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Collective Soul

[whitespace] Winston Chew
The Junk in the Yard: Winston Chew's mounting backyard collection of odds and ends raised the ire of his Campbell neighbors, who didn't like the view of it from their second-story windows. The resident who lived there before Chew, they said, kept a lovely garden.


The cities of San Jose and Campbell have ordered Winston Chew to clean up his backyard. But what if he can't?

By Genevieve Roja

WHILE HIS NEIGHBORS were busy congratulating one another outside of the Campbell City Council chambers last Tuesday evening, Winston Chew stood alone.

After hearing two years' worth of complaints from Chew's neighbors regarding the agglomeration of debris gathered in his Campbell lot, the City Council voted to give Chew 14 days to eliminate the junk, which one contracting company estimates will fill four
40-foot dumpsters.

But what looks like junk to Chew's neighbors is actually the fruit of Chew's lifelong obsession with collecting odds and ends. Chew, who has lived at 1321 Porgy Court in San Jose since November 1996 (the house falls under San Jose's jurisdiction although the lot is in Campbell), has accumulated a myriad of items, including used tires, old wooden boards, chain-link fence materials and a rocking chair, among thousands of other things.

Chew is a sentimental man, and that quality is manifested in the overflowing labyrinth of debris growing in his yard. There are scores of electric-
orange goldfish swimming in a percolating pond; guava and maple trees offering shading arms; and two canaries perched in a cage under the patio roof.

But these Sunset magazine-like details stand out in stark contrast to the other items tucked under a covered
patio.

Hidden there is a baby carriage intended for the teddy bears that Chew's wife, Johanna, collects. There are partly painted birdhouses, a Dutch windmill, a workbench, plastic and wooden crates, tattered magazines, pairs of old Rossignol skis that belonged to the Chews' children, and even a clay kick-wheel and slab Chew says he intends to restore for his wife.

Beyond a small wire gate, there's a sprawling green lawn that is devoid of junk. The only hint of neglect is a small, primary-colored Playskool picnic table buried in the bushes. On the other side of the lawn, however, separated by a row of thick, towering hedges, is the evidence that has caused a rift between Chew, his neighbors and city officials. Occupying about half an acre are wagons, yellowing cardboard boxes, six derelict lawnmowers, two sheds, a tractor, a green Dodge van, a 1968 Corvair, a motor scooter, garden hoses, a croquet set, sacks of gardening soil, and a toy tractor Chew says his son used to ride on when he was a little boy.

To his neighbors, this jumbled array of objects is a wasteland that resembles a city dump. Although the lot and its contents are not visible from the street, the neighbors complain they can see it from their second-story windows.

At the July 7 council meeting, Chew's neighbor Vera Minx said his penchant for collecting useless items is out of control.

"I've talked to him," said Minx, who lives with her husband, Bill, on Whitehall Avenue in Campbell. "He ignores [the problem]. He feels sorry for himself; he picks things up like this and like that. He's a collector--of junk."

Dressed in a white oxford shirt, white sweatpants, white socks and white Etonic tennis shoes, Chew looked like an apparition among the throngs gathered in summery pastels and plaid shirts. After hearing neighbors Minx, Murray Martin and Lee Roach express their disgust with the newfound rat community and the expansion of his backyard collection, Chew addressed the council. He lifted a piece of white paper and waved it above his head.

"Imagine this to be a white flag," Chew said. "I give up. I alone take full responsibility for all of these matters. Please do not implicate my wife. She has nothing to do with it. It's all my fault."

Junkman Cleaneth

CAMPBELL ISN'T the first city that has dealt with Chew. At their former residence in Saratoga the Chews were issued two abatement orders between 1990 and 1994. Chew also received an order of abatement from the San Jose Hearing Board on May 21 of this year. It seemed inevitable that Campbell would eventually clamp down on Chew's property, which was jointly inspected by San Jose and Campbell code enforcement officers on May 20.

Campbell code enforcement officer Patti Petruzzelli has been handling the Chew case and fielding complaints from Chew's neighbors since last August. In just under a year, she has conducted a total of nine investigations and had one closed-door meeting with Campbell city planner Sharon Fierro and Chew on April 16. In her report, Petruzzelli notes that Chew's property meets all the criteria of a "nuisance" under the city's municipal code. Typically, property owners are given 45 days to abate such a nuisance. But the Campbell City Council felt Chew had been given plenty of chances already. This time he got the minimum decree: 14 days.

During his two-minute address to the City Council, Chew tried to explain his proclivity for collecting.

"I meet a lot of people and they tell me things," he said. "They say, 'Have I got a deal for you.' It's hard to turn people away. I have a soft spot." Finally Chew exposed the core of his problem; he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"I want to change," he says after the meeting. "It's been a lifelong struggle. I want to kick this habit."

Diagnosis: 'Hoarding'

BUT FOR CHEW, it's not that easy. According to Michael Elliott, a clinical coordinator who is conducting research for a study at Stanford Hospital's OCD Clinic, approximately 4 million people in the United States suffer from OCD. The disease "knows no geographic, economic or ethnic boundaries," Elliott says.

OCD sufferers are commonly thought of as germaphobes, like the compulsive hand-washing author Jack Nicholson portrayed in the film As Good As It Gets. Chew is afflicted with a lesser-known branch of the compulsion called "hoarding."

Typical symptoms of hoarding include arranging neat rows where the sufferer can walk in the house via pathways, Elliott explains. Indeed, Chew exhibits many of the classic symptoms of obsessive compulsive hoarding. He has created walkways within his junkyard and has stacks of papers and magazines reaching to the ceiling inside and around the house.

"They [hoarders] have one little path to the kitchen, one to the bedroom," Elliott says. "They know they're doing this. Control is the issue; they don't have the control to take care of it. It's a compulsion; you are compelled to do it. A lot of people think it's deliberate, but it's a compulsion."

OCD is incurable, but it can vanish, never to appear again, or subside and reappear in cycles. Treatment with the group of medications called selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, which include Zoloft and Prozac, have also been shown to be successful in some cases.

Chew acknowledges that he'd had regular sessions with Dr. Lorrin Koran, director of Stanford's OCD clinic. He says he's taken medication in the past, and 10 years ago he participated in a voluntary study at Stanford. (Because of doctor-patient confidentiality rules, Koran would not verify that Chew was his patient or that he had been a participant in the study.)

But after several courses of medication and working with Koran, Chew left the study. Kaiser, the Chews' health insurance provider, did not cover the treatment and the couple could not continue to pay for the sessions.

Chew's Last Chance

CHEW'S WIFE, JOHANNA, remembers a time when things were different. Their Campbell home was intended to be a new start, a retirement retreat from the Saratoga abatements that had put a damper on their homelife since they moved there in 1975 from a house on Berryessa Road.

Once the move to San Jose was finalized, Johanna Chew says, her husband began hauling his salvaged items "by the truckloads" to their new residence.

According to Stanford researcher Elliott, many OCD patients who suffer from hoarding do it to ease the mind.

"For some folks, it may be to lessen anxiety," he says. "Compulsion lessens anxiety. People get distressed about certain things. They need to do things to make themselves feel better."

Johanna, who has worked for the Moreland School District for four years and sells books over the Internet in her spare time, says her husband's problem has put a strain on their 30-year marriage.

"I love him very much, but his collecting problem I can't do anything about," she says. "We have this beautiful yard and we can't have family picnics or company. All the hopes and dreams we had when we moved there--they're gone."

She says her neighbors have chastised her because they feel she has not been effective in curbing her junk-collecting husband.

"My neighbor said, 'You're to blame because you allow it,' " Johanna said. "How am I going to stop him? When I go out to the car to get something, I wish I was invisible."

Even the Chews' grown children have tired of trying to persuade their father to get his act together. Realizing the seriousness of his problem, the family staged an intervention last month. They were unsuccessful.

"The children confronted him with his problem, but he didn't really get it," Johanna says. "They don't like to come here. I can't have my own children come in the house. They detest this mess; they just want us to have a better life."

"I think it was just an opportunity to let him know how much we care about him," says son Jonathan Chew, a Fresno firefighter. "We tried to give him a picture of how [the collection] was impacting the family."

Jonathan was present during the May 20 joint-city inspection of his father's property. He asked if his father had made progress and informed Petruzzelli that Chew had filled two dumpsters and was filling another.

"I [told Petruzzelli] he was a wonderful, loving man," Jonathan says. "He [Chew] has a hard time letting go of things. He sees values and dreams of projects in every item in that yard. It hurts him to let go of those things."

The Chews' kids have set their own boundaries. Johanna says they have offered to help their father clean up, but refuse to help him only "move things around."

"We basically want to see our folks happy," Jonathan says, adding that he will try to help his father abate the property. "We're very close, very supportive, but it's sort of a tough-love situation. We're not against my dad in any way; we're totally for him."

The Chews' financial situation is growing bleak as well. The 54-year-old Chew, who retired from his building inspection job with Santa Clara County in June 1998, now has a full-time construction job again. His wife continues to work for the school district, but their savings are depleted. The Chews cashed out their IRA and used the money to pay for the dumpsters for the abatement ordered by San Jose and are now living on Chew's pension from the county.

"With that, we reached the bottom of the barrel," Johanna says.

JM Construction, which abates several properties for the city of San Jose and is one of three bidders for the city of Campbell, has priced the entire clearing of the lot at $11,760. They will charge an hourly rate of $6,600 for demolition and $800 for each of the four extra-large dumpsters.

Winston Chew knows he has no more excuses left to make. His disorder may recognize no geographic boundaries, but Chew must obey the laws governing his property lines and the city code. "I have to apologize to my neighbors," said Chew at the City Council meeting. "I'm sorry it took this kick in the pants to get going. I want to get on with my life."

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From the July 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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