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Hollywood Fire Marshal Bob Madge, a burly guy wearing a navy blue jumpsuit and safety goggles, walks as far as he can into the cluttered home of Margaret Sheehan. He points to towering piles of yellowed newspapers, hardcover books, children's toys, and other miscellanea. Then, in his eager, booming voice, he explains that, when he and a team of volunteers -- including about 20 fire-rescue workers, neighbors, and Florida Department of Children and Families employees -- started cleaning, the mess was four to seven feet deep. To get from room to room, he explains, Sheehan crawled "like a cockroach" over all her things.
Impressed with his cleverness, Madge repeats the simile several times in conversations with reporters and volunteers. But the 80-year-old woman with a youngish face, a quick smile, and cream-colored hair pulled back in two pink barrettes doesn't resemble a germ-ridden insect. That is, unless you consider her ability to survive severe physical hardship. For three days, from October 18 to October 20, she lay trapped beneath six feet of newspapers, pots, pans, magazines, and books. She was severely dehydrated as she drifted in and out of the land of dreams.
Part one of her ordeal ended when neighbor James Draper stopped by her house on Grant Street near I-95 and talked to her through a locked front door. Soon thereafter, Hollywood Fire Rescue workers freed her and whisked her off to Memorial Regional Hospital, where she spent five days recuperating.
When Sheehan left the hospital October 24, she walked into a media playground, watching helplessly as television vans became a fixture in her front yard. The coverage of her experience, including images of volunteers disposing of 210 bags of her clutter, suggested Sheehan is just another crazy old lady.
Thing is, Sheehan -- the Tillie Tooter of the indoors -- is no loon. Nor is she simply a tragic figure who crammed her hollow life with outdated publications and clothes representing yesteryear's fashions. She is much more complicated than that; she is a lucid, bright, and charming woman who moves with the agility of someone 20 years her junior. Although Sheehan is quick to admit her home had gotten out of hand, she insists the reason is that she spent so much time tending to others that there wasn't enough left to care for herself. Moreover she acknowledges the possibility that habits she developed during the Great Depression might make her more inclined to save things.
Born in Harlem the year Warren G. Harding was elected President, Sheehan was the first of seven children. The only girl, she spent a lot of time caring for her brothers. The Depression hit her family hard, making it a financial strain to buy an ice cream cone or pay Girl Scout dues. "We managed because my mom was thrifty," Sheehan says. "She could make soup out of an onion and a potato. The mantra of those years, she explains, was, "Save everything. Don't waste. Don't throw it out. If you can't use it, maybe somebody else can."
When Margaret was 15 years old, her father died, and when she was 19, she married Tom Sheehan, an engineer who worked on the plumbing and electrical wiring in many large Manhattan buildings. The couple, who, Sheehan laments, were never "blessed with children," moved to California right after they married. Following six years in the Golden State, they returned to New York, where they stayed until 1985. During that time Sheehan worked as a baby sitter, a saleswoman in a jewelry store, a waitress, and a factory timekeeper. "Sometimes I had two or three jobs," she says. "I'd go from one to the other."
In the mid-1980s, the couple moved to Hollywood so Sheehan could care for her ailing mother, Emma Glaser. The Sheehans lived in an apartment until Tom was admitted to a nursing home in 1990. Then Margaret moved in with her mother at the house on Grant Street. Soon thereafter Glaser went to a nursing home, where she died in 1992.
The buildup began, Margaret says, when she began living alone. She inherited hand-knitted and hand-crocheted items, figurines, and books, "the things that make a house a home," she says. To busy herself she took on the job of caring for five elderly women. She drove them to appointments with doctors and beauticians, bought their groceries, and cooked their meals. She also ignored the growing collection.
In 1995 Tom, who had been in a diabetic coma, passed away. A few months later a neighbor gave birth to a girl, Jade Bitonti, and Sheehan started working full-time as the baby's nanny. She soon took on the responsibilities of taking another neighbor to chemotherapy appointments and walking and feeding a third neighbor's Pekingese.
All the while things accumulated: receipts, pots and pans, ceramic dishes and vases, empty glass bottles, papers, children's jigsaw puzzles, mirrors, and broken stools and appliances. She says she was just too busy to organize. "I didn't want to make rash decisions about what to throw away," she says. "I wouldn't want to regret it later." To illustrate her point, Sheehan picks up a small cardboard box, the type banks use to mail personal checks to customers. "I wouldn't throw away this, for example," she says. "It could be used to store so many different things."