James Redd talks with a matter-of-factedness that can be unsettling.
His mind is a catalogue of the unthinkable, where every taboo has already been broken.
Once he found half a woman’s mandible behind a curio on a high shelf. A husband had blown off his wife’s head in the kitchen. James had only climbed up there to wipe away a stray spot of blood.
“Imagine if the family had found that months later,” he says, his blue eyes clear as a child’s. “That’s instant trauma.”
And so it goes. As a crime scene cleaner, James describes himself as a janitor. But really he’s a healer. This is restorative work.
For 17 years he’s been shielding families from the task of cleaning up what noone should have to see. Homicides, unattended deaths, disease, overdoses — even sewage, hoarding. Anything anybody else doesn’t want to touch, James will.
There are consequences to constantly absorbing other people’s trauma.
“Actually I can remember every cleanup I’ve ever done since ‘99. Maybe not in great detail. But some part of it touched me and never left me.”
There is no unseeing. Details lodge in the mind, like that wayward bone fragment.
James recalls a scene in a gentrified neighborhood of Norfolk, a dropdown apartment where a college student had ended her life over a boy. Even now he can describe how the room looked — the artwork she had been making, photographs of her smiling face, a turtle she’d kept in an aquarium. “I remember just feeling how lonely it was in that room and then how sad I was at how talented she was, and that she would throw it all away because of a feeling that she felt. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s a big problem in this area, especially with the military. We’ve been cleaning up so many military suicides over the last five years it’s just unreal. We really need to help our military families and our military service members a whole lot more.”
In the space of a few days in August 2016, James attends three suicides. One of them, a young mother: 23 years old, shot herself with a 40 caliber. At another scene, a greeting card lies within reach of a blood-soaked sofa: I know you’ve been having a hard time, hang in there. On the floor beside the river of red, a dog bowl of uneaten kibble. In the wall behind, a single bullet hole torn in the wooden veneer.
James takes photos for insurance purposes, his phone filling up with gruesomeness — to say nothing of the memory which cannot be so easily wiped.
“It’s changed who I am. I used to be a very different person before I started this work. Very outgoing, very upbeat, very positive. And it’s surprising that I’ve watched myself change into, I want to say, maybe negative in some ways. Not negative as far as, you know, being mad, angry. But it hardens you...You have to be strong for other people so much that sometimes you forget about yourself at the end.
Every job that we are called on is an emergency, somebody’s got a disaster, whether it’s just sewage, which is bad enough for a family who can’t use their pipes, or to something as sad as a suicide. You have to show up and you have to be professional and you have to show compassion.
And when you do that constantly, day in day out, 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, you slowly start to change and you get very callous, you get very cold. Not because you want to but just because you have to form this shell over yourself so that the next tragedy or scene that you go to, you’re not so overwhelmed.”
#1 Don't think
If there’s one thing James Redd and his father both say, it’s that you shouldn’t let your thoughts wander. A glare in the mind, is how his father describes how he lets a scene wash over him without thinking about anything but the practicalities of the task.
#2 Attention to detail is important
You wouldn’t do this job if you didn’t glean some satisfaction from putting things in their place. At one scene James crawls around on his hands and knees. Once in a while he finds a tiny shard of metal or a minute speck of blood on a skirting board. You clean once, you clean twice, and then you clean again. You learn strange facts: that dry blood can be worse than wet blood, because when it flakes off you can breathe it in. You start to hope for glossy finishes rather than matt, so the blood has a hope of wiping off.
The heat inside the Tyvek suits is immense.
The men have to take breaks every 15 minutes, condensation beading on the inside of their masks, their clothes soaked through. Beneath his protective gear James Redd Snr’s wiry frame is bare chested. Empty water and Gatorade bottles accumulate in the truck bed.
James pours the sweat out of his gloves. His hair is plastered to his scalp. “You can see why I don’t need to exercise.” He’s sweating away his body weight.
#4 Don’t judge
Crime scene cleaner isn’t exactly the kind of job you aspire to as a youngster, or dream for your children. But James Redd, Snr says he’d much rather his son be doing this than shuffling papers somewhere. Even though it does put the men face to face with a side of life that most of us do all we can to turn away from.
“It only takes a few seconds to change the course of a family’s life... And you don’t judge people because you just don’t know what kind of problems they’ve had and what’s led them to the point that they’re at.”
“We come, we go. The less attention we draw the better.”
The Redds drive unmarked trucks and take everything out bagged. But it doesn’t always fool the neighbors.
“We’ll be cleaning and you’d be surprised, everybody wants to look, everybody wants to know what’s going on,” says James. “We actually have people knocking on the door while we’re cleaning saying, ‘Can we come in and take a look?’ And it’s like, no. This is private, you know? You need to respect the distance of what’s happened here. But yeah there’s a lot of people who want to know what’s going on, just natural curiosity. I don’t blame people.”
The scene has been with the police for a full day before James is called in.
Now there is no body. The blood is dry.
There should be more of it, I remember thinking. Did he die here or did he make it to hospital first?
The seats of both kitchen chairs are reddened. Blood on edge of the sink. Maybe he leaned there? Rust-colored drops in an arc across the bathroom floor, round against the geometric grid of the tiles.
Blood on the hallway carpet outside the front door, blood seeped into the living room carpet. That’ll have to go, notes James to his father, who works alongside him when the jobs flow in.
With a gloved hand, James Redd, Snr wipes blood from the kitchen table. In the same sweep he captures blood and crumbs of multicolored popcorn. One minute you’re eating popcorn, the next you’re dead and three men in Tyvek suits are standing in your kitchen.
How does this happen?
It’s the kind of question James Redd stopped asking a long time ago.
But my mind lurches around the room.
A photo frame, a baby picture.
Ash from a burned stick of incense.
Filmy curtains in red, white and blue. Patriotic or on sale at the dollar store?
A bicycle propped against the couch. He bothered to exercise.
The place is neat, orderly. A bachelor pad for sure, but kept nice. Decorated, even.
A pale pink crucifix by the door.
There’s nothing in the apartment to suggest its inhabitant was about to become a murder victim.
Nothing to suggest that by evening strangers would be scouring his DNA off the floor, cutting out the carpet.
That’s perhaps the most disturbing thing, the ordinariness of the scene.
Except for the blood.
A smudge of color that could have been a stroke of paint on canvas is the only mark on a white wall. Abstracted violence. Almost beautiful — if a man hadn’t died here.
The hardest part
James says the toughest part of the job, far and away, is the emotions that come from the families.
“I mean if you can imagine walking into a living room of people you’ve never met, you’ve just walked in the door and there’s 20 family members sobbing and crying and people are pointing to a room for you to go and do a cleanup, it can be overwhelming.”
For his father, it’s the exposure to the full range of human behavior that’s most confronting.
“It does make you understand what people are capable of,” says James Redd, Snr. “Don’t ever take anything for granted, never. And you better live every day like it’s your last life because you just don’t know when, what’s going to happen in the future... So it’s very sobering in that aspect.”
James Redd, too, admits he looks at relationships differently these days.
“We can show up at a house to do a cleanup of somebody who was just found deceased and be cleaning up where they were found and I’ve seen family members come in and start tearing through drawers and throwing clothes around looking for money. And that makes you think, wow.”
Often the cleaners are called to deal with “unattended deaths”. They can be the saddest.
“I did a cleanup one time where the brother of the dead man lived right next door. And his brother was in the house dead for almost two weeks.”
James attributes it to a disconnected society.
“Especially in the United States — I don’t know about other cultures, I think it’s still very close — but here in the US, families are split up. People aren’t looking out for elderly members of their family anymore. We see elderly people that are living completely on their own in their nineties and have no help. Can barely walk.. So I definitely see a lot of bad relationship type stuff. But it doesn’t affect me. I mean I believe in love and I believe in being truthful and honest. Just, whoever would be with me would have to understand this is what I do and at any moment someone else might need me. And that’s hard to swallow sometimes. Some people can’t handle that.”
The work can be dangerous — and not just from exposure to blood and disease.
“There’s been many times when we’re doing cleanups in, you know, bad areas in the middle of the night. I pull up with my truck, with my headlights on my truck only and I’ll be cleaning up some, maybe a homicide outside. Homicides always happen at night, overnight, late hours. Not always, but most of the time, is what it seems like. So yeah we’ve had people throw rocks at us, we’ve had people say bad things to us. I mean we’ve actually done cleanups where the person who committed the homicide watched us do the cleanup and we didn’t even know it. We did a clean up one night, a homicide, and the guy who committed the homicide was on the roof, he watched us clean for three hours.”
But he says, after almost two decades as a crime scene cleaner, he doesn’t have nightmares. Anymore.
And it’s not death James fears.
“I fear growing old more than I fear death. Because of what I see elderly people go through. The loneliness, the abandonment, the isolation. That scares me way more than death. So I just, I want to live every day to the fullest, help as many people as I can.”
“And if I die, I want to die right in the middle of the mall where I’m found right away.”
He laughs as he says it. Sort of.