Taking Out Trash That Was Someone’s Treasure
Brigador Stamback, the founder of NYC Hoards, a company started in 2018 that carts away unsalvageable household possessions by the ton, imposes order on disastrously contaminated and disorganized homes and workplaces. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened many hoarders’ habits, as they cope with anxieties by piling up yet more stuff.
Ms. Stamback, 40, recently explained what kinds of surprises surface in the trash mounds and how she battles entropy while empathizing with those who have caused it. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Is there a typical hoarder?
Hoarding has been diagnosed as a form of mental illness. There’s so much depth to it, and a few major categories of people. There are doomsdayers who keep stocking up on supplies and food, and older people who can’t bear to get rid of something potentially useful — even paper plates or sugar packets — and baby boomers buying collectibles like baseball cards, comic books, toys.
The majority of hoarders have lived in the same place for decades, in some cases their whole lives. For the most part they’re very smart, successful, well traveled, with degrees from elite universities. No one knows what they’re like at home, and in some cases alcohol plays a major role.
One hoard I worked on, the woman had traveled to 30 countries and sent home souvenirs for 25 years. She’d never opened the boxes — everything was disintegrating. Just weird, weird stuff can turn up where you wouldn’t expect it. All of a sudden, you’ll open up a closet of craziness.
Some hoarders had suffered traumas, their spouses or parents died, and then they became reclusive. For women, sometimes it’s as if they just lose their drive for life. Men especially will let grime accumulate everywhere; we cleaned up after a guy who had entirely covered the floor with empty cat food cans. A lot of animals are affected by this disease, too, having to live with garbage piled up and the owner sleeping on a mattress with the springs poking out.
Are any valuables salvageable, for resale or as heirlooms?
Sometimes every inch of a home will be crawling with insects, mice, rats. We’ve had gorgeous gemstone geodes that couldn’t be saved; there were too many crevices that couldn’t be cleaned. Sometimes family photos can be saved, or photos can be taken of photos that are hopelessly infested. We couldn’t have a tag sale at a hoard; you can’t get people in safely and everything’s contaminated anyway. If scrap metal dealers want to come take anything away, it’s totally on them to come pick it up.
What background do you need for this work?
Since 2014, I’ve trained professionally — I know, I sound like a classical piano player — with certificates as a bio-recovery and environmental remediation technician. I have specialty training in crime and trauma scenes, infectious diseases, hazardous waste, chemical spills and mold inspection. I’ve taken an entire exorbitant course in cleaning up blood properly. When Covid came, I was already used to putting on full P.P.E., a Tyvek suit and a respirator. But you don’t necessarily want to be seen wearing Tyvek on a job site. It scares the neighbors.
How much do you charge?
My day rate starts around $4,500, and the jobs can run $20,000 or more. We first do a visual assessment, build rapport and trust with the clients, come up with an estimate and negotiate a price. I take on about 15 or 20 hoards a year, and I can see the gist very quickly now. But it always changes as we get further in, and we may have to reassess. We find beds and pianos buried in the trash, floorboards that are soaked and squishy with dog pee, fermented human waste that’s a biohazard and a huge hassle to dispose of properly.
We’ll spend days loading the dumpster again and again, to finish up as quickly and efficiently as possible. We don’t take breaks. There are many days when I don’t go to the bathroom. I don’t eat or drink anything, partly because there’s no working bathroom and with all that grime, you just want to get home and take a shower. In the summer, the heat brings out the smells, which alerts people to the hoarding. Those are the busiest times, and the worst days, working in places with narrow stairs and no air-conditioning or running water.
What have been some reactions from the hoarders when you’re there?
This industry requires a lot of compassion. For hoarders, it’s a very harsh situation, to see what they’ve been holding onto being ripped away from them. We don’t want to just take everything, shovel it away and leave the person dry. They’ve been looking at the hoard for so long, that’s all they can see; they don’t see a way out. Sometimes they’re buying books about getting organized and more containers for organizing their stuff.
My crews make decisions quickly. They know how to put the obvious valuables aside when they’re clearing out a room. I don’t have to micromanage them while I’m working with the hoarders, keeping them on track, asking them: “Do you want this? Do you want this?” I’m trying to convince them to move fast, make decisions, create piles of what to save and what to throw out.
Inevitably, something they care about ends up in the dumpster. They get stuck and fixated on that one thing, and we have to go look for it. One time, it was some free concert tickets that had been attached by a magnet to a roach-filled, disintegrating metal file cabinet. Or it could be a hairbrush or scarf. We’ve even been asked to go wandering around the dump — maybe for a lost diamond, I’d go that far.
The family is usually on my side, but they’re also the ones dealing with the upset hoarder calling them in the middle of the night. The hoarders sometimes love me at the beginning, but by the end they just want me out. At the end there’s bittersweet sorrow.
Are certain neighborhoods more prone to hoarding?
We see a lot of hoarding around Queens and the Upper East Side; along East End Avenue, I think I’ve been in every single building. The hoarder can be the last rent-stabilized tenant left in a building that’s gone co-op.
How has Covid affected people?
There’s clearly been an increase in depression, drug use and drinking, and in the number of people who’ve lost their way, in a sense, while staying home so much. Covid hoarding, it can take the form of people buying excessively, out of boredom or doomsdaying, or people increasingly lazy about throwing stuff away or scared to leave the house to throw stuff away.
Do you wonder what the person was like before the hoarding?
You can sometimes figure out when the person’s decline started, by looking at the dates on what’s at the bottom of the piles. I had melancholy feelings about their situations earlier in my career, but after a certain period you’ve seen it all — I think you start becoming desensitized. Yet every time there’s something different.
Does your work follow you home?
I’m a minimalist. I collect only a few things, like pencils from my travels. I bring nothing home from the job. I try not to buy things that I’ve seen in hoards. And if I see something I own personally when I’m at a hoard, I throw it away when I get home.