July 19, 2012

“If somebody had been chased around this room and beaten with a bat—if there was blood over everything—how would you clean that up?” asks Doug Baruchin, co-owner of Island Trauma Services, a New York–area crime-scene cleanup company that specializes in erasing the physical evidence of suicides, homicides, and level-three hoarders. (Level-one hoarders are regular folks, while level-two hoarders are slightly more zealous pack rats, but level-three hoarders are so trapped under collections of garbage and animals that the stench and fire hazards become serious health concerns.) In 2009, even with the crime rate in the New York area at an all-time low, there were a reported 466 murders, which is where companies like Island Trauma (or Steri-Clean in Los Angeles, Aftermath in Las Vegas, and Bio-Trauma 911 in Indianapolis) come in, because even on a day like today, when the sun shines and birds sing, there will be blood.

On this particular spring afternoon, the Island Trauma office is empty. All of Baruchin’s 30 staffers have been dispatched on so-called “dirty” jobs. A “clean job” is, of course, a relative term, and often refers to less emotionally scarring tasks, such as sewage removal. When Baruchin agreed to meet me, I half-expected him to look like death—the very thing to which he’s devoted his life. Instead, following a trip from Manhattan to Ronkonkoma on the Long Island Rail Road, a chiseled and tanned smooth talker dressed in designer blue jeans greeted me with a lively smile and a firm handshake.

A native New Yorker, Baruchin quit his job as an auditor at a life insurance company 10 years ago when he and his business partner, Joe Gentile, decided to open Island Trauma under the umbrella of the latter’s preexisting fire-, smoke-, and mold-damage restoration business, PCI Services. In that time, Island Trauma has grown into a $7 million-a-year enterprise, with his employees earning annual salaries of anywhere from $35,000 to $80,000. Still, it’s not without its occupational hazards. “Have you ever seen a movie where someone gets shot in the head?” he asks. “This is the epilogue.”

The Island Trauma headquarters are surrounded by the banalities of suburban life. A nearby mini-strip mall, a gym, a yarn shop, and a row of manicured trees lend an inconspicuous air to Baruchin’s Laundromat of Loss. “We don’t want to scare the neighbors, or attract gawkers,” he says. Inside, the clinically pristine space looks like a real-estate office, but with a massive climate-controlled warehouse in its back room, which is where their equipment is stored.

Little to no experience or expertise is required of crime-scene cleaners, who are encouraged—although not required by law—to undergo a six-week training session. In many cases, it’s as simple as slapping on a pair of latex gloves, zipping up a hazmat suit—with its double-filter respirators and chemical-spill boots—and loading up on 55-gallon heavy-duty bags, ozone machines (to eliminate the “death stench”), and high-grade disinfectant spray. Baruchin admits that nearly all of his cleaners have endured and overcome some sort of trauma in their lives, which is part of the reason they’re so willing to endure—and equipped to handle—the demands of the job.

In 2008, hot on the heels of her successful turn as a fairy-tale princess in Disney’s Enchanted, Amy Adams starred alongside Emily Blunt as Rose Lorkowski, a struggling single mother who starts a cleanup business after being fired from a waitressing job, in Sunshine Cleaning. The comedy, which was a modest box-office success, had the sweet-as-candy Adams scrubbing blood, carrying soiled mattresses, and delivering lines like, “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and sad, and we help. In some small way, we help.” Baruchin scoffs at the film’s Hallmark portrayal of his field, as well as the more hardboiled—but equally glorified—depictions broadcast across the globe on television series like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. “People think it’s exciting, maybe even badass,” he says. “I was at a 7-Eleven, and the guy behind the counter looked at my Island Trauma jacket and said, ‘Wow! Your job must be sick, man!’ A lot of people think we get to interact with sexy detectives or something, but it’s about as glamorous as taking a plastic scraper and scraping someone’s brains off a wall.”

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