Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners
By Alan Emmins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Alan Emmins
All rights reserved.
PRAYING FOR DEATH
I had a meeting with the editor of a lifestyle magazine. I was pitching a story covering one of the lantern festivals in Taiwan — a cultural gala held for the gods that ends in pyrotechnic lunacy. When the locals settle down for the evening, crash-helmeted youths take to the streets in an attempt to remove one another's heads with fifty-dollar rockets. The editor raised an eyebrow. It was clear that, for the first time since sitting down, I had his full attention. He looked so excited, as he sat there scribbling notes, that I assumed the story was in the bag. Flight tickets needed to be booked, lightweight shirts and a pair of good-quality safety goggles needed purchasing.
"Do people die?" he asked.
"Not that I'm aware of," I replied, slightly amused by the directness of the question.
The editor slumped back in his seat without even a cursory attempt at hiding his disappointment. We moved on quickly to the next pitch, but I never got his full attention again. If only one of the pesky little brats would die, I thought, I could be on my way to Taiwan.
But it was not to be. Of the five stories I was pitching that day none of them offered a single death, and, so it seemed, none of the stories were commissioned. It was an error on my part. This was a men's lifestyle magazine. I knew they wanted entertainment, I just hadn't realized at that point just how entertaining death was.
I was so out of tune with death that I didn't even see the stories when I was virtually tripping over them. Shortly after the editorial pitch, when leaving my apartment building, I came across a man wearing a balaclava and clasping a gun. He was lying facedown in the street. I did not run back upstairs for my camera or indeed even smell a story. I just walked by, mumbling the words fucking idiot.
For me, a dead body outside my front door was simply not possible. This wasn't my life. This kind of thing didn't happen in my neighborhood. This was Copenhagen, land of rickety bicycles and beautiful women. Gunmen? Get out of here! So I stepped over the bugger, looking around for the camera, totally believing this was some kind of stupid Candid Camera thing. I wasn't going to be the idiot being laughed at on some cheesy cable show. Oh, no. Not me. Watch, I am just going to step over him and go about my business.
When I returned five minutes later, the whole street was taped off. It was real. The man had been in a shootout outside a hash club one street away from my apartment. He had been shot in the stomach, had stumbled away and then collapsed outside my building.
The only photograph in the papers the next day was of his red balaclava, alone and stranded in the road.Even then I didn't get it. It wasn't until I relayed the story to one of my friends, who said, "And you call yourself a journalist?" that I thought, Yeah, maybe I should stop calling myself that.
A few weeks later the penny finally dropped. I woke up with the eye-popping realization that death was a money machine. I found myself writing an article on gaming, and while reading through a gaming magazine I came across the following ad copy for the WingMan Force joystick:
Psychiatrists say it's important to feel something when you kill. When you kill without feeling, you're just another heartless sociopath. That's why you need Logitech's WingMan Force Joystick ...
That's right. You can feel the recoil of the gun. You can straddle the boundary between reality and fiction. I was blown away by the advert, even admired the cleverness of how it spoke to its target audience. Yet, at the same time, and also for the very same reason, I was appalled by it. Part of me couldn't believe it had actually been allowed into print, into a publication read by impressionable youths. On another level, even though I am not and can't imagine that I ever will be a gamer, it spoke directly to me. It made me realize that if I was going to continue making my living writing feature articles for lifestyle magazines, I would have to master this death-as-entertainment business. I was going to have to get closer to Death, maybe even carry his scythe.
My subsequent investigations didn't lead me to Death himself. Instead, they led me to a man named Neal Smither, who, if not actually one of Death's litter, must be at the bare minimum a cousin.
On any given day Neal Smither can be found swinging about on the velvety coattails of Death's outer garment; grinning like a man who has just hatched a master plan for world domination, screaming the words Praying for death, baby! to the many and varied media outlets that form orderly queues in front of him. This death he prays for is not his own, but yours. You see, Death and Neal Smither, as well as being related, are in the same line of business. It's as if Death, after one day splattering somebody against the wall of a recently decorated living room, stood back, admired the bloody mess, and thought, There's coin to be made here.
Neal's company is called Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc. His slogan, the tagline that sits beneath the name on the side of his truck, is: HOMICIDES, SUICIDES & ACCIDENTAL DEATHS. Neal makes his living cleaning up the remains of the less fortunate. Whichever route into the bright light you may take, however messy the tunnel may become, Neal will happily clean you up for a standard fee.
"What can I tell ya, buddy? It's better I do it than mom and pop, 'cause they don't wanna be on their hands and knees collecting bits of skull fragment. They don't wanna scrub the brains off the wall that little Johnny Dirtbag left behind just after he hit the crack pipe and stuck a twelve-gauge in his mouth."
Even if harshly put, it is a fair point. Even the most skilled of debating teams would struggle to form a convincing, contrary argument.
Neal is about five feet six and drives a gigantic black truck with blacked-out windows. His short, dark hair is nearly always hidden under a baseball cap. Salesmanship is everything. Neal even speaks with a Texas accent because he says the southern drawl sounds more "honest," more disarming. Neal, however, is from Capitola, California. He and Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc., are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
My first reaction to Neal when I met him was one of shock. Where was the politeness associated with death? Where was the calm, polite guy who cleaned up the bloody mess to spare the loved ones the hurt and the pain? When I first called Neal to ask if I could write an article about him, I asked him what he was doing there and then.
"Oh, you know, same old, same old. Just sitting here praying for death, hoping some scumbag's got the razor blade in his hand right about now."
From my very first phone conversation with Neal, I knew his story was going to be an easy sell. I didn't even try to place the article beforehand. I had no doubt that I would have a choice of buyers for this story. I focused on more immediate issues. Flight tickets needed to be booked, lightweight shirts and possibly a pair of good-quality safety goggles needed purchasing. A couple of days later I flew from New York to San Francisco and with an unplanned tire screech set off for the black dot I had penned on my map.
A DUDE GOT HIS FREAK ON
Two hours later, I was three steps behind Neal as he entered a motel room where somebody had recently committed suicide.
At that precise moment, as the motel door was pushed open, I was the happiest little feature writer on the planet.
I was in San Francisco.
I was loving my job.
"What we got? Oh, looky here! Chicks with dicks," said Neal as we sauntered into the middle of the motel room. "Dude even brought his own DVD player. That shit's a newer model than mine. Can you believe that shit?"
Neal surveyed the room while holding on to several DVD cases with covers for transvestite porn. On the bed the contents of a bag had been poured out. There were several porn magazines, the newest issue of Transformation, lots of unopened bills, and a lone and somewhat beached-looking rubber breast. On the table by the wall was an upturned,powder-encrusted vial that looked as if it had held cocaine. The table itself had a film of white dust over most of its surface. There were two coffee cups, an empty carton of Parliament cigarettes, and a packet of pills that had been half emptied. In one of the cups, floating in water, were some of the pills.
While the bed looked like something left by an unruly teenager who couldn't wait to go out and see his friends, the table showed sadness. A dusty white void of loneliness befitting a room where somebody had recently killed himself. There's no telling why the occupant had decided to take his own life. Was it the unpaid bills? Or was it some deeper sexual turmoil? You and I will never know. You and I don't need to know. Analyzing why will not alter the underlying fact that the man was dead and Neal was there to clean up the mess left behind. All we knew was that the occupant's name was James.
"Fuck. Dude got his freak on! One last freaky blowout before he went. Fucking freak! You see the table there, Alan? You know what that is?" asked Neal. "Crack!"
I was somewhat confused as I stood there checking out my surroundings, trying to get a sense of the energy left behind in the room. While I'd been scoping out the scene, Neal had done nothing but scope out the porn, laughing callously as he called out the titles and tossed the cases one by one onto the bed. But once the porn inspection had been completed Neal became confused. He paced around the room, searching. This was odd. The initial phone call had said that there was lots of blood to clean up. Yet, the room, while disheveled, was not at all bloody.
"Maybe the fucker OD'd — I hate the bitches that OD. I can't make any money off an OD!" said Neal as he pushed the bathroom door slowly open. "Oh, I take it back, you weren't a bitch. Come take a look at this, Alan — this is ya typical bleeder."
I froze for a second. My only contact with death to date had been the death of my grandmother when I was sixteen. There was nothing visually disturbing about her death. Not for me, at least. It was clean. A wooden box and a set of sliding doors that closed behind her were all I had to deal with. Whatever was awaiting me in that motel bathroom was going to represent death in a way that I knew nothing about. Suddenly I had a reality check. I wasn't sure if it was a line I was ready to cross. My only certainty was that I would find it easier to deal with if Neal was not talking his talk as I tiptoed into the room.
Just twenty-four hours ago the bathroom would have been white. This was a national motel chain, meaning that while basic and plain in design, it would have been generally clean. The room would have been cleaned every day. This place couldn't have been more than a few years old. Looking at the fittings between all the splattered blood, I got the impression that the room scrubbed up pretty well. And it would take some scrubbing. Everything was tainted: the walls, the shower booth and fittings, the sink, the toilet, and the floor were all smeared with blood. In some places the blood went all the way to the top of the walls, not quite reaching the ceiling, but almost. Most of it was just splashed around, except for the floor, which was covered with bloody footprints — patterns made with bare feet, as in a child's painting. There was a telephone mounted on the wall next to the toilet. Why do they do that? I wondered. I didn't want anybody calling me when they were on the toilet. But maybe it was for situations such as this one. Is it possible that the telephone was mounted there with the suicidal in mind? Maybe hotel management had learned from experience that if you put a phone in the bathroom the suicides won't walk out into the bedroom with their slit wrists bleeding all over the carpet. That they will remain contained on the easy-to-clean tiled floor?
"That's pretty, ain't it? You see the phone?" Neal asked as he hovered in the doorway. "That's pretty typical — fuckers slit their wrists and as soon as they've done it they wanna call somebody up to tell them all about it."
I was starting to freak out a little. I was a long way from my comfort zone. I stood staring at the blood, wishing I could pretend it was something else. In fact, if Neal Smither would have just shut up for a minute, I was pretty convinced that I could separate myself from the reality. But Neal wouldn't shut up.
"You gonna take any pictures or are you just gonna stand there?" asked the indelible Neal Smither.
Neal is so harsh a character that once he has entered your head you will remember him for the rest of your life. He is like a bad stain that you can't scrub away. When the time comes to face your own death, Neal, if you have met him, will no doubt be on your mind. I am certain he will be there at the forefront of my own mental commentary when I die. In fact, I am already convinced that Death himself will be wearing a Crime Scene Cleaners, Inc., T-shirt.
I moved around the bathroom, trying to skirt the blood as I took pictures. It was hard for me to work out what I felt about this loss of life. My ego was in the way. The answer was too dependent on what kind of person I was, or, more to the point, what kind of person I wanted to be. Did I feel for this wasted life? Was it a tragedy? Or was I simply indifferent to it? I looked through the lens of my camera and pondered as I snapped away, aware that I should care, slightly aware that I didn't, but very aware that I wanted to switch to my wide-angle lens so that I could get more of the blood in the frame. Only now, looking back, can I honestly say I had no feelings at all. I knew nothing of this life. To me it wasn't even a life, it was just blood on a wall, fingerprints on the phone — a guy called James whom I had never met. It was an article I was going to make money on. But Neal's crass-ness made me feel like I should have cared. If I didn't, who would? Did someone like James have any loved ones? If he felt the need to lock himself in a strange room and cut his own wrists, he clearly didn't think so. But without putting a face to the death, a body maybe, what can you feel? It's just blood on a wall.
"Alan, if you want any of that porn you should just take it, it's just gonna get thrown out otherwise," offered Neal.
I was wondering when I would find time to pickup gifts for friends, but I didn't think transgender porn stolen from a dead guy was a suitable gift for anybody.
The motel room door clicked and opened. A tall, thin, well-groomed man in his midthirties poked his head around the door. He was wearing a yellow tie with red dots, which he stroked nervously while he spoke.
"Do you have any idea how long you guys are going to be? This room is booked out."
Booked out? I thought to myself. There was a guy's blood on the floor, drugs were smeared across the table, and a rubber breast lay on the bed. Could he let this room out? Was it legal? Was there not supposed to be some kind of cool-off period? An exorcism at the very least? No, apparently not. If it's clean it's available. It was a gallant effort, James, but corporate America is not about to let you screw with a schedule, I thought.
"Two hours max," said Neal, taking on a more serious tone. "He was good enough to stay in the bathroom, so this will be fast and easy."
"Just the way you like it," I said flippantly to the manager. A laugh slipped out as I spoke. I really was referring to the availability of the room. But for some inappropriate reason I was struck by the sexual innuendo. It was the kind of put-down two friends in a bar might banter with. I knew it was wrong — both to say what I had said and to then laugh about it, but there was no keeping it in. The fact that neither Neal nor the manager batted an eyelid sent me into a fit of schoolboy guffaws that I had to smother with my hand as I turned and walked back into the main room.
"Okay," the manager said after a few seconds. "Well, just as soon as you can."I was relieved as I sensed that the manager was about to leave. But then I heard Neal speak again.
"Did you see the porn?" he asked the manager.
"Yes, I saw the porn," the manager said with an air of impatience as he stood wondering where this conversation was going. Even I was intrigued enough to edge back toward the bathroom so as not to miss anything. After a short but pregnant pause, Neal looked the manager straight in the eye.
"Do you want to take any of it?" he asked.
"Just put everything in the garbage!" The manager, unamused, turned and slammed the door behind him.
"Jeeeeeez, Alan!" Neal said as I tried to control my laughter. "You can't insult my clients like that."
"Neal, I really never meant to." I told him. "I really didn't mean it like that. It just came out wrong." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mop men by Alan Emmins. Copyright © 2008 Alan Emmins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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