My afternoons running drugs all over the city for a local pharmacy were times well spent. I got to meet some interesting people and hear some unbelievable stories and see some unimaginable things. I didn’t make a lot of money on the job and didn’t get any free drugs but the work helped me take care of my new wife and pay the rent on our cockroach infested apartment. Once a month we’d hear a knock at our door, usually very early on a Saturday morning, and a voice would proclaim, “Bug man!” I still get nostalgic for those days every time I catch a wiff of pesticide.
A few blocks away from where I lived, ‘Snob Hill’ started. I’m not sure what the population of ‘Snob Hill’ called our part of town but I’m sure they gave it a name. About a block from where my wife and I lived there was a two story apartment building where I would bring a delivery almost every week. It was a script that was covered by a government program and it was usually the first or the last one I dropped off on my run because it was closest to Main street where the store was located. The first time I delivered there was overwhelming and it only barely got better on my 30th delivery there.
The main floor of the building was what would have been, years ago, a lobby with a desk at the far end next to a set of stairs that led to 8 single room apartments that shared a common washroom in the hall. The ‘manager’ of the hotel lived down in the lobby.
On my first visit there, as I pushed open the door I was pushed back by the smell. It was a smell I would get familiar with in my deliveries. There were actually two smells that I still remember from those drug days. One smell I came to associate with death or terminal illness. It was a smell that hit me in the homes of the poor and the rich that I delivered to, in big houses and tiny hovels. I was surprised at first how very different homes in very different locations in very different economic classes with very different décor could smell so much the same. Eventually I recognized that when I smelled that particular aroma someone in that home didn’t have too long to live. It wasn’t some supernatural thing, quite the contrary, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I was visiting just one person but going to 30 homes in one afternoon and getting hit my the same smell in 10 very different places 5 afternoons a week can get your attention.
The smell I smelled at this little rooming house was the second kind of smell. It was the smell of rot and filth. I smelled that one a lot too. It was a very strong aroma of rot that punched me in the nose as I entered the little lobby and for a second I couldn’t breathe. I looked around and my brain could not make sense of what my eyes were seeing. About two thirds of the way into the room a large, older woman was sitting on a very old, over-stuffed, living room chair in a ‘one size fits all’ pajama gown. In front of her was a TV tray with a Styrofoam take away plate of something. About 10 feet away from her was an old tv she was watching. Wallpaper was peeling itself off of the walls and somehow, despite the large storefront style windows, very little light seemed to penetrate the room.
It was probably about 20 feet from the front door where I was standing to the spot in the room where the lady, I’ll call Mary, sat. The space between us, the floor, was literally covered by empty Styrofoam containers like the one on the TV tray in front of her and bags and bags worth of other garbage. When she had run out of room for more horizontally she started stacking it vertically. Literally from the door to her chair there was an undulating sea of trash 2 and in some spots 3 feet high. I’d like to say that I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I imagined her starting much closer to the door long ago and moving further and further back into the lobby as the pile grew. I couldn’t figure out why it was piled up here, why it hadn’t been put into a bin and taken out for the garbage trucks to haul away.
A six inch wide path wound it’s way from the door to her chair.
“I’ve got a prescription for Mary.” I called out.
She shifted towards me in her chair and called back, “I’m Mary. Can you bring it over here?” I took a step towards here on the little path that ran through the pile between me and her. As I put my foot down I notices that things were moving. Cockroaches the size of nickels were running from one side of the garbage to the other side. With each step more appeared and I paused. I looked around from the midst of the pile and realized roaches were everywhere, including the walls, skittering in and out, up and down, back and forth. I took another step and another until I was finally standing in front of Mary. She was holding a long-handled fly swatter and she alternated between smacking the flies buzzing around and smashing the roaches that got close enough for her to reach.
I handed her the meds and we chatted for a minute. I had to keep moving my feet so the cockroaches didn’t start climbing on my shoes and up my legs. While I stood talking to her someone came in, walked the path, went past us to the stairs at the end of the room and up to their room like there was nothing unusual about this scene. I would like to tell you I stayed and cleaned the place up for Mary, or that I at least came back after work with some trash bags and gloves and scooped up the piles of garbage. I’d like to, but I can’t. I visited Mary pretty regularly after that until I finally moved on to another job. Nothing every really changed there except piles got bigger, the smell got worse but Mary was always there, same seat, same outfit. Looking back I can’t figure out how I was able to not connect the dots that Mary was Jesus in weakness and need and I passed up an opportunity to change a little part of her life.