a great set of photos of Haiti from a missionary group at http://precious.org/haiti/photos/Pictures%20of%20Haiti/) Then open markets, slums and hills denuded of trees for miles and miles. Eventually the blight of the city turns into a beautiful countryside of mountains and greenery. Haiti is the western half of the island of Hispaniola, one of the gems of the Caribbean.

As we drove through Haiti I noticed that animals were a frequent part of the view. Not wild animals, I’m talking about beasts of burden. Of course, people were the primary beast of burden, but donkeys came in a clear second. Donkeys loaded with huge piles of firewood or manioc, staggering down a road as their owners whipped them with sticks. To my horror, I passed a donkey awaiting a load. Rather than a blanket or a saddle or panniers protecting its back, there was a mat of coarsely woven palm fronds. As it slipped off I realized that the poor animal’s back was raw down to the spine. A glimmering of the differences in thinking about animals between my city life in the USA and a country life in Haiti slipped into my mind. The owner threw the mat upon the donkey’s torn and scarred back, loaded baskets of charcoal and struck the creature with a stick until it moved.

I began to wonder what I would do if I was in the farmer’s position and realized that if I walked in those shoes, I’d probably be holding that stick. I began to realize why my co-workers drank so much rum. I began to regret my inability to handle liquor.

I settled into a routine and spent my days in a small shack in the middle of nowhere, working with 3 Haitian men and a boy, desperately trying to learn enough Haitian Creole to communicate. We were deep in the utterly rural Plain du Nord, a vast grassy plain punctuated with stunted trees and plants with thorns or spines or spikes. Most surprising to me were the phenomenal numbers of lizards. Big lizards. Lizards that grew to nearly 4’ in length. I asked the Haitians if the lizards were good to eat and clearly lost a great deal of intelligence in their eyes. ‘Non.’ It became clear that sane people did not consider eating these lizards. Creepy. Big. Lizards. I flashed on stories of friends whose large monitor lizard pets had eaten their german shepards and hoped that sane lizards did not consider eating people as well.

Of more interest to my co-workers were dogs. Perhaps someone, somewhere on Haiti keeps dogs on purpose, but to the men I worked with, dogs were a scourge. Once or twice a week, at some signal I could not perceive, the men would instantly stop work, jump up, grab rocks and race into the grass lobbing the stones at some cur that had attempted to steal a morsel of food. The only dogs I saw were cadaverous, starving wretches that had been stoned to death by irate Haitians.

I began to ask the Haitians I worked and lived around about pets. Did they have pets? What kind of pets would they keep? Reactions varied from a complete lack of understanding regarding the topic to a grudging acceptance that someone, somewhere might keep pets, but no one knew anyone who did. The military had some dogs that were used to attack people, but I rejected that as an example of ‘pets.’

Nevertheless, as I explored Cap Haitian during a day off, I thought I’d finally found my grail, a Haitian pet store! Walking near the Cap version of the Marché de Fer, I stumbled into an alley and beheld my quarry. There, at the end of the alley, was a nicely dressed Haitian woman with cages and cages of cats! People would walk by and admire them. They mewed prettily, trying to find someone to adopt them. Soon, a young woman walked up and began haggling in rapid Creole (too fast for my poor understanding of the tongue.) Back and forth they went until a bargain had been struck. I watched as the selected cat was retrieved for the new pet owner. I imagined her taking it home to some small child, a happy moment for all. As I got ready to take a picture of this special Kodak moment, the shop owner picked up the cat, grabbed its head, twisted it with a single motion and an audible ‘SNAP’. As the dead cat fell limp, she deftly whipped out a skinning knife, removed the skin, gutted the innards and wrapped the meat back into the skin. All in fewer moments than I could count.

Yes, Haitians eat cat. Yes, I ate cat when I was in Haiti. Haitians were horrified that Americans ate horse (which had been being sold for a while in grocery stores in the late 70’s in the USA.) Different cultures have different dietary standards and (at least for the carnivores among us,) ours aren’t particularly more moral than anyone else’s. I realized that day that I needed to extend some similar degree of respect for cultural differences to the Haitian people’s treatment of animals. Undoubtedly the Haitians, given some slack in their own lives, would treat animals in a more humane way. Certainly there are likely to be some Haitians with enough resources to extend them to the animals around them. But that ‘SNAP’ changed me. It took me out of the last of my tourist mentality and forced me to quit looking for Kodak moments in Haiti. I realized that I had a long way to go before I could shake the mental blinders I had carried from the USA, but at least I now knew they existed.

Now _that's_ a big zit!

I really didn’t want to spend my summer working in the meat cutting room of the local grocery store. Nevertheless I did.

It was pure poverty that drove me to it. I had no intention of a career in meat cutting. Before, during or after. Definitely not after. Yet I am a doughty soul and hoped to make the best of it. Perhaps I dreamed about collecting stories that I could one day feature in a blog about disgust. I can’t quite recall if that was the case at the time, but what a treasure trove of repulsive experiences it turned out to be.

In this installment I want to realte one of the many quaint bonding experiences shared among the denizens of the cutting room. Sure, you might call it hazing, some may go so far as to bandy about the term ‘abuse.’ But it was all meant as good, clean fun. Well, not fun for the target. And hardly 'good' by any reasonable standard. And 'clean', ha! Okay, it was a series of vicious cruel pranks played with the decomposing carcasses of various animals. And yet, I lived to tell the tale…

At first I thought that I would fly under the radar of the cutters in the meat room. Much of my time was spent alone at night cleaning up after them and the overlap period usually occurred while they were starting to experience delirium tremens and other withdrawal symptoms from having gone a couple hours without the various substances to which they were addicted. This was flawed reasoning on my part. Going a couple hours without a drink does not make a 5 times divorced overweight brain damaged man with a knife any nicer. (I promise not to make generalizations about meat cutters in this missive, I speak only about specific individuals whose wrath I survived.)

By the time I got to work each day, the cutters were bored, almost sober, tired and cranky. What they needed most in life was a nice college boy to practice upon. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a show–off or jerk. I said absolutely nothing about my background, interests or education to anyone. I’d survived volunteer fire departments, roofing crews, day labor jobs and plasma donation centers. I knew how to blend in. Or so I thought.

It was the humor that gave me away. I tended towards a more absurdist view of the comic potential of the meat room. Perhaps it was the recreations of classic greek sculpture I would mold the huge trays of pork sausage into. Or the little can-can lines I would coax the chickens in their case to dance. Or possibly the Franken-Chicken I sewed together out of mixed parts and referred to as ‘my creation.’ Regardless, they sniffed difference and pounced.

It had become clear to me that I had to suck it up and cope unless I wanted a 10" filleting knife stuck in me or an 8 hour shift locked in the cooler. A handful of the bloody melting sawdust created when frozen liver is sawn into slices would be dropped down the back of my shirt as a gentle reminder of the pecking order if I looked too cocky. I tried to fit in. Oh lord I tried.

But the day that the chief cutter (never ever ever call a meat cutter a butcher, just take my word for it,) came to work with his head swollen like a basketball, black and blue and missing three teeth, I couldn’t help myself. The other cutters had all worked out who would actually pull a knife on who, so they knew who could make comments and ask questions. I listened quietly at my chicken packing station while the story emerged of a drunken fight over a man hitting on the cutter's wife at the local honky-tonk. This apparently ended with the chief cutter getting his butt kicked and having his head slammed in a car door 8 times. I didn’t blink or say a word until he growled out in his bloody lisp that it “wouldn’t have made no never-mind to him if it hadn’t been his wife doing the last 4 slams.” I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.

The room went silent. The blood drained from my body like a kosher cow. I won’t look up but I hear the cutter chuckle and say “think that’s funny do ya?” I consider turning and running. But everyone goes back to work and I am lulled into believing that the moment is past and forgotten.

The next day everyone acts as though nothing has happened. Surely I have blown this way out of proportion in my mind. The crew is laughing at each other’s bad jokes worn thin with repetition and I am calmed. The day is nearly over when the chief cutter calls me over to the heat wrapping table. I am cautious, but he seems in a good mood.

“You like science stuff, right?” he asks nicely. I want to please, and respond with a hearty “Yeah.”

“Come check this out, it’s not something you’ll see every day.” I am curious. It is true that my knowledge of anatomy has taken a rather practical turn since I entered the meat room and I am fascinated by such things. I’d already seen a number of interesting things having to do with the inner workings of cows, pigs and chickens so perhaps this was something not to be missed.

As I step over to the table, I notice a 40 lb. hunk from a side of beef laid on the table. “Check this out, betcha never saw a zit this big before.” And truly, the emperor of all pimples, boils and blains is crowning this piece of meat.

Imagine if you will, a pimple. A pimple not unlike the ones you popped as a teenager. That is, if you had pimples 2 INCHES ACROSS! OH MY GOD! It’s a golf ball sized zit, sickly greenish yellow in color and taut with high pressure pus. It stands out from the red of the surrounding meat with a hideous pussy contrast. I am in awe. I can’t tear my eyes away. I am already gagging a bit, but don’t want to disgrace myself. I manage a wimpy little, “Wow.”

“Look closer! Can you see the stuff inside it? Go on, look close, it’s amazing.” The cutter is using whatever voice he uses to lure the women drunk enough to marry him and I am hypnotized. I lean over and look at it up close. Like the bird struck dumb before the snake, I have lost the ability to save myself. “Do you see it? Look real close.” I bend over…

Yes, dear reader, it is at this point that his sure scarred hands fly out like the jaws of a bear trap snapping shut to shove down on either side of this monstrosity. It erupts like a pus filled Mt. St. Helens. There must have been a quart of thick cheesy infection hiding inside that abscess. I am covered.

Eyes, hair, open shirt collar, nose, mouth (yes, it was open in true yokel fashion.) I am frozen in shock. Every muscle in my body seizes in preparation for a truly magnificent retch. But before I can being to vomit, I am grabbed by the back of my pants and shirt and tossed into the meat cooler. I manage to hear “You puke in there and I’ll cut your pinky off, college boy!” I wipe as much of the putrid goo off my face with my bloody meat cutting apron. And shiver. I know perfectly well that if I puke all over the fresh meat, I’ll have to unload the entire cooler and possibly pay for any spoilage. I heave and wretch but hold it in.

2 hours later the night cleaning crew lets me out. “What’s that smell?” they ask. I stagger to the pot sink and hose myself down.

The next day the meat cutting room can’t stop laughing whenever they look at me. I am stunned. But slowly I realize that things are mysteriously a little better. I’m getting more smiles without a feral feel to them. Apparently I have passed some small initiation. I took a little bit of stupid pride from the experience and gave up a little bit of gullibility. Looking back from years later I think, “What Jerks!”


The Great Possum Battle

I live in a big old building, once a church, now a house. Previous tenants have not completely relinquished their rights to the space. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that the descendents of previous tenants have not relinquished rights.

I don’t mean the actors who lived in it as a co-op, or the sk8punks who squatted in it while it was abandoned, nor the evangelicals who cried to Jah in tongues. I’m referring to the generations of mice, rats, squirrels, possums, raccoons and snakes that called my house their home (to say nothing of the class Insecta.)

Maybe it’s a racial memory of my distant forbearers battling with mighty carnivores for the use of a cave. Maybe it’s simple male ego refusing to submit to a smaller mammal. Maybe it’s 12 years worth of Catholic school rebelling against vermin. I don’t know. I just know that I can’t bring myself to share my house with these creatures.

Many battles have been fought on this front. I’m sure I will share others, but for now I want to relate the tale of the most horrific of confrontations. The Great Possum Battle.

The clues had been mounting for days. Perhaps they would have been obvious to a trained eye, but they were merely mysteries for me. A number of the rooms in our house have what realtors refer to as a ‘cathedral ceiling’. This means, in our case, that we ran out of money before we could put a ceiling between the room and the roof. Since insulation of some sort was required, we opted for a traditionally non-residential solution. A company was hired to come in, staple netting between the roof rafters (see http://www.nachi.org/tips/0411.gif) and pump a semi-liquid insulation consisting of cotton, a fire retardant and what I imagine to be a thinned Elmer’s glue between the rafters and held in by the netting. This is a process typically more suited to a Home Depot or other big box warehouse, but in our case was cheap enough to get us inspected and approved. The end result would send Martha Stewart screaming back to the Pen, but for us is reminiscent of a downy comforter hovering above us (ahhh, the power of self-delusion…)

This insulation nestles between the rafters, creating a series of ‘lanes’ running from the top of the wall to the peak of the roof. Careful eyes had spotted an anomaly in one of the dining room lanes, a tunnel of sorts passing up through the insulation. Keep in mind that the netting serves as a floor inside these insulation filled pathways. Looking up, it is much like looking at the glass wall of an ant farm. Anything passing through the lane leaves a trail which is visible from below.

The peak of this odd ceiling is approximately 22 feet high and the walls meet the ceiling at 10 feet. Not a position that encourages casual investigation on my part. Yet the ominous drumbeat of horror continues day by day as bits of insulation are found hither and yon on the floor, new paths appear in the ceiling, something smells odd.

At the point where the ceiling meets the wall, there is a shelf-like space created by the top of the wall and boxed in by the rafters on each side. This is a space that is some 18 inches wide by 8 inches deep, normally unseen due to the insulation and netting. Yet something is wrong. I can’t quite put my finger on it until I realize what I’m looking at. Yes, an 8 inch long pink fleshy tail is sticking out of the insulation. It all becomes clear. A possum has died in my dining room ceiling. Dehydrated no doubt. Shedding its load of parasites into the cotton haven of my roof. Waiting to rain down on us as we eat our meals. Eager for a blood-meal. Dang.

The gathering begins. A large ladder, trash bags, rubber gloves, welding gloves, a paper coverall suit, Lysol, a trash can, face shield, hat. I look like a hillbilly spaceman. The ladder is positioned, the trash can ready. I don my rubber gloves and then welding gloves. These reach through the back of a trash bag so I can pull the carcass into the bag in one swift motion, twist it shut and drop it in the can. I practice the motions, it must go quickly so that no parasites have the chance of transferring hosts. I am ready.

Face shield in place, I mount the (somewhat rickety) ladder, climb up to the top of the wall, reach out to firmly grab the tail and pull into the bag and right as I touch the fetid wormlike appendage… it MOVES! EEEEEK! I manage to leap/fall/fly from the ladder without breaking anything important. Oh. My. God. There is a live possum in my ceiling. I was within inches of it. I experience one of those Hitchcock movie moments where everything foreshortens in a quick nauseating zoom.

You, my readers, have just unknowingly divided yourselves into two groups; those who are thinking me a big weenie and those who know the true spawn of Satan that is a large feral possum. Every cute picture you’ve ever seen is a lie. Think more of a giant vorpal were-rat with vicious pointy teeth, a greasy infested coat, hands of unreasonable dexterity and a nasty rabid disposition. [For the possum lovers among you, I reluctantly apologize. Bottom line is that I have been scarred for life by these hideous beasts, oops, lovable furballs and have no intention of ruining a good story for the sake of marketing possums.] {For pictures that don’t come close to doing justice of the image of a huge hissing possum barring it’s evil teeth inches from ones face see http://opossumsocietyus.org/opossum_defense_mechanisms.htm}

New plan! The initial urge to abandon the house and live in the car from now on is considered and sadly rejected. I force myself to think rationally. The first thing I need to do is keep the possum from climbing higher into the ceiling. If it does, I have no chance of getting it out. I start assembling a new toolset. Tools on the end of sticks! I move the ladder farther back and remount it with extreme caution. With a few deft strokes of my shaking hands I manage to cut the netting between the two rafters where my nemesis is hiding. This dumps the insulation onto the floor and denies the possum an easy trail upward. I use a toy garden cultivator (big forky thing) on the end of a stick to pull the remaining insulation out from around the huddled hulk of fur.

It turns, it hisses. Oh Lord, we’re talking a BIG possum. A big Momma Possum gravid with a litter of hellspawn young. A big pissed off, hungry, thirsty, pregnant, scared possum. I reconsider living in the car.

At this point, right on cue, my dog figures out what is happening and attempts to join me on the ladder to fight this heinous scourge. I am trapped between a Lovecraftian horror above and a ferociously barking, frustrated, three-legged hunting dog below. Luckily, my dog has minimal ladder climbing skills (though I will admit to a great deal of amazement that, with three legs, she has any ladder climbing skills at all,) and rapidly falls off, allowing me to flee.

I’m now 45 minutes into this effort. It is clear that ‘Something Must Be Done.’ I consider just leaving the dang thing to climb down on its own and leave, but the chance that it will decide to go elsewhere in the house is too much for me. I must get it out or I will not sleep. I drag my dog into another room and construct a barrier from child gates, chairs and boxes to keep her from returning. Confident that I am secure from surprises in that vein, I am initially comforted to see my next door neighbor P. walking down my hall.

P. is Irish. While this immediately attributes a number of potential characteristics, the one relevant at this moment is a deep revulsion towards vermin. As I point out my visitor, a wave of disgust visibly roils down his body. It is clear that every fiber of his being is urging him to turn and run. But P. is the kind of friend you want at your back in a bad situation. Despite his horror, he’s gonna stick it out and help me. I am grateful. As events will show, foolish. But grateful.

Initial suggestions run towards shooting the beast. A .22 at close range would probably do the trick. However, I’ve never shot a living thing in my life and despite my desperate urge to be done with this creature, I’m not going to start with a pregnant possum in my dining room. I conceive of a plan to nudge the creature out of it’s hole and into a trash can which I will throw out the open dining room door (which opens to the back porch.) This involves me on the ladder, holding the trash can as close as I can to the possum and P. gently nudging it with a stick.

I check my hillbilly armor and proceed to climb up the ladder, brandishing the trashcan as a shield. As I position myself and prepare to cue P., he looses his restraint, yells a battle cry and whacks the possum stoutly with the stick. I am frozen with horror as P. unleashes a mighty fury of blows at the enemy. The possum has no interest at this point in actually ‘playing possum.’ She understands that this is the verminous Ragnarok, the final battle, and she is going to go down fighting. Of course, P. is some 12 feet away and a merely theoretical enemy. I am mere inches away and clearly the prime candidate for her defensive response.

She lunges at me, teeth bared, grasping for any hold to allow her to chew upon my face. Images of Winston Smith, tied down with a cage strapped to his face holding a starving rat flash through my mind. I abandon the trash can and my dignity and fall/leap/fly off the top of the 10 foot ladder. After I catch my breath, I swallow my hasty words and we agree that the intent was to ‘gently’ nudge the critter, not ‘whack it soundly’ as P. was heard to yell in the heat of battle. We try again, with more verve than I care for on P.’s part, but only manage to force a retreat into the corner by the possum. There is no way to dislodge her in this position and she is beginning to eye me as a potential target for a wild leap. We decide to take a break.

The battle has now been going on for almost 2 hours. A crowd has gathered, safely out of range, consisting of my son, P.’s kids, my wife and my dog. I look like some kind of demented bee-keeper dressed in my impromptu armor and there is a psychotic marsupial hell-pig hissing in my ceiling. It’s time to call in the pros.

I look through the yellow-pages to find a pest remover. It is now 9:30 on a Thursday night. After three calls I finally get through to someone. The ‘gentleman’ on the other end of the phone listens to my plight and is vastly amused. He asks me to hold on a second and then returns to request I repeat my story. I do so and hear group laughter. He has put me on a speaker phone so that his drinking buddies can get a laugh. He informs me that there is no way that I will be willing to pay what he will charge to come out and remove this possum. I am skeptical until I hear his price, $150. P. is nodding his head saying “Yes, definitely! Fair price, get him here right away!” Alas, I don’t have $150 at this point in time. As the pest man’s suggestions devolve into humor for his buddies’ pleasure I thank him and hang up. P. is broken hearted. He is too good a friend to abandon me, but he desperately wants to leave. I need some backup, but am mortally afraid that he will pull another berserker on me, resulting in permanent scarring on my part. ‘Something Must Be Done.’

It’s after 10:00 and P. and I realize that we aren’t drinking nearly enough. Beers are procured and imbibed. We re-enact both P’s wild attack and my squealing leap from the ladder. We laugh. The possum waits.

I come up with a new plan. Since we couldn’t get her out of the corner, perhaps a ‘snake stick’ approach would work. This is a loop of rope attached to the end of a stick that you can pull tight, catching a snake in the loop and keeping it a safe distance away with the stick. I gather the gear and construct my impromptu lasso stick. For some reason, the only line I can find is neon hot-pink nylon string. It’s strong enough, so what the heck.

Once more into the breach I climb. Trash can in one hand, possum stick in the other. I hold the can as close as I can, hoping it looks like a more enticing retreat than me. The other hand brings the stick and string up to try and loop it over the conical head of the she-creature. And I learn something I didn’t know. As soon as the possum gets a sight of the pink string, she reacts in mortal terror. Out from the corner she rushes, bypassing both the can and my arm, leaping out into the air 10 feet above the floor. The onlookers and P. are frozen, where will she land, where will she run. Her fat body thumps loudly on the floor, she pauses for a moment to fix the image of her tormentors firmly in her mind. And rushes out the door. I run down the ladder, slam the door shut and the room bursts into cheers!

4 years later, there is still a gap in my dining room ceiling commemorating this mighty battle. We can only assume that the hungry beast came in through the dog door and climbed up into the ceiling. We have a second dog now and hope it will not happen again, but time will tell…


The bathroom rotteth...

Four roommates. One bathroom. Old house.

This isn't a story about mold, mildew and other virulent life forms, though they certainly struggled for a leading role in this story. It's not a story about men missing the rim or trashcans over-flowing with unidentifiably stained tissue, though god know it could have been. Nor is it a story about 40 years of leakage onto decaying wood beams, that's another story.

This is a story about a cupboard no one ever looked in. And a bad smell. A very bad smell.

So many bathrooms in houses full of 20-something slackers smell that it hardly merits a memoir. Nevertheless, this smell only started in that league. Just a gentle suggestion of corruption warring with the toilet, trashcan and piles of spilled makeup. Nothing to worry about. At first.

But the days wear on and the smell doesn't shift or abate. It grows. The sickly sweet tang of rotting flesh arrives. God forbid, we'll have to clean the bathroom. A house meeting is called. Acrimony, accusation, attitude all battle as the roommates attempt to demonstrate that there is no way that it is their turn to engage in this horrid task. Frustration, ill-will, demands all fly back and forth until everyone agrees to do a bit. The bathroom is cleaned.

Many likely candidates are purged. Cleaning tools are rescued from behind the toilet, detoxed and pressed into use. Heavy cleaning chemicals are engaged. Layers of filth are stripped away. Hope reigns supreme. But as the odor of the scrubbing bubbles wafts out the window, the smell of death seeps back into the room, all the purer for not having to share out nostrils with the general bathroom funk.

This is all occurring in June in Texas with no air conditioning. The members of the household are beginning to skip bathing and other hygienic acts which require extended time in the bathroom. The unavoidable bodily acts are being rushed, elimination timed not to require respiration. Visitors to the house are finding excuses to leave in a hurry. The funk is creeping out of the bathroom into the hall. One of the roommates is peeing in the yard. Something must be done.

I have a shaky stomach. It is no challenge to make me queasy. I am particularly susceptible to smells. My room is next door to the bathroom. I am the almost the oldest house resident. I am bald. Somehow, these combine, in the minds of my roommates, into the perfect qualifications for solving this problem. Since there is no chance that I will be able to afford to live anyplace else, I am forced to concur.

Logic dictated that something was causing the smell (yes, I recognize the obviousness of this statement, but I had to start somewhere for goodness' sake.) Since we hadn't found it during the Great Cleansing, it had to be in the ceiling, walls or under the floor. In this part of Austin, the houses are built on 'pier and beam' foundations. Pillars of concrete (modern) or cedar (old-timey) rise 1 to 3 feet off the ground and support wooden beams which serve as the structural base for the house. There are no basements. Just a creepy, dark, dirty, animal graveyard that must be navigated by crawling on your belly with a house creaking above you and water and sewer pipes pressing close against your sides.

Crawling under houses in this manner is an experience that I have somehow repeatedly endured. I'm sure we will revisit the topic. Suffice to say that at any moment you flashlight may illuminate a dead cat skeleton, a mother possum too stupid to play dead or a raccoon weighing in at a sizable portion of your own body weight. Not pleasant.

Of course, the bathroom in the house in question resided at the farthest point possible away from the access hatch, meaning a long slow crawl encountering god knows what. My choices are limited. I go in. Broken glass, draping electrical cables, piles of lightly covered cat poop slowing aging into coprolites. I am past the halfway mark when I realize that I was too stupid to bring anything like a garbage bag along. What I will do if I discover the source of the carnal rot is a big mystery. I can't actually turn around until I get almost under the bathroom so I decide I must continue. I'm trying to calculate if I'm under the bathroom proper, the pipes look about right, but there is no smell at all. I hear a familiar sound, the toilet flushing, ominously amplified by having my ear 3 inches from the sewer pipe. My head feels weirdly cool. The toilet is leaking through the semi-rotten wood floor onto my neck. I am disgusted.

30 minutes later I have wormed my way back out of the underhouse. I am evil with the nasties I've crawled through. There is no way I am going to go take a shower. At this stage, taking a shower in the bathroom of death means technical cleanliness and emerging with an undeniable aroma of roadkill. I hose off in the back yard.

The roommates are concerned. Why haven't I dealt with the smell yet. Don't I understand their plight? Something must be done.

Acute observation is called for. I douse a handkerchief in SeaBreeze astringent cleanser and go in for a look. True, there is mold on every bit of drywall to some degree, nothing to indicate a special stash of evilness. But something is nagging at the back of my mind. Eventually, as various parts of my mind check out due to either too much funk or too much SeaBreeze, it occurs to me that the ceiling over the shower is lower than the rest of the room. Closer inspection shows that what appears at first glance to be panels are actually cupboard doors that have had the handles removed and have been painted over many many times. AHA! There must be a secret space.

I rush for tools, a trusty knife to crack the seal of the paint, paint scrapers, screwdrivers and most importantly a big hammer. With my trusty handkerchief tied around my face I go to work. The results are not pretty. I scratch, I mar, I dent. But soon, I have a screwdriver wedged under the edge of the smallish door. The roommates are waiting with baited breath down the hall, curious but cautious. I use my weight on the screwdriver to lever the door open and...

A HUGE CLOUD OF GREEN FUNK RUSHES OUT AND GRABS MY HEAD. I can vaguely hear my roommates down the hall as their screams echo past the screen door they slam behind them, fleeing the house. I am dizzy and on my knees. Somehow I manage to knock the door shut and crawl out of the bathroom into the kitchen where I stick my head in the sink, rinsing and rinsing. And yet, I know I must go back in. The job has only just begun.

Under the kitchen sink (easily worthy of another story in this series,) I find an ancient rubber Rubbermaid glove. Searching about the kitchen I am pleasantly surprised to find large trash bags. I can't imagine why, it's not like anyone ever emptied the old one, but whatever. I tear some holes and don one like a tunic. A t-shirt soaked in SeaBreeze joins the handkerchief as a secondary facial covering. I stick my gloved hand into a trash bag and turn it inside out so that I can grab with the bag. I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I'm going in.

The space above the shower runs it's entire length. I had opened one of the doors on the far end. As I pulled it open, gritting my teeth against the putrid cloud that continued to emanate, it was clear that whatever the source of this hellish smell was, it was back in the area I could not see. I would have to feel around until I found something.

I groped. Fearful of ancient rat traps, my searching hand was tentative in it's explorations. Nothing but thick dust. Nothing until the Squish. My fingers pushed right into the decaying carcass of some small mammal. Jellified flesh squished around my fingers. I had to get a good hold on it to get it into the trash bag. I tried to scoop it up, it dribbled putrescence that even a layer of trash bag and glove couldn't keep from disgusting me. I managed to lift most of it up and into the bag, pulling the whole endeavour out of the space towards me. As it emerged, I pushed the edges of the bag around it, encouraged that I might be in the end game. Then it happened.

The furry tail of a long dead squirrel, gobbets of rotting flesh dangling off the end, fell out of the bag onto my foot. It was at this point that I discovered that once you have tied a handkerchief and t-shirt around your mouth and nose, you can't successfully vomit. You can try, oh lord how I tried, but there's nowhere for it to go. And it leaves a lovely reminder of your efforts strapped to your face.

Meanwhile I've still got a semi-liquid squirrel in my hand. I wrestle with competing demands; run away, throw up, throw up some more and deal with the squirrel. Somehow I manage to pick 'deal with the squirrel.' I throw the tail into the bag, twist it shut and hike myself out to the trashcan. My roommates are sitting across the street looking like refugees. They alternate between joy at my success and horror at whatever is in the bag. I manage not to open it for them (tempting, very tempting.) Into the trash can it goes along with my glove, my handkerchief, my SeaBreeze t-shirt, my regular t-shirt, my pants and my socks (I can't afford new shoes, so I save them for a hosing later.) A quick dash to pour a load of bleach into the cupboard (actually a shortsighted thing to do since it ended up dripping through to the shower, but hey, I really didn't care at that point,) and I called it quits.

It took almost a week for the smell to completely go away, but I was forgiven bathroom cleaning duties from that point forward (not that anyone else did them either.) Alas, my reputation had now been set and my destiny was firmly associated with the funky, the dead and the rotting.


Is this actually a journal?

No. I just want someplace to write down and share my memories of a recurring theme in my life. Disgust. Not with my fellow human beings, nor with the state of our political system (I'll write about those elsewhere.) I'm talking about pus, puke, decomposition, rot or toxic chemicals. For some reason the universe has decided that, despite my life-long above average hygiene rating (validated by three girlfriends and a wife,) I am to have repeated encounters with ick.

I hereby promise to be infrequent, unresponsive and inattentive. Cheers,