Before . . .
And after The Estate Experts’s transformation.
by Charles McGuigan
On Dumbarton Road, 2828 is something of an anomaly. A large brick American four-square with a broad front porch, and the neat symmetry of abundant windows, all topped with a slate roof. It’s a durable structure built to last from the early years of the last century, and set back from the roadside on a sizable chunk of land—about an acre and a half, an unusually large lot for Lakeside. Often, particularly on the weekends, an old pickup would pull into the gravel drive and a group of men would descend from the front porch of the house and gather around the driver and then move to the bed of the truck where they would begin unloading furniture, washing machines, refrigerators, cardboard boxes, and assorted junk. This happened regularly, and the items were either hauled into the house, placed on the front porch, or taken to the back yard. I had seen this play out dozens of times over the years, but never knew who lived in this house.
Back in late February, Carter and Tip McClure, co-owners of The Estate Experts, invited me over to 2828 to see for myself what the place—inside and out—was like before they tackled it, and sold or scrapped its contents, which the owner had accumulated over a lifetime. Through it all I would learn something about the life of the man who lived there.
That day, I followed Tip and Carter through the house from room to room. Carter held the face mask of her cupped hand over her nose to filter out the dust and mold spore. Clouds of dust rose wherever we walked, tiny bursts that looked like wisps of smoke. Every room was packed with furniture and mantle clocks and books and artwork and clothing and comforters and Depression glass and china and towers of cardboard boxes, which together formed a sort of helter-skelter skyline of a city run amuck. Some rooms you could not navigate through, the debris was that thick, and in every corner of every ceiling, ancient spider webs hung like hammocks, weighty as raw wool, laden with dust, soot, cat hair, and flecks of human skin and animal dander shed for many long decades by the occupant, and his pets and tenants.
Though outside it was a bright and sunny afternoon, the house, despite its profusion of windows, was dark as a tomb. Clutter blocked many of those windows, and the panes of glass in the unobstructed windows were coated with grease and grime, as if they were cut from sheets of beeswax so the light that filtered through them was the color of amber.
The second floor was less cluttered. There were several bedrooms up there where renters had dwelt. One renter was still there that day, but we never saw him, though we could hear him moving around behind his locked door. It was a shuffling sound and I could hear faint music. All four bedrooms radiated off the hub of a slipshod kitchen of sorts that was absolutely filthy—cigarette butts, ashes, pizza boxes, beer cans on the floor—and there was the stench of roaches and rotting food.
Both the basement and attic were choked with so much debris that it was all but impossible to enter. Carter begged off these explorations, but Tip and I waded through the flood tide of one’s man’s past, and when we found a suitable shore he began opening cardboard boxes that had been stored there for God knows how many years. Sometimes, when Tip opened a box, the cardboard crumbled like crushed graham crackers in his hands.
After touring the interior, we made our way to the back yard, which was a marriage between a municipal dump and a scrap metal yard—appliances large and small, outdoor furniture, piles of trash, garbage bags filled with aluminum cans, outbuildings bursting at the seams with junk, a fleet of rusted lawnmowers, an army of squat outdoor grills, and even kitchen sinks. No rhyme or reason to this collection of refuse, and no order to it. Through it all, grew vines and bamboo, as if the earth, through its vegetation, were trying to capture and to crush and to engulf these manmade intrusions. Shoots of bamboo grew through the housing of stoves and washing machines. Trumpet vines and honeysuckle smothered lawn chairs and slabs of picket fencing. It was an urban jungle back there.
What we had here was a hoarder of near epic proportions. Nonetheless, Carter and Tip assured me they would have the house ready for an estate sale in a couple of weeks, and I smiled and nodded. But as I pulled out of the drive, tires crunching through gravel, I said to myself: “No way.”
The day before the estate sale, I visited 2828 again, and sure enough Tip and Carter had cleaned up the house, created in roads through the back yard, and, in Carter’s words, “staged it” for the sale. And I chomped on my own words of doubt.
“I’ve been doing estate sales now since 1986, I got my start in Washington, D.C.,” Tip said. “So I’ve seen a lot of stuff. This was by far the nastiest.”
And, in a way, The Estate Experts enabled this man Leroy Basham to become a hoarder.
“Leroy had been a shopper of ours since we started our business twenty years ago,” said Carter. “He came to pretty much all of our estate sales, and probably others too, but he was kind of hooked on us because he liked us.”
Leroy had a particular fondness for canning jars, any make, any model. He also had a penchant for green Depression glass, ceramic cookie jars, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Victorian pitchers with wash basins, and Victrolas. Those were the kinds of things Leroy would purchase during the first and second days of an estate sale. Then he’d circle back on the last day, typically a Monday, after all the good stuff had been picked over, and he would get down to business.
“He was a bottom feeder,” Tip told me. “He would always come the last day and I would give him stuff. At the end, I would call it VIP Monday, I would just throw scrap metal on his truck not knowing how much money I was giving him every week. But he would help me clean the house out, and that’s the ultimate goal of what we do.”
Carter was nodding along with Tip’s words. “He would come at the very, very end,” she said. “He would get the real leftovers, the pieces and parts.”
Remember, Leroy’s home was also a rooming house. And on those VIP Mondays he would stock up on supplies that he’d later sell to his tenants. “So, he would buy all kinds of shampoo and supplies, and dole it out to his tenants, selling it,” said Carter.
“Band-Aids too were another cash cow in Leroy’s house,” said Tip. “The tenants were always getting cut, and Leroy always had Band-Aids for sale.”
On those days of leftovers, Carter would tell Leroy where he could find a shoebox, and then he would enter the bathroom and open the medicine chest above the sink and begin filling the box with shaving cream, razors, aspirin, shampoo, just about anything. And all these items were free. “We’d open the cabinet door below the kitchen sink for him, and he’d get all the Comet and Endust, just clean it out,” Carter recalled. “We didn’t have to do that, but Leroy was our friend.”
Tip saw him as more than a friend. “He was like a brother to me, sure,” he said. “I’ve known Leroy for over twenty years. We shared brotherly antics. I mean, although he was eighty—almost thirty years my senior—we would speak politics, we’d talk, tell jokes, the way brothers do.”
Over the years, Tip and Carter began learning bits and pieces of Leroy Basham’s life. He was a child of the Great Depression, and grew up in an economically bleak section of our sister state to the west.
“He would not throw anything away, he was incredibly frugal,” said Carter. “He came from very poor origins in West Virginia, and he saved everything because it could be reused.”
Leroy even wanted the stubs of candles with their curled, blackened wicks. “He would burn everything, used candles in the woodstove,” Tip said. “He never turned the heat on is house, so he would just burn all the residue that was given to him. The trash he didn’t throw out. The incinerator would take care of it, and supply his heat.”
Leroy also wanted every remnant of bar soap, even those that were wafer-thin. “That’s how he did his laundry,” Tip told me. “He would take all those little pieces of soap, put them in a nylon stocking and use it as his washing machine detergent.”
“He thought he had had a use for everything so he just became a true hoarder, a true hoarder,” said Carter.
“His estate was so overweight that it needed to go on a diet,” Tip said. “I was probably the first one to throw trash out of that house in about forty years.”
These estate experts, it turns out, are archaeologists of a sort. In a house like 2828, the excavation, because of the sheer volume of clutter, can take some time. Slowly sifting through what amounts to mounds of trash, they will unearth rare treasures, puzzle pieces about a past, as well as commonplace implements that successive generations have used in daily life.
“Every time we do one of these sales that has a forty year accumulation like this one, it really is like urban archaeology,” Carter said. “First you have the curlers, then you go to the bobby pins, then you go to the hairnets, I mean it shows the history of America in some ways.”
At times, it’s like a stratified sedimentary rock, each layer representing a different epoch. ”The dresser in his bedroom was weird because his stuff was on the top layer in every drawer,” Tip recalled. “And below that was his mom’s stuff—creams and powders. And it was spooky, I’m telling you. It looked like lasagna.”
Carter and Tip also discovered a cache of letters written to Leroy Basham. “He was a very intelligent guy,” Carter said. “He was a guidance counselor for Moody Middle School back in the 1970s, and well-known in the community. Many, many of his students loved him. We found letters that said things like, ‘Dear Mr. Basham, How much you’ve changed my life, how much you’ve meant to me.’ He was a very well-respected professional, well-known in the community. But a frugal man, never married, and no children. Leroy was the salt of the earth.”
Whether or not he was a millionaire, Leroy did possess a fairly large estate upon his death just this past November. Along with 2828, Leroy also owned three or four rental homes in Lakeside, each of which presumably produced revenue. He left the rental properties to his executor, and 2828, along with its contents, to an old friend he knew from his guidance counselling days.
“And so we got the sale because the executor knew us because Leroy would speak highly of us,” said Carter. “Leroy said, ‘The Estate Experts have to do my estate sale because I trust them’, because he knew of us throughout the years.”
Leroy’s treasures on display for the sale.
Before they began the long task of sorting through the contents of the house, they went on a treasure hunt. Along with his rental properties, Leroy also left the executor his coin collection. A small safe containing the silver coins Leroy had collected for decades was hidden somewhere under the staircase.
Tip found the safe and handed it over to the executor who didn’t seem too thrilled with it. He just stuck it in his own back yard, where it sat for a day or two, and then, a friend, armed with a Sawzall, attacked the steel sheathing of the safe and a steady stream of silver flowed.
”It came to be eighty pounds of silver coins, equaling twenty thousand dollars,” Tip said. “The executor told me if he would have known there was that much in there he would have been a little more quick to open it.”
And then Carter and Tip began sorting, separating grain from chaff, and the piles of refuse grew. They filled two thirty-yard dumpsters with junk bound for a landfill. Another two thirty-yard dumpsters brimmed with steel—lawnmowers, refrigerators, washing machines and so on—that was sold to a scrap metal yard. It amounted to eight full tons of steel. In beer cans alone Tip salvaged two hundred pounds of aluminum, again for scrap, and another thousand pounds of aluminum cookware.
“And that just scratched the surface,” Tip told me. “There’s probably, on the property, another ten more thirty-yard dumpsters worth of trash on the whole property. Tires and wood, garbage.”
The interior of the house had been transformed for the sale the following morning, and I strolled through each room, with Carter telling me how she and Tip had staged it all. When I left, I waved and told them I’d return the next day.
That first time I toured the home of Leroy Basham, well before Tip and Carter had staged it for the estate sale, one image struck me more than any other—it was the room where Leroy slept, which had probably been a living room in the earlier years of the house. It had a fireplace and sliding wooden doors. Off to one side was his bed which was surrounded by piles of junk. There was a dresser stuffed with clothing, and a number of bow-fronted china presses weighted down with Depression glass and china. On a table top one shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, another one to a couple of bloated Buddhas. Tons of other superfluous stuff.
At first I thought it was like the tomb of some misguided ancient royalty, an Egyptian gone mad. And then I thought of a cocoon that Leroy Basham had spun for himself with his web of possessions, wrapping himself in a kind of insulation that kept him warm in a world that might have seemed cold. It finally struck me that more than anything else, the tiny cell in which this man slept for forty years, buffered from the world by layers of material things, may have been a sort of womb that he tried to crawl back into. But you can never really go backwards, not once you emerge, and the only exit comes at the very end.
I ended up going to the estate sale, which turned out to be a booming success. By the end of it The Estate Experts had raised fifteen thousand dollars. The client was satisfied beyond his dreams, and those carrying purchases to their cars seemed ecstatic. Each one of them had something they wanted. And what had once belonged to Leroy Basham would now work its way into a new home. The only thing I carried back to the car was myself.