Crime Scene Cleaners

From Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium (ISBN: 0609807072)

Neal Smither:

I’m the President and owner of Crime Scene Cleaners. We clean up death scenes, like homicides. You know, the room where someone gets murdered. We also handle suicides, accidental deaths, meth labs, things like that. A lot of people have the assumption that police take care of the cleanup after a crime. That’s not true. It’s never been true. If Johnny or Sally gets shot in your house, or your store, and there’s brains everywhere, it’s your problem. You have to do the cleaning. It’s not the police’s responsibility at all. You clean it. Or else you call my company or one of my competitors.

The idea to start this business came to me six years ago. I was twenty-five years old. I’d just been laid off from my job as division manager at a mortgage banking firm. And there I was, wallowing for weeks in my unemployment misery, when one day, bam! I was watching the movie Pulp Fiction. And you know that scene where they blew the guy away in the back of the car and then had to bring in Harvey Keitel to clean the whole thing up? Well I saw that scene and I thought, wow, that’s intriguing. Are there people out there doing this kind of job in real life? And I did some research and found out that that the answer was yes. But there were only a few companies, and they weren’t marketing themselves to a broad based range of clients. They weren’t selling effectively. Well, I knew I could sell, I just didn’t know if I could do that kind of cleaning. So I made some phone calls.

I called every janitorial company, anyone who had anything to do with cleaning. I made literally thousands of calls. I’m a neat freak, typically, but I didn’t know how professional companies carried out their work. So I took a job with Merry Maids for a couple of weeks. Merry Maids is a residential cleaning company, sort of the McDonalds of maids, really cheap, really shitty. But working there taught me a lot about technique.

Then, next, I started contacting coroners and police, because they were going to be my target audience. I was gonna give them a percentage to give me business referrals. You know, so like somebody dies, the cops show up, they’re like, Hey, we know a guy who’ll clean this up. They send me the business, they get a cut of my fee. Good idea, right? No. Wrong. Because what I found out is that they’re not allowed to give out referrals, due to liability. They can’t give one, they have to offer a list of cleaning companies, so there’s no issue of favoritism. That was a bit discouraging, but whatever, I was into it by then. I just changed gears and I started targeting the people at mortuaries. They can give referrals.

My first job came on referral from a mortician. The victim’s sister hired us. It was a lady down in Marina Bay area of Richmond. She had terminal cancer and she’d blown her brains out—shot herself in the head with a .357. Experience-wise, it wasn’t too messy—just enough to cut my teeth and kind of get an indicator of whether I could do this. And I learned I was capable of doing it. And when the cleanup was done and I named my price, the client started cutting a check without any hesitation whatsoever. I knew immediately that this work was for me.

Of course, back then, I was totally inept. My partner and I—I used my wife as my partner on that job—we were there for three hours and I only charged two hundred and fifty dollars. Now, I’d be there an hour and we’d charge five seventy-five. So I’ve learned. I’ve learned so much.

My second job was so hardcore—I’ll never forget it. When I think of how little I knew, doing a job like that, it just makes me laugh. It was at a fairly upscale condominium complex in Oakland. A hugely fat guy had died on his hide-a-bed. Weeks, weeks and weeks had gone by and no one had discovered him. He was a loner. No one knew he was dead until they smelled it outside and by that time, it was atrocious. My assistant and I—this time it was my sister—opened the door and this ungodly smell just slammed us, big time. We hadn’t learned about wearing respirators yet. We hadn’t a clue. Well, the whole bottom of this guy’s bed was encased in plastic from the manufacturer, and the plastic had trapped all these fluids. So I was moving the bed around, and it started stirring up these juices. And when I tip the bed over, not realizing what’s going on inside of it, this rushing torrent of maggot-filled liquid spews out all over the place—all over the carpet and all over my clothing. I vomited several times. My sister started gagging uncontrollably until she just couldn’t take it anymore. So she ran out the door, and jumped over the deck, right into the pool! That one still rates as the worst decomp we’ve ever done. And we knew so little about equipment, disposal techniques, the whole thing.