Students seek cash with trash

Amy Hackbarth

If you go to Chuck Terhark’s Dinkytown apartment, ask to see his snake Gollum. It’s white with pale spots, about a foot long and has lived in Terhark’s freezer for more than a year.

Being dead, Gollum obviously doesn’t mind the piles of newspapers and pizza boxes, the television that has cigarette butts for buttons or the moldy beer bottles that clutter the place its owner calls home.

Terhark and his three roommates don’t mind it either.

“You just get used to it,” said Terhark, a University senior. “You don’t even notice.”

While Terhark’s mess – which sent a former roommate packing after only one night in the apartment – might result in an eviction notice and parental reprimand, the staff of Apartments.com sees it as a possible ticket to wealth and cleanliness.

To promote its online services, the apartment searching company is holding a contest for the messiest college apartment in the nation. The winner will receive $10,000 and the services of a professional cleaning crew.

Last year, 38 people sent pictures of and wrote essays about their messes, including two roommates from the University. The winner – Mark Robinson, a senior at Indiana University – named his apartment “Matt’s Dark Pit of Filth” and said he hadn’t taken out the garbage in seven months.

Looking at a video of Robinson’s efficiency apartment, Terhark’s roommate Ken Tyborski said he felt confident their two-story apartment could beat last year’s winner.

“I think we’ve got this guy beat,” he said. “Everything we have rivals this guy.”

What they have is 10 rooms of accumulated laundry and dirty dishes, an ant and fruit fly infestation in the basement and a bathroom with a duct-taped toilet and “do not enter” sign on the door. They have a cat named Precious who eats garbage out of overflowing trash cans stolen from outside of the Rarig Center three years ago.

In the summer, a couple weeks after parties the roommates throw, wriggling maggots appear in beer bottles that sit on windowsills.

Outside, behind the apartment, pop cans and other trash are frozen to the ground. The roommates had to clean up the rest of the garbage – which reached three feet high – after the upstairs tenants complained last month. They distributed the trash into neighbors’ garbage cans

Terhark’s apartment – in its current state – took three years to cultivate. That kind of mess is difficult to fake, said Nikola Zurak, Apartments.com communications coordinator and “dust bunny” for the contest.

“We can pretty much tell when someone just spreads papers around,” she said. “The bottom line is, you can’t fake mold.”

Just in case, the contest sends teams to evaluate some applicants’ apartments. The staff then chooses three finalists, which the public votes for on the Apartments.com Web site.

While the winner receives $10,000 and a professional cleaning, the other two finalists receive $500.

“We hope they’ll use that money to clean up their apartments,” Zurak said.

If he wins, Terhark said, he’d use the $10,000 to pay for rent.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “enough to pay for the rest of the school year.”

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]