Back in my bleak days, when I used to wait tables at LongHorn Steakhouse, a scrounger friend of mine called me about an opportunity. Those were the days of busting my hump for meager tips from red-faced, bad-breathed men and watching the numbers in my bank account climb sluggishly toward freedom. I'd met Jen at my old TJ Maxx job. We'd struck up a bond after I didn't report her for shoplifting. After that, Jen and I enjoyed a semi-lucrative partnership splitting the proceeds from shoplifted goods until I was canned for napping during my shift.
Jen had a knack for sniffing out somewhat questionable ways to make a quick buck. This time it was a lead from a corner-cutting realtor Jen knew through her mom. The realtor needed someone to clear out all the stuff from a hoarder's house by the end of the week.
"It's $15 an hour," she said. "And we get to keep everything we can carry."
Me and my boyfriend, Greg, lived in the basement at my dad's house in the same sad suburb where I'd grown up. I had student loans from a degree I didn't finish, and Greg photographed weddings for a living. I was in no position to turn down a gig.
"What's the address?"
Jen grinned and flashed her eyes at me.
The house was a few blocks from Penn State, where I'd spent the two most expensive years of my life binge-drinking through an economics major. The only thing I learned about economics was that half a college degree wasn't worth shit.
Jen picked me up in her beat-up sedan and, together, we made our way to 312 Fair Acres Road, a tree-lined street with two-story homes that belied the existence of a hoarder's place.
"Just FYI," Jen said, after turning off the motor. "The lady who used to live here got taken away in a straitjacket. That's what the realtor told me, anyway."
"Cool," I said. "Might've been good to know ahead of time."
"Would you have chickened out?"
"No," I said, even though I probably would have.
We exited the car. The house's crimson red door seemed inviting—the paint only slightly peeling. Jen jammed a key into the top lock.
Inside, it was like the house's guts had exploded. Junk everywhere. Stench everywhere. Half-closed garbage bags bulging with cigarette butts littered the downstairs. Overflowing cardboard boxes were stacked haphazardly, ready to tumble over Jenga-style. Broken pieces of furniture stuck out from beneath and between the trash like sails from wrecked ships—splintered chair legs, an upturned coffee table, detached armrests of a vomit-green couch.
"Damn," Jen said, gesturing to the calamity before us. "It's all garbage."
I clutched my turtleneck collar up over my mouth and nose, hoping polyester filtered out asbestos. "I feel like I'm going to get black lung." My voice was muffled by the turtleneck.
"That realtor stiffed us," Jen said.
Even though the place was worse than expected, we both knew we weren't leaving. Fifteen bucks an hour was still better than LongHorn on a good day.
To make space by the front door, Jen and I pushed aside white mounds of unopened mail, some of it rubber-banded together in an aborted attempt at organization. All the mail was addressed to a single first name: Akiko. The last name varied.
I ripped open a letter from Bank of America. Surprise, surprise: Akiko's credit card payments were past due. There were other letters from Wells Fargo, Capital One, and Charles Schwab. The creditors didn't know who they were dealing with.
"What's that about, do you think?" Jen asked.
I shrugged. "Identity fraud, probably."
"So freaky," Jen said, pinching her nose.
"Freaky Kiki," I said. I tried to imagine someone living in this disaster zone, but all I could come up with was a lazily-conjured image of the girl from The Ring.
"I wish we'd brought gloves," Jen said.
"Or gas masks," I added.
We explored further, pushing through piles of debris to climb the stairs. I dreaded the thought of Akiko's bedroom. What terrors awaited us inside her most intimate space?
Surprisingly few, it turned out. The upstairs was not nearly as disheveled. In fact, it was minimalist. Barren walls. A single twin mattress on the floor. A desk with a computer. It was as if the downstairs had been thrown together to discourage trespassers.
I rubbed my finger on a wall and it came back clean, without the layer of gray dust that I'd find in even my own room. "Weird," I said.
"Check the closet," Jen said. "I shove all my shit in there."
Lo and behold, when we opened the closet it was chock-full of boxes. But, unlike downstairs, these boxes were stacked in neat columns. Each box had a securely fastened lid, and the sides of the boxes were emblazoned with the names of designer brands.
Louis Vuitton. Hermes. Versace. Gucci. Prada.
"No way," Jen said. "Is this for real?"
I'd never personally understood the appeal of luxury goods. To me, a bag was a bag. It carried my crap around. But I knew other people paid big money for super-expensive crap-holders—money that could be mine.
"God," I said. "Let it be."
We weren't able to reach the boxes at the top of the stack, so we just took one out from the middle. When the column collapsed, silk scarves fell at our feet.
I picked one up and rubbed it against my cheek. It was soft, so soft. The kind of delicate, hand-wash-only softness that screamed affluence.
"Holy fricking hell," Jen said. "Look." She shoved her phone in my face. Each scarf sold, at full retail, for almost seven hundred dollars. In that one box alone there were ten of them—seven thousand dollars in silk form. Greg and I didn't have that much money between us. It amounted to three months of waiting tables at LongHorn Steakhouse.
"There's so many," I said.
"I'm going to cry," Jen said. "I'm not kidding." She kept running her hands through her hair, frizzed from negligence and split-ends. She looked deranged with happiness.
"I'm checking another box," I said.
Out spilled more scarves. Dozens of them. Then came the blouses and handbags, each running several hundred a pop. I thought of the treasure hoards that archaeologists sometimes find in random British hillsides, full of gold pillaged by Viking marauders. It always struck me as stupid. Why didn't those Vikings spend their gold? What was all the marauding for anyway? Like Akiko, they just stashed their wealth until someone else lucked upon it. Did the wealth itself not matter to them? Was it simply the accrual that made them happy? It was hard to put all that into words.
Instead, I just asked: "What's the point of buying all this stuff?"
Jen squinted at me like I'd just picked my nose and ate the booger. "Who cares," she said.
Jen's approach, as usual, was all business. But that's what I liked about her. She didn't waste time contemplating the big questions. Why and how didn't matter. The stuff was here. It was ours.