It was January of 2010 and I knew I was opening a bookstore in two and a half months! What I did not yet know is that I would be pregnant when that journey finally started. But in any case, people around me knew that I was in need of books and pretty much didn’t care from where they came. Which is how it came to pass that my friend Kirsten called me one day and informed that her upstairs neighbor had died. Apparently he had died several weeks prior to this conversation. His demise was only discovered when he started to…leak through Kirsten’s bathroom ceiling (YUP). This was only after Kirsten had called her apartment manager several times to complain about “something stinking like raw sewage” in her bathroom.
So Kirsten’s neighbor dies and his slowly liquifying and rotting corpse starts to leak through her bathroom ceiling, finally alerting the world at large of his death at which point, something must be done. The appropriate authorities are called in and the lengthy, gag-inducing clean-up process begins. By the time I am called in, it has been made clear that the dead guy had no family to speak of and an unreasonable shit-ton of books. Kirsten led me into her apartment and showed me the giant hole in her bathroom ceiling that looked up into the apartment above. All the ceiling meat that had been infected by the dead guy soup having seeped into it had to be removed so now there was a gigantic hole over Kirsten’s shower that went straight through to the floor above and into the bathroom of the now vacant apartment upstairs.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. I can still smell it today over a decade later. An entire person putrefying into human goo is not something that is easily cast off or covered up. You can’t just spray some Febreeze on that shit. You could definitely smell that “something fetid” in the air and then the chemicals that were used to try to cover it up hit you directly thereafter. They were not the usual chemical smells that which a lifetime of working in bars and restaurants had inured me. It was different, something much stronger, much more…sinister than bleach or ammonia. Although the smell of bleach hung heavily in the air this smell was sickeningly sweet in its artifice and palpably sticky and gluey. To this day I have no idea what it was or if it was just a combination of things nor have I ever smelled anything to which I could compare it. It was a life-force….ironically….I suppose. Clearly it made an impression as it apparently warranted an entire paragraph.
We then went upstairs and the smell got worse. We stood outside the door and Kirsten turned to me and said “You’re not gonna believe this shit” and I said “I already don’t believe any of this”. She then opened the door to the dead guy’s apartment. And I totally did not believe that shit! There were books everywhere! Issuing from every corner, covering the floor and what scant pieces of furniture were left in the largely cleared-out apartment. The apartment building’s maintenance guy was there, a tall, tan, goofball in his late thirties. He was attempting to sort through the mountains and mountains of books and looked relieved when Kirsten lead me in. Surely he was hoping that I could, at the very least, lend some sort of context to this madness, plus it was inferred that I was here to take some of these things away and the things that I took away would no longer be his problem so it was a win-win.
Kirsten lead me into the bathroom to show me the hole from the other side. The smell was the strongest there. I looked down into her bathroom…and that was enough of looking down the hole. We went back into the living room and I began to paw through the giant piles of books. There were books of every stripe from stripped-cover paperbacks to a lot of non-fiction having to do with conspiracy theories, history, the mafia, and baseball (in the kitchen’s small pantry closet we found shoe boxes full of recorded baseball games on VHS tapes….clearly this person was not entirely well). As I was attempting to sort and create some kind of order Kirsten informed me that she and the apartment manager, who had been at this for a matter of days already, had found cash hidden in some of the books. This information was exciting but it also created an additional and time consuming step to the process of sorting the books. I was not longer content to just glance at covers and make a quick judgement of saleability and throw it in the “keep” box. I was now utterly compelled to leaf through the pages of EVERY book, regardless of whether or not I intended to keep it. I was now part stock gathering mission, part treasure hunt and part obsession. In my defense the amounts of money that I had heard Kirsten and the Goofball mention were not middling. They had gathered over $1,500 so far and had only gone through a small fraction of the books!
Fueled by greed and an innate ability to talk about any subject at length and in agonizing detail Kirsten and I kept at the boxing of volumes well into the evening. We were largely unsuccessful on our respective treasure hunt and after about 2 hours of finding no cash whatsoever I resumed my original plan of just gathering the volumes I wanted for my shop. All in all it was about 10 banana boxes full of books. A veritable drop in the bucket of the apartment’s contents and if you can picture a banana box you are currently in a state of renewed astonishment of just how many books were in this small, one bedroom, 4th floor, Lower Queen Anne apartment.
The ten boxes lived in the foyer of my Beacon Hill house until February, when I got the keys to my shop. I had found out I was pregnant 3 days prior to receiving the keys to my very own bookstore. And two days prior had gotten in an awful car accident.
Needless to say it was an exciting week and people were eager to come to my aid. One evening my Aunt Bobbi and I were at the shop unloading boxes and shelving books. We came to a box and I casually remarked to my Aunt that those were some of the “dead guy” books. Now, my Aunt Bobbi, not being entirely bereft of her own overly developed sense of morbid curiosity, was like, “Ooooh, what are the ‘dead guy’ books?” So I launched into the whole story; the death, the aftermath and resulting human soup, the smell, the state of the apartment and, finally, the cash. Upon hearing about the money Bobbi insisted that we search through every volume that came from the dead guy’s house to see if there was money to be found. I relented as the activity was a welcome distraction from the fairly tedious and overwhelmingly large amount of work still ahead of us and, frankly, I certainly could have used any extra money that might happen my way, I was about to have a baby AND open a used bookstore, two historically unprofitable undertakings.
After several more hours of leafing, categorizing and shelving, I came upon a large, modern tome about Egyptology and Howard Carter’s famous discovery of Tut’s tomb, as I leafed through the pages before preparing to file on the shelf in the “History” section, two crisp one hundred dollar bills came floating out of the pages and drifted gently down to the carpet! It was certainly not lost on me, the irony of finding money in a book about discovering untold riches. Bobbi and I searched with a newfound vigor which is the folly of anyone who pursues games of chance or fishing, once you get a little taste, you always want more. We did not find any more money, but we did take our two crispy hund-os and take ourselves out to Mexican food that night once our work was finished. We toasted to the dead guy for providing us with our enchiladas and virgin strawberry margaritas that evening!