Anything You Can Clean, I Can Clean Better
I was a compulsive kid. Now I'm a compulsive adult.
When I was a kid, I made my mom cut the seams out of the insides of my socks. If that ball of inverted fabric so much as grazed the stubby tip of my big toe, I would make certain not only that my day didn’t move forward until the issue was resolved, but also that nobody’s day would move forward. It didn’t matter to me who was put out by my fit. It needed to be dealt with. Anything else that was even slightly uncomfortable needed to be similarly done away with, too. If my socks didn’t set just right in my shoes, they had to be readjusted. I would sooner endure walking pneumonia than to put up with the persistent itchiness of my shirt tag on my spine during the school day. And don’t let me get started on the complexities of acquiring pants that hugged me in a suitable way. I was verging on a teenager before I permitted jeans to replace sweatpants in my wardrobe. (I’ve once again evicted jeans, excepting special occasions.)
While it tormented me daily, I found that this sort of persnickety behavior could be harnessed to my advantage. I came to view it as a tiger or some other monstrous cat that could not be tamed but could be persuaded now and then to pounce. Any task involving meticulous attention to detail, no matter how tedious, was at my whim once I unleashed the scrupulous beast’s unflagging will upon it. Paint the trimming in the basement? Done. Alphabetize the wall-length array of VHS tapes? Sure. It didn’t matter that there hadn’t been an operating VCR in the house for over a decade. The tag had chafed the cat’s back, and the itch needed to be scratched. Like a plump, white pimple on the tip of my nose, it had to be popped and drained.
None of this was the result of ordinary nitpicking. Everyone in my family is finicky. Dragging your feet, smacking your lips while you eat, breathing too loudly, and blinking too frequently were all indefensible transgressions in our household. It’s hereditary; we’re all piqued by the routine noises that result from any human with a pulse. One time, when my grandmother was visiting our home for an evening, I made the mistake of trying to stifle a cough in the middle of a conversation she was having with my mother.
“Christ,” she snapped after I made a series of throaty huffs and puffs, “just cough already.” Her jaw tightened and her head gave a few nanoscopic quivers to release the discomposure, and I produced the most fervent cough I could muster with the hope that it might pacify my nagging throat for a few hours until she’d gone.
Despite everyone being afflicted by the Overcritical Rage Cat in some form or another, I don’t recall my brother or sister ever demanding that the seams inside their socks be cut away.
Having such a copilot meant I inevitably drifted towards whatever I could have complete control over. In middle school, it was rigorous study of classical guitar and violin, where rote practice translates to raw talent. In high school, exercise appeased the cat. In college I delved into theoretical mathematics, a discipline in which complete control is completely possible. Afterwards, when the rubber met the road and I had to invoke the culmination of my experiences for the purpose of making money, I did the only thing that my exhaustive training had prepared me for: Becoming the greatest house cleaner on the planet.
I had all the talent and expertise for the job. Attention to detail was in my nature. Diligence was the essence of my repertoire. Teaming with my girlfriend Johanna as a house cleaning duo, I brought my enormous talent to strangers’ homes and I scrubbed until my fingers bled. I’d come home at the end of the day with chemical burns on my arms, an aching body, and two to three houses worth of filth covering my shirt. My muscles ached in ways they hadn’t since high school wrestling had racked my frame. More than once did I have to ice my knees and heat my lower back to try to recuperate.
When you mention housecleaning to people, they will draw to mind either an image of a fetching woman in a French maid outfit, or a harried middle-aged woman who speaks only broken English. Either way, it always seemed to come as a surprise that a man would arrive to clean their house. They’d try to be sly while glancing at my feet for any signs of an ankle monitor. Especially poignant was the disappointment on the faces of lecherous men who’d hoped for someone a little tastier than myself. In hindsight, perhaps the French maid outfit would have worked well for me. Or, perhaps knocking half of my teeth out would have given me the proper appearance. Nevertheless, once I’d finished with their awful cookie cutter house, I’d walk with them through each room as they marveled at the exquisite work I’d done. Yes, reader, even a man with thirty-two straight, white teeth is capable of such a thing.
The Overcritical Rage Cat came with me to every house, of course, and made certain that I didn’t miss a streak of muck.
“Did you make sure to clean the underside of the bathroom faucet? What if someone notices that you forgot to dust the baseboards? Nevermind that the lip is barely long enough to collect dust. Did you get on your knees and check? You had better, just to be safe.”
Cleaning always satisfied the cat, as long as it was done with the same exactitude that brain surgeons use to pick someone’s brain. I had methods and strategies for everything — stove tops and showers were, and still are, my specialty. If it could be cleaned, I could clean it. Not just this, but I could clean it better than anyone thought it could be cleaned. I would salivate at the remark that this-or-that couldn’t be properly cleaned.
“Trust me,” the owner of a grimy, soiled bathtub would say, “it doesn’t get any cleaner than this. Don’t bother; I’ve tried.”
“Well,” I’d say, scraping a fingernail over the layers of soap scum, “I’ll give it a try. It’s the least I can do.” If I could reinforce their doubt rather than admit straightaway that I could thoroughly clean the stupid thing, then I made more money. The cat and I both won.
After eight months of scraping, scrubbing, soaking, and polishing, Johanna and I were ready to toss in the towel. Alongside the physical drudgery of cleaning comes the inherent mental burden of working with other people’s filth, and we had grown tired of their shit, so to speak. Cleaning is unique in the service industry because it doesn’t require very specialized knowledge. Homeowners hire electricians rather than trying to fix a faulty light switch themselves, which carries the risk of burning their house down. Plumbers are contacted for the slightest problems, and for good reason. A single DIY plumbing mistake can quickly turn into a problem costing tens of thousands of dollars. Not only does cleaning demand the barest know-how, it’s also a subjective assignment. Painting, like cleaning, can be done by most anybody with nineteen brain cells. Unlike cleaning, however, painting is less susceptible to opinion. Is the wall a uniform color? You’re already ninety-nine percent of the way to a complete job. Cleaning is like music. A spotless room to one person is a trash heap to the next. Standards of cleanliness not only vary from household to household, but from person to person within the same household. Husbands, moving room by room to inspect the quality of our work, would regularly tell us what an outstanding job we’d done. Their wives, on the other hand, would return home hours after we’d left and would call to complain that we’d missed half a fingerprint on the leg of a stool in the back corner of their basement that no one has been in for over eight years.
Perhaps my favorite clients were the ones who had an issue with the cost of hiring Johanna and I. I’m of the opinion that the concept of “fair pricing” is irrelevant to the cleaning industry. Cleaning isn’t something that some people learn and others don’t. Any capable adult human being ought to be able to clean their house. It’d be one thing if we were only ever employed to clean the homes of convalescents. Perhaps then ethics would have weighed on my mind a bit more. But as it was, we were cleaning houses for people who were too lazy to clean, too haughty to dirty their hands, or simply didn’t have enough time, all things which are entirely not my problem. Plumbing is a necessity; that’s why it’s such a shock that a company might charge an arm and a leg to get your water running again. Price gouging in the cleaning industry means that homeowners can either choose to pay a sizable sum of money or (good God, I shudder to say it ) clean their house — themselves.
I’d always hoped after we stopped cleaning houses that the pompous people whose houses we scrubbed would call me and beg for my services again.
“Please,” they’d say, “I’ve tried everyone. No one can clean up the place quite the way you can. What will it take to get you back here?”
“You really ought to have appreciated us more when we were cleaning for you,” I’d say. “There’s nothing I can do now. It’s all water under the bridge.”
“Please, I beg you!” they’d plead. “The bathtub has lost its luster, there are rings on the glass stove, and — can you believe it? — I’ve even spotted a few marks on the windows in my conservatory!”
“I’m so sorry,” I’d reply, “but there really is nothing that I can do. You see, I’ve just purchased a dozen pairs of socks and I must spend the day trimming the seams from inside them. After that there are shirt tags that need to be removed. I don’t know how I can find the time in my busy schedule to clean your home. Are you quite sure you can’t do it yourself?”
“Quite sure, dear Ryan, I’m quite sure. I suppose I will be forced to suffer the awful sight of the toothpaste I’ve somehow spattered across my mirror and tonight, even, I may have to sleep in my unmade bed. Karma has truly caught up with me this time!”