Flies. Feces. Blood. Stench.[rssbreak]
It's hard to tell what hits me first. I'm concentrating on not falling in it. My biohazard suit is about 10 sizes too big, and inside it it's 100 degrees in the slippery summer heat.
"If you took off your mask," says a guy in matching white gear, Vader-like from behind his mask, "I guarantee you'd throw up."
Just another day in the life of Crime and Trauma Scene Cleaners. If you haven't heard of them, consider yourself lucky.
Murders, suicides, drug labs and disease. After the cameras stop clicking and the police tape is rolled up, the Crime Scene Cleaners come out to play. It's their job to sweep, mop, disinfect and baggy real-life urban legends.
Did you ever hear about the kid who lost his toes in the elevator? The old lady who got eaten by her cat? The Bay Street banker who kept the corpses of his three dead dogs under his bed? All true - and then some.
How do you measure the cost/benefits of a career that involves scraping brains off a ceiling?
As for me, I'm a vegetarian, though a morbidly curious one. The most disturbing thing I'd ever seen close up was when a Chinese couple whose wedding I was filming gave me a barbecued pig head as a thank-you gift. It had teeth. I swear to god, it was like something out of a horror movie.
"My advice," said company president Christian Cadieux a few days before my trauma scene debut, "is to bring a change of clothes. I'm not kidding."
So here I am in your typical suburban white house from hell.
From the outside, it looks normal. In a month, the for-sale sign will go up. In two months a new family will move in. The only indication that anything's awry is a white Crime Scene Cleaners van in the driveway.
We suit up in the garage. Pretty soon I'm sweating like a pig under double layers of rubber gloves, latex and duct tape. One of the workers, the short and smiley Brad Parsons, does a crazy dance to the radio as he snaps on his goggles.
"Forget the clothes you're wearing,'' says the tall one, Dave Colterman. "The smell gets in your skin, your hair, your mucus. Later on, if you cough or sneeze, you can taste it."
"The greatest," says Parsons, "is when you shit the next day and it smells like rotting corpse."
I open the door, pulling away the plastic sheeting.
After two weeks of "decomp" (and I'm not talking vegetable peels), the flies are everywhere. In the carpet, on the furniture. Laying eggs and spraying tiny flecks of "fly splatter" from feasting on blood and tissue everywhere they land.
"We have to assume all body fluids are infected," says Colterman. "All it takes is one of those flies to land in your eye and you're finished."
Some of Crime Scene's biggest business is mopping up after "hoarders," people who obsessively collect years' worth of gross filth. As one cleaner says, there's nothing like wrapping your arms around a 5-foot high pile of shit and hauling it out to the trash.
But every job has its dirty laundry. "When you open a door, you never know if you're going to find a living room or a sex dungeon," says paramedic-turned-cleaner Mike Frampton. "We had one guy who took a bunch of Polaroids of these two girls he paid to kick the living crap out of him. By the time we leave [a scene], we know a person inside and out, from their families to the type of sex they liked."
"When we see family photos on the fridge, we turn them over,'' he says.
You learn to read the signs - even if you don't want to. We follow the gruesome trail through the house as Frampton walks me through the owner's final moments.
So when does it get to be too much? David Cadieux, Christian's father and the founder of the company, shrugs when I ask how he's lasted for more than 30 years.
"The worst jobs? Cat houses. I won't do anything involving felines."
The most horrible thing he can think of is cats?
"Allergic," he grunts.
A few days before, when I met with the company owners in their Mississauga office, Christian Cadieux told me, "The biggest misconception is that the cops are the ones who clean up the mess.''
The two run a crime scene cleaning training school. The "classrooms" are rows of mock crime scenes, life-size mini-houses doused in animal blood and squirming maggots.
A seven-day course costs around $2,500, but graduates can pay that off with one job. Cleanups run anywhere from $500 to $150,000, depending on the severity.
As the day goes on in the white house, they haul out the tools of the trade, from broomsticks to DNA eraser and a steam cleaner so powerful it can burn through asphalt, cracking jokes as they work.
"Try not to judge [anyone]," says David Cadieux. Despite all he's seen, he has a kind, grandfatherly way about him. "You have to laugh. It's what keeps you sane."
They're like Santa's twisted little elves, whisking away nightmares in the dark. Most people want to forget they exist. But they've also gotten teary-eyed hugs and invitations to family barbecues, and not because of their weird stories.
"The greatest gift we give people" says Cadieux the elder, is "peace of mind."