ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They couldn’t find him.
Arturo Gavilanes, 80, has been a frequent sight around the Barelas neighborhood for most of his life. He eats breakfast at the Red Ball Cafe or Juanita’s on Fourth Street, eats lunch at the senior center on Seventh Street. He rummages through trash cans in the alleys and hauls the treasures he finds to his small adobe home on Pacific SW.
At least they were treasures to him.
His back is stooped, but his mind is still sharp, particularly when it comes to the chronology of his life – the year his family moved into the Pacific home (1956), the year he quit work as a cook for an airline catering service to care for his dying mother (1984), the year he met Lupe Lopez Haynes, who became the angel in his life (2003).
No one knew just how much of an angel she was until he disappeared.
That was in October. Haynes, a former Bareleña, had befriended the wizened old man at the Red Ball. She knew it wasn’t like him to miss breakfast day after day.
So she started asking around for her friend. When she went looking for Gavilanes at his house, she realized she hadn’t known him very well at all. She hadn’t known the secret he had kept locked away for decades.
It took her breath away.
“It was horrible,” Haynes said. “All that junk.”
The treasures – broken lamps, empty boxes, discarded trinkets, strings of jewelry, bags of clothing, toys, defunct appliances and rusted coffee cans – were piled more than halfway to the ceiling in nearly every room, as if a dump truck had been unloaded inside his house rather than the landfill.
Mice had nested throughout the rubble and in the stove and cupboards, decades of their excrement assaulting the air with a sour stench.
Roaches and spiders scuttled in and out of the garbage. Bedbugs squirmed in the carpet and a couch buried under trash. Mold spread like shadows on the walls. The gas heat was shut off. A refrigerator was fetid with food that had rotted inside years ago.
An avalanche of clutter had blocked off most of the house, save for a thin trail dug between the stacks and a small clearing in front of the bathroom where Gavilanes slept.
He was a compulsive hoarder, and no one had known.
“Never did I suspect,” Haynes said. “He was always so clean.”
The American Psychiatric Association defines hoarding disorder as the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. It’s unclear what causes it or how to treat it. Cleaning is only part of the battle.
It took a month for Haynes to find Gavilanes, with the help of an Albuquerque police officer.
She learned he had taken a fall in October and had lain helpless inside his tomb of trash for hours, perhaps days. He had no phone.
Eventually, he had hobbled outside and a neighbor called an ambulance. After a short hospital stay, he was transferred to a nursing home on the West Side when authorities could find no family member to care for him.
Haynes decided she was family enough.
“It was good she came along,” Gavilanes said as he and Haynes met me recently for coffee. “She thought I was dead. I wasn’t!”
“I’m so protective of you now,” Haynes told him, squeezing his thin shoulder. “Like as if you were my father.”
Haynes and her husband, Bruce Haynes, are more than just the closest thing Gavilanes has to family. With his permission, they are making over his home so it is livable again.
“That is his dream,” she said. “He wants to come home. I’m going to make it come true.”
That hasn’t been easy. Or cheap.
Haynes hired a crew to tackle the project, filling more than six 30-yard roll off trash containers with debris from Gavilanes’ home and yard. They replastered and repainted the walls, ripped out carpeting, tile, paneling, cabinets and all kitchen appliances and sinks. They shored up bowing porch ceilings, patched holes in the roof, installed a new water heater – at a cost so far of $25,000, paid for by loans the Hayneses have taken out.
Under the muck, they have found a cozy two-bedroom house with foot-thick adobe walls in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
They have found Gavilanes’ home.
Haynes estimates it will take another month to finish the project. There are furniture and appliances to buy, cabinets and sinks to install, bathroom tile to affix, flooring to put down.
Gavilanes said he doesn’t know why he started hoarding, doesn’t know how things got so out of hand. He still doesn’t altogether understand what the fuss is about.
“I collected nice things,” he said. “I just kept them so when I needed them they were there for me to use.”
His mother had kept their home pristine, he said.
“She never allowed me to bring things home,” he said.
His mother was the most important person in his life.
And now there is another.
“She is my friend,” he said of Haynes. “And she is a person who has done more for me than anyone I know.”
Haynes said she intends on keeping an eye on Gavilanes from now on. She vows not to lose him again, even if he never leaves home.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.