Sunday, September 19, 2004
Blood on Their Hands The things Smither has seen in the course of his work have not led him to a positive view of humanity. "I hate people more than I ever have," he says. "I'm pretty cynical. About 80 per cent of everyone we deal with is a borderline scumbag. You know - you let grandma die on the floor and rot for 60 days, then the janitors are cleaning, and you get to the house and start fighting over her belongings? That classifies you in my opinion as a scumbag."

Does that happen a lot?

"Oh, all the time. All the time. Or just the way they live, you know? It's very common for us to go into a house that's three-, four-, five- feet deep in trash. Little canals everywhere. They're shitting in buckets on the floor. They live like animals. It's very common. We've done thousands of 'em."

From his desk drawer, he pulls a sheaf of Polaroids taken inside garbage houses, and hands me one.

"Here's a good example - that's a bathroom. That brown stuff ain't mud."

The scene in the picture is so disgusting, I gag.

"Yeah," says Clark, "that was extreme. We literally had to use shovels."

Later, Smither and I will have lunch together, at a cheesesteak-sandwich shop in nearby Walnut Creek. From his pocket, he produces a small bottle filled with transparent gel: it's an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which he rubs over his palms before the food arrives. He's been using it for a while now - "Religiously for the past year." He prefers it to washing his hands in sinks used by other people: "You just don't know, man," he says. "I tell you - this job'll do it to you." These days, he won't even wear shoes inside his own house. "All the things you walk in without realising it," he shudders, "Ugh!"

When I leave him that afternoon, Smither still hasn't had any more work come in; he does not say goodbye. Instead, he leans from the window of his truck and shouts, "Pray for death!". And then he gives me a cheerful wave.

Smither's winning new business idea did not take off immediately. In fact, after his first job, his phone rang again only twice in a year: "I was desperate: going broke." The first call was to scrub blood off the street after a road accident in San Jose. In increasingly litigious California, police and fire departments often refuse to hose bloodstains off the road and into the drains - because the blood will wash, untreated, straight into the Bay. "And the environmentalists all go crazy," Smither explains.

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