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There will be blood...to be cleaned up


Nights and Trauma Scene Cleanup | Michael and Carol Nicholson talk about working nights on crime and accident scene jobs.


Death rides a pale horse and these guys ride in a pale van, cleaning up after him.

By John Guenther

It's getting late on Michael Nicholson's driveway, when Nicholson's friend and employee Johnny Grant asks if he'd seen the show "1,000 Ways To Die." Nicholson responds that he doesn't watch TV. They're standing next to the Clean Scene Services van which is packed with cleaning equipment and bio-hazard containers.

The two are on call 24/7 and their job is to clean and disinfect the things other people aren't willing to, from mold to the aftereffects of a shotgun suicide.

When asked what it's like waiting for death night and day, Nicholson said he's more concerned with assisting the families left behind.

"Pretty much it's not that we're waiting for it to happen. It's happening all the time," said Nicholson. "It's just whether or not we'll be there to be able to help them."

A few nights earlier, inside the Clean Scene offices on Valley Boulevard, owner-operator Nicholson described each one of photos of past jobs hanging on the wall: train crashes, suicides and car accidents. News stories profiling Clean Scene with headlines like "The Death Squads" hang on another wall. Nicholson said the building used to be the clubhouse and meth lab of the Mongols motorcycle club.

Even though every job they do does not involve death, it seems it is always not too far away. The building space next to Clean Scene is taken up by an artist who fabricates couches out of caskets.

Nicholson got started in the industry while picking up bodies for the L.A. County Coroner's office which he did since he was 17. While doing pickups, people would ask him about who was going clean up once they were gone. Nicholson and his friends started coming back and providing cleaning services as a side job.

"It was rewarding as far as helping people," Nicholson said. "But if there was no money in it, we wouldn't have kept doing it, I'll tell you that."

After 14 years in business, he said he now charges a minimum of around $1,000 per job, depending on damage done and size of the cleanup area. But for labor-intensive jobs their services can cost between $4,000 and $6,000, especially for one of those shotgun jobs which can run well into the night. Nicholson describes the blast as similar to a bomb going off, with remains even landing two rooms away.

Grant said his salary is "kind of hourly," working as a trauma scene technician for Clean Scene. When asked about waiting for something terrible to happen, he agreed with Nicholson's assessment.

"Actually this is L.A.," Grant said. "There's like 20 million plus people here. There usually isn't a whole lot of waiting."

The Los Angeles County vital records office estimates that there were 53,794 deaths in the county in 2009, not including Long Beach or Pasadena. Around 42 percent of those occurred from dusk until dawn or 6PM to 5AM.

Nicholson said his business has an up-and-down cycle with more jobs coming in during the summer.

"Bodies decompose in the quicker in the summer in the heat, said Nicholson." More people are out. There's more action."

When asked about working nighttime jobs, he said there's a similar pattern.

"Sometimes, it'll be four times and we have a month where we don't go out at all at night."

The types of jobs that drag the Clean Scene crew out at night include train and car accidents which require their services in order to get the trains and traffic running again.

Grant said their job cleaning up after shootings can get a lot more interesting in certain parts of the city at night. "It depends on what happened down there and who's watching you clean up the mess," he added. "Sometimes it almost appears that the ones watching are the ones who committed the crime."

"There are a lot more nuts at night," Nicholson simply said.

"We've had calls that are just mundane but because it's at night, it's actually scary." said Carol Nicholson, wife of Michael and who started the business with him out of the back of their Toyota. "You're in places you don't know and with people you don't know."

Carol Nicholson is now the office manager for the company. Sitting in her office in their Agua Dulce home and surrounded by pictures of family and hazardous material cleanup manuals, she said they've talked about moving the service in other states and cities but decided against it.

"L.A.'s the place to be," she added. "The people here are one of a kind. At nighttime, the city comes alive and you see people that you ordinarily don't see especially in this type of work."

One nighttime job that seems to have gained a legendary status among the family is a suicide which took place in a sporting goods store. A homeless man came in to the store, asked to see a shotgun, loaded it with his own bullet and shot himself. The first Clean Scene crew on site had to work all night, call in reinforcements later on and hire a truck to haul the huge amount of damaged merchandise away.

"It was just spread out so bad and there was so much merchandise affected," said Michael Nicholson. "They had their loss prevention people there and deciding what level they wanted to do things. They actually opened [the store] before it was completed. They all do that."

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Nighttime Jobs: Michael talks about different nighttime jobs, including
one that creeped even him out
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The job even inspired an opening scene in the 2008 movie "Sunshine Cleaning" which featured a family that got into the same business. Michael Nicholson said it goes vice versa and Hollywood sometimes inspires real life in the industry.

"Every time a movie comes out, there's always a few new companies," he said. "'The Cleaner,' 'Sunshine Cleaning.' Any of those movies. But most of them are not very long-lasting."

When people ask about his job, Michael Nicholson said they often ask if it's like "CSI." He said TV shows usually get things mostly right since the shows tend to have crime scene advisers, something his company has done before. But, like most entertainment, it's a little off from reality. "To me it's just not real," he commented.

Carol Nicholson said the crime scene cleanup characters in movies are often portrayed negatively and are based on Michael. "It's not based on me," retorted Michael Nicholson.

"When you're watching it, you know they're talking about Michael and he's always portrayed as an asshole," said Carol Nicholson. "It never fails."

Michael Nicholson reconsidered a moment and said, "I must be an asshole," and laughed.

Because of the on call nature of the business, the Nicholsons have found that making personal plans is like tempting fate.

"When you're ready and willing, nothing will happen," said Michael Nicholson. "As soon as you start doing something and get occupied...that's when you'll get a call at night."

The calls can affect not only their outlook on life and death but their social lives as well.

"People think we're flaky because they'll invite us to parties or invite us somewhere and we can't make it because--guarantee it--that's when the phone rings," said Carol Nicholson.

Carol added that nighttime is when the prank calls come rolling in. She said they can tell most calls are bogus right off the bat. But she said she is fully expecting someone to force them onto a dry run call. "They'll give us an address...and when we show up, they'll be off in the corner laughing at us."

"I've had people call up and say 'I'm going to kill somebody,'" said Michael Nicholson. "'Can you come clean it?' Just stupid stuff really."

Despite the uneven schedule and pranksters, the Nicholsons and crewmembers recognize they have an opportunity to provide some aid to those going through a trying time.

"We found people that have been looking for days for someone to help them and then when they finally find us, they're very relieved," said Michael Nicholson.

He recounted how, on their second job ever, they were called in to clean the living room of a man who had committed suicide on a couch. His daughter could not make herself enter the house. It wasn't until the crew finished when the woman was comfortable enough to come in and sit in the living room. Carol Nicholson said they aren't necessarily leaving grieving clients happy, but at least ready to take care of what's next.

Grant said what happens to clients once the crews finish a job does go across his mind from time to time. But Grant mostly has a yeoman's attitude towards the rewards of the job.

"The reward is just getting the job done right and not having to go back and not having anybody complaining and not having people feel like they've been ripped off," said Grant.

When asked about passing on lessons to those without the stomach for the job, he became more practical than philosophical for a moment.

"Maybe how to clean stains once in awhile," he joked. "That could come in handy."

After completing a job at night, Michael Nicholson said he usually is just looking forward to getting something to eat. But he also has thought about how most people are unaware of a lot of what happens while they sleep.

"We'll be finishing up a job just as the sun is coming up and traffic starting to come back starting to come out for the morning and you think that they don't even know what happened prior to them getting out there this morning," he said.

Carol Nicholson said the whole experience of working the trauma scene beat has left her sometimes feeling apart from other moms at her children's school.

"I'm nothing like them because of what we deal with," she said. While talking about certain stores where their crews have worked, she has a distinctly different perspective from others. "All I can see is brains in sporting goods."

But she believes her children have ultimately benefited from the family business, and not just financially. She said all of their children have been very aware of that they do.

"Most kids think about death whenever a loved one dies and they go to a funeral and they have to be explained what is death," she said in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. "My kids grow up knowing that death is just there."

Their 20-year-old son has been working with them for a couple years and has joined one of the crews full-time. Michael Nicholson has found an additional benefit to the arrangement: He now has someone who can go out at night.

"He can't wait until his dad retires so he can take over," Carol Nicholson mentions. "The littlest one is eight and he can't wait to be at his dad's side in the Clean Scene van."

As I drove away from the Nicholsons' house and down a winding darkened road toward the lights of L.A., a small, furry rodent darted in front of my car, far too close for me to avoid it. The unfortunate meeting of car and animal reminded me of something Michael Nicholson said back at his office.

"Life's very valuable...precious and you never know what will happen. We've taught our kids that. There's no guarantees that you'll be here tomorrow. Nobody's promised tomorrow and a lot of people don't get it."



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