Some sadistic soul has placed South Florida's sun directly overhead and cranked up the heat to the "July" notch, brutalizing the small Lake Worth apartment where Gidget Gein sleeps and paints. A single window-mounted air conditioner valiantly cools the small bedroom. All day, Gein has worked alone in the stuffy, nause-
atingly hot main room, scattered with artwork he's created. By nightfall, the 20-inch-square canvas has evolved into a grim parody of Robert Indiana's stylized Love icon from the 1970s. In garish violet, corpuscle-red, and squid-ink black, Gein's version spells out hate, the t cocked at an ever-so-jaunty angle. Carefully applying coats of oil paint from tubes, squinting and sweating in the dim light and festering heat, it's 4:55 a.m. by the time he crawls into bed.
Twenty minutes later, Gein is jolted awake by the squeal of a two-way pager. Soaked with perspiration, hair stuck to his cheek, he somehow manages to grab a pen and a notepad and groggily jot down a name and address. He hangs up, lies back down on the mattress, and groans. A macabre Howdy Doody doll, grinning maniacally, leers above a small lamp. One of his own works, a black-velvet rendering of Charles Manson with searing red pupils, gazes at him hungrily. After his disorientation fades, Gein throws on a pair of dress slacks, a gray button-down shirt, and matching jacket. Fumbling, he finds a black clip-on tie and clumsily tucks it in place. It's time to go pick up a dead body.
The popularity of true-life crime dramas like Miami: CSI or HBO's behind-the-funeral-home-door series Six Feet Under notwithstanding, the task of taking care of the dead is just business. Life's dark down-
slope can appear as a sharp precipice or a slow, gradual decline -- maybe even somewhere in between -- but in the end, there's always someone with a gurney and a white van waiting for us.
For the past several years, Gein has been employed in this capacity, working for a private firm responsible for picking up corpses from crime scenes, morgues, hospitals, hospices, and medical examiners' offices, and dropping them off at funeral homes and crematoriums. In the process, he's learned exactly what happens to our loved ones after we've finally turned away. He's seen a lot. "Pretty much any way you can die," Gein drawls, "I've seen it."
This ill-timed, early-morning call isn't exactly atypical. There's been an accident on a Palm Beach County stretch of the Florida Turnpike. Gein needs to pick up a black male killed in the crash from the medical examiner's office and drive the body to a funeral parlor in nearby Riviera Beach. Even though he's seen tons of dead bodies, this one is particularly messed up. "I heard it was an accident involving a mobile home that was being moved," Gein says. "But from the way this guy looked, the trailer must've fallen right on top of him or something."
Gein couldn't help but notice the condition of the body as he raised his gurney to the height of the examination table and, using a sheet underneath it, expertly slid it into place and covered it with a fuzzy blue blanket. The guy's legs were all twisted up like Twizzlers. His jaw, caved in like a sick Popeye caricature, was covered with a blue bandanna. His autopsied organs had been tied together like giblets and stuffed back into his empty abdomen, which was then crudely sewn back up.
When Gein finished the 20-minute drive from the medical examiner to the funeral home, his work wasn't done. The African-American woman who lived upstairs in this large, well-kept building in a sketchy neighborhood near the Tri-Rail tracks watched Gidget roll the gurney through the garage and into the drab, chemically cleansed room where restoration artists work. She asked Gein, when he put the body onto a table, if he could place the man's head in the headblock, the cradle that holds the cranium in place like a customer about to get a shampoo at the hair stylist's.
"When I picked his head up, it wasn't even connected," he recounts later that night in the rushed, excited tones of a youngster describing finding a forbidden fort in the woods. "The only thing holding his head on was skin. It felt like... wet goo. But with broken bones, so it was jagged. Squishy but crunchy. His head felt like solid Jello with shards of broken glass." He pauses, feeling for exactly the right sensation, thinking back to the moment he'd held the man's broken head in his latex-covered hands.
"I know!" he says, breaking the silence. "This is exactly what it felt like: a hard-boiled egg with the shell all broken."
Obviously, it takes a special soul to stomach this sort of work. In Gein's case, that stomach is more than up to the task. A few days before he retrieved the Turnpike victim, Gein had been awakened by a call for a "decomp removal," which involves picking up a corpse in some hellish stage of decomposition from the scene of its discovery and taking it to the medical examiner. In this case, Gein zipped up the offending article in a black body bag before draping the blue blanket atop it and spraying judicious amounts of Febreze Spring Renewal Scent Fabric Refreshener into the van.
Oddly, his stomach started growling, and with the rotting corpse filling the bag with gas as it lay smothered in the hot van, Gein opted for a little Burger King drive-through, which he ate right in the van, to save time. Sure, he had to get the dead dude to the ME as soon as possible. But he was hungry. "I wanted breakfast," he says. "They stop serving breakfast at 10 a.m., so if I'd dropped the body off first, I would have missed it."
Gein works by himself and has no set hours. But he's on call 24/7, which means he has to constantly be prepared to deal with death. Each removal may take an hour or maybe two, for which Gein is paid $20. A busy week may net him $500, he says. He's obviously not doing this for money but for the sheer experience. As a means to an end -- an aid in producing macabre art laden with an icy, misanthropic if undeniable elegance -- it's unbeatable.
They don't happen regularly -- death has its own schedule -- but the calls inevitably come. Sometimes they're in the middle of the night. Sometimes they come while he's transporting another body somewhere, like today. With his thrift-store suit, sharp sideburns, and hair slicked and parted sideways, Gein looks like a less-spastic version of Crispin Glover. The long sleeves are uncomfortable in the afternoon sun screaming through the tinted windows of the Ford Econoline, but they hide the multicolored tattoos that cover one forearm. Before Gein got clean, a little over four years ago, the tattoos were there to cover up needle tracks.
"This is only a block away from the first place I ever shot up," he says, throwing a glance at a sleazy block of abandoned projects. He slips the van into park and unloads the gurney in front of a small, white clapboard house. After a knock on the door, a 40-ish black woman in a tattered pink shift strolls slowly to the door and opens it warily.
"Are you from the funeral home?" she wants to know.
He collects a wrinkled, open-mouthed, white-haired woman from a back bedroom. Stiff as a broomstick and only about 100 pounds, it's easy and quick to get her on the gurney. As he does so, he feels the stares from the stone-faced children in the room.
With a body already on a bed, it's easy for Gein to do the deed solo. He lowers the gurney until it's even with the bed. He grabs the top of the sheet and pulls most of the bulk of the corpse onto the stretcher, then grabs the linens under the legs and swings the lower body onto the gurney.
"If they're 300 pounds or less, I can do it myself," he says after the body is loaded into the van. "If they're on the ground, then I need help." Usually, at a crime scene or a house call with a body on the floor, Gein will have a partner with him. But for everything else, he's on his own, and it's with increasing frequency that he encounters dead folks weighing in at more than 300. "Fat people suck," he notes bitterly.
Just a few weeks ago at the morgue of a Jupiter hospital, a big dead dude presented a logistical nightmare for Gein. He had to move the body from a drawer in a cold-storage room, secure it to the gurney, and take it by van to a funeral home. Problem was, the drawer was five and a half feet above the floor, and it was a deep drawer with a lip that the body would have to slide up and over.
"The gurney goes only to four feet," he notes. "I thought for sure I was gonna lose him. And there's no locks on the gurney, so it's sliding around..."
Finally, he hauled the big bear of a man out of the drawer, crashing to the gurney so hard that it shuddered. No one was around to see -- or to help. Especially during a house call, such Marx Brothers moments are verboten. "You can't let the family see you wrestling with a body," he says. That's his worst fear -- dropping a corpse in front of a family member. "The other big fear I have is laughing in front of family," he says, looking slightly pained. Sometimes, with all the gore and death and sadness he's witnessed, cracking wise is the easiest way not to wallow in the heaviness. "Fortunately, that's never happened."
Gidget Gein was born on September 11, 1969 ("The Year of Fear," he claims), in Hollywood, where he grew up. His dad (a cop) and his mom (a schoolteacher) divorced when he was 3. When his mother remarried a few years later, it was to a local carny who traveled around with his family's circus, including a bona fide freak show. But life at home was freaky as well. "When I was a kid, my favorite movies were Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre." That convergence blossomed years later when he abandoned his given name, which he asked New Times to withhold as a condition of agreeing to tell his story, in favor of Gidget Gein, splicing the name of a Sandra Dee beach bimbette with Ed Gein, the sick serial killer who inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. Horror films were a staple, and his curiosity about mass murderers was only encouraged by his stepdad, Ken Pederson, who explained all the gory details when the Catholic schoolboy was only 10.
"He told me all about Ed Gein when I was a little kid," Gidget says. "He told me all about what he did, and he'd tell me jokes too: 'Why did Ed Gein like to cut out girls' vaginas and wear them on his feet? So he could pussyfoot around the house.' Stuff like that."
Not long after, his storytelling stepdad became a professional joker. He found a job as a children's clown, dressing up for parties and doing tricks for birthday boys and girls as Happy Heart.
"He was like Krusty the Klown," describes Gein. "And he was a rampant alcoholic, so after these birthday parties, he would hang out with the parents and drink. Then he'd come home, reeking and smoking cigars in his clown makeup, drunk off his ass, busting shit, being nasty. That was a weekly occurrence."
For a Catholic schoolboy, the dichotomy between reality and what he was taught it should be was mind-blowing. By the time adolescence and the specter of dope came into play, Gein was already an odd scenester in the unhip mecca of Boca Raton, his mind warped by punk rock and B-movies. Though he'd had no musical experience, his anti-establishment tabula rasa made him a perfect candidate to join a band started by an enemy turned friend, fellow Boca boy Brian Warner, a.k.a. Marilyn Manson. Gein played bass, usually wearing a miniskirt and whipping around his purple-green dreadlocks.
"That was a kinder, gentler, simpler time," says Christiana Pironti, who met Gein at the Hollywood Sportatorium when she was 18 and he was 17. "We were two dumb kids who found solace from the hell of our youth." Pironti watched Gein's descent into the abyss and keeps track of him now as he's reappeared. "For all the surface he shows the world, he has plenty of depth," she explains. "He's one of the most talented, coolest, insightful, sensitive, diabolically twisted creatures I've ever known. He's paid a lot of dues, some self-inflicted, and overcome more hurdles than Jesse Owens."
During the brief period between the time the band leaped from the pages of Warner's ballpoint-and-notebook diaries to Broward County stages, Gein had become a full-blown junkie. He remembers the first time he OD'd, in the bathroom of a Thai restaurant in Wilton Manors in the winter of 1992. The next year, he OD'd on his birthday following a show at the Button South in Hallandale Beach and was rushed to the emergency room. On Christmas that year -- just before the band's big break -- he was fired from Marilyn Manson because his drug use left him too messy to deal with.
But after detox and rehab clinics helped him quit dope, Gein located an underutilized creative cell in his twisted psyche. Feeding off his weird influences, bizarre childhood, and brushes with death, he ended up starting a band of his own. The Dali Gaggers was his vision: He wrote the songs, sang, and played guitar. At the same time, he became fascinated with the world of Warhol, priming himself to become a self-taught artist.
"I had never painted until a year and half ago," he says, standing in a one-bedroom apartment literally stacked floor-to-ceiling with his own art. The end products are far from soothing. An image of a dead ballerina with blood dripping from a noose around her neck and a screen-printed, long-antennaed cockroach are two recurrent images. When the paintings started coming, Gein was elated. "I was good at it. Everybody dug it." Hundreds have since emerged. His new thing? Watercolors.
"I never would have thought I'd do watercolors," he says, showing off the paintings. "I thought they were all soft and pretty."
Gein embarked on a rudderless but rewarding career that involved oils, acrylics, paints, silkscreen, found art, and creepy images. On the floor of his apartment, a coffin-shaped, black plywood box has been outfitted with mattress springs. He buys thrift-store dresses and shirts and screenprints his icons on them, selling them to friends and web browsers for $50 or $100 a pop.
"Although there are many factors that motivate him, the end result is usually something that provokes," Pironti says. "And people are intrigued and impressed enough to pay the man for his visions."
"Gidget is one of the few treasures of the South Florida art scene," says Francesco Locastro, an Italian-born, Miami-based artist whose own controversial work has garnered an international reputation. "He takes us by the hand and shows us the things we wouldn't dare to experience firsthand. What's the purpose of catching a glimpse of a car crash if not to reaffirm that we're still alive?"
On a wall next to Gein's bed is a small portrait of Gein painted by infamous French serial murderer, cannibal, necrophile, and grave robber Nico Claux, with whom Gein corresponds.
"A caveman in a spaceship" is how Claux starkly described Gein in an e-mail. "He uses watercolors like an embalmer uses formaldehyde."
One recent painting depicts a pulp-fiction comic panel, with an unseen character advising another in a cartoon bubble: "You're hooked good now, man! You're a real junkie!" Another large, oil-and-acrylic work depicts the four steps involved in tying off a tourniquet on one's arm surrounding the symbol for the Needle Exchange Program. A glass shower door panel has been stenciled with the blue silhouette of Janet Leigh, screaming during her Psycho tub-drain scene.
Sitting on Gein's nightstand is a small jar of Post Mortem Massage Cream, used during embalming to give dead folks a more lifelike appearance. He just likes the way the label looks. Says Pironti, "It's like he's horrified yet strangely attracted."
"It does inspire me," Gein says of his job. "It is interesting work. I'll look at something sick or depressing or twisted and try to turn it around, turn it into art. But I'll also take things that are beautiful and try to make them shocking."
Local galleries occasionally show Gein's art. He's gearing up for a big solo show in November at the California Institute for the Abnormal Arts in Los Angeles -- where his creations will hang and where art/goth band the Dresden Dolls and Bauhaus/Love and Rockets bassist David Jay will perform. According to Gein, other entertainment will be provided by a troupe of midgets and a 500-pound she-male named the Amazing Ruby. Gein will unveil some of his more esoteric and expensive confections, including a real body bag that he's silk-screened to look exactly like an expensive, fabulous Louis Vuitton purse.
"I thought of gangbangers [killed] in drive-bys," Gein muses, "all wearing Gucci and Prada. I thought, 'Why don't they have a designer body bag if they want to go out like that?'"
And of course, he thought of the Palm Beach socialites, the poodle-carrying rich folks who prowl Boca Raton and beyond inside their Escalades and Hummers. He's seen them dead, shriveled, powerless. Then he can't help but think: "All that money. But you've got nothing now. Nobody looks hot when they're dead."
Gein's girlfriend, 27-year-old Beth Domino, a former ballet dancer who now runs a Pilates studio, says he can be a creative dynamo. "He's almost ADD in that he has 15 dozen ideas for things to do, things the art world is lacking, and he tries to do them all at one time," says Domino, who lives separately, with her 5-year-old daughter, Gwyndolyn, in Boynton Beach. "I think I make him a little more well-rounded," Domino adds. "I make him go to the ballet and other artistic things he normally wouldn't do. I think I make him appreciate all different kinds of art."
Gein likes the separate arrangements. He'd rather work alone in his own studio, with no distractions, he says. "I don't like people near me when I'm doing stuff," he says gruffly. He sees himself as a sort of "Andy Warhol with a chip on my shoulder."
Still, Domino's house has little Gein art on display. "I don't enjoy transvestite penises in my hallway," she says.
It wasn't difficult to land a position in the removal trade, Gein learned in 1993. Hard-up for work, he logged on to a Florida State Job Service computer. "Mortuary attendant," read one want ad. "Aw, that sounds cool," thought Gein. He showed up for the interview in a downtown Miami office beneath a freeway overpass. A corpulent man barked at him through a cloud of cigarette smoke: "So, kid, do you know what you're getting into? You may have to pick up some baby whose mom put it in a microwave. Or maybe some junkie just stabbed his grandma to death."
Gein tried to contain his excitement. "I'm trying not to get a glimmer in my eye," he remembers, "'cause I don't want him to think I'm a freak."
He replied, "Yeah, sure, I'll give it a shot." He got the job. Most of his co-workers were ex-cons on work release. Gein was among the few volunteers. His first removal, just days after his hiring, was the sort of trial by fire that would have spelled a short career for a lesser man. But Gein toughed it out.
The old woman had died in a nightmarish nursing home. "Arms and hands were reaching out, and voices were yelling things like 'You're the devil!' or 'Oh, you're my grandson!'
"I'd never seen a dead person," he says. "So quiet, just lying there." The pair readied the gurney to transport the woman and tried to decide the best way to move her. "What do you want, top or bottom?" asked Gein's partner, another inexperienced employee. "Top, I guess," Gein offered. He put his hands behind the woman's neck and lifted her head off the pillow.
"Because of the weight, I guess, her head almost came off," he recalls in horror. "Blood and all this weird shit was coming out of her neck."
A week later, it got worse -- a decomp removal out in Kendall. Gein remembers the scene. "When we opened up the sliding glass door, death just hit us right in the face."
The pair followed their noses to the bathroom. On the toilet sat a woman between 250 and 300 pounds whose eyes were completely gone, just sunken black holes occupied by buzzing flies and their brood. Some slick, unknown substance still dripped from her partially open mouth.
Thinking quickly, Gein's partner grabbed the woman's ankles and pulled her off the pot, laying her on the floor just outside the bathroom. Tentatively, Gein tugged at the woman's arm.
His partner looked at him with a goofy smirk. "She's dead," he said to Gein. "You're not gonna hurt her."
"So I grab her arm, and on the count of three, I pull her with all my might," Gein remembers. "Next thing I know, I go flying into the wall. I have all of the skin and meat from her arm in my hands. The bones on her forearm were stripped clean, nothing left on 'em."
He laughs, takes a drag on his cigarette. Humor is an easy way to bypass the gory nature of the job, he says. Avoiding the smell of decaying, putrefied people is a little more difficult.
"I can deal with that now," Gein relates. "I can tolerate it. I've developed a technique where I breathe -- just shallow breaths through my mouth."
It was worse when he started, and it didn't take long for him to discover that trying to kick heroin while picking up dead bodies for a living was hell on his constitution.
"I'd get high before I went to work," he explains, "so I'd be cool for like 12 hours -- and then the rest of the time, I'd be dope-sick." During some of those traumatic early removals, his mind and his stomach battled ferociously as he struggled not to drop dead bodies. "I was so strung out," he says. He started getting off heroin on his own. Seeing guys his own age, cold and blue, with a tied-off arm and a syringe on the floor will do that to you.
By now, Gein is a connoisseur of weird corpse stories. He brims with lurid, sometimes off-putting anecdotes about his years in the body-collection racket, which he often recounts with chilling, dark-side humor.
Among Gein's greatest hits:
A bloody suicide in which a man nearly sliced his head off with a circular saw.
A similar scene in a parking garage involving a man who'd climbed in the back of his truck with a chainsaw and proceeded to attempt to remove his head. He positioned his truck so that a nearby security camera would catch the whole bloody event on tape.
A Valentine's Day suicide in which a man had somehow killed himself by shooting an arrow into his heart. "When we put him in the body bag, we couldn't zip it up all the way, 'cause the arrow's sticking out of him." As he wheeled him out of the house, Gein turned to a nonplused cop on the scene. "You know, I bet I know who did this," Gein said with a sick grin. "Cupid!"
A middle-aged man who'd died on his couch while watching a video. Curious, Gein hit the eject button to see what it was. The title: What's the Worst That Could Happen?
A few years ago, Gein had to pick up what was left of a motorcycle accident victim. His hands covered with surgical gloves, he picked up body parts strewn across the road. "When I picked up his brain, it felt like I had pins and needles in my hands," Gein says with a rare sense of wonder. "I don't know if it was psychological. Maybe it was electrical impulses."
Domino says that she used to worry about Gein's apparently heedless sang-froid, which she now interprets as part of her boyfriend's act. "At first, it used to bother me, but now I've gotten used to it," she says. "It [his job] didn't seem to bother him, but every once in a while, he sees something that you can tell bothers him a lot. Inside, he's not the scary man people would expect him to be. But he puts on a good show."
Just after sunset, Gein gets a call. He's sent to Tamarac to pick up the newly lifeless body of Lonny Moskowitz (not his real name), an elderly Jewish man who died at home in the apartment he shared with his wife. It's a silent, solemn affair as Gein covers the body first in a sheet and then that blue, shag rug-like blanket. On the way to the funeral home in Aventura, he drives slowly and carefully, signaling as he puffs another smoke.
He backs the van up to a garage door at the building's rear and hits a buzzer. The door opens, and Gein wheels Mr. Moskowitz up a short ramp, past a red "BIOHAZARD" warning and into a cold, sterile room that smells like a health-club locker room slathered with industrial-strength disinfectant. "FORMALDEHYDE" reads one sign. "Avoid inhalation or skin contact."
As an attendant signs in Mr. Moskowitz, the blue blanket comes off and the dingy bed sheet covering him falls away. A toothless mouth gapes in a silent, hollow O, and his eyes are clenched tightly, as if holding back a tear. The backs of his ears are black and purple with the blood that has collected there in his tissues. He's wearing a pair of navy-blue socks and pinstriped PJs.
"How do you want me to put this guy?" Gein asks the attendant after opening up the cold-storage locker and seeing a collection of arms and legs sticking out from under wrapped sheets. "Anywhere he'll fit," she answers. The stainless-steel box, equipped with a small, roaring fan, looks exactly like a restaurant cooler, except instead of being stocked with vitamin D milk and frozen potatoes, its shelves are lined with elderly dead folks. One face -- man? woman? -- looks so tight and porcelain-smooth that it appears sculpted from soft talc. A man's white-haired forearm is pocked with dry scabs, probably from IV tubes.
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Gein finds a not-too-terribly undignified position for Mr. Moskowitz, knowing the man isn't likely to complain. In less than a minute, he's done. Walking out of this room feels like what a hit of smack must feel like -- comforting and soothing. Even Gein seems happy to shut the door behind him.
Even though his charge wasn't decomposing noticeably, Gein sprays the van liberally with Natural Citrus Eliminator. "I'm addicted to this stuff," he says as he sniffs the corrected atmosphere. "I have an air-freshener fetish!" Then, in the dark van, he fiddles with the radio knob and reaches for a small pump bottle of Sweet Pea Linen Spray.
On his way back home on the interstate, Gein gets another call. This time, it's to take a body from a hospital in North Broward to a crematorium in West Palm Beach. The crematorium, a two-story building on Dixie Highway, is silent and deserted as Gein punches in the code to open the overhead door. It takes him only a few seconds to wheel his responsibility across the gleaming white tiles to a huge cold-storage locker at the end of the building. As he quickly slides the sheet-covered, pot-bellied body from his gurney onto a cold metal shelf, Gein accidentally bumps against a small blue bundle on a ledge behind him. Turning around, he sees that the terrycloth bath towel covering a tiny, weeks-old infant has become partially unwrapped. A white, cookie-sized teddy bear wearing a red heart stitched with the word Mom suddenly tumbles from the towel to the shelf. There's a shocking, split-second glance of translucent blue skin and unnaturally scarlet-pink lips before the bear is replaced, the baby covered, the light flicked off, the door slammed shut and padlocked, and Gein is back inside the van.
"If anyone's gonna see a ghost," Gein says after several silent minutes, "it's gonna be me."