My friend Jack buzzed the intercom. We stood in the green vestibule, with the dim light reflecting on the peeling paint, and we waited. Then Jack buzzed again. Suddenly, the intercom crackled into life. “Yes?”
“Chloe, it’s Jack,” he said. “I’m here with Tom.”
“Oh, I’m just out of the shower,” she said. “Let me put some clothes on.”
Jack grimaced and said, “OK,” and then turned to me. “This is so like her. She knew we were coming. Why did she take a shower?”
We waited five minutes and then Jack buzzed again. “Chloe, it’s Jack.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Jack, I forgot you were there.”
This was weird, I thought, as she buzzed us in. It got weirder. We went up one flight to her apartment and knocked at her door. After a moment, it opened slowly as though the person inside was having difficulty opening it completely. As we stepped in, I could see why: there were piles of clothing, books, magazines, shoes, pillows, blankets, lamps, broken coffee cups, hangers, croquet mallets, and God knows what else piled up all over the room.
Jack introduced me to Chloe, who was a little old lady you wouldn’t look at twice on the street. She smiled and shook my hand. “How nice to meet you,” she said graciously. “Please come in.”
That was tricky. There were newspapers and other unrecognizable stuff on the floor of the one-bedroom apartment, into which narrow passageways had been carved out. “This is the kitchen,” said Jack – although it was hard to tell we had entered another room because stuff was hanging on the doors and exploding out of drawers. It must have been 95 degrees in there. The air was musty, and I started experiencing a feeling of claustrophobia.
A person like Chloe (not her real name) can seem perfectly normal. She has a job, travels to work, dines with friends, and goes to the theater. But she has a secret life. She’s a hoarder. I had come here because Jack (not his real name), the owner of the co-op apartment, wanted to get my opinion on what he should do about his rent-controlled tenant Chloe’s hoarding. The board was putting pressure on him to clean the unit up.
Hoarding is a major problem for co-ops and condos. The hoarder – usually single and elderly – “actually has a disease,” Abbey Goldstein, an attorney and partner at Goldstein & Greenlaw, said to me later. “I’ve had cases where stuff is literally piled up to the ceilings. You can call in Adult Protective Services (APS), and they can try to help.” But it’s difficult. Before a hoarder can be put in the care of a guardian, APS has to prove she is delusional and a menace to herself or others.
As I walked around Chloe’s hot, crowded rooms, I understood why co-op boards are often concerned – and frustrated – by hoarders. I wanted to shake Chloe and start dumping the garbage that filled the room into black bags, but I knew it was useless. She has a disease and she has her rights, so anyone wanting to help her would have to go through a process of visits by the super, warning letters from the manager, eviction notices, and a trip to housing court – all the while worrying about vermin and fire hazards. Meanwhile, Chloe, the little old lady who could be your grandmother, is looking at Jack, with tears in her eyes, saying, “I’ve started cleaning the bedroom. I’ve put everything on the bed, so I can get at the floor.”
“That’s great,” said Jack, who knew they were both lying.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Chloe said that she was taking a bag of dirty wooden coat-hangers and a cart missing a wheel down to the basement.
“Could I have them?” I asked suddenly.
Her face lit up. “Can you use them?
“Yes, of course.”
“Then take them. And thank you.”
A block away, I put the hangers and the cart in a covered trash can. As Jack looked at me with surprise, I said, “You don’t really think I wanted that junk, do you?” I sighed as we walked away from the scene.
“It was the least I could do.”