Chapter 17 – Far Out!
In the spring, a lot of people’s gutters tend to get jammed up. A lot of trees drop buds and seeds at a very rapid rate this time of year – most notably maple trees with all those spinney little helicopter seeds – which can easily plug up people’s downspouts and lead to overflow every time it rains. In the couple days after my dad died but before we’d even held his service yet, in addition to a few calls regarding window washing, we got about seven or eight gutter cleaning calls. I figured that the window washing jobs could wait another week until after Dad’s service because that shit’s strictly for aesthetic purposes, but decided that the gutter jobs should get done ASAP to help save our customers from getting any water damage. I asked my brother, since he was on leave from his own job, if he’d like to come out with me and spend a day doing some gutters for old time’s sake. He said he would. So, one morning Danny and I loaded all the ladders onto the truck, threw the blowers and the gas can in the back, and headed out to go get those seven or eight jobs done.
In addition to those early-season seeds and buds, the most common thing that clogs gutters are fallen leaves, especially in the fall. But realistically, throughout the year, you can find a lot of different stuff in people’s gutters when cleaning ‘em. I see a lotta sticks and twigs. Some big branches. Lots of insects, particularly earwigs. I see some baseballs, some roofing nails, some roofing tiles, some jagged scraps of aluminum flashing, and sometimes even some hammers and screwdrivers forgotten there by other workers. I see a good amount of crumbly little pieces of masonry shit broken off people’s chimneys, especially on older houses that aren’t being properly maintained. On houses that have trees with branches that sit just above the roof providing easy access for raccoons, I often see piles of their feces scattered all over the place. Now, there’s obviously an ick-factor here when dealing with doo-doo that makes it off-putting to work with, but it turns out that beyond being gross, there’s a chance that simply being around raccoon feces could actually cause you to become retarded and develop heart problems. That’s right. Recently, when I got curious and decided to look into why raccoons always shit on roofs, I discovered that coon poo has a brain and heart-eating roundworm in it that is untreatable and can cause humans permanent damage if directly ingested when it’s gooey and fresh, or – of a more direct concern to me when blowing it around with a leaf-blower – if inhaled when dried-out and the piles are disturbed and the roundworm spores or eggs or whatever-the-fuck go airborne. So, I dunno…but fuck that shit, ya know? Well, not literally of course. I don’t wanna see anyone havin hot steamy sex with a pile of raccoon poo, but you know what I mean – miss me with that brain damage and heart trouble shit.
Beyond all the usual stuff I just mentioned, I’ve also found a few strange things over the years that were either good for a chuckle or made me wonder the story behind how such an item may have ended up in the gutters. The first that comes to mind is an entire newspaper that had been completely plugging up a downspout. I know that some paperboys are more accurate than others, but it’s hard for me to imagine one of these guys missing the porch so badly that the paper they’re tossing ends up in a gutter that’s twenty feet higher than the step they’re trying to chuck it on. Another one that comes to mind was one of those Troll dolls. It wasn’t the normal mini-sized one, but a bigger one that was just the right size to completely occlude the top of a downspout, causing the gutter to overflow each time it rained. To remedy the problem, I reached down and grabbed the thing by its dingy pink hair and yanked it out, allowing all the standing water in the gutter to flush right down the spout and that was pretty much it for the whole job – easy peasy. One last downspout obstruction I’ll mention here that gave me pause was this sexy little pair of pink panties that were so stained with gutter gunk that they looked like they’d been shit in. Or, who knows, perhaps they actually were shit in and some chick – or dude – decided to slip ‘em off as they’d been walkin past this house and then chuck ‘em up into this gutter as a means of ditching ‘em. Or maybe they were shit-free when they were first tossed up there and then a raccoon got ahold of ‘em and used those panties to wipe its ass after taking one of its daily roof-shits. I guess I’ll never know.
Not all the unusual things we find in the gutters are inanimate. One time, years ago, there was a live mouse in a gutter that’d probably been living there peacefully for quite some time before we came along and started clearing ‘em out. At first it caught my brother by surprise, seeing it jump out and start running around all panicked and shit, but once he regained his composure, Danny aimed his blower right at the thing and pulled the trigger. The handheld gas-powered leaf blowers we use can blow at speeds of up to 150mph which, as you might imagine, is a force to be reckoned with. That said, the mouse didn’t really stand a chance, but wasn’t gonna go out without a fight. It clung for dear life on to whatever it could and actually managed to hold on for a second or two before its grip slipped and it was launched off the side of the roof and out of sight. It’s funny to imagine someone – anyone, a generic human – being evicted from what’d been their home in a similar manner. A group of indifferent strangers just busting in outta nowhere with these crazy devices in their hands which they aim right at ya just before literally blowing you away without explanation. I laugh at the image, but the reality of such a situation would be absolutely terrifying – almost makes me feel sorry for the mouse.
Another time, I remember being on a roof with my brother and there was this dead squirrel crusted up there that one leaf blower by itself wasn’t powerful enough to blow off. I didn’t feel like touching it and peeling it off manually, so my brother and I – crossing streams like the Ghostbusters when taking down Gozer – both hit the thing with our blowers at the same time. After a few seconds of wavering, it blasted off like Bullwinkle’s buddy, Rocket J. Squirrel, and went flying over the edge of the roof. I thought that would be the last I saw of it, but then when we were back on the ground cleaning up, we discovered the petrified rodent hanging upside down by its tail from a small branch of an adjacent tree only a couple feet away from a window that looked into these people’s family room. The thing looked like some sort of hillbilly-ass Christmas ornament as it swayed to and fro in the crisp fall breeze, dangling in a way very similar to one of those plastic monkeys that come in a barrel that I used to play with as a kid. Instead of blowing that skeletal eyesore to the ground how a true professional would’ve, I decided to leave it as it was in hopes that the owner would look out the window and scratch his head in wonder, trying to guess the backstory of how such a thing came to be.
Sometimes the most interesting thing at a gutter job isn’t necessarily what you find in the gutters, but what happens while you’re doing ‘em. All day as me and my brother had been working during that first week after our father’s passing, we reminisced about all the different jobs that we used to do with our old man. One story that always comes up when he and I have this type of discussion is when all three of us had been cleaning out the gutters at our dentist’s house in the Edgewater area of the city. We never really had all that much work in that area to begin with and, in fact, have gotten rid of almost all of it in recent years because a lot of the houses that way are big and have pretty high roofs that are old and in poor condition and not safe to walk on. The houses are normally built very close together which means that, in the gangways between the two houses, you have to set the ladder straight-up in order to be able to reach the gutters, which is something that has always proved frightening and dangerous. Lastly, there’s never any parking over there and I hate parking halfway down the block from a house and having to lug the 28-foot ladder back and forth that far just to do a dangerous job I don’t even wanna do for money that’s not worth the higher-than-normal risk of ending up in a wheelchair. That said, we really like our dentist. He’s been the only dentist I’ve ever had since I was a little kid and as long as he keeps taking care of my teeth, I feel an obligation to keep taking care of his gutters, even though his job kinda sucks and is quite literally the last one we have in that area of the city.
So anyway, picture this… There we were somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago cleaning the gutters at the house of my dentist when this strange older man with long hair and a long beard appeared outta nowhere and had been silently watching us work. He was wearing an all-white outfit and – as much as my mind wants to remember him as resembling John Lennon on the cover of Abbey Road – I know that in reality it was much closer to Howard Hughes in all-white pajamas wearing boxes on his feet.
“You guys know Marty?” was the first thing the stranger said.
Although I’d never heard anyone call him that before and it sounded strange to my ears, I was well aware that my dentist’s first name was Martin, so there was no mistaking to whom the man had been referring.
“Yes, yes, we know him. He’s our dentist.”
“Far out,” the guy said. “How’d you guys like to come clean out my gutters next? I live right over there,” he said, pointing across the street to an old mint-colored wood frame house with all sorts of junk littering the entire property – the most notable of which had been a wooden kitchen table and chairs set up on the middle of the lawn with the statue of a woman’s head functioning as the centerpiece.
Never wanting to turn down an opportunity to do more work and make more money, my dad told the guy we’d be right over. When we finished up doing “Marty’s” gutters, we carried the 28-foot ladder across the street and set it up on the side of the guy’s house. My brother ran up it to take the first turn blowing stuff out while my dad and I stood at the bottom, one of us securing the ladder in place and the other with a blower in hand ready to clean up whatever shit my brother blew out. It was at this point the guy came back up to us and started talking again. He looked up at my brother at the top of the ladder and said, “Whoa! No gloves, man?! Far out!” After a few moments of inane chitchatting, it was brought to the guy’s attention that the three of us were family, a fact which apparently warranted yet another “Far out!” from our new biggest fan.
“Oh man, that’s so cool,” he continued. “Family… Ya know, this is actually my family’s house. I used to live here with my mom and my brother, but they both died recently.”
“Ah. Shit, man – our condolences on your loss.”
“Yeah, thanks,” he said. “My brother just killed himself not too long ago.”
“Oh wow, that’s terrible.” In case you’ve never been in a similar situation, this is a very hard statement to know how to properly respond to. “We’re very sorry to hear about that.”
“Yeah, man. They had him hooked on all their pills, those bastards. They really had their claws in him.”
“Who did? Who had him hooked?”
“Big Pharma, man – who else?”
“Big Pharma – like, all the pharmaceutical companies, ya know? They don’t care about any of us. They’ll just prescribe ya whatever. As long as they’re makin money, they don’t care what sorta harm they’re doin to people and their families, man.”
Although I felt bad about the guy having recently lost his family, and although I would years later end up agreeing with him to a certain extent about “Big Pharma” bein the world’s largest drug dealer the way they indiscriminately stuff antidepressants down everybody’s throats instead of teachin ‘em how to navigate life on their own, the guy was just too much to handle. Like, we were super respectful and professional while there doin his job, but as soon as we got back in the truck and drove away, the jokes started rollin. We ended up makin fun of the guy the whole ride home, doin our best drugged-out hippie impressions and commenting how “far out” everything is. For years after that, every time I was cleaning the gutters at my dentist’s house, I’d think about the conversation we had with that guy and I’d joke about it with my dad in person while there, and take a picture of the guy’s house and send it in a text to my brother letting him know where we were working that day and we’d share a little laugh reminiscing about the old anachronistic stoner.
That said, for whatever the reason, I never felt the need to bring any of that stuff up with our dentist when I’d go in and see him a couple times a year for my biannual cleaning. It’s like, when I go to the dentist, I normally just ask the doctor how he’s doing and he asks me how I’m doing and, after this exchange of pleasantries, he gets to work and our little chat usually doesn’t go much deeper because it’s kinda hard for me to hold up my end of the conversation with the guy’s fingers in my mouth, ya know what I mean? But then that all changed one year when we went to do the doc’s gutters and I was shocked to see that Big Pharma Boy’s house was gone. POOF! Just like that. The property was fenced off, and hanging from the chain links was a sign for some construction company that planned on building something new in its place. It made me feel a bit sad – like part of me’d been bulldozed along with that guy’s house or somethin. I dunno. But I decided that the next time I went to the dentist, I was gonna bring it up and get the scoop on whatever may’ve happened.
“So,” I said to the doc when I saw him at my next appointment, “the last time I was cleanin the gutters at your house, I noticed that they knocked down that one house across the street from you. This might be a weird question, but just wondering…do you know what happened to that old hippie guy that used to live there?”
“Oh,” he said, “you know that guy?”
“Well, no,” I replied, “I don’t know him know him. But he came out one time and talked to us while we were workin at your house and then hired us to clean out the gutters on his house afterwards.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. “And the guy paid you?”
“Yeah. Well, he paid my dad, I mean.”
“Hmm, okay. That’s a bit surprising he’d pay you guys to do that. He didn’t work and didn’t have any money and he didn’t really seem to take care of that house at all, so…”
“Yeah, I noticed. With that shit all over his lawn – the flags and statues and tables and chairs, I mean.”
“Yes, he used to have quite a lot of stuff out there. He actually passed away earlier this year. I can’t remember his name at the moment.”
“He called you Marty,” I said.
“Really?” he asked. “I wasn’t aware he knew my name.”
“Guess so,” I shrugged. “He was kind of a weird guy. We only talked to him for a couple minutes and he was tellin us about his brother’s suicide and the evils of Big Pharma.”
“Ah, yes. I remember the news about his brother. Very sad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But like…did you or any of the other neighbors ever get upset from having to look at all that shit piled up on his lawn all the time? Did anyone ever like, try to take action to have him clean it up or anything like that?”
“No,” the doc said. “Maybe for some of the other neighbors it was a problem, but his stuff isn’t what really bothered me all that much. I was more worried thinking that the guy was selling dope out of his house.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Why is that?”
“Well, he always had a bunch of shady-looking strangers coming and going at all hours of the day and night. I never called the police on him though or anything like that. Well, actually, I did one time. But it wasn’t about drugs. It was because he got all these really big speakers from somewhere and set them up on his front porch and put on some sort of jungle soundtrack.”
“Some sort of what?”
“I’m not sure what it was. But it was just sounds of the jungle – like monkeys and lions and whatever else – blasted at the highest volume you could imagine twenty-four hours a day for three days straight. I could clearly hear it in my house with all the windows closed. I felt bad and didn’t want him to get in trouble, but I think he was out of town or something because he wouldn’t answer the door and I couldn’t sleep at night with that stuff playing, so I saw no other option aside from calling the police on him.”
“Ha,” I smiled. “Jungle sounds. That’s hilarious.”
“It is now looking back on it,” he said. “But when it was happening, it was like a nightmare. It was keeping me up all night.”
“Yeah, I bet,” I said. “So, would you ever talk to the guy – like, have an actual conversation with him or anything?”
“No, not really. I’d say hi to him if we were both in the front yard and made eye contact or something like that. Other than that…,” he mused. “Well, actually there is one more story I have about that guy. One time I was in my front yard bent over pulling weeds and all of a sudden this guy comes walking up to my house wearing nothing but a robe and with a towel in his hand. Before I can even comprehend what’s going on, he yells, ‘Military shower!’ and runs up the stairs of my porch and into my house.”
“What? No way. Who does that?”
“Apparently this guy does that.”
“What did he mean by military shower?” I asked.
“I really have no idea. But that’s what he said as he went barging into my house. And so I go inside after him to see what’s going on and find that the door to my upstairs bathroom is locked and the water’s running. I pound on the door and he doesn’t respond. He’s just humming to himself in the shower or whatever. So I figure there’s really nothing I can do, so I go back outside and keep working on my front yard. After about twenty minutes, the guy still hadn’t come out yet and I was starting to get worried. I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh no, did this guy kill himself in my bathroom? Am I gonna hafta move now?’ But then he came back out a couple minutes later with his robe on and the towel wrapped neatly around his head and he casually walked back across the street without saying anything to me, acting like nothing had even happened.”
After that tale, the doctor proceeded to pick at and polish my teeth as he had many times before over the years. As I sat there cringing and wincing while he did his thing, I was undeniably excited to have a new far-out piece of the old hippie stoner guy story to share with my dad and brother.