Friday, March 19, 2010

Money Matters

Today I return to cleaning for Leo, or Dr. Mansoor, and his wife Carolyn, who is seriously ill. Back when I first started out as a housecleaner, Carolyn was one of my first customers; she was recently divorced from her first husband and had just sent her youngest of four children off to college. Those first 10 or so years that I worked for her, Kay McCarthy, as she was called then, was single. She held a few different jobs over the years; working in the state legislature, then for an arts organization, and the last job was a three year contract to organize a statewide bicentennial celebration. The jobs for the arts group and the bicentennial required a lot of traveling around the state, but we still saw each other as she was occasionally home when I was there cleaning.

I also cleaned for Kay’s next door neighbor, Anne Carson. These two women were my earliest customers, and I have cleaned for both of them throughout the years. There was a three or four year period however, when Kay remarried and moved to the town of her new husband, Leo Mansoor, who prefers the formality of being referred to as Dr. Mansoor. When she and The Doctor relocated to Oak City, Kay called me and asked if I had any openings available. Luckily I did and soon I was cleaning for Carolyn (she began calling herself Carolyn because Doctor Mansoor, maybe you can guess, preferred the formality) and The Doctor. In the beginning I was careful not to call him by name because I did guess he preferred not just the formality but the elevating title. Then one day arranging a cleaning date with his daughter in law he overheard me refer to him as Leo when I said, “next week will work because Carolyn and Leo will be out of town and I’ll be free.” He often passed on to me copies of articles he had written over the years for various newspapers or magazines. That day I found a note attached to an article requesting that I refer to him as Doctor Mansoor. Ugh.

When I started back to cleaning for Leo and Carolyn in their new home, my rates were 20 dollars an hour, and stayed at that level for several years. When I told Carolyn about the impending increase, her only remark was that she had been wondering when my rates would go up and gave a nod of assent. About two weeks later, I found a letter in my mail box that exploded like an IED in my living room. The Doctor wanted to know what had prompted the unilateral decision to raise my rates and proclaimed that my fees were approaching those of a doctor.

I gave them two weeks notice and left.

Now Carolyn can not drive, she is unwell, and Leo wants ‘someone familiar in the house’ for his wife. Though my prices have gone down, his fee will include gratuity and be 25 dollars an hour.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Under the Kitchen Sink

Until recently, all of my customers have been people with nearly perfect houses that were orderly, well maintained and tastefully decorated. However, over the last few years since I was sick from the late stages of Graves Disease, I dropped several customers, leaving openings which as I began to recover from the radioactive iodine treatment, have been taken up by friends. This has been a mixed blessing.

Under the best circumstances, such as when a customer who recently lost a housecleaner hires me to take up where they left off, there is an enormous amount of work involved in getting a house to the point where I want it. This can take 5 to 8 visits, each entailing 7 or 8 hours of intensive cleaning. It is exhausting but satisfying work. When I have cleaned under appliances and behind beds, under rugs and movable pieces of furniture; after I have cleaned the most visible windows, and shined light bulbs and knick-knacks, I feel that I can relax and coast. I’ve gotten the house under control, I know where the dirt likes to hide, now a routine has evolved and I can cover the whole house in one visit.

At least that’s how it was for the last 25 years. It was rare that I took on a new customer, and when I did, it was almost always someone who had had some kind of cleaning service in the past. People who spend money to get their house cleaned on a regular basis tend to run a very organized household, which means a place for everything and everything in its place.

Some customers may have a little more clutter than the average perfect house, and they always fret about how difficult this stuff makes my job. I cringe at the thought of them seeing my living room with dirty socks tossed across the floor, my kitchen counters covered with dirty dishes and my bedroom, please, let’s just close the door. So I can honestly tell them they do not need to worry about clutter, stuff slows me down, yes, but pictures and pretty glass vases and decorative items are actually a pleasure to clean. I don’t even mind moving disheveled stacks of papers on desks; it is a game to see if I can clean under every thing and put it back just like it was.

In other words, over the years one of the pleasures of my job has been the order and refinement that enveloped me in my customers’ homes in contrast to the bohemian chaos in which I live. However, this comfort of working in spaces at once nurturing and disciplined came at a price. Often in my own home I turned over in my mind the question, “Why can’t I keep my house as neat and well organized as my customers?” It worried me that I was missing out on a level of happiness that I could be enjoying if I could only emulate their habits of neatness.

Now that I am cleaning for friends it is a felicitous change to be working in more familiar surroundings. They would rather hire me than a cleaning service because they are too embarrassed to let strangers see all the animal hair and personal effects laying around that they rarely bother to think about; visits from parents excluded. So I get to work for the same people I party with and they get a housecleaner who doesn’t care if they’re slack.

Of all of them, Chris is the definitely the slackest. The first day I cleaned for her she tuned into the British Cable show ‘How Clean is Your House?’ and we laughed at the way the two house cleaners registered shock at the really disgusting apartment of a seemingly hopeless bachelor. By the end of the show (they must have spent over 200 work hours cleaning that place) the two women had not only whipped the place into spanking clean ship-shape, but had also trained the guy to clean his own home. They berated him liberally for the most offensive areas among hundreds of square inches thick with cooked on, burnt on or just plain petrified crud. This model rocket enthusiast was appropriately sheepish and complied with docile humility as they put him to work. His young nephew had nominated him for the show because his mother would no longer allow visits with the cool uncle that helped him make and launch model rockets. The nephew was even drafted to help with the cleanup. I could see why Chris said this show gave her courage to finally face the problem of her messy home. Not only were these places exponentially worse, but she had seen the people trapped in these apparently hopeless situations, with the help of a pair of bossy, energetic women, conquer their own chaos.

We are engaged in the same scary quest; my self the cleaner and Chris the customer. In the past I never lasted more than a year cleaning in homes that required nearly the level of intervention needed in hers. After a certain period of time I succumbed to desperate feelings of anger and frustration at my inability to bring the house under control, and chose to leave instead of digging in and demanding more of the customer. While there have been the weekend marathon cleanings for friends moving out of scum smeared, dust encrusted apartments with mold creeping up the walls; they were limited one time deals that required two days of locomotive energy and then were forgotten. Bringing order to a house that is still lived in by the people who allowed it to fall into abysmal confusion requires a change in the behavior of the inhabitants

While chaos breeds chaos, order does not naturally emerge without a struggle. A decision must be made that unconscious, entrenched habits will be replaced with a conscious regime of self discipline in which possessions are given a place in the home to which they are returned when not in use. Mail cannot be delivered or returned to sender without a street and house number marked on the envelope; keys, bills, important papers need a place to rest as we need a house with an address to return to at the end of the day. There they can always be found when needed. When I enter a home gripped in the jaws of chaos, I become vulnerable to the same abuse visited on the possessions strewn about thoughtlessly. When the customer can’t find an important paper that should have been filed in a prearranged system, I am now included in the list of people asked, “has anyone seen such and such a paper;” only by the time I’m called upon for possible information about the missing possession, I’ve cleaned two other houses and am resting peacefully in my own. My mind can not immediately picture the many piles of unrelated items it encountered the two days ago that I was in that customer’s home. So I have to either push the customer to set up a system or remain subject to these random requests at unlikely hours, “I was just calling to ask if you saw a brown envelope with a little red bird logo, it has important pictures in it.”

In the past I lacked the self confidence to challenge the customer. I shied from the confrontation necessary to effect change in their behavior and chose instead to leave like a sailor abandoning a leaking ship. Now however, things are different. Thanks to the help of our local medical clinic I have reached a state of emotional stability which I never thought possible; and thanks to Chris’s generosity and friendship I find myself more than willing to face the inevitable tension that arises when people are giving up old habits and striving to reach seemingly unattainable goals.

This one I hope is for the long haul. I have wanted to clean Chris’s house for years, ever since she and her husband invited our family over for dinner. The tiny kitchen, with just 2 small counters loaded with cooking utensils and appliances was calling to me, but in those days my son was very young and I was too busy with him to help much with cleanup, which is my favorite way of thanking friends for their hospitality. She sometimes talked about the possibility of hiring me and though I gushed about how much I would love to clean her house, I never believed it would actually happen. It was hard to imagine one of my friends being able to afford a house cleaner. I did hope that one day I could get some time in her kitchen to work a little magic.

That opportunity came when she invited us to their family condo at the beach. She brought her two children and picked up my son and I in the van on the way out of town. It was the first time Dana had a chance to swim in the ocean. We took turns cooking and drank wine and looked at the moon over the surf and talked about our husbands after the kids were asleep. We talked on the beach while the kids played in the water, and I had the luxury of going for a long walk while she watched my son swim in the surf with her two children. It was an extended weekend of relaxation; then came the time for cleanup. Chris says she first knew she wanted me to come clean for her when I pulled out the refrigerator and cleaned behind it.

That was several years ago. Meanwhile, there were more trips to the beach, and lots of phone conversations; we even managed a visit or two at each others’ homes and one miraculous rendezvous at our local bar. It wasn’t until I had hit the bottom of a long slide of degenerating health, conveniently coinciding with the economic downturn, that Chris surprised me with the fateful call. It came on the day I had completed the application process for employment as an assistant teacher in our public school system. I was volunteering in my son’s middle school media center (cleaning of course) when she got me on my cell phone. “We’ve got so many bills paid, and so many people are unemployed. I’m working full time, I just feel like I need the help and it’s time to spend money and stimulate the economy.” That’s not exactly what she said, but close enough. She was certainly offering to stimulate my economic stagnation.

“Well, that I guess answers that,” I announced to the media center teachers. “I guess I will continue to clean houses after all.” I had discovered, volunteering in my son’s school, that once inside them institutions aren’t as painful as I had imagined. His school was not so much a bunch of head banging rules as it was a community of supportive, fascinating people dedicated to educating our youth. I found it a pleasure to work with them, and thought maybe it was time to switch careers. That day, as I cleaned tables and chairs, I was debating whether I could survive in a job that required me to wear shoes and show up on time. But Chris’s call changed all that.

Now here we are almost a year later. This week as I look back on the work I did the day I began this essay, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I let her down. I left many things undone to run off and pick up my son from his after school activity. I think of the bathrooms left untouched and the upstairs not vacuumed. It worries me to think I may have disappointed her by choosing to clean out a closet and drawer instead of visible dirt that I could have gone after. There is often tension generated by my uncontrollable urge to go through piles of stuff searching for items that can be discarded; as the stack of papers or basket of items is spread out all over a room, a place has to be found for everything that doesn’t get thrown away. It is not only a knit picking process that is very time consuming, but disturbingly invasive as personal chaos is deconstructed and laid out like a body on a surgical operating table. Unfortunately this procedure cannot be performed under anesthesia.

Earlier in the day of cleaning Chris had come home from an errand to find I had emptied the contents of a small utility drawer all over the stove and cutting board. I had separated items into several categorized piles; stuff I was sure could go, stuff I suspected could go, and pens, twist ties, screws and hooks, and some small hand tools that could be returned in an orderly arrangement to the drawer, which I was in the middle of washing and drying. “I couldn’t stop myself,” I offered sheepishly as she entered the kitchen. On two occasions she has been forced to ask me not to go through papers, motivated I’m sure by a legitimate fear that something needed in the indeterminate future would be thrown away. She has figured out that in order to get papers graded on the days I clean she has to go the neighborhood coffee house; otherwise I will keep stopping by the computer with bags of stuff for her to make decisions about.

“Don’t apologize to me,” she said with the emphasis on ‘me,’ and sat down at the table to have a short lunch.

“It started when I was looking for twine to tie up that comforter. Oh yeah, I got into a laundry basket in your bedroom too.” I had gone through a whole basket of clothing, separating everything into piles according to whether they were casual or formal work clothes, etc, so that now her bed was covered with what had been in the basket. “It all looked clean to me. I folded the towels and put them away.”

“Yeah, I saw,” she said, and with either heroic self control or genuine lack of concern reached up into a nearby cabinet for a cup. “I think that’s laundry I didn’t get around to putting away.”

Cool, she wasn’t mad, so I was free to dig in. The drawer was a real conquest as I had opened it in search of twine, only to discover a little bottle of coloring liquid that mice had eaten through. There were droppings covering everything. So I felt like I had not only ferreted out one of the places where the mice like to hang out, but Chris was letting me get away with my own little hoe down. Of course there were decisions to be made and unidentifiable items to submit for her review, and since she started chatting amiably I began holding things up for her decree. “Oh, that can go; it’s a piece to an old radio we had before this one.” She was referring to the radio installed under the cabinet beside the stove vent.

We proceeded with gossip and decisions about stuff; soon the drawer was neatly filled and returned to its place, and we were going through a small pile of linens, baby clothes and a bright flower patterned bathing suit from the hall closet. “Oh my God! I forgot all about that! It’s my grandmother’s bathing suit,” she said laughing.

“Dang. I thought it was yours. It’s pretty!”

“Oh I wish you could have seen the night we had a party and Katie put that on over her clothes! It was a riot.”

She was a good friend before, but as we push together through this storm of stuff that has taken over her house, we are drawing even closer. So, ultimately I remember in my inventory of tasks completed and neglected, the loose insulation on the kitchen floor near the dishwasher, and the smell coming from the doors hanging open to the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Chris had gone to the coffee house to grade papers and I was in the race to finish the ‘regular stuff’ in the final hour, on my hands and knees with a bucket of ammonia water cleaning the kitchen floor. More signs of mice! The insulation was lying right next to the rodent traps like a dropped bit of cotton candy, and there was a very suspicious smell…I pulled every thing out from under the sink. That’s where the last hour went! There was a teeny tiny drip coming from the waste water trap, and after lining the cleaned bottom with a paper grocery bag, and placing a plastic container to catch the drip, there was no time to do the bathrooms!

I left all the cleaning chemicals in another utility closet so Chris’s husband would have room under the sink to set new traps. Now I look back on the day and think maybe it wasn’t such a bad one after all. Maybe when I go back there will be a success story about catching a mouse. Then Chris and I will have a nostalgic conversation about our animal loving friend Cheryl, who used only humane traps, and paid for her rescued rat to have cancer surgery. She moved away years ago and only returns for occasional visits. We’ll talk about how much we miss Cheryl and have a good laugh about the rats.