The County Dump
Today I was the only woman at the Baltimore County dump. That’s not unusual; I’m always the only woman at the dump — at least for the past four weeks I’ve been going there. It doesn’t matter, and the men never bother me. They don’t even look at me. In fact, no one looks at anyone at the dump. Throwing your crap over the side of a wall into oblivion seems a bit personal. At least it is for me.
My father died at age 91, and he was a hoarder. I’ve been helping to clean out his home office and his two-car garage — all filled from floor to ceiling with stuff. The detritus of 91 years on this planet looks like old engineering magazines, glass jars crammed with pens and pencils, empty Tic Tac containers neatly stacked in small boxes, piles of the plastic cylinders that are inside Scotch Tape dispensers, bags of unopened magnets, homemade contraptions whose uses remain a mystery, and notebooks filled with intricate calculations and drawings. That’s just some of what I cleaned out today.
I felt guilty sitting in his office, tossing things into big garbage bags. I resisted the urge to test the hundreds of pens and pencils to see if they still work and instead tossed them, jars and all, into a trash bag. I grabbed a handful of magnets, still in their packages. I can almost see him shaking his head and saying, “Don’t throw those out; you never know when you might need a magnet.” Into the trash.
We have a label now for the malady my dad had: obsessive compulsive disorder. But the label didn’t prompt him to get help nor did it stop his hoarding and preoccupied thought patterns. He had a particular fondness for logs and charts. When we kids were young and starting to drive, he made us fill out a chart every time we put gas in the car: date, mileage, cost per gallon, number of gallons, weather. I don’t know what he did with those charts, but I’m quite sure I’ll come across them cleaning out his things. They will go in the trash, too.
I read an article recently that said mental illness can remain dormant forever, but if one has the genes or the predisposition, an environmental trauma or force can breathe life into it. Maybe that’s what happened with my dad.
His uneducated, first-generation Polish mother was told that coddling babies would make them weak, unable to fend for themselves in a hard scrabble city of poverty and sickness. So, she touched her first-born son as little as possible, just feeding and cleaning him. No coddling, cuddling, or hugging. My dad’s trauma came when he was five, when—for reasons we can only guess—his mother decided to have him circumcised.
It’s hard to shake the thought of my dad at five, scared, not knowing what was going to happen. Was the doctor kind? Did my grandmother stay with him? Did they anesthetize him? After all, it was 1930. All we know for sure is that my dad was so distressed by the ordeal that he began to stutter. He stuttered all the time, except when he was singing. He sang in the boys’ choir at St. Elizabeth’s Church in East Baltimore.
His mother was anxious about the stuttering. This could ruin her son’s chances of breaking the family yoke of poverty and making something of himself. Only one thing could help: prayer.
My grandmother tied a black band around my father’s arm in a misguided attempt to let people know that he was damaged and that they should pray for him. Together they traversed the city by foot and by bus, attending novenas at Catholic churches, praying for the stuttering to end. Because novenas involve nine days of prayer, they were on the go quite often.
Maybe it was the novenas, but more likely it was sheer will — of which my dad had plenty — that finally stopped the stuttering. But the experience had a shattering effect on him. He remained distrustful and aloof for most of his adult life, making it hard to have any kind of authentic relationship with him.
My dad endured other hardships during his childhood, such as his parents’ chronic under employment, but I think it was the circumcision, the stuttering, the black arm band, the endless novenas that left the deepest scars on the skin of his life. Did it also lead to his hoarding, to his obsessive compulsive disorder? Who knows.
About two months before my dad died, I visited him at his house. He was sitting in a chair in the living room just staring into space.
“Dad,” I said. “Don’t you want to watch t.v. or listen to some music?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
“So, you just want to sit here? Alone with your thoughts? What do you think about?”
He looked at me for a moment, as if he wasn’t sure whether or not he could tell me.
“I have projects that I have to work out,” he finally said.
“Projects? What kind of projects?”
He looked at me and shrugged.
“You mean like, engineering or mathematical projects?”
“Yes. I work on them in my head.”
We just looked at each other for a moment.
“You can’t help it, can you?” I asked.
He shrugged again and looked at me with an apologetic smile as if to say “can you help me get this clutter out of my mind?”
Or maybe I’m reading too much into that exchange. My thoughts about my father change every day. Sometimes they blend together like the insides of a lava lamp. Sometimes they smash mercilessly into each other like go-karts. And sometimes I don’t know what to think.
I continued to throw his junk into garbage bags, pausing at times to scrutinize some of the intricate drawings and measurements in his notebooks, trying to gain some insight, to somehow unlock him, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen.
I found a notebook chronicling several years of his lawn-mowing routine. The chart was neatly scored with columns marking start time, break time, finish time, square footage covered, amount of gas used, how this time compared to the amount of time it took for the last mowing. I tossed it in the bag.
Big fat drops of rain began to fall as I loaded up my car and drove to the dump. By the time I got there, the rain was steady but not too heavy. Metal-colored clouds were moving low across the sky. I showed my photo identification to the man at the gate and backed my car in toward the low wall. Four other cars were there.
I climbed out, pulled the hood of my rain coat up and unlatched the trunk. Three seagulls were flying overhead, calling mournfully to one another, hoping for food.
I pulled out the first bag and heaved it over the wall. It landed with a satisfying crash. I heard glass shatter as I threw the next bag over the edge—must have been the jars crammed with old pens and pencils. I tossed the remaining bags; the last one landed with a dull thud. I peered over the edge for a moment, feeling guilty, sad, and unburdened, all at once. The gulls were still crying and the rain became steadier. I went to get back in the car and glanced at the man next to me who was throwing some stained sofa cushions over the edge. Our eyes locked for a moment, and then he quickly looked away.
© Kate Pipkin
Kate Pipkin writes from Baltimore. She is the director of communications for the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, where she also received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.