By Anna Elledge & Photos by James Monroe Adams IV
Mar 13, 2007 - 12:00 AM
He described the scene like one from HBO’s “Sopranos.” Lombardi, still unsure of what the job entailed, saw a large man dressed in a black and white suit, smoking a cigar outside. When the wall-like warehouse door opened, three more employees in suits emerged. While he nervously awaited his interview in a seating area he watched as a body was removed from a freezer and placed in a hearse.
“I needed money, but I didn’t need money that bad,” Lombardi jokes.
It wasn’t until he saw the casually-dressed owner, who played an arcade game while conducting the interview, that Lombardi was put at ease. It was then that he was clued into the fact that both the cleaners and their associated business, a mortuary transportation service, were run from the same industrial space.
Known almost exclusively by word-of-mouth, the cleaners, “Do jobs that no one else will do,” Lombardi says. Despite the business’s name, not all of their jobs involve the cleaning of crime scenes, or the results of homicide, suicide and accidental death, as their white pick-up trucks advertise.
Because family members may be emotionally unable to clean an area of trauma, and most hazardous materials have to be cleaned and disposed of by permitted professionals, the day-to-day jobs range greatly in subject matter from biological to chemical waste.
Lombardi’s first week involved removing 20 years and nearly 70 yards of pigeon guano from an abandoned theatre. The next week it was picking up the gray matter of a roofer who had slipped and died. Later, heading to southern California to clean a room for Motel 6, who has a nationwide contract with the cleaners, Lombardi helped clean blood from most of the rooms’ surfaces.
On this early December day, there are three jobs at hand. While owner Neil Smithers juggles two cell phones with calls coming in for both companies, lead technician Shawn Clark, 34, and Lombardi head to an accidental death job. Clark calls this a fairly typical day.
In a Livermore condominium complex, a drunken man was said to have accidentally cut himself and bled to death after passing out. Clark and Lombardi assessed the damaged, which involved a trail of blood up the carpeted stairwell, thick in places where it appeared to have congealed. The bedroom, where the man had ultimately died and where his body had been removed some days earlier, was scattered with bottles, trash and pictures, while blood stained the mattress and walls.
“Safe for occupancy is the big key word,” Clark says of how all of the cleaners’ jobs are approached. Lombardi was hired by the owner to act as an eraser, removing all evidence of the death so that the home can be occupied again by new tenants.
“I haven’t seen anything that’s too bad yet. Well, to me it’s not that bad,” Lombardi says, adding that he enjoys the on-call parameters of the job. Most of all, Lombardi likes that “you don’t see the same thing everyday.”
As Lombardi continues to erase any evidence of the unfortunate mishap, Clark heads to San Jose for another job. Within 45 minutes he is on his hands and knees dressed in a hazardous materials suit in the driveway between two apartment buildings where a shooting had ended the night before.
Scrubbing at the pavement with a brush, Clark uses the company’s proprietary enzyme cleaner to disinfect and remove the blood from the ground on the taped-off area. Soaking up the liquids with blue industrial paper towels, Clark works quickly while dozens of kids walk by, already off school on Christmas break. Using a disposable white plastic putty knife with a wide edge, he scrapes up a small piece of brain and removes the orange cones that marked the waste.
“I have to see it but I wouldn’t want to clean it up,” a San Jose police sergeant in his thirties remarks as he watches Clark work, and directs the watchful children around the tape to the building’s entrance. Clark finishes the job with a spray of bleach on the areas where he cleaned saying that while it also disinfects, “It’s kinda psychological – people smell bleach and think ‘clean’.”
Clark gets through his day with a good helping of humor. “I have my moments of being stoic, but if you’re way too serious, it’s going to eat you up,” he says.
Clark’s day is nearly finished. His final run is to give an estimate on cleaning a bedroom where a body had decomposed for five days. On salary, he’s on his 36th hour of work and he’s ready for a break.
“I can’t wait for this day to be over with,” he says. “I just want to go home and shave.”
Meanwhile, Lombardi is still in Livermore, cleaning the bloodstained townhouse, a job that will take at least a few hours of work on his own.
“Blood and guts really don’t bother me,” he says of how he’s handled his first taste of this specialized cleaning. “I’d prefer to go to a place and not know what happened. My job is to clean it up and leave [the client] alone.” But three weeks in, after more than 40 hours of specialized training and a day of being sent out on his own, Lombardi says confidently, “I’ll be here for a while.”
Anna Elledge is a freelance contributor to OH DANG!
James Monroe Adams IV is a freelance contributor to OH DANG!