9 Secrets of People Who Answer Santa’s Mail

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Every year, as temperatures begin to cool, letters to Santa Claus start rolling in to post offices around the country, filled with wish lists and questions from children. But since Santa himself tends to be too busy to handle all his mail, the duty falls to a wide-ranging group of volunteers, postal workers, and folks filled with the holiday spirit. Mental Floss spoke to a few of these dedicated individuals to find out some of the secrets of answering Santa’s correspondence.

1. SANTA HAS MANY ADDRESSES.

There are numerous Santa headquarters in the United States alone. If a kid drops a letter addressed to “Santa Claus” in the mail, it will likely end up at their local post office—and at hundreds of post offices around the country, the postal employees answer Santa’s mail themselves.

“It’s the kindness of our own employees,” Darleen Reid-DeMeo, senior public relations representative for the United States Postal Service (USPS), tells Mental Floss. But the letter may also be forwarded to the nearest Operation Santa Claus site, which is run by the Post Office and allows members of the public to adopt and answer as many letters as they like.

Any post office can sign up to be an Operation Santa Claus branch, if the local postmaster and employees agree to follow the USPS rules for the program and volunteer their time to run it. Currently there are 15 official branches throughout the U.S. The program is voluntary for the local employees and postmaster, so any post office can decide to do it one year and not the next.

2. SANTA HAS DIFFERENT WAYS OF ANSWERING.

If a letter is addressed specifically to “Santa Claus, 4141 Postmark Dr, Anchorage, Alaska," and includes a self-addressed, stamped envelope, senders can get a reply with a “North Pole” postmark. “That’s for people who want to respond on behalf of Santa—for parents who want their child to get a note from Santa himself,” Reid-DeMeo says. If a kid writes a letter to Santa and includes the city “Santa Claus, IN” on the envelope, it will go to the Santa Claus Museum & Village in that city, where the letters are responded to by volunteers with a note postmarked by the city of Santa Claus.

3. KIDS WRITE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF LETTERS.

While it’s difficult to get an exact number of the letters sent, Gail Branham, customer relations coordinator and Chief Elf at the USPS, who oversees Operation Santa Claus, estimates that they receive about 50,000 letters a year at the New York branch alone. Emily Weisner Thompson, director of the Santa Claus Museum in Indiana and author of the books Letters to Santa Claus and But What if There’s No Chimney?, estimates they get about 20,000 letters annually.

4. IT’S AN ALL-HANDS PROCESS.

With such a heavy volume, those working to answer Santa’s mail need plenty of help. On any given day during the season at the Santa Claus Museum, there are seven to 10 volunteers (a.k.a. “elves”) opening and responding to letters throughout the day. “The few who are here most days of the week are really efficient and they can pump them out,” Thompson tells Mental Floss. Every night in December, the museum has at least one group—a small business, high school students, elementary school teachers, and so on—who come in to answer a stack of letters over several hours. All told, Thompson estimates they have about 250 volunteers throughout the month.

At the USPS, it’s a similarly diverse group of answerers lending a hand. “For some companies, it’s part of their holiday protocol,” Branham says. “They get letters for their organization and deliver it among the coworkers. It’s a group effort for a lot of people.” She describes a group of “big, burly guys,” who came in to the James A. Farley Post Office (home base for New York City’s Operation Santa Claus) last year but were not part of any particular organization. “They said, we just go to games, go to the bar together, and now we answer Santa letters,” Branham says. “They sat, read the letters, went shopping, bought boxes in the lobby, paid for their postage—they were here all day.”

5. IT’S A PEEK INTO WHAT’S HOT.

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Answering Santa letters gives one a good sense of the most popular toys and gifts of the year. Thompson points to the baby monkey Fingerlings, Shopkins toy figures of grocery store items, superhero action figures, and Hoverboards as a few of the popular items in letters to the Santa Claus Museum this year.

From what Branham’s seen, “Everybody wants an i-something: an iPhone, an iPad, an iWatch.” But no matter what the requests, she says, “There’s a letter that will appeal to [everyone]—some people have deep pockets, some don’t. But they take their time and look for something they can fulfill that’s within their means. They want to participate and help someone.”

6. SOME LETTERS DON’T ASK FOR ANYTHING.

“We get simple requests, and sometimes letters that don’t even have a request, like, ‘Santa, I love you, I think you’re great,’” Branham says.

Thompson describes getting “some very introspective letters,” such as a recent one where the child wrote, “Dear Santa, I’m really struggling with turning 10 this year.” Another one read “I’ve been good, please come to my house, I’d really like my dad to be smarter.”

“There’s certainly a perception that the world is increasingly materialistic and in some ways that’s true, but there is a lot of mail that comes through that is kids thinking of others,” Thompson adds, giving examples of kids asking on behalf of their siblings or parents or commenting on poverty and wider difficulties.

In other cases, kids will ask Santa about his life and Mrs. Claus, or draw images of him and his world. In some cases, the writers will even include a gift from them to the holiday saint.

“It’s amazing to see what makes it through the mail sometimes,” Thompson says. “They’ll bedazzle the envelope sometimes, or you open one up and 20 pounds of glitter falls out. It’s nice when they take the time to decorate it.”

7. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SECURITY MEASURES.

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With so many gifts and so much private information involved, Operation Santa Claus has put a number of strict rules in place. In 2006, the organization required that every address be redacted to ensure none of the kids’ locations are seen by the members of the public. Instead, each letter is assigned an anonymous number. They also began requiring donors to present a photo ID when picking up a letter. When donors drop packages off, the postal employees match the anonymous number with the address where the gifts are supposed to be delivered. To avoid duplicated gifts and track which letters are adopted, the USPS also has created a shared database where each letter is assigned a number and tracked.

“Our No. 1 goal before anything is to protect the letter-writers’ personal information,” Reid-DeMeo says.

8. THEY’RE GOING DIGITAL.

Operation Santa Claus has taken its approach a step further this year, with the launch of DeliverCheer.com, where those interested in answering Santa’s mail can go online and adopt a letter from a New York City kid.

An outside contractor opens, redacts any personally identifiable information, and uploads the letters. The contractor has been “deputized” by the postal service to open the letters, which then go to the postal “elves” actually employed by the USPS, who “check it twice” to be sure all personal info has been removed before pushing a button and going digital. If the project is successful in New York, the USPS hopes to roll out DeliverCheer.com nationwide next year, removing much of the manual work and expanding the Operation Santa program.

“For 105 years, we’ve been doing it manually—people are physically opening and copying the letters, redacting them and inputting information into a database and with this new pilot, we’ve removed the manual handling of the letters so it’s all done digitally,” Reid-DeMeo says. “Anybody can go on there and read letters, but if you decide to adopt, you click the button.”

9. THEY HAVE A LEGACY TO PROTECT.

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Speaking for Santa carries significant responsibilities.

“To think that you’re participating in something that’s 105 years old is a huge responsibility,” Branham says. “People expect to come here every year—this is their tradition, they bring their kids, when their kids become adults they want to bring their kids and see Santa letters.”

It’s also an unstated requirement for any person answering Santa’s mail to “maintain the magic,” as Thompson describes it, speaking of Santa as a real, if hard-to-pin-down, figure.

“When a reporter asks, ‘How do you feel about answering these letters?’ the volunteers are good about phrasing it as, ‘It’s great to be able to help Santa out—he’s so busy.’ They’re all Santa believers too.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

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It’s a profession that few people realize exists—until tragedy strikes, and suddenly they have to deal with the unimaginable. That’s when they call a select group of iron-stomached, steel-nerved workers known as trauma scene restoration specialists, biohazard remediation technicians, or simply crime scene cleaners.

Until a few decades ago, the task of cleaning up after a loved one died fell to family and friends, potentially adding trauma on top of an already terrible event. In the 1990s, a small group of companies and entrepreneurs sprang up to tackle the problem, specializing in the removal of blood, fluids, human tissue, and hazardous substances. By 2012 (the last year for which reliable data is available), crime scene cleanup was a $350-million industry in the United States, and included more than 500 companies. Here’s what these hazmat-suited heroes want the world to know about their work.

1. THEY AREN'T LIMITED TO CRIME SCENES.

The phrase crime scene cleanup brings to mind police tape and furrow-browed detectives. In reality, only a fraction of the calls these companies receive—which can come from family members, property managers, hotel owners, or anyone with a dead body on their property—are the result of a major crime. Unattended natural death (i.e., a person who dies alone and isn’t discovered quickly) and suicide are the most common scenarios. Glenn Cox, general manager at Southern Bio-Recovery, which has four locations in the Southeast, says that only about 30 percent of the 60 to 100 death scenes his company handles every year are homicides.

To pay the bills, it's common for companies to supplement with other kinds of biohazard removal, whether that's removing tear gas from a property after it's been used by law enforcement or getting rid of meth labs. Cox says that Southern Bio-Recovery also cleans up hoarding situations and decontaminates homes after viral or bacterial incidents—think MRSA or hepatitis outbreaks.

2. MANY OF THEM ARE EX-MILITARY OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.

Former Marine John Krusenstjerna founded Des Moines-based Iowa CTS Cleaners after serving two tours in Iraq. “Just experiencing things out there left me kind of wondering what happened in these situations back in the United States, who takes care of it,” he tells Mental Floss. Peruse executive bios of many trauma restoration company websites and you’ll find similar military, law enforcement, or paramedic backgrounds. Exposure to death—and the chaos it wreaks on family members—also provides valuable experience in the emotional and physical challenges inherent in cleanup. "Being able to compartmentalize in your mind, to stay focused on the task, to have integrity … all of those are attributes I believe I learned from being a soldier," Cox explains.

3. THEIR TRAINING MIGHT INVOLVE PIG BLOOD.

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The certification requirements for crime scene cleaners range from nonexistent to uneven, so most training happens in-house. James Michel, CEO at Bio Recovery—which has 22 branches around the country—says all of his company's employees are taken to a special training facility at their headquarters in New York state. "We stage crime scenes there using organic and non-organic types of fake blood: stage blood, pig blood, all different types. We recreate crime scenes with sheet rock, toilets, tile, and [trainees are] able to break it down. We have decontamination stations that are permanently set up so they can walk in and out of and really grasp how to do this on a day-to-day basis." All in all, Michel says, four weeks of such training are required before their techs are even let out on a crime site.

4. THE DEATH SCENE CAN SPREAD BEYOND THE BODY.

“All of our scenes are chaotic, and there's multiple things to do,” says Nate Berg, founder and president of Scene Clean, based in Osseo, Minnesota. “For example, in a decomposition [when a body has been left undiscovered for a long period], you've got strong odors and you've got all their personal property, which now have absorbed the strong odors.” The work becomes a matter of peeling the layers of contamination—bedding and linens, furniture, carpeting, floorboards, subfloor or sheetrock. And what’s visible to the eye (say, a small bloodstain on a carpet) may actually indicate a large pool underneath.

“A bad day is when we get called to a really bad decomposition or unattended death,” Krusenstjerna says, “and find out they’ve not only decomposed in a kitchen or bathroom but it’s dripping into the basement. We had an apartment building where it went from the third floor to the first floor.”

5. THEIR CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE NEXT-LEVEL.

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As you might expect, cleaning up the blood, fluids, and tissue left in the wake of a violent death or long-undiscovered decomposition takes more than bleach and elbow grease. The first step is detection of every spot, splatter, or shard. “We use an indicator similar to hydrogen peroxide, but it’s a much, much stronger version,” Cox says. “When it [comes into] contact with bodily fluids, it foams up and turns a very bright white color. It’s also a very strong disinfectant.”

When dealing with brain matter—which tends to harden to a cement-like consistency—Berg prefers to use an enzyme cleaner that, when absorbed by the tissue, softens it just enough to allow it to be removed with a scraper. For stubborn brain tissue, or fluid that’s seeped into the cracks between floorboards, it might be time to break out the demolition tools: crowbars, weighted hammers, circular saws. It’s also not uncommon for techs to have to dismantle furniture, remove sheetrock, or rip up flooring to get at the contaminants that have seeped in or gotten stuck.

6. THEY CAN MITIGATE THE SMELL ... SORT OF.

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There’s nothing like the smell of death. And while some techs get used to the odor, “when a body’s been there for 60 days, in moist air, you walk in and breathe that smell, and you just go, ‘This is going to be a long day,’” Michel says. Every technician wears personal protective equipment (a.k.a. PPE; think lined suits, booties, layers of gloves and respirators) to guard against blood- and air-borne pathogens, but it can be hard to avoid a quick waft now and then. “I don’t care how good you are,” Michel says, “when you twist your head in a certain way and break that [respirator] seal, that smell is coming in the mask.” To cope, and to deodorize the home, techs employ HEPA filters, air scrubbers, ozone machines, and hydroxyl generators—which use concentrated UV light to target and destroy pollutants.

7. THEY HATE SEEING CATS ON-SITE.

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That's because cats could mean cat pee. “Cat pee is my fricking nemesis,” Berg says. “Most of the time we have to pull up floors or walls and make physical contact with the cat urine because it crystallizes.” Michel agrees: “When you leave a dog by himself and they [defecate] or urinate, you can clean that for the most part. Cat spray is the hardest odor to remove.”

8. THE TURNOVER RATE IS PRETTY HIGH.

Even the toughest clean-up doesn’t compare to the emotional stress of working with grieving families or glimpsing the violence people inflict upon each other. "We only go to the worst of the worst," Michel explains. He's seen professionals in his office and around the industry turn over at a rapid rate. “We’ve had hundreds of employees come in and out of these doors throughout the years and the psychological toll is extremely difficult. Some of the tough cases, where there’s children involved, there’s a somberness in the office for days.” He says that most employees, and even owners, only last about five or 10 years, max.

9. TECHS OFTEN FUNCTION AS COUNSELORS ...

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Because everyone deals with grief differently, a crime scene cleanup tech has to be prepared for every kind of human interaction. Usually, it’s the owner or senior tech who deals with loved ones, and that might mean listening to detailed accounts of the deceased or protecting customers from seeing the worst. “Customers tend to want to tell us the whole story, starting two months back,” Cox says. “They need to vent. I have to talk with them, and sometimes I have to give them a hug and let them know that we’re here to help. We understand their situation and let them know that time heals. This is part of the healing process as well.”

10. ... BUT THEY SOMETIMES NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

Experienced techs and owners talk about the importance of separating their work and home lives. Still, not everyone is gifted with the ability to disengage (and even those who can may find the toll adds up over time). Several of the people we spoke to said their companies provide paid counseling for techs on a confidential, request-by-request basis. "All they have to do is submit a request. We take care of everything," Michel notes.

11. THEY MIGHT BLAST THE RADIO—OR WORK AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE.

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Techs have to find a way to work amid all that emotion. While on site, that might mean keeping things light among themselves. “We have radios in our truck,” Krusenstjerna says. “We bring the radio in the house, to help break up the time. We’ll talk amongst each other, joking about what we saw on TV the night before or what’s funny on Facebook. But the last thing we want, and where we draw the line, is if the family is in the house. Not to sound like we’re gross or gruesome but we’re not going to say, ‘Grab the tooth off the window ledge,’ because we don’t know if they’re sitting there with their ear to the bedroom door. So we’ll be quiet, and use body language and signs and stuff like that.”

12. A CLEAN-UP CAN COST $10,000.

Based on region, type of cleanup, and number of techs, the cost to customers varies wildly, from around $1000 to over $10,000. Generally, the more dispersed the fluids and tissue in the home, or the longer the decomp, the more manpower it will take and the longer the job will be—leading to higher costs. (While insurance and victim compensation will cover some of the cost, at least part of the bill still falls to the customers.) Depending on the number and type of jobs undertaken, owners of crime scene cleanup companies can clear hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in profit every year. Techs themselves can make anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for a hazardous materials removal worker hovers around $41,500, but the top 10 percent earn more than $75,000.

13. THE FACT THAT THEY'RE HELPING PEOPLE MAKES IT WORTHWHILE.

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If there was a common thread in all the conversations we conducted with crime scene cleaners, it was the immense satisfaction they take from their jobs. Despite the smells, the gore, and the grief, these individuals find great reward in the help they’re able to provide to others in their hour of darkness. “When I have a family member who’s just lost a loved one give me that hug—because they could not have done this for themselves—there is no greater satisfaction in my life,” Michel says. “If I were to die tomorrow, that would be one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of. You can't describe in words. The only way I can say is, it's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives."

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