Cleaning Up

As a cleaner, I was prolonging the illusion that writing is and should be a living.

1.

I’ve felt like a fraud at every job I ever had. For my first job, at 13, I would bicycle over to the neighborhood butcher with a school friend, a freckly kid who never stopped smiling and was obsessed with Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. We convinced the owner to let us sweep the floors and polish the glass case in front for a few bucks. I went mostly to hang out with my friend, and the hour or two we’d spend cleaning felt like a waste of an afternoon together, only when we were through we’d each have a five-dollar bill to spend. Having money at that age felt like freedom, in the same way that pizza felt like food — a simple pleasure that was impossible to rank against any alternatives we could imagine.

Every job I have had since — even as a writer, the identity that’s mainly supported me for the past seven years — has presented the same triangulation of the private desires, the public value of the thing produced, and the set of make-believe ethics bridging the two. Which is not to say that all work is the product of fantasy, but the transubstantiation of labor into a lifelong identity overrides immediate material needs. Work sacrifices the present to tie it to an overarching structure that makes sense of time and space, future and past. Writing is no different, a professional mirage built on the promise of doing something materially unnecessary. In the same way that cleaning isolates objects from the totalizing filth that seeks to reclaim them, writing divines which ideas might be lustrous once liberated from the entropic morass of reality.

Over the years I have moved in and out of various financial spasms to remain as close to that mirage as possible. The gears aligning the ins and outs of my financial life have been mistimed, with debts following windfalls following debts. I lived in a perpetual past tense, carrying around a yoke of what was owed, while casting myself into the future tense, taking on twice as many assignments to compensate, which only added to the heap of unpaid invoices receding toward the horizon. So I decided to take on a second job to help support my first one, cleaning apartments and offices part-time.

 

2.

The idea of cleanliness has always been more aspirational than actual. The 19th century coalescence of microbe theory gave empirical heft to the superstition surrounding cleanliness, passed down through millennia from Roman Catholic foot washing to contemporary ritual applications of Purell. Keeping clean is more symbolic than productive,  an acquiescence to communal beliefs about respectability and status. It’s appearances more than health and hygiene that one keeps up in window washing and floor scrubbing.

“There is no such thing as absolute dirt,” Mary Douglas wrote in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. In cleaning, Douglas argued, “we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea. There is nothing fearful or unreasoning in our dirt-avoidance: it is a creative movement, an attempt to relate form to function, to make unity of experience.”

The precise methods of rubbing and scrubbing was slightly alien to me, but the end result of creating a manicured state of seeming was second nature to my writer’s instincts. Cleaning by morning and writing by afternoon and night seemed to form a perfect whole. Both were engineering artificial order for people who had come to mistrust their own ability to create it. In hygiene or rhetoric, order is most convincingly created from the outside in.

 

3.

Paying to have one’s living space cleaned by another person is primarily a habit of the wealthy, and in New York City, people with money have the dissociative tendency of not thinking of themselves as that well-off. I was wealthy too, in my own way, with my earnings from the previous year putting me somewhere in the wealthiest top sixth percentile in the world. But in Manhattan, being richer than 94% of people in the world can still translate into living month to month, with nothing left over for health care, savings, or a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving.

My first cleaning job was a massive three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, intimidatingly billed as a “deep clean” that was to take at least seven hours split among three people. The woman had a regular cleaner who’d recently been hospitalized, leaving her afraid of some familial shaming at Thanksgiving for having streaky windows. Walking into the apartment, it was unclear to me just what needed cleaning, let alone deep cleaning. There were some toys scattered on the floor in the living room and some loose laundry in the master bedroom, but there was no underlying filth or grime. We were there to clean everything and almost nothing needed cleaning. Even so, I spent the day in a bubble of enthusiasm, rediscovering the pleasure of work that had some palpable effect, even if small. The light gray of the bathroom tile grout became slightly whiter as I scrubbed, whittling away my fingernail as I pressed the damp cloth harder into the grooves. The little, oily fingerprints on the living-room windows disappeared.

The wonders of being in someone else’s living space, a remote cavern of wealth in a neighborhood I’d never had a reason to spend time in before, was energizing. I had seen New York wealth only with its trousers on, in the departing gallantry of restaurant doorways and hotel lobbies. But here was the final resting point at the end of all those late-night taxi rides from Le Bernadin and Lincoln Center, a floating cement cave with white walls, smaller than the house I’d grown up in and yet impossibly decadent by Manhattan standards, with a view of cement and a backdrop of distant car horns. Beyond the doormen and brass banners and surveillance-camera lobbies, there was nothing special waiting. The wonderland of indulgence I’d hoped to find — an otter sanctuary, or diamond-encrusted animatronic knights — was, in truth, some sagging furniture from ABC Home, ornamented by horrifically saccharin photos of the family’s three daughters, captured with gap-toothed smiles on a nondescript beach at sunset. What happens to children who grow up in a home where their bodies are turned into metaphors, made quasi-religious by protrusions of late afternoon sun?

It was immediately clear that keeping a clean home was the equivalent of lighting a votive candle, a ceremony of hopefulness, which like the absolution of sin should be deferred to a special authority. This structure presents a trap for house cleaners. Unabsolved sins are as unseeable as absolved ones, so there is little second guessing to be done, but a fingerprint on a window or a streak on a stovetop are constant betrayers.

 

4.

Soon, the happy adventure of my training period gave way to the realities of asymmetrical voyeurism. As I quietly gazed into the material spectacle of other people’s lives, they gazed back, evaluating the relative merit of my own belabored theater. My aptitude as a drainer of hygienic anxieties would be silently judged. Just as “clean” had no general baseline, there was no predictable measure across clients for how my labor would be evaluated. You can never turn your back on a client. So long as they are employing you, you are unsafe.

Another of my early jobs was the apartment of a married couple with a newborn baby living in the Financial District. The assignment was a kind of cleaning emergency, requiring a Saturday shift, though it was never explained why. The small one-bedroom apartment was 20 floors up in a glass tower a few blocks from the World Trade crater. It was alarmingly clean when I walked in, as were most places I was sent to. The scent of bleach and artificial lavender mixed uncomfortably in the air. A live-in nanny slept on a rolling mattress kept under the crib.

The mother was in her late 20s and spent most of the seven hours I was there on the sofa watching The Sopranos on an iPad, which did not contribute to the air of urgency. Her husband worked on his laptop in an armchair, ignoring almost everything she said to him, from wondering if they should call a doctor about the baby’s running nose to asking if she’d been too severe in an argument with one of her friends. After each question she’d look up at him, waiting for a response, repeat his name once or twice, then give up and return to her show. All the while, the nanny kept up a running monologue with the baby in the other room.

Since nothing in the place needed cleaning, I decided the safest strategy would be to clean everything, emptying out closet shelves, dresser drawers, packed kitchen cabinets, and scrubbing bathroom tiles that already shone white. There was no way to understand this kind of cleaning as anything other than theater, in which the peripheral blur of motion and squeak of the spray bottle freed the clients’ tortured imagination from having to see phantom soap scum reflecting off the stove top. I let the mother’s anxieties settle across my own psyche and hunted out whatever mote of dust could have been left in the place.

I finished the day’s work as the sun was disappearing behind the skyscrapers, not having eaten, exhausted in a way that left me confident I had done something of worth, even though the place seemed no cleaner than when I entered.

As I hefted my bag and bucket to the front door, the woman gave me a big tip but neither smiled nor said thank you. The next week she called the cleaning service and asked for me by name, though this time it would be a weekday and no one would be in the apartment. I spent the same amount of time there, went through the same emotions, with the same spray bottles and rags, and left again as the sun was going dusky over New Jersey. The next morning she called my boss and demanded her money back, saying I hadn’t done anything except change the sheets on the bed.

 

5.

A client in an aging studio on the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side had gone through almost every cleaner at the company I worked for over the course of six months, finding something to be dissatisfied with in all of them. When it was finally my turn, I was given notes from her last complaint, “I was not all that impressed with the last [cleaning]. I’m so sorry. It was okay. But I’m paying for you to make it look more than just not dirty. It should look NICE.” The apartment was in a space that had been refurbished and rented as gentrification bait two decades earlier. Its once luxurious amenities had begun to rot and mold, the cheap wooden cabinets had warped with age, the frosted-glass shower stall had permanent black mildew trapped beneath the sealant around its edges, and the floor was tarred with years of street filth that it would take sanding and refinishing to remove. The space was a corpse; cleaning it felt like mortician work.

She was right that cleaning a space is never enough; it only reveals the uncontrollable decay beneath the dust bunnies and grease stains, all the moving strains of life eating away at itself. Cleaning is the sorcery of getting a client to see their corpse home as still living, a psychogeographic taxidermy for which cleanliness is only a byproduct, always insufficient on its own.

 

6.

I never resented doing cleaning work on behalf of another person. Everything that made it stressful came not from the work itself and what it entailed but from the dissociative attitude most clients had about what they were paying for. As an objective condition, dirtiness is something we are powerless to prevent, something that happens to us, like weather. And because people assume this passive role in the perception of filth in their living spaces, they can never quite admit to an active role in the neuroses the filth triggers in them.

There was a spectrum of intensity to these anxieties, but every space I entered had the imprint of unexpressed neurosis behind it. Cleaning was a guessing game. Clients will not tell, and in many cases are incapable of telling, what it is they care about. What does this person want clean to be? You can spend hours cleaning, emptying cabinets, polishing refrigerator shelves, gnawing away the skin on your fingers with steel wool inside an oven, polishing a wall of bay windows to perfection, and still be betrayed by a black scuff above the front-door jam where a removed shoe has left a mark that will never make anyone sick nor cause any long-term structural damage. Your time in the refrigerator and stove could be wholly wasted if all the client really wants is shiny surfaces and the scent of perfumed bleach.

A person who hires a home cleaner can rarely admit that the arrangement hinges on some irrationality in themselves. So they resort to vagueness. “You know, just make it clean. Make it nice.”

 

7.

It’s easy to think of these kinds of economic encounters as exploitive. But part of what makes them so intractable is that both sides feel exploited in their own ways. The neurotic stress of having to live up to the standards expected of you by class, station, and peer group is as much a matter of alienation as working 70 hours a week and never seeming to have more than $100 in the bank. Those experiences are not equivalent in magnitude nor consequence, but they both feel like impositions, affects demanding exorcism. Both necessitate a fraudulent role-play that reaffirms the other’s ability to bear it. Both carry out the employment charade to postpone a confrontation with themselves.

As a cleaner, I was prolonging the illusion that writing is and should be a living. Contract cleaning was a way to compromise with a culture and economy that otherwise had no place for me but could tolerate my burning myself away in subsistence living. The people I worked for were allowed to persist in the delusion that their professions—bankers, lawyers, gallery owners, investors—exempted them from basic human self-maintenance, that their inability to keep up with their lives stemmed from lack of time, not an absence of mental rigor.

We both bent to the unrealities of our time and place, unequally co-dependent. What mattered more than our direct commercial relationship was our respective commitment exploit each other to sustain these personal fantasies. And in so doing, we postponed confrontation for another day.

 

8.

It’s hard to look at writing for money the same way after having cleaned for a living. Reading the work of others, seeing the cage of voice, brand, and journalistic praxis surround little thoughts, each self-evidently untrue in its own way, has come to feel like the servicing of a different kind of neurosis. If a cleaner helps clients maintain the illusion of class comportment, a writer is left to ornament it with narratives of aspirational morality, imposed on time, place, and person like a cattle brand. Both cleaning and writing end as forms of companionship redirected into commercial exchange: the writer and reader or cleaner and client each accept a role that keeps the other suspended in a state that would be otherwise untenable.

What I finally learned from rich people is that I want to believe in my fantasy so much that I am ready to clean the places where they shit out evidence of their incomplete selves just to keep it alive.