Francisco Mijares has built his business on the firm foundation of squalor, blood and filth. Suicides in the winter, hoarders in the summer, cat infestations whenever -- he cleans up after all of them, and business is plentiful.
His small company, Environment Solutions LLC, specializes in dealing with stuff most people don't want to think about, let alone handle or smell:
Basements filled with rotting food. Toilets overflowing with human waste. Car interiors spattered with body matter.
He loves his work.
"It's my calling in life," Mijares said as he prepared to dig through the extensive garbage in a flea-ridden Milwaukee house that, until the city stepped in and declared it unfit for human habitation, had been occupied by four people and some 25 cats.
"Just put people's lives like they used to be when they used to be good."
Outside, where a backyard statue of the Virgin Mary stood by as Mijares slipped into a polypropylene jump suit, plastic bootees and skintight nitrile gloves, it was a fine midsummer morning.
Inside, the gag-inducing odor of feline urine filled the air.
Fouled toilets. Hopelessly filthy blankets tossed everywhere. A bathtub lined with cat feces. A milk crate stacked with 60-year-old detective magazines featuring articles such as "Clue of the Beautiful Babe," and "Someone's Buzzin' 'Round my Honey."
A collection of liquefied jelly -- one jar from Knott's Berry Farm dated April 1954 -- in the kitchen closet. One bedroom crammed so full that the door could only be opened a foot.
No problem. Mijares has seen much worse.
Like the home of a woman, a nurse, who hoarded food. And not just boxes of cereal and cans of soup.
"No, no, no -- everything," Mijares said. "She was collecting tomatoes, watermelons. Everything was right on the floor, rotting. . . . You couldn't even walk through the basement. Just in the basement alone she probably had over 20,000 pounds of garbage."
Or the New Berlin home where for two years the resident lined the nonfunctioning toilets with plastic bags. When they were full, she simply heaped them in the two bathrooms.
"It was like two big piles in each one," Mijares said. "If you want to see videos, pictures -- if you've got a strong stomach."
His toughest job was in Chicago.
"It was a very nice house," Mijares said. "Probably about a $350,000 house, in a very nice neighborhood."
But you could smell it from the sidewalk because inside, Mijares said, were 50 cats and years of their waste -- 600 pounds' worth -- caking the floors.
"You can't even imagine when you walk inside the house," he said. "It was like your worst nightmare. I wasn't even hungry like for two days."
And on the nondisgusting but simply-odd front, there was the Madison home a man had given over to a collection of maybe 10,000 plastic bottles. One room was devoted strictly to Mountain Dew.
"Most of these people have mental issues," Mijares said. ". . . They share something in common. They start collecting items that make them feel better. . . . It's the only family they have around. They shield themselves."
Kitchen to crime scene
Forty-four years old, Mijares is a cheerful man who, with his wiry hair and black-frame eyeglasses, might pass for a cousin of the can-you-hear-me-now guy in the old Verizon Wireless commercials. He came to Milwaukee from northern Mexico in the '90s to study English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and stayed.
"I worked my way from the bottom up," he said. "I was a dishwasher, busboy, line cook, a chef. I used to own my own restaurant in St. Francis -- a very small joint."
Tired of the restaurant grind, he started a janitorial service in the middle of the last decade, then branched into crime- and trauma-scene cleanup and later, hoarders' houses.
"Francisco's a good guy," said industry pioneer Michael Tillman. "He's the real thing."
Tillman started a trauma cleanup company in Texas in 1999, then turned to teaching others the business. Mijares was awarded a scholarship to train under Tillman and his company, Amdecon.
"What impressed me about him was his desire and willingness to work hard," Tillman said. "It's the American dream for him. He came from Mexico with virtually nothing, and he's done well."
Mijares said he lived in his car for a few days one winter when he was unemployed. When he started his business, he said, he used a van that was so beaten up he would park two blocks away from his jobs.
Now he drives a well-kept white pickup that bears the number of his state-issued permit to haul infectious waste. Just looking at it satisfies him.
"Every time I see my Wisconsin DNR number, I feel proud," he said.
'A clean conscience'
Mijares has a taste for Sinatra -- he admires the singer-swinger's "love for life" -- for history and for philosophy.
Self-educated beyond high school, he collects first-edition books and old Spanish and French documents, and speaks with enthusiasm on subjects ranging from the pulse of the universe to little-known 16th-century explorer Cabeza de Vaca.
He seems like a classic, driven entrepreneur -- he's currently reading Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" -- but draws what is probably a necessarily sharp line between his work and the rest of his life.
"When I go home, when I put my feet on the sidewalk," he said, "everything is gone. Everything stays right here.
"I can watch a movie. I can talk to different people. I forget about the suicide. I forget that somebody else's brains are on the wall. I forget about somebody else dying in the middle of the living room. I forget that there was a ton of garbage that I cleaned. I go with a clean conscience that I do something better -- I make a dent, on earth, to make people's lives better."
As he spoke, the dent-making in his latest project had just begun. Mijares figured the job would take six days and cost about $8,000. He's done cleanups for as little as $800 and as much as $18,000.
He didn't want to disclose his annual sales, but said he employs four people and turns a profit. He recently added medical-waste hauling to his array of services, and sees nothing but growth.
"Waste is a recession-proof business," he said.
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