Thursday, September 30, 2004

Moving out of the Morgue

Dwelling among the dead
Thursday, September 30, 2004

Just when he had grown used to the corpses downstairs, the stench of death and phones ringing in the darkest hours, Nathan Hale is getting kicked out of his Northeast Portland apartment.

Last week, cardboard boxes were everywhere at 301 N.E. Knott St. On the second floor, the boxes were packed with computer gear, books, videos and clothes. In the basement laundry room, they contained human bones.

"What will I miss about this place?" said Hale, a business major at Portland State University, as he walked past a femur poking out of the top of a box. "The free rent. I think that's about it." The unidentified skeletal remains, some dating back decades, belong to the landlord: the Multnomah County morgue.

Since 1966, college students have lived for free in the apartment above the morgue. Of course, they also have had to answer the phones and open the back door for body deliveries during graveyard shifts.

Friday, that tradition ends. The medical examiner's office is moving into bigger and better digs in Clackamas, where a new regional morgue offers plenty of space for the dead but none for live-in help. Hale and his four roommates, who call themselves "the last of the morgue-hicans," have found other lodging. Three of them will pay $350 a month each to rent a big house. Starting Friday night, an answering service will handle after-hours calls, said Rob Boggs, Multnomah County's chief deputy medical examiner. If another big-city morgue still answers its own phones at night, Boggs doesn't know about it. "We kind of prided ourselves as maybe the only one," he said. "But this change has been coming for a long time."

The county morgue outgrew its Knott Street location years ago. Between 10 and 15 people die each day in Multnomah County, officials said. But the cooler in the building, which housed Pearson Funeral Home until the mid-1960s, was built to hold only five bodies. It wasn't uncommon for coroners to show up after a busy weekend to find corpses on gurneys waiting for them in the hallway.

And to be honest, Boggs said, using college students to tend affairs at night wasn't exactly a glitch-free system. When the office's clerks went home at the end of the day, the calls were directed to a phone upstairs. The roommates were supposed to log the names, locations, times and circumstances of deaths. Often, they would get something wrong. One night, for example, a hospice nurse called in to report a patient had died of lymphoma. The person on duty recorded the cause of death as "nymphoma."

Phone foulups

There were those nights, too, when someone unknowingly unplugged the phone after tripping over the cord, requiring 9-1-1 to send a police officer to the morgue to pound on the doors.

When the phone rang upstairs, the on-duty student was supposed to answer, "Medical examiner's office."

"We had a roommate who could never remember what to say," said Will Thomas, who is studying real estate development at Portland State. "It would be three in the morning and he'd pick up the phone, saying, 'Uh, uh, um.' One of us would have to wake up and yell out, 'Medical examiner's office!' "

Of course, Thomas has his own phone problems. At his part-time job in Nike's copying center, he has habitually answered the phone, "Medical examiner's office." Over the years, dozens of college men lived in what was originally a funeral home caretaker's apartment. For as long as anyone can remember, they have been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The thinking was that devout Mormons would be less inclined to drink, smoke and party.

Roommates reminisce

Packing and reminiscing last week, the final five morgue roommates said they were proof that college students will tolerate just about anything for free rent: After watching the "The Sixth Sense" one night, Hale said the place felt ghoulish. No more horror movies at the morgue, he decided.

Oh, and there was the ever-present smell. "Like really, really bad feet," Hale said last week. Jogging down the old, groaning stairs that took the roommates past the cooler to the laundry room, Hale stopped at the last step. "This is where I usually begin holding my breath," he said. Even with the ventilation system, foul odors found their way to the second floor, said Will Abraham, an information systems major nicknamed "Bootstrap" by his roommates. The medical staff began a recent Monday morning with an autopsy. "Let's just say some people wake up to the smell of bacon and eggs," Abraham said, "and some don't." Michael Kroon, a nursing student who never really got used to the cadavers 6 feet under the apartment's floor boards, said one of the morgue's side doors frequently seemed to pop open on its own. Thomas said it was weird when pizza deliveries arrived at the same door used for body dropoffs. "Check with Office Before Removing Body," read a sign with bold red letters next to the door.

Oh, and there was what he called "the laundry incident."

In the basement, there were two identical washing machines: one for residents, the other for bloody surgical scrubs. A few weeks ago, the one used by the medical staff died. No one told Thomas, who opened the usual machine to find a load of surgical towels.

"I started pulling the towels out," he said. "Then I reached in and pulled out a hunk of human . . . body . . . something. It was all fatty. It didn't belong to us."

Bryan Hawkins, a business student at Portland State, didn't have the guts to journey alone into the basement. It creeped him out. Not for a blown fuse. Not to wash dirty clothes. Not for anything. "When I needed to do laundry," he said, "I visited my parents in Lake Oswego."

No comments: