Scattered clothes. Runaway mold. Snakes coiled in refrigerator bins. Clearing out a foreclosed home, says Harper’s writer Paul Reyes, is always a study in broken dreams.

When I ask my father what he remembers about the first houses he “trashed out”—a phrase we use to describe the process of entering a home that has been foreclosed upon by the bank and hauling all of what the dispossessed owner has left behind to the nearest dump, then returning to clean the place by spraying every corner and wiping every inch of glass, deleting every fingerprint, scrubbing the boot marks off the linoleum, bleaching the cruddy toilets, sweeping up the hair and sand and dust, steaming the stains out of the carpet (or, if the carpet is unsalvageably rancid, tearing it out), and eventually, thereby, erasing all traces of whoever lived there—he says he doesn’t remember much. It was around 15 years ago, for one thing, well before I joined him; and since then he has trashed out so much bizarre flotsam that his memories of those first few houses have faded.

None of the anecdotes my father shares about his work is uplifting. Sure, there are comedies and tragicomedies, and some plots are shot through with an absurdity that seems indigenous to Florida. But overall the situation remains bleakly fixed: every foreclosed house, empty or not, clean or crumbling, feels lost, no matter the neighborhood or amenities, no matter the waterfront view. Some houses are found spotless, others in a wretched degradation. Some houses are lost before ever having been lived in. Others, abandoned long ago, provide shelter for addicts, bums, whores, snakes, strays, and low fungal kingdoms that fan out in the darkness, kick-started, maybe, by a cat turd or bowl of leftovers.

The junk left behind has fascinated me since I began working for my father 10 years ago—during holidays, or between jobs—tagging along with his regular crew, a pair of Puerto Rican laborers, Hector and Ismael, who start the day at 6 and call it at 3. I’ve always been the crew’s weak link, both because I flinch in places that, after a year of abandonment, have become so gloriously foul and because I can’t help but read a narrative in what has been discarded. I begin to pick, sweating nearly every item we throw away, creeping among gadgets and notes and utility bills and photographs in order to decipher who lived there and how they lost it.

Foreclosures are our family business. My father moved us to Florida in 1984, when I was 13, and after starting a small construction company, and losing it, he began dabbling in houses—repairing them, flipping most for a modest profit. His second wife, Mena, was a real estate agent who worked with foreclosures, and when it came time to clean a place out, she knew my father could do the job. The foreclosed houses kept coming, and for every home lost, odds were that a buyer could be found.

By the time I flew home this spring, however, buyers had long since disappeared, and houses by the thousands—both new and old—sat empty. Homes built in 2006 were being repossessed within a year and by Spring 2008 sold for half as much as the slightly newer homes surrounding them. Some homeowners, in a brave tactic, were simply walking away from their debt, mailing the keys to the bank. In the past three years, the rate of homes being lost in Florida had quadrupled, to more than 35,000 per month, 4,700 of which were in cities within my father’s working radius—Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater. The collapse was biblical in its egalitarian reach. And yes, this spring, my father’s crew and I were flush with work.

The squalor of some houses is a shock. Each one of us at some point has been desperate, despondent, lazy, but the scattered depravity of these vanquished homeowners remains humbling. They seem to lose a little of themselves. I’ve come across traces of vanished pets, their dried piles in almost every corner of the house and in between. Then there are the refrigerators, tombs of rot trapped for long enough that when we happen to open them, they release a florid wretchedness, an odor never entirely contained within the box, so that
sometimes creatures are drawn inside.

 “We find snakes all the time—in refrigerators, snakes in luggage,” Hector said.  “One time we even found the skin of a—what do you call it—a python.”

Snakes and dog feces, curd and bees. Depressing as the rancid houses are, though, their desolation is rivaled by that of the houses left in a state of creepy tidiness. There were more clean homes among this generation of foreclosures. Like the house on Vanderbilt Drive: a six-bedroom, four-bathroom box with a second-story view of other roofs, a house new enough that it had been built, bought, lived in, and lost before the garage was even finished. In the kitchen, copies of Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple were stacked on the counter next to a Rolodex of index-card recipes. Christmas decorations had been set neatly near the sliding-glass door. A handful of popcorn lay scattered on the carpet. Outside, the big-screen television had been set carefully at the edge of the driveway, next to a fern. Such neatness was strangely defiant, a declaration of dignity against any transgression.

In the driveway, after locking up, we waved to an elderly neighbor in a bikini, who was sunning in front of her screened-in garage patio. We would soon see her again, in the same position, when we returned for two more trash-outs on the same block—same square footage, same layout, same view, same fate.

For every 10 or so notices my father tapes to a door or slips into a mailbox—guessing a soon-to-be-foreclosed home might be occupied but not willing to linger long enough to find out—he will take his chances and knock. Late one day, after hours of driving, we approached one such house just off Interstate 275, in a neighborhood of cruddy single stories with gutted cars in the yard and yellowing screened-in patios. An ice cream truck squeezed a reggaetón ditty through a megaphone on its roof, and rednecks idled in jacked-up pickups. Perhaps it was the dismissiveness with which they told my father that someone still lived in the house next door—whatever it was, he decided it was safe to knock. He went through the patio screen door and rapped politely. A woman’s voice from inside resonated big and tough, and she came to the door in purple scrubs: a nurse.

The exchange was brusque but not tense, and when my father mentioned the bank, she mentioned Ronnie, that we were probably looking for him. My father gave her Mena’s number, they thanked each other, and we assumed by her presence and Ronnie’s absence that an unforeseen illness was the cause of Ronnie’s predicament. “But see,” my father said, turning around at a dead end, driving past the house again, “how did he get a mortgage on that house?”

“It’s a piece of junk,” I said.

“Loan shark,” my father said. “He couldn’t go anywhere to get a decent loan. So he gets a loan at 13 percent, five points.”

Weeks went by before Ronnie called, and it wasn’t until I heard the nurse’s voice again, bleating through a speakerphone in Mena’s home office, that the facts were parceled out. The nurse, Kay, had lived in the house for 10 years, but somehow Ronnie owned it, and had refinanced it, and had lost it. Both she and Ronnie were on the line, confused about Mena’s explanation of the foreclosure process, and even more confused by Mena’s offer of a modest cash payment to help them move out quietly and avoid the pain of actual eviction.

Ronnie had tried to cover the risk of an adjustable-rate loan through a shell game of refinancing that finally caught up with him. He spat out the names of the banks he’d dealt with—Ameriquest, Wells Fargo, et al. Kay interrupted: “We been trying to finance, and we wish we could find somebody to finance so we won’t have to move.”

“I’m sorry about this,” Mena said, “but this is already, you know, done. The bank already closed. The bank is the owner now. And unfortunately, you know, you guys don’t have any other option but to accept the ‘cash for keys’ or be evicted.”

I could hear Ronnie moaning on the other end of the line.

“Is there no way that we can move out and then try to re-buy the house back again?” Kay asked.

“The only way that you might be able to buy the house back is maybe have your family purchase the house and, later on, they can do a deed to you. But if you had a hard time trying to get somebody to refinance the house, it’s going to be more difficult now, because automatically your credit score dropped 200 points.”

We couldn’t figure out if the noises coming over the line were speakerphone glitches or more noises of distress.

“I’m sorry there aren’t other solutions. But as I mentioned before, the condition with the ‘cash for keys’ is that the house needs to be free of all debris. Do you have a lot of stuff?”

“Yeah. It’ll take more than two weeks.”

“Well, see, you told me you want $2,000 and you’d be out in two weeks. But now you’re telling me that you’re not sure you’re going to be out in two weeks.”

“We supposed—I don’t want no eviction notice,” Kay said, pleading. “You know, I got enough pride in myself, I don’t want to go evicted. I don’t want to go out like, you know, somebody comin’ in and the sheriff comin’ up here and stuff like that. I been livin’ in this neighborhood for 10 years and never had a problem. I want to go out in class. I wanted to stay here. It’s breakin’ my heart, you know. You know?”

I left the room and stepped outside for a minute, overwhelmed, knowing we’d likely see Kay and Ronnie again, with a sheriff in front of us. Even if Kay could get a loan, there wasn’t a single institution in this economic climate that would lend her a cent for that shabby house. Hearing Kay’s panicked voice, one could understand the depth of this crisis in a way that the business pages failed to convey. One could simply multiply her desperation by tens of thousands—leagues upon leagues of homeowners trapped in pathetic confusion, having been upended by their desire, taught as a tenet of good citizenship in America, to own something permanent; in this case, a house that was now practically worthless, that merely marked a spot for bulldozers when it came time to widen the interstate.

From a longer article that originally appeared in
Harper’s magazine. Used with permission. All rights reserved.