Speaking of newspaper-collecting loons …

The Onion asks,  “How Will The End Of Print Journalism Affect Old Loons Who Hoard Newspapers?” Poignant stuff. And this question reminded me of a couple of people. But, since my grandmother is definitely not a loon, I’ll pretend that it reminds me only of a neighbor in Austin, circa 1984. Let’s call him James.

James collected and hoarded newspapers. He never threw any away, and he stacked them in massive stalagmites throughout his home; other piles lay strewn about the detached garage-shed behind it. I came to know this because we shared a duplex with him, even though he also owned the house next door.

He was probably in his forties or early fifties. He had a long, gray ponytail, and I seem to remember that he smoked pot. His job had been to teach math classes at the University of Texas, where my future-ex-wife and I were undergraduates, but, when I knew him, his source of income was mysterious. Not surprisingly, we all lived close to campus.

We had the opportunity to rent this duplex because its previous occupant was in jail for dealing drugs. I know this because later, while exploring nooks and crannies in search of pests’ hideouts, I found letters from his lawyer, his parents, and his sister. This explained why, soon after we moved in, a line of scruffy youths had lined the low, stone wall bordering our yard. When I asked them what was happening, one told me that they were waiting for “Mike,” or whatever his name was. When I then explained that Mike no longer lived there, they ambled off.

I mentioned that James smoked. And the inevitable had happened at least a year before we rented the duplex next to his: a fire burned down his house. The newspapers in the garage were refugees from the inferno. Even though he had rebuilt his house, and he would go next-door to visit it, he wouldn’t move into it. We speculated that this was because of his traumatic memories from the fire. But, given his obsession with newspapers, who knows?

We wanted him to move because of the rats. Rats came into our apartment through holes in the floor of the kitchen closet and dropped from an opening in the ceiling at night. Rat traps worked on occasional individuals, but it was still distasteful to see each rat’s crushed cranium with the brains oozing out while I carried it outside to dislodge it from the trap and into a trashcan. And I felt some aversion to them running across my feet when surprised in the kitchen. My girlfriend had less contact but more objections.

The landlord had been unresponsive to our complaints, saying only that James needed to clear those newspapers out of the garage. So, ignorant of James’ obsession, I went to his apartment to ask him to present a united front with us against the landlord.

Wow! In addition to the maze of stacks of newspapers reaching almost to the ceiling, it seemed that James was not fastidious about trash in general. I know some people who would have told him directly that he was a loon and needed to clean up the fruits of his obsession. But I couldn’t do that.

So I went back to my girlfriend convinced that the garage was the least of our issues. The rats almost certainly were traveling to our apartment from James’ side through the attic and crawlspace. The campaign began to get the landlord to get James to clean up his apartment. After much badgering on our part, including empty threats of calling government inspectors, he got James to straighten up some, but far from all, of the mess in the garage. Their newfound destitution provoked the resident rats to move in with their neighbors in the house, reinforcing the onslaught.

Finally, we gave up. The landlord let us know that we were picky and troublesome, but he let us out of our lease. On the day that we left, he began cleaning up the garage completely. I would occasionally walk or bike past, but I could never tell whether James had permanently transferred back into his reconstructed house.

We moved to a house far from campus. We shared it with a student who never cleared the moldy dishes from her bedroom, her epileptic dog, and a man who made unsettling propositions to my fiance, my sister, and the aforementioned slob. …


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