He wasn't but a few months into his new job when Robert Grose caught his first whiff of death. Or maybe it was the God-awful state of the bathroom. Either way, a man had died in his own South Side house — a pack rat, trapped for two weeks among his own feculence and filth — and Grose had been called to clean up the whole stinking mess.
"You just wouldn't believe how some people are living," Grose said, flipping through the before and after pics. Mountains of clothing, a soil-stained toilet and buckets full of who knows what took prominence. Grose said that, at some point, he tripped across a dead cat. It was shocking but maybe not that surprising after all: Grose is the owner of PuroClean Property Restoration, which specializes in the worst cleanup jobs in creation.
It would be ridiculous to write another word without acknowledging Grose's uncannily fitting surname. Before I could mention it, Grose beat me to the punch. "When it comes to biohazard and cleanup, what's my last name?" he beamed. You have to hand it to him: He has a remarkable sense of humor considering his duties each day.
Grose's company handles all kinds of remediation, from mold outbreaks to the worst water and smoke damage. He can even battle horrible smells. Before starting PuroClean, Grose actually had no history in the cleanup business whatsoever. As late as last December, he was general manager in an optical lab, a job he had held for 14 years. Wearing his tidy blue oxford shirt and cell-phone earbud, he still looks the part. When the lab was sold last year, "The new management and I didn't get along too good," he explained. A month into a six-month severance, Grose realized he needed to get a job. "After managing so long," he said, "I couldn't work for anyone else."
Once signed on, Grose got a bit of training from the PuroClean franchise, but for the most part he wings it, adjusting his means and methods according to every job. "It's something different each time you walk through the door," he said. Before the pack-rat job this summer, he'd never cleaned up the gooey spot left by a dead body. The challenges, to date, are many. When I questioned him about the timing of his startup, considering the economy, he asked rhetorically, "Did I pick the right time to open this business? Probably not."
Nevertheless, Grose pushes on, networking and donning his Tyvek suit whenever duty calls. As we talked, he broke away to book a mold job for later in the week.
Hearing Grose discuss his work, you realize that his surroundings are never pretty. On the biohazard jobs, he suits up in Tyvek, head to toe, then pulls on rubber gloves, duct-taping them to his cuffs at the wrist. For safety he wears goggles and a respirator, then yanks on a second pair of even thicker gloves.
In a van he carries the tools of his trade: moisture meters, filters and fungicides, air fresheners, degreasers, shampoos and stain absorbers, foggers, sprayers, vacuums, and even a jar labeled "skunk odor remover." He lifted his chin in the direction of an industrial dehumidifier: "That thing sucks 212 pints out of the air in 24 hours," he said.
I thought to myself: " Dude ."
Equally impressive was a device called the "Vapor Shark," a slender metal box that pulls air through a series of filters, sucking up odors. His most aggressive bacteria-fighting weapon, however, is an unimposing little gizmo known simply as the "Ozone Generator." It converts oxygen to ozone, filling the entire structure with the lethal gas. "You flip the switch and run," said Grose. "No living thing can be in the house."
About those before and after pictures: For a moment there, I thought he had them reversed. Grose leaves the places he works looking as new as the day they were built. Mold-speckled Sheetrock and green, hairy studs wind up appearing freshly installed (dry ice and soda blast). Water- and smoke-damaged carpet looks brand-new (dehumidifiers, blowers and vacuum). Ironically, the pack rat's own bad habits made even that job infinitely easier. "He died right on a pile of newspapers," Grose said (gloved hands and trashbags).
Grose takes all the collected stuff and works it into special biohazard bags, which are then transferred to a biohazard container, which is little more than a five-gallon bucket with a screw top. The whole shebang gets lumped into a cardboard box, which Grose takes straight to the post office. He drops the box in the mail to the PuroClean people, who incinerate it. "At the post office, you have to go to the back door with this," Grose said, handling the box. "Otherwise, you'd flip some people out."