John Tracy joined the Legacy Navigator team in early 2017, and dug right into the physical and emotional work we do. One day after working on a particularly difficult project, John started talking in the office about the shift in his thinking after working with our co-founder Matt Paxton, from TV’s HOARDERS. We asked John to share his story here.“Remember that first project we did?” Jay asked. “Well, forget everything about it, because what we’re about to do at Bob’s house is entirely different.”
He was talking about our upcoming assignment, helping a client downsize a large collection of items. Jay, a friend for more than a decade, had helped me get this job at Legacy Navigator, cleaning out houses for families after a death, divorce or other stressful event.
I assumed I got the job because I’m a big guy, and I’m good at moving things. But Jay explained that this work would take more than muscle. “You can handle the physical aspect, but you’re also perfect for the emotional part,” Jay said. I said sure, but I didn’t really get how moving people’s things could be emotional.My Intro to the Joys of Moving That first job was for the family of a woman who died and left an enormous house full of stuff. Even after several years, the family had hardly made a dent in the house’s contents. Our team of four made progress almost immediately. The looks on the family members’ faces went from “Oh, my God, these people are going to run away when they see this house,” to “Thank goodness, we can actually breathe again!”
Seeing our clients’ relief filled me with a sense of purpose, something I never felt in my previous work as a fashion merchandiser for a large clothing retailer. Suddenly, this “emotional” part of the job started making sense.
Helping this family sort, save and sell—cherishing memories along the way—reminded me of the time I pitched in to clean out my grandfather’s house after he died. The task brought the family together, and we learned a lot about Grandpa’s childhood in Brooklyn, his Naval service and years living in Alexandria, Virginia. I remember wondering what my family would have done if we didn’t have a bunch of cousins to help out. Now I knew, and it felt meaningful to be able to create that same kind of atmosphere for another family that needed it.
Jay was right—neither that project nor any of the others I worked on prepared me for the mental challenge of Bob’s house. Then There Was This One House Legacy Navigator co-founder Matt Paxton had warned us that working with Bob was like playing chess at the highest level—and constantly losing. Matt knew what he was talking about. Bob’s stressful event wasn’t death or divorce, it was his hoarding disorder, and if there’s one thing Matt knows about, it’s hoarders. He’s kind of famous that way.
Bob was in his 60s, retired and living in a three-bedroom house with his wife. Jay described Bob as highly intelligent, argumentative, stubborn and extremely particular about his material possessions, particular enough to suffer panic attacks if someone threatened to remove, or even move, his things. Bob’s wife convinced him to accept help, but that didn’t make him altogether compliant.
Bob made lots of demands, like no more than one person at a time could work in his house. At first, Jay worked by himself. Jay, who’s empathetic, nonjudgmental and patient, soon earned Bob’s trust. But this was not a one-person job, and Matt suggested that I join Jay.
Though Jay billed me as a younger, stronger version of himself, it took a while before Bob allowed me into the house. Walking through the door for the first time was a bit of a shock. First off, it wasn’t the front door. That was blocked and inoperable.
Instead, we entered through the basement, followed a path between boxes and piles to a family room, and then climbed a set of stairs to the main level, where the living and dining rooms were packed and unusable. Same with two of the three bedrooms.
Everywhere I looked, I saw Pez memorabilia, including stacks of candy dispensers, and boxes of limited edition celebrity Pez dispensers. There were heaps of Star Wars collectibles and, since Bob is a longtime amateur musician, tons of keyboards, sheet music and a few collectible guitars. I felt overwhelmed but calmed myself and focused on how I might help this man.
Honestly, my first reaction was that the challenge was kind of thrilling.When I Hit the Big Road Block At first, I was not allowed to talk while I was there, so I kept quiet and played off Jay’s confidence as he and Bob sorted and spoke. I began offering comments here and there, in hopes of making a connection, but Bob jabbed back with some sarcastic reply.
His quips felt mean-spirited at first, but I took them in stride. Eventually his tone grew gentler. Instead of poking at me, he would make some self-deprecating comment. I realized he was letting his defenses down, starting to trust that I wasn’t trying to trick him into getting rid of his possessions. Those crumbs of confidence boosted my resolve just in time for the next big hurdle.
Our plan was to begin by organizing things into boxes. But that didn’t work. We were only sorting, and already Bob was winning at our little chess game. So Jay and I took a new tack: throwing away anything that was clearly trash, such as empty bags, boxes and packing peanuts.
The piece-by-piece process would wear down Bob after a couple hours, which made the going slow. After weeks of work, we had only managed to clear a path through the main rooms in the upper floor. To make further progress, we knew that we would have to start getting rid of actual items, not just trash. That’s when we hit a roadblock. The more we tried to convince Bob to part with things, the crankier he became. We simply didn’t have the skills to communicate with him. Jay said it was time to call in the expert.Working with the Famous Guy If anyone could wrangle Bob, it was “Matt from HOARDERS.” I had worked with Matt on previous projects and had seen firsthand how well he connected with clients. Matt always said that even if clients didn’t show it, they needed us, and we needed to stick with them, because that’s what we do—help people. Jay and I shared our frustrations with Matt, who decided to go with us to Bob’s house and check in.
I knew about Matt’s experience working with hoarders, and I was curious to see his approach. How would he break the impasse?
Matt knew he was walking into a storm of negativity, but he came without hesitation. Bob was seated, and Matt plopped down on the floor and spoke with him eye-to-eye as if nothing in the world was wrong. I noticed that he maintained a respectable distance, so Bob wouldn’t feel trapped.
Bob immediately laid into Matt about feeling mistreated, how the work was dragging, and on and on. I watched in awe as Matt calmly took the emotional beatdown. He kept his cool, never argued back and even accepted responsibility for things that weren’t his fault, all the while maintaining eye contact, which is harder than it sounds.
I could almost hear Matt saying, “Look, I'm locked in on you, I'm here for you right now and nothing else.” Bob got the message. He calmed down and began to focus on solutions rather than complaining.
Still, when it came to discussing the logistics of what to get rid of, Bob pushed back. I watched the mental chess game play out. Matt was self-deprecating and quick to admit to being wrong if Bob disagreed with a suggestion. He would throw out bad ideas with silver linings. Bob would take the silver lining and turn it into his own idea.
It sounds like manipulation, but it wasn’t. Or if so, it was done lovingly and for the right reason. Matt wasn’t manipulating Bob so much as he was working Bob’s self-deception—the hoarding disorder that tricked him into acquiring and keeping stuff.
Matt broke the impasse. Bob agreed to let some things go and store the rest in boxes, which saved lots of room and gave him the security of knowing he could still access his items.
Bob, Jay and I followed the plan, and after a few more weeks, all the rooms, including the entire basement, were accessible. Boxes still lined some of the walls, but the house was once again safe and functional. I even managed to get his front door open for the first time in 15 years. What “Moving” Really Means Working with Matt changed my way of approaching the projects we help people with. It made me take a step back and realize that the work we do is less about the logistics of the stuff, and more about the client’s perspective.
For example, the next job I went on was to work with a client who had a big collection, but she didn’t understand that many of the items that were valuable to her probably didn’t have a lot of cash value at auction. Before working with Bob, I probably would have just told her what would sell and what wouldn’t, and left it at that.
But I realized that “value” for her wasn’t really the money. So instead of telling her that folk art wall hanging was probably worthless, I asked her where she found it, why she bought it and what she loved about it.
We ended up talking about why her items mattered to her. Recognizing that emotional value made it easier for her to accept that the items might not have big financial value. I realized I had helped her “move” not just her stuff, but her mindset and her expectations.
I thought this job was mostly going to be physical, but now I realize Jay was right. The emotional aspect of this job is what I connect with most, and look forward to on each project. I like discovering the best way to connect with someone about their story, their life transition, and how I can help “move” them to the next phase of their life. I’m not at Matt’s level of intense eye contact quite yet, but I’m working on it.
We are finishing up at Bob’s house, and at this point, Jay and I consider Bob a friend. We go out for lunch, and he tells stories from his days as a radio deejay. In a way, cleaning out Bob’s house reminds me of cleaning out my Grandpa’s house, only Bob was still around to tell stories about the stuff we sorted through.
There’s talk around the office of having a party to celebrate the completion of this job. If so, I really hope Bob brings one of his guitars and puts on a concert.