S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Clean Slate,” Park talks about his OCD neighbors and cleanliness.
I’ve had a longstanding bet with Buck Carroll, a high school friend and teammate, as to which of our mothers would live longer. It was a sure thing from my perspective, as only murder or an accident will take my mom out. Disease isn’t happening, not when she’s lived a century without so much as a sniffle. The only time I remember her indisposed, in fact, was when she suffered a severe sunburn on a ski trip. When my younger brothers and I came home from school that Monday she was lying on her bed.
I was fourteen at the time, and none of us had ever seen her horizontal before, much less ill. She was impervious to every germ we brought home as kids. Hell, the whole town could be down and our mother would motor on: I don’t think we appreciated the enormity of that until that day. We stood frozen in the bedroom doorway, eyes wide, mouths agape, our universe disassembling in front of us.
Mom had a damp towel over her face and she reached up, lifted it so her right eye peeked out.
“Oh, look at you!” she groaned. “I raised the Three Stooges.”
Anna, Buck’s mother, was quick with a quip, too, but she slipped away quietly at ninety-five. I offered him condolences but we both knew that, like my mom, she’d had a great run.
“Did you ask her, by chance, if she regretted anything?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” replied Buck. “She said she wouldn’t have wasted so much time cleaning.”
Anna, if you’re out there somewhere, I extend my heartfelt thanks for that … it could be the epitaph for most of the people I’ve known. Scrub scrub scrub, sweep sweep sweep, everything must be so neat! Scrub scrub scrub, sweep sweep, sweep … Jesus! My parents were like that. I always thought of them as a great love story, at least until I asked my mother—five years after dad passed—what she missed most about him.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “How did he get the floors so clean?”
My brothers and I grew up in painfully immaculate homes. Later in life, before visiting my parents’ San Mateo apartment, I’d tell girlfriends (who insisted I was exaggerating) exactly how it would play out:
“We’re going to sit on the white couch in their white living room and mom and dad will be in the white armchairs across from us. Watch closely. As we chat I’ll keep leaning further and further back, and every time I do … they’ll inch forward in their chairs. Finally, when my head is just centimeters from the wall, one or the other will yell: ‘Don’t touch the wall with your hair!’”
It never failed: it was like we’d rehearsed it beforehand (which, in effect, we had). Now I live in the North Beach section of Port Townsend, or as I call it … “Anal Acres.” It’s like a cuckoo clock, where metronomic figures repeat the same motions over and over. Washing their cars or boats, blowing imaginary leaves from the porch, cleaning windows or, my favorite, sweeping errant pine needles from the roof and driveway.
We’re surrounded by forest: what are you doing here if you’d rather live in a lab? The house next door to me was built by a character who lived there off and on for a year, then sold it to a couple from California.
“Tidy Ted and Tina” I call them. Nice people who must have met in a BioDome somewhere. If they had firewood they’d wash it first; they don’t walk on the beach because sand would stick to their shoes; every time a bird shits on the carport roof Ted is up there scrubbing it off; they pick at the gravel driveway like chickens, searching for something green to pluck. My bathroom window faces their house, and early in the a.m., when I stand there taking a piss, I imagine them sleepwalking with brooms.
If I were paranoid I’d say OCDers have followed me all my days, dreary zombies with neatly creased khakis and starched shirts. I’m well aware that control freaks are born, not made, and that they have a knob on their hypothalamus that delivers their orders to them. (I, apparently, have a cavity there.) But can’t they generate perspective over time, realize the irony of their painfully clean lives disappearing down the shitter? Doesn’t an existence predicated on appearances feel a bit shallow after a while?
Perhaps not. Maybe, like Anna, that revelation only comes on their deathbeds. And sure, as a world class slob myself and someone who is hard pressed to even notice his environment, I’ve become a bit defensive over the years. My apartments were knee high with garbage when I drank, and my cars so full of empties there was no room for passengers.
Neatness is a last resort in my universe, down there with jumping out a window. Even as I’m better at it than I used to be: owning this house in a seaport town means friends show up with their mates. (They’re disappointed to discover I live in the garage, of course, but that’s another story.)
The whole couples thing is new to me; in the other places I lived the wife would stay home or, failing that, wait in the car outside. Should that shame me somehow? Have I failed my fellow man by embracing chaos and disorder? I know neat freaks have seared my soul over the years, because hard as I try … I can’t stop turning the screw.
Take my garden here. An unfenced landscape needs to be deer proof in Port Townsend or it’ll be mowed down by Bambi and her minions. (The local rats.) Fortunately the woman who built this house was a landscaper and carpeted the grounds with a blend of evergreens, maples, lavender plants and grasses. All are deer resistant but there’s still a modicum of pruning and weeding involved, most of which I’ve ignored over the years. I tell myself it’s because a quarter century of indoor marijuana growing soured me on horticulture forever, but it’s really the same old problem, i.e. I just don’t notice the yard, it’s simply not on my radar.
Well, at least until I glimpse Ted and Tina glaring at it. There they are, building their neat little park with ceramic squirrels and potted plants, and what do they look out on? Stoner Joe’s place, where even the backyard buddha has weeds growing out of him.
I know neat freaks have seared my soul over the years, because hard as I try … I can’t stop turning the screw.
I try to empathize, but when it comes to me and OCDers the lines were drawn long ago. It’s what inspired this column, in fact, as one of them visited yesterday. His name is Nate and he dragged his wife Eleanor along. (I’d never met her before but she was, as indicated by our phone conversations, severely autistic.) Nate himself is a podiatrist and longtime pot customer. (He basically paid for this house, handing me three hundred grand over the years.)
He’s also such a neat freak that he lops his dogs’ tails off. As a dog lover (much less a human being) I consider this a senseless act of cruelty—“It’s how they express themselves, you asshole, you might as well cut their heads off!”—but there’s no room for accidents in his antiseptic, tighty whitey home.
He and Eleanor are visiting Port Townsend on a cool winter day, and they’ve dropped in to see his old dealer Wilson, which is code for Nate needing a smoke. It’s the same reason most people visit me and I’m good with that: it’s what I’d do in their shoes.
So Nate and I are puffing away on a Gorilla Glue #4 bomber, and Eleanor is staring stonily at my cartoons on the wall, when I see he’s noticed “the trap.” Or, more accurately, he’s letting me know (with his facial tics) that he’s spotted it. He’s OCD, after all: he realized the instant he stepped into this garage/studio that something was amiss.
It’s the smoke alarm above my head: the instructions still dangle from it. I noticed it after my first couple years here, but only because it was draped in spider webs. I reached up to knock them away, thought I should remove the booklet as well, then decided it was too much trouble.
A prescient move on my part, because now—five years down the road—it’s not just crustier than ever, but black from pot smoke. (I never put a battery in the alarm, of course.) Which is a glaring affront to Nate’s universe, particularly when he’s had his senses heightened by Gorilla Glue. Before long he’s squirming like Jerry Seinfeld.
I try not to laugh; stunts like this are unseemly for a man my age.
Finally he can’t take it anymore.
“Goddamn it, High!” he sputters, leaping to his feet. “You’re tall enough, stand up and take those fuckin’ instructions down!”
If I had a tail I’d wag it.