The Origins of My Lifelong Career
Housecleaning has got to be one of the most boring occupations ever invented by man. I know. I've been doing it for over thirty years.
Why, you rightly ask, would anyone choose this for a career, as opposed to something more glamorous? For instance, wouldn't I prefer to slump for eight hours a day at a desk in a windowless cubicle, surrounded by dozens of other windowless cubicles, and cheerfully (fake, of course) chirp into a headset, "How may I direct your call?"
There is an obvious answer, drawn from my opening observation: housework is boring. There are always people willing, and able, to pay someone else to do it for them. But, I did say "choose", didn't I? Hmm, well, in my case, I can't say it was a deliberate, well-thought out choice. No, more of a case of the best of bad choices.
In my senior year of high school I began to feel the need to earn spending money. In common with other teens, I had numerous "needs" and "must-haves" not covered by my parents. Back in the last century, in 1981 to be exact, those necessities of life included music in the form of cassette tapes (a much-coveted album from Dan Fogelberg was on the top of my list), and fashionable clothes (from a teen's point of view, anyway) such as white turtlenecks with little animals printed on them, farmer's overalls, suspenders (I had a red pair and a rainbow-striped pair—yikes, did I really walk around in public in those?), wooden-soled Scandinavian clogs (for maximum noise in school hallways), L.L. Bean boots, and acid-washed jeans with zippers on their skinny ankle openings.
Sadly, however, employment options were few. I lived in a rural area, with no driver's license or car. My parents worked, and there were no older siblings living at home to drive me to a job at a supermarket or fast-food restaurant, even if there had been one in the neighborhood. I was not fond of children, so baby-sitting was out.
"Why don't you see if anyone wants you to clean house for them?" my mother suggested. "You do such a nice job around here."
It was true. I had lots of experience. I came home from school each day to an empty house. Motivated largely by guilt over the long hours my parents put in to provide for my younger brother and myself, I dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, washed and ironed clothes, and often started supper, in addition to caring for my numerous pets. Despite this, I also managed to maintain an A grade average. Surely, I thought, I can handle cleaning a house or two to make a few dollars.
Problem was, I was on the shy side. The idea of looking for work was, in fact, terrifying in the extreme.
"Go to that horse farm down the road," Mom said. "I'll bet they are very busy. They might like a cleaning lady."
In mortal dread, I protested, "I can't just go to some stranger's door and ask them if they want someone to clean their house! What if they get insulted? What if they think I'm telling them their house is dirty?"
"All they can do is say no. Just ask."
And so, shaking in my preppie L.L Bean boat shoes (those shoes lasted through many years of cleaning jobs before the stitching finally burst), I walked a mile down a busy highway, with cars and trucks roaring by, to the horse farm, and knocked timidly. When a harried, middle-aged woman answered the door, I asked her if she was looking for help with housework.
I remember that she appeared surprised, but interested. Her horses and her furniture business kept her very busy. Yes, she was willing to give it a try. Would two afternoons a week be too much? No, that was fine. And so my cleaning business was born.
I acquired another after-school job soon afterward. Three afternoons a week I walked—rain, snow, or shine—to my "accounts". After graduation, I began to work part-time with my older sister, who, along with her husband, had moved back into the area. Still without a license or a car, I was happy to have the support to expand my business and my earnings. After acquiring a driver's license and a car, I went back to working alone, and spent most of the next three decades as the sole proprietor of my business.
I won't lie. Cleaning is about as exciting as watching mold grow. So my memoirs dictated here will have nothing to do with how many swishes with a brush it takes to scrub out a toilet. What makes residential cleaning interesting are the people I work for, the "clients", if you will.
I've worked for many over the years—families and individuals—from young single men to elderly retired ladies. Most of them, though nice, pleasant people, are nothing memorable. However, a few stand out in my mind, and it is these ones that I want to tell you, the reader, about.
Before I get to them, however, I'd like to go over an important subject, namely, those things some clients do that make me completely bonkers. I'll take it room by room.
Oh dear, almost forgot-an apology in advance to anyone reading the pet peeve section who is offended by my bluntness in some way. Please remember that these observations are only from this cleaning lady's POV, and don't reflect the views of all people in the cleaning trade (quite a few of them, though, I betcha).
I would also like to mention that most, if not all, names have been changed in this tale, in some instances to protect the innocent, but in many more instances to protect the guilty (though exactly why I bother I don't know). Although the names have been changed, the stories are all true. I couldn't make this stuff up. Besides, the truth is far funnier than any fiction.
Cleaning Lady Pet Peeves
We'll start in the KITCHEN, the hardest room to clean in any house (unless the resident of said house orders take-out every night):
First of all (and this should be obvious, but obviously it isn't obvious), fine furniture does not belong in a kitchen. Period. I mean, beautifully finished solid cherry cabinets, polished granite countertops, several hundred dollar faucets-as-art? Seriously? A kitchen is a work room, people! It's where food is prepared, and food is messy, sticky, and (often) smelly.
Take porcelain sinks, for example. Beautiful to look at, impossible to keep clean. They quickly develop scratches from all the sharp utensils and pots dropped in them, which lead to stains that require sanding to abolish, which scratches the surface even more, which leads to more staining. And—well, you get the picture.
Granite countertops? Oh, everyone wants them, and understandably so. They are lovely to look at. But set a glass down too hard and—ouch! Granite is rock, after all. Very dense rock. Better buy extra glasses, you'll need them. For all its toughness, however, granite needs to be sealed and polished regularly. Who has time for this? The cleaning lady? Not with all the other luxury surfaces that need pampering in your $100,000, architect-designed, House Beautiful-inspired kitchen!
And those trendy stainless steel appliances? Stainless, my foot. They show every fingerprint. Even worse than stainless, however, are black appliances. Gorgeous in the showroom, nightmarish in real life usage. It is obvious to me that whoever came up with this color scheme for appliances, especially stoves, has never cleaned anything in his or her entire life. No one who has actually attempted to scrub encrusted grease off a shiny black surface in the vain hope that it will look like new again would ever foist such a thing on unsuspecting appliance shoppers.
While I'm on this particular gripe line, who engineers these "modern" appliances in the first place, with all those impossible-to-reach dirty corners, those tiny, bug-and-grease-trapping crevices built into the design? Not someone who actually uses or cleans them. Yet the homeowners who buy these devices for their swanky kitchens expect me to perform miracles and keep them looking showroom new. Let me tell ya now, it ain't happ'nin.
The second-dirtiest room is always the BATHROOM:
Ugh. More human nastiness here than anywhere else in the house, with the possible exception of the garbage can and some people's refrigerators (way back in, bottom shelf)
The toilet, for instance. Can't men learn to aim better? Really, this is forgivable in small boys, but not in grown men who've had many years to perfect their peeing technique. Do they imagine I get some sort of thrill out of cleaning that dried yellow crust off the seat, rim, and outside bowl of the loo (more often than not around the floor as well)? Ick. And dried-on flecks of poop, both sexes being guilty of this offence? Double ick. Please, clean up after yourself before I get there. Thank you.
I once (briefly) worked for a family, the Andersons, whose teenage son never flushed the toilet in his bathroom. A week's worth of urine awaited me on cleaning day. I can only assume this was his male animal way of "marking his territory". I would describe the sight and smell of that toilet to you if I wasn't still traumatized by it all these years later.
The sink gets nearly as nasty as the toilet, believe it or not. Gloppy melted soap in a dish, long strands of hair trapped in toothpaste blobs, and hand towels that have not been changed in weeks, judging by their current color as opposed to their original color. One needs a strong stomach to deal with this. I'm feeling just a bit queasy now, and so,
On to the BEDROOM:
If you want me to strip off your sheets and make your bed up clean, fine. Just check it first. Please, don't leave used condoms between the sheets. It's TMI (too much information) about your love life. Also, don't leave behind tissues containing bodily fluids of any type. Eww. That's what a waste can is for.
I do not enjoy picking up your dirty socks and undies from the floor, either on the side of or under the bed. I'd like to vacuum your floors without clogging the hose.
There, got that out of my system. I feel better now.
Without further ado, let's get to some stories. I simply have to start with the most spectacularly memorable clients of all time:
Their names were Robert and Mildred. They are, I'm sure, long dead, as they were an elderly couple when my sister Kathi and I cleaned for them thirty years ago.
It was a job we did only every other week, but every hour of the three hours we spent there felt like a hundred hours. Or years. Or centuries. It varied by the week.
Our day with the Blanchards began with the turn down a quiet, respectable street in Portland, Maine, lined with solidly built older houses. Our laughter would end abruptly, and a bleak silence would settle over us at the sight of their apartment. We suffered a crushing weight on our chests, an oppressive heaviness in our limbs, akin to the effort needed to walk through wet concrete. We would exit the car, drag ourselves up the stairs, ring the bell, and then wait, sometimes for quite a while, for the rapid, tapping footsteps that signaled Mildred's approach. When she opened the door, our enslavement began.
Slavery is not much of an exaggeration. Kathi and I were never allowed to forget who we were in their eyes—members of a much lower rung of society who were inferior to them in every way. Mildred typically wasted no time greeting us. We were there to work. She had little interest in Kathi as a human being, and almost none in me. This was no doubt the reason why she could never get it through her head that Kathi was not my mother, no matter how many times Kathi set her straight.
Although by this time I had some experience as a cleaning lady, in Mrs. B's eyes I was little more than a child, and a dim-witted one at that. It was therefore her duty to "train" me, in particular to bring me up to her exacting standards. Kathi had been working for the Blanchards for some time prior to this, and so was already acclimated to Mildred's ways of doing things, but I was of a more independent nature and resented being told how to do my job. I soon learned that Mrs. B would tolerate no such rebellion.
There was the radiator incident. Their apartment was equipped with old-fashioned radiators, which threw out a very comforting heat, but which had a tendency to attract dust. I was conscious of this, as Mrs. B, on my first visit, had made quite a point of it. I was to dust them carefully—top, sides, and especially underneath. I did this faithfully at every cleaning session.
One grim day, however, I was ordered into the front room by Mrs. B, who was carrying a flashlight. Mildred was a tiny woman (Robert wasn't much bigger), and the flashlight was nearly as big as she was.
"Now," she began in her best condescending tone, "I pay you good money to clean this house thoroughly. But I want you to see this. You're not doing a thorough job. Look at all the dust under here!"
She handed me the flashlight. I stood there stubbornly, my face burning, until Kathi, a huge grin on her face, prodded me with her finger and urged, "Go on, Cheryl, get down there and look!"
I looked. There was, perhaps, a thimbleful of dust in evidence. I turned to Mrs. B.
"Yes," I acknowledged, "there's a little bit of dust, but that's only because I haven't vacuumed under there yet today. I make sure I do it every time I'm here."
But Mildred would have none of it. "There's more than two weeks worth of dust under there!" she declared imperiously. She bent down again to examine the dreadful heaps of dust, all the while chanting her favorite cleaning mantra at me, the one I was to hear many times in the months I worked at the Blanchard home: "The corners of the room are just as important to me as the middle…."
Kathi, who was greatly enjoying the scene, and my discomfiture, made a face at me behind Mildred's back. There was a brick next to this radiator, left there for some unknown reason. I'm not normally a violent person, but a terrible, homicidal yearning came over me when I saw that brick. I had to fight hard to quell the urge to drop it on Mildred's little snowy white head and end the humiliation once and for all.
I didn't, of course. One can't do these things, no matter how tempting.
The problem with Mrs. B was that she had certain rigid, time-honored ways of doing things that had to be followed to the letter, even if there was no logic in it. I'll cite some examples.
One of her more peculiar hang-ups was in regards to mop handles and mop heads. She had several of these that she kept in her well-stocked cleaning supply cabinet. These were mostly for dry-dusting the blinds in the front room. The blinds were vertical ones that never had any dust on them, so the dust-purging I was required to do each time was largely theoretical. Why she needed several of these mops for this one small task is anybody's guess.
Mrs. B insisted that the correct mop head be matched with its corresponding handle. They all looked exactly the same to me, but Mrs. B knew the difference, and she knew when I had matched them wrong! After several absurd episodes in which I was sternly lectured for getting the heads and handles mixed up, I took to sneaking quietly past the kitchen, while she was cooking Robert's breakfast, in the hope that I could make it to the front room before she caught me.
I was seldom successful. She would spring out at me from the kitchen door, turn the mop upside down, and examine it. Once in a while, by sheer chance, I got the combination right, and she would let me pass on. But more often—oh, horrors!—I'd fail to get it right. The lecturing would begin all over again. "I've told you and I've told you…."
Eventually, she caught on to my attempts to sneak past her and into the front room unseen, and she began to follow me. In all the time I worked for the Blanchards, I never did get the mop head/mop handle puzzle resolved. It remained an unfathomable mystery to me. And I'm sure that my inability to get it right only confirmed her opinion that I was a hopeless numbskull.
The Blanchards generally ate in their kitchen, but the dining room contained a long table for their dinner parties. This table must have been made of some very dense wood, for it was extremely heavy. One of my duties was to move it each time so that the Oriental rug underneath would not get permanent dents in the pile. I did not need to move it more than a couple of inches each time, and it would have been a fairly simple matter to lift the table at each end. I was young and strong in those days. But, no. Mrs. B required me to crawl under the table and lift it with my back. This put me in a ridiculous position, obviously, and it was also much harder on my body. After a few sessions of this, I went back to lifting the table and moving it with my arms. I was careful to make sure that I knew the exact location of Mrs. B beforehand so that she wouldn't catch me employing the forbidden method.
There was a sideboard in the dining room as well, and on the top of this article of furniture was a set of silver—trays and teapots and sugar bowls. Mildred wanted these polished thoroughly each time, and she had a cloth glove just for this purpose. The glove had a nasty chemical odor about it, so it must have originally been impregnated with some kind of cleaner, but that cleaner had long ago dried up, leaving only the odor behind.
A few quick rubs with this glove would have sufficed, but she insisted that I spend at least twenty minutes at this chore, with my time equally spread out among the several pieces. If I tried to skimp on the polishing marathon, she invariably caught me and made me sit back down and start again.
The silver never looked any different after I finished than when I started, with the possible exception of the removal of a microscopic layer of dust.
Mr. Blanchard had been a successful lawyer in his younger years. The Blanchards had enough money, therefore, to renovate the apartment they had lived in for decades. However, although the rooms were very clean, they hadn't had as much as a fresh paint job in all those years.
On occasion, Kathi got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the hallway carpet with a brush dipped in water and ammonia. Whether this actually cleaned the shabby length of carpet was dubious, but Kathi said that Mildred believed it did, and that was what mattered.
The Blanchards were quite simply a pair of unapologetic cheapskates. Dull paint, worn carpet, and that infamous shower stall. This was Kathi's task. Mrs. B would never have trusted me to do it properly.
First of all, Kathi had to clean the shower very meticulously. Then, because some of the tiles were broken, she had to remove the previous week's tape that held the cracked tiles in place, and apply fresh tape. Mildred spent a lot of money on this waterproof tape, and insisted that Kathi use prodigious amounts of it.
"Do you have to tape it a certain way?" I asked Kathi.
"No. I tape it any which way. What matters is that she sees I've used a lot of it each time. She checks to be sure."
Apparently Mildred never asked herself why this was preferable to getting the shower fixed properly.
Being nineteen years old at the time, I always got extremely hungry at the Blanchards. By the time we were done I was famished. Delicious smells emanated from the kitchen at breakfast and lunchtime. It never occurred to Mildred to offer her slaves any of the fresh delicacies of her table, but she did often give us food of another kind.
Mrs. B had a hard time throwing any food away, even if she and Robert wouldn't eat it themselves. Stale pastries, half-eaten cakes, rock-hard cookies—these all made their way into a bag that she would offer us at shift's end. Good enough for the servants. We took it out of politeness. When we got into the car, we gobbled it out of sheer hunger.
Their tightwad ways didn't stop at food. We also received almost-empty bottles of lotion (and I do mean almost empty), a broken alarm clock that she was sure Kathi's husband John could fix, and—my personal favorite—a pair of bright orange and brown plaid polyester pants straight out of the 60's….
But, of all of Mrs. B's inviolate laws of housekeeping, none was more ludicrous than that which governed the proper care of dirty cleaning rags. I remained unaware of this choice piece of legislation for some time, as this important task, like the taping of the shower stall, was entrusted to Kathi alone.
One day, as we were finishing up, I met Kathi in the back room where she was hanging up some wet rags on a small clothesline.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to hang up these used rags to dry."
"But they're dirty."
"I know. But Mildred likes them to be dry before she washes them."
"I know it's silly. But it's what she wants, so I just do it."
"Well, then, let me finish that while you put the rest of the stuff away."
"No, you can't. I have to do it."
"Because she likes it done a certain way."
"Are you telling me that she checks to see that you hang up her dirty rags properly?"
"Uh-huh. And if it isn't done right she makes me do it again."
Cleaning sessions at the Blanchard house were not always glum affairs. There were the odd hilarious moments.
Mildred was paranoid about moths getting into her clothes. Her clothes, although a bit behind the times, were clearly expensive, and so I could understand her concern. Up to a point, at least. The off-putting smell of mothballs lingered around every closet door, but that was not enough. She was convinced that her closets were teeming with ravenous moths and their clothes-chomping larvae.
One awful day she spied a moth that had escaped the mothballs. Whether or not it was actually a clothes moth (unlikely) didn't matter. She ran to the kitchen with remarkable agility for such an old lady, got out a huge can of Raid, and went after that hapless creature, blasting it with enough chemical carnage to wipe out the entire populations of several species of moths.
Robert, under his veneer of respectability, was a dirty old man. One day while I was dusting the front room I found a pornographic dot-to-dot book, hidden under some other papers. Curious, I opened it. The pictures were cartoonish in their simplicity. I flipped through the entire book, and had to chuckle a bit. Every last one of those silly pictures had been completed, in faint, shaky lines. Kathi told me that Mildred was well aware of that book, and kept it carefully concealed under the magazines so that visiting friends would not see it. A reliable source has since informed me that Robert kept plenty of the more adult versions of such publications in his office during his working years.
On at least one occasion he attempted to act out his fantasies. Before I started working there, Kathi was alone with him one morning while Mildred was out. He called to Kathi, telling her he needed help to get to his walker. Out of the kindness of her heart, she went to assist him. Under the pretence of steadying himself as he pulled up from his chair, he grabbed hold of my sister's breasts.
"Mr. Blanchard!" she cried in shock.
He let go of her, and mumbled an apology, but only after favoring her with a lecherous grin. He never tried this trick with me, perhaps because I was not as amply endowed. Less to grab hold of.
Another day a repairman came to fix the broken doorbell. Mildred had already explained to Robert that the bell might ring while the man was repairing it, but Robert evidently forgot, because every time the bell ran, he yelled, "Mildred, someone's at the door!" About the fourth time Mr. B hollered at his wife to answer the door, I was under the dining room table, rolling around on the floor in helpless throes of (silent!) laughter.
There were other times when I rolled around under the table, too, such as when I heard him gargling in the bathroom. It wasn't the gargling in itself; it was the astonishing lengths of time that the watery, strangling noises went on.
Yes, there is no doubt that Robert and Mildred were one-of-a-kind. Thank heaven for that.
The Harding Family
After we consumed our stale pastries, Kathi and I would drive to a nearby Mr. Bagel store for lunch. I usually bought a pizza bagel. Then it was off to the Harding house.
They were another well-to-do couple. Sometimes they were home while we were there, and sometimes one of their daughters was home. Her name was Catherine. She made that very clear to Kathi and I. Not Cate, not Cathy. No, it was Catherine. She had a chilly politeness about her. Actually, they all did. We were servants in their house, too.
Though not as silly as Mildred, they had their little oddities. Mrs. Harding felt it was her duty to leave some clean dust cloths out for us, which she pre-treated with polish. Was this because she thought we couldn't do it ourselves? Or did she feel a bit conflicted about hiring cleaning ladies to do the work she could easily have done herself? I never knew the reason why, but those cloths were always waiting for us on the kitchen counter.
My task was to dust and vacuum, while Kathi cleaned the kitchen and bathroom. Basically, I went through the motions, both upstairs and down, because the Hardings were the cleanest people I have ever encountered in all my years in this business. I would dust the entire house with a single cloth, and it never had any dust on it when I was finished. Never. Same thing with the vacuuming. I don't think I ever once changed the bag.
Kathi and I developed the theory that they were, in fact, aliens, and not humans at all. Our happy theory was put to rest one day, however, when Kathi called me into the bathroom.
"Look!" she cried. "A bathtub ring!"
And then we both exclaimed, "They're human!"
I'm not sure what Mr. Harding did for work, but when he was home he seemed to feel it was his job to supervise my progress through the house. Perhaps he was of the same opinion as Mrs. Blanchard, and saw me as a child who needed training. His hang-up was a certain antique Oriental rug on the downstairs floor. On my first visit I was instructed in the proper vacuuming technique for this particular rug (the house was full of antiques and other rugs, but this rug was the only one that concerned him), and I followed it to the letter, but he never felt quite easy about it, or me. I can't tell you the number of times I was vacuuming downstairs, only to turn around and find him standing close behind me, checking my work. It was so spooky, as if he had, in some wacky space alien fashion, risen up directly from the floor tiles.
"Which attachment are you using? Okay, good. Don't use any other. That rug is very delicate. Please be careful." The same words every time, always in his whisper-soft voice and with that anxious expression on his face. Good grief. If the rug meant that much to him, why was it on the floor for people to step on?
Between the Blanchards and the Hardings, it was a very long day.
Another couple that stands out in my mind were the Greenwoods. They are both dead now, but when I worked for them they were the bane of my cleaning life.
Mr. Bill Greenwood was tolerable, if somewhat gruff, but Mrs. Alice Greenwood was right up there with Mrs. Blanchard. They owned a huge old Colonial house. This house, though dating from the early 1800's, was in superb condition, and she meant to keep it that way. Alice had learned many of her cleaning techniques in her days working at a museum, and she, like Mildred, felt it was her job to instruct me in the only proper way to clean everything.
Naturally, being the rebel that I am, I took many shortcuts when she wasn't looking. For instance, she had a thing about the use of paper towels—how many trees were sacrificed to manufacture them, how they cluttered up landfills, etc. She had some rolls in the house, but she never liked me to use them. I wasn't about to wipe the toilets with a rag, thank you very much, so I would sneak paper towels, and after use, hide them under the other trash in the waste can. Dishonest of me, I know, but the woman drove me to it, I swear.
The regular cleaning work in their house was simple enough. I merely had to be extremely thorough. I spent fours hours at each session, and only cleaned one floor at a time. I could have cleaned the entire house very well in four hours, but Mrs. G called the shots, so I meekly did things her way. Meek on the outside, that is, but very rebellious on the inside.
Oh, but those miserable days when Mrs. G would say to me, "It's time to begin our spring (or fall) housecleaning." Such awful words! I could quite literally feel my heart sink in my chest when she uttered them.
"Housecleaning" was her code word for, not the routine cleaning, but the seasonal deep cleaning. Out would come piles of newspapers that she had saved up. Newspapers? Yes. Again, her hang-up about the use of paper towels came into play. I had to clean all the insides of the windows in the house with glass cleaner and newspapers. There were lots of windows, and all of them were of the kind that one finds in genuine Colonial homes—multiple small panes of glass separated by wooden frames. I think there were at least twelve or more individual panes in each window. Alice believed that newspaper gave the glass a nice sparkle. Perhaps, but it did terrible things to my hands. It took days for that newsprint to wear off from under my fingernails!
"Housecleaning" also involved flipping the immensely heavy mattress on their bed and vacuuming both sides very carefully. She would supervise me in this task to make sure I did it right.
Right up there with the dreaded window-washing was the semi-annual polishing of the furniture. Their house was crammed full of antique dressers and tables and other articles, much of it with ornate carvings and flourishes, Victorian-style. This all had to be treated with some horrible smelling polish—she had gotten the recipe (turpentine was one of the ingredients) from a museum curator—and then buffed vigorously. I can remember a few times sitting down on the floor, my hands coated with that sticky mess, nearly in tears while performing this ridiculous task.
For some inexplicable reason, I always yawned prodigiously while at the Greenwood's house. Constantly, over and over, until my eyes and nose ran. I went through a lot of tissues at that house (I never told Mrs. G—she'd have ordered me to blow my nose with a newspaper, no doubt). I've never been able to figure out why. It's never happened at any other job.
Walter and Anne Dumont
I can't leave out mention of my very first job, the Dumonts. Walter was a businessman who worked for a hotel chain, while Anne ran an antique furniture business and bred and trained Morgan horses.
Their house was very old. The kitchen had a shallow metal sink, tiny cabinets, and an ancient linoleum floor that was largely worn away. I used to scrub at what I thought was dirt on this floor, until one day I realized that the thick brownish "mud" coming off my mop and into the bucket was in fact the floor itself. The tiny bathroom—the only one in the house—had a clawfoot tub, a sink and toilet, and no room for anything else. The floor in this room was rotten. This was especially apparent around the base of the toilet, which had sunk into a deep hollow in the floorboards. The toilet rocked alarmingly if you sat on it. I lived in dread that I might one day plunge naked-bottom-down into the basement, and be found hours later in the wreckage with my underwear around my knees. Walter was a heavyset man, and I feared such a fate for him as well.
The other problem with this job was that the refinishing shop for Anne's furniture business was attached directly to the house, and this generated huge amounts of fine dust. To add to it, a pair of enormous English sheepdogs in residence created huge amounts of smelly, coarse, grey and white fur. Both dust and fur covered everything.
I did the best I could with this job. Anne was no housekeeper (I once found a badly decomposed rat in one of her muffin tins while cleaning out a cupboard). Her business and her horses were her life. Walter was away most of the time. When he was home, he enjoyed teasing me. I had a favorite T-shirt with Morris the Cat on the front. He quickly changed the name to "Maurice" and called me that from then on. I was always "dahling" and "sweethaht" to him. I didn't mind. He didn't mean anything bad by it, it was just his way, the way he was with anybody he liked. But I did object when, one day, I walked out to the barn to ask a question, and he saw me, threw his arms wide, and yelled "Maurice, you living sex symbol!" right in front of a customer. Some things simply can't be lived down.
Most of my clients over the years have been reasonably clean people. I've worked for my share of grubby ones, too. In my early days in the cleaning trade, before I could afford to be choosy, I had a few clients who were in direct contrast to the Hardings.
There were the Thompsons, both professionals and one of them a doctor, who had the dirtiest house I've ever worked in. They must have liked popcorn, because there was always lots of it, mostly in the form of unpopped kernels, buried in their carpet. I can still hear the staccato sound those hard little nuggets made in the vacuum hose as I sucked them up. Two weeks later the house was the same mess again, as if Kathi and I had never been there. The children's rooms were littered with expensive clothes tossed carelessly on the floor, and the whole house smelled of decomposing food. Kathi showed me the inside of their refrigerator one day. Green and brown mold grew on the same shelves they stored their food on. I've never seen anything like it, before or since. We did not keep that job for long.
The worst kinds of messy clients are the ones who are also fussy. One of those messy yet fussy clients always left me a list of extra things to do. The list grew longer each time, but at the same time she begrudged me every penny she paid me. Before long I found myself working overtime, without pay, just to get through her impossible list. I quit that job shortly thereafter.
It was much better to work for messy clients who said, "Just do whatever you can!" and who remarked, after I was done, "Oh, it looks so nice!" when I knew in reality that it didn't look much better than when I started. Sometimes I think it was just the smell of cleaning products that these people liked.
Many of my clients are/were basically normal except for the odd quirk or two. For instance, there was old Mrs. Stanton, who lived in an in-law apartment next to her son and his family. She was okay to me most of the time, but there were days when she would get snappish and call me out for minor offences, such as leaving a toilet ring, or not dusting thoroughly.
The toilet ring was caused by the effect of hard water on her white porcelain, and there was little I could do to fix it, as I explained to her. But she was never satisfied, even when I brought several products to try in an effort to placate her. Each week she accused me of not cleaning the toilets.
"Mrs. Stanton," I reasoned, "why would I clean everything else in your house and not your toilets?"
"You wipe the outside," she countered, "you never clean the inside. Look at that ring!"
You can't reason with an unreasonable person, as we all learn at some point in our lives. I eventually asked her to suggest something, and the next week she came up with a pumice stone. I had my doubts about its effectiveness, and it turns out I was justified. Not only did it not remove the ring, it scratched her porcelain. Nevertheless, she insisted I use it each week. Okay, they're not my bathroom fixtures. If ruining the finish makes you happy, Mrs. Stanton, so be it.
Another day she confronted me as soon as I walked into her apartment. "How can I recommend you to others," she said peevishly, "when you're slacking off here?"
Slacking off? Hers was one of the cleanest places I'd ever worked in, and I was very fussy about keeping it that way (I was also aware that her ridiculously fussy and super-snooty daughter-in-law, whom I'd had run-ins with before, checked up on my work). She motioned me to the bathroom, and pointed dramatically at the shower stall.
"Run your finger along the top!" she said. I did, and came away with a few specks of dust from the top lip of the one-piece stall.
I was busted, with no way to redeem myself. Mrs. Stanton was right. I was a slacker!
Then there are my current clients, the Caldwells. They live in a gorgeous home on the Maine coast. It's a pleasant house to work in because it's very nicely maintained, clean and modern. It's one of the more bug-free homes I've worked in, too, but there's no convincing Mrs. Beverly Caldwell of that. She's of the same ilk as Mrs. Blanchard and her arch-nemesis the clothes moths, only Beverly sees spiders everywhere.
The Caldwell's daughter had a bad reaction many years ago when she was bitten by a spider. Their daughter is now grown up and married, and is an occasional overnight visitor to her parent's home. Beverly's concern over spiders has grown into what can only be described as a full-blown phobia.
Now, Mrs. C is an otherwise intelligent and very well-educated woman. She must be aware that few spiders in Maine bite people, let alone are harmful. But that's not how a phobia works. Frequently, when my husband Ed and I arrive, she has something very urgent to say about a web she spotted in a corner, or a spider she saw on the wall or behind a curtain. These webs and spiders are invariably described as "huge", like something out of Tolkien's writings.
At times the drama intensifies. Spiders have invaded their bedroom. Lots of spiders. She's been up half the night, unable to sleep because spiders have been biting her all over (have you tried a good lotion to relieve that itchy dry skin, Mrs. C?). Really, this woman's fears would be pitiful if they weren't so comical. Ed and I dutifully go on a spider hunt each time we are at their home. Once in a great while we actually find one—a web or spider or both. We've never found one yet that could in any way be described as huge. One recent "enormous" (a step up from huge) spider turned out to be nothing more than a couple of dead ladybugs stuck together in a corner of the ceiling.
Client's quirks are annoying, but they can also be entertaining.
Pets and Other Favorite Clients
There were, of course, other memorable clients. There was sweet old Claire Ford. No one was ever kinder to me. She always had a tasty home-made snack to offer, and often seemed more interested in my company than in having me clean her tidy little house. "Come watch this with me!" she'd say as she turned on her favorite afternoon soap opera.
Then there was Nancy Stevens and her mom. Nancy was a retired schoolteacher who shared a home with her elderly mother. Both of them were kind, considerate people who treated me like a human being instead of a servant. We had many a lively conversation while I worked in their adorable log cabin.
Nancy had two cats. One was a beautiful Ragdoll Himalayan, and the other was a cat of unknown breeding, white, with one gold eye and one blue. This cat weighed twenty-five pounds. She was a placid creature, but I never attempted to pick her up. I was afraid I might do an injury to her huge girth!
Another old lady I was fond of was Mrs. Mabel Weiss. I didn't work for Mabel for very long—not more than a year—because she sold her condo and moved into an assisted-living home. She was one of the few people that I kept in contact with after I stopped working for them. Mrs. Weiss was more of a friend than a client. There was the added attraction of handsome, good-natured "Oreo". He was another huge cat, a big ball of black and white fluff, a one-time abused and starving stray that she had rescued from certain death. It did my heart good to see such a deserving animal now living out his days in comfort and luxury, doted on by his adoring human "mother". I heard that he was quite a hit among the assisted-living home residents, too.
Which brings me to the subject of pets. My clients' pets have always been important to me. When you visit a house every week, or even every other week, you get attached to the pets. In my case, I bond with the cats.
Sometimes I can make a few extra dollars pet-sitting for clients. This always involves cats. Carol McDougall's assorted kitties were under my care a number of times. Sadly, she lost some of them, to the busy street outside her home, or to the unknown. This always caused me tremendous grief, even though they were not my pets. Carol has moved away and so have her surviving cats, but I remember her, and them, fondly.
There was Lucky, who was found as a young stray by the Wilkinsons. She was a nondescript orange and white spotted cat, but she lived a remarkably long and happy life. I worked for the Wilkinsons for more than twenty years—the longest time I've ever worked for anyone—and Lucky was a part of my experience for all of those years. She gradually turned into a frail old lady cat, but she kept her quiet dignity. I learned from Janice Wilkinson that Lucky finally passed away, while they were up at their camp (she always traveled with them). She'd simply curled up on her favorite rug one night and died in her sleep. If only all cats were so lucky.
I also looked after a sweet, tiny Himalayan named Susie, who belonged to the Pearson family. She loved to be cuddled and fed her favorite treats. Susie eventually died and was replaced by a charismatic stray named Hobo. He was one of the most jolly, affectionate cats I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. One day Hobo didn't come home. The grief I felt at his disappearance was overwhelming. Every time Ed and I went to their house I cried inconsolably. When it came time to cut down on work, I let go of the Pearsons for that very reason. Even a year after Hobo's disappearance and presumed death, I was still grieving, and couldn't bear being in that house where everything made me think of him.
I prefer clients who have dogs now. Both of my current clients have dogs. I don't get attached to dogs.
Three decades of cleaning have taken their toll on my body. Work is now painful and difficult, and Ed has to do most of the work for me.
Has it been worth it, cleaning for a "career"? Well, in many ways, yes. It has allowed me to make a decent living. I earn more per hour than most high school graduates could hope for. It has given me a measure of control and independence. My short stint in retail showed me clearly that I absolutely hate having a boss. I love being my own boss more than anything! I can set my own hours, name my asking price, and take or leave a job as I want. There are always other jobs out there. Cleaning has proven to be recession-proof.
Cleaning doesn't require much in the way of brainpower (except when trying to outwit the likes of Mrs. Mildred Blanchard and Mrs. Alice Greenwood) so I can put my mind to other things while working. One of my favorite brain activities while scrubbing other people's dirt is, of course, writing! I can write in my head by the hour, with my body on autopilot. The same old dirt is there in the same old places every week, so I don't have to think about it. What's not to love? It's great.
Last but not least, three decades of cleaning house for people has given me a rich source of amusement (mostly in hindsight) that never fails to make me smile!