I heard about the cleaning company from a friend’s boyfriend, a musician who had supported himself by cleaning houses for years. I was living in an apartment in Bushwick, sharing a bedroom with a friend. She and I pushed our twin mattresses together in the center of our windowless room and stuffed our books and ChapStick in the crack between them. At night, we held our flip phones close to our faces while we texted. She worked at a health food store on Sixth Avenue, ringing up sandwiches; she brought home the ones that didn’t sell and we ate them for dinner. I had an internship at a dance company, which I loved because I could take the dance classes at the studio for free.
The cleaning company was a boutique, environmentally friendly “deep clean” service owned by a woman who usually paid in cash. The company specialized in expensive onetime detoxes rather than routine cleanings, so it wasn’t boring: she’d send you to a different apartment almost every time. You never knew what you’d find when you walked through the door, but most clients considered the service to be a special occasion, like a nice haircut or a spa day, and so were polite and often tipped.
I wrote to the owner of the cleaning company the next day. How did one convey one’s aptitude for cleanliness over email? “I am detail oriented, committed, and capable,” I wrote, “adept at dish washing and scrubbing of all kinds.” I went on to say that I’d often lived in small spaces and “knew the satisfaction that can be found in finding ways to maximize space.” I also wrote that I had grown up in a house that “shunned wastefulness,” which had consequently led me to develop a “sharp eye.” I was always on time, I said. Plus, I was a dancer, and therefore “enthusiastic about physical activity.”
The cleaning company’s website posited an unlikely but appealing correspondence between cleaning and art. “I view my cleaning service as a living, breathing sculpture evolving in response to clients’ needs and tastes,” the owner had written. She was upfront about her own preference for art over work: “I dream of the day when I will be able to spend uninterrupted hours painting,” she wrote. “I’m not a business-type at heart.”
“This isn’t going to be like cleaning your own house,” she said to me as we rode the elevator on my first day. She had come to oversee me on my first apartment, a spotless condo on one of the upper floors of a building near Battery Park. Inside the apartment was a wordless grandmother and her grandson, a glum toddler whose name I learned because all his meals were shrink-wrapped and labeled in the refrigerator with his name and an intended time of consumption. A typical snack was a single pre-peeled hard-boiled egg. He watched me while I made my way through the house picking up his tiny socks still crackling with static, hands tucked inside his onesie like a security guard.
While I worked, the owner of the cleaning company followed on my heels. “Good pour,” she said when I tipped the bucket of gray water into the toilet. As the day wore on, I’d catch sight of her standing at the periphery of whatever giant living space I was crouching in, peering around the doorframe while I stacked books. Later, while evacuating Cheerios from between the couch cushions, I saw her pick up the miniature rake in the family’s decorative tabletop Zen garden and carefully comb the sand with its tiny teeth.
The owner’s deep-cleaning technique involved very little soap: the key was to scrub vigorously on hands and knees until the grime had been dissolved by force. The rags we used were microfiber cloths dipped in hot water, fortified with a capful of preapproved cleaning liquid. Vetted supplies were provided at the start of our employment and refilled whenever we asked. The boss favored Dr. Bronner’s, Murphy Oil Soap Wood Cleaner, baking soda, and Bon Ami, an all-natural scrubbing agent made of baking soda. She also provided an assortment of essential oils, which came in small, pretty bottles and looked like perfume. I learned to make a performance out of adding a few drops to my bucket if a client was within eyeshot, holding the glass bottle aloft and squinting as though taking precise measurements.
She advertised us as “consultants” who would be able to advise on energy consumption and feng shui, but I was never asked to impart any of this wisdom — except for one woman who asked me what lavender oil did. (It was “good for wood,” I told her.) The boss priced the jobs based on a phone call, in which she performed some kind of calculus that factored in a prospective client’s reported square footage, number of pets, and frequency of other (presumably less thorough) professional cleans. She’d jot their answers in an email and forward it to me, accompanied by the client’s assessment of his or her home: “Pretty messy right now but not disgusting.” This email would be followed promptly by a Google Calendar invite, which bore an address and the start time of the clean.
It wasn’t practical to carry vacuums from house to house on the subway, so we used them only if the clients had them already. If venetian blinds were encountered, each slat had to be wiped with a freshly wet rag pinched between thumb and forefinger, then hand-dried with a towel. If glass was “streaky,” a client could call the boss and request a free redo. In old houses, where the shower caulk had aged into gray ridges, it was nearly impossible to do a satisfactory job without resorting to the chemical-laden supplies under the client’s sink. After dousing a tub in Ajax, I’d sprinkle tea-tree oil on top to mask the scent.
Each morning I’d google the address of the clean and hope for a frictionless commute. Once, I made it all the way out to Queens by seven in the morning only to find the boss standing dejectedly on the subway platform, waiting for me. “I came out here to tell you the clean is canceled,” she said. “Sorry.”
I’d usually start my day at eight and spend most of the morning sneaking sips of the iced coffee I hid in the sink. Most people didn’t want to talk to me, which was fine. Sometimes clients would offer me water, tea, or soda, which I never accepted. Even the smallest gestures of goodwill would eventually turn grudging, as they searched with exasperation for a place to set the cup down while I vacuumed.
The important details of my clients’ lives emerged unbidden, without warning, like smells. Or, once, in the form of a sound clip that wafted from my client’s laptop. The client had announced herself as a “friend of the owner,” then led me through the long-unoccupied apartment. Windows had been left open all winter: the books were warped with rainwater; the base of the sofa was scattered with leaves. While I swept, the friend of the owner sat cross-legged on the couch and fiddled with her computer. Suddenly, I heard an audio recording of her own voice through the tinny laptop speaker: “This is the first time I have shown my life-altering birthmark to anyone.” The oddness of this moment was not just its awkwardness — my client moved swiftly to mute her laptop, and neither of us looked up — but the fact that I had already seen the life-altering birthmark myself, which was mottled and raised like someone had slung a handful of wet sand at the flesh above her knee.
People left their most important documents faceup on hall tables for me to see. Receipts for abortions and letters announcing academic probation were pinned to the fridge. The plot points of their lives connected in an instant: sometimes my clients were almost too easy to caricature. There was the young man with an actual pile of women’s underwear by his bed, whose Google history (discovered when I opened his laptop to stream a podcast) revealed a single search for “rash from too much sex penis.” Or the woman who had converted her lavish living room into a meditation area and reading room filled exclusively with divorce literature. I imagined her as a tremulous, breakable person, with the same shade of tawny hair as her dog.
Because I learned so much without trying, I never wanted to spy. The one time I flipped through a client’s diary, it turned out to contain a series of cheery, colorless entries written by a father-to-be. Each was addressed to his unborn child. “Mommy is so excited to meet you!” one entry began, a sonogram taped to the facing page.
My favorite client lived in the West Village. His office was covered in Broadway Playbills, tacked to the wall and strung across the mantle like holiday greeting cards. When I dusted his bookshelves, I found that his books weren’t real: they came away in discrete sections, hollow volumes fused together at the spine. I could tell he had big feet from his clown-size shoes, which were lined up neatly by the door. I imagined a big, slow, clean-fingernailed man bending over with considerable effort to place his loafers toe to toe. His bedroom had a very large walk-in closet: XXL sweatpants, gym shorts, and complimentary T-shirts from conferences and carwashes and diners hung delicately on individual clothes hangers like formalwear. The desk in his study was empty except for the manuscript I found in one of the drawers. It was a novel that opened with a deathbed scene, in which family members gathered at the protagonist’s bedside and took turns making tearful expressions of guilt.
It made me happy to discover pink nail polish in his half-bath’s medicine cabinet, but the paint inside was chunky with age. There was a disc of beige face powder in the medicine cabinet, too, but it had split into pieces inside the case. Later, while vacuuming the base of a corner shelf that held a collection of commemorative snow globes, I found a wallet-size photo of a woman clipped to a death certificate. She wore pearl earrings and had light brown hair and nice eyes. The cause of death was listed as murder. Upstairs, on the mantle in the main living space, where one might have placed a wedding photograph, I found a letter from Mayor Giuliani expressing his condolences to the families of September 11 victims.
I was gently wiping a porcelain Bo Peep figurine on the mantle near the death certificate when my elbow knocked a glass candlestick. It fell to the floor and shattered. I was supposed to call the boss if anything like this ever happened, but I panicked and swept the pieces into a miniature dustpan I found leaning against the fireplace. The candlestick had been small and forgettable, about the size and color of a juice glass. The dustpan, however, was curiously clean — so clean that I suddenly realized it, too, was probably decorative. It was red and painted with white flowers outlined in gold filigree. Now it was filled with glass shards.
I called the musician friend who had gotten me the job. “I broke something,” I said. “What do I do?”
“Ah,” he said. “You absolutely have to call her right now.”
“I broke something,” I blurted when the owner of the cleaning company picked up her cell phone.
“Don’t move, I’ll be there in ten,” she said. Like a superhero, she was already in the neighborhood. When she arrived she slid noiselessly inside and scanned the room with wild eyes, as if expecting to see a dead body. When she saw the candlestick, she relaxed.
“Eh,” she said, nudging a shard. “This is probably the least expensive thing he owns.”
She called it “doing money.” MEET ME TO DO MONEY, she would text. I’M IN THE CHILDREN’S SECTION.Tweet
The boss had worked on Wall Street and left to give herself more time to work on her art. But I got the feeling that the cleaning business, originally intended as lucrative side gig, had consumed her life accidentally. She didn’t like leaving her apartment in Harlem, and so communicated mainly by all-caps text message. WHERE ARE YOU, CLIENT FURIOUS, she’d write.
Despite her background in finance, her way with money was strange. She had me collect cash payments from my clients, which I’d tote around for weeks in an envelope before she’d meet me to collect her share. She’d retrieve the money at irregular intervals, arranging to meet in various Borders bookstores. She called it “doing money.” MEET ME TO DO MONEY, she would text. I’M IN THE CHILDREN’S SECTION. When I arrived at the specified Borders, she would be sitting in a child-size chair. I’d squat beside her while she recited my jobs by neighborhood — “Upper West Side, Upper West Side, Park Slope, Upper East Side, Lower East Side” — tallying the fees as she went. She divided the bills into shaky towers, one for me and one for her, which she balanced on either knee.
One day I planned to meet her to DO MONEY, but at the last minute she texted to ask if we could meet somewhere else. She was at a garden-level apartment near Central Park, she told me. “I hardly ever do this,” she confessed, “But I’m cleaning it.”
When I arrived she was giving the place some finishing touches. It seemed she had decided to rearrange the furniture: after closing and locking the door behind me, she yanked a heavy carpet from a bedroom into the living room, unfurled it, and arranged it by the television. She gave it affectionate slaps with the flat of her hand, the way you might a big dog. On our way out, she left two unscented soy candles on the lazy Susan.
“A friend of mine who works for me was supposed to do this, but she couldn’t finish,” she offered as we ascended to the street. “She’s a painter too.” Another painter-slash-maid? As we rounded the corner on the way to the train, she stopped and asked me pointedly if I was still dancing. I told her yes, I was taking classes in my spare time.
“And are you going to dance right now?” she asked.
“Not . . . now,” I said, indicating my large bucket of cleaning supplies.
“But you are going soon?”
I told her I would be going later, maybe tomorrow.
“Oh, good,” she said, as though she’d been afraid I might stop.
It was hard not to be jealous of my clients, especially those who pursued casual artistic careers from the soundproof comfort of their carpeted Manhattan apartments. One of my clients was a flutist who stored bins of catalogued sheet music in transparent containers. She walked with slow, deliberate steps, even though she had a small son who seemed prone to accidents. The second time I cleaned for her, she offered me pancakes. I accepted, and she motioned for me to sit down with her. She halfheartedly bounced her son on one knee. When I told her between bites that I wanted to be a dancer she nodded slowly, weighing my words without surprise.
I didn’t have a maid uniform, but we were supposed to wear green (an “environmental” color), so I wore a bowling shirt my boyfriend had once favored for bar mitzvahs. When I wasn’t cleaning, I sported the white-shirt-and-jeans ensemble favored by young women who don’t have very much money but aspire to some kind of recognizable style. My clients’ wardrobe excesses made me giddy with desire, especially the mounds of expensive purchases they left on the floor to collect cat hair and dust. They had clothes for every possible occasion, as well as clothes that fit no occasion I could think of: kitten heels with delicate feathers on the ankle strap, miniskirts made of heavy fabric (in what weather would these be worn?) and covered in a thick carpet of sequins, which I’d carefully smooth so each shiny disc faced the same direction.
Some of my clients collected art, relegating their weirdest works to spaces that mostly a maid would see. One even had a piece of digital art, an animation of a male pictogram — like the symbol on a bathroom sign — walking forward forever against a blue background. The stairway where it hung was walled in shiny material, and the blue light from the embedded flat screen cast a strange glow over the apartment’s multiple service workers as we trudged up and down the stairs. It reminded me of the luminescent blueness of a public pool, and it would have been pretty if we weren’t so tired. Upstairs a white piano covered in white flowers stood on a plinth encased in glass. On the wall hung a gigantic photograph of a bunch of women’s limbs. It had been mounted with a shiny covering, so I could see my reflection when I dusted the frame.
I knew dimly that I might gain advantages by befriending my wealthier clients, but I wasn’t sure what kind — and I was nervous about seeming phony. I’d occasionally sense that a strange door was open to me: not to friendship, exactly, but to some sort of benevolent leeching, or simply the opportunity to be liked. But when one of my clients offhandedly complimented my shoes, I could barely say thank you. My clients’ other employees seemed confident and sassy, unapologetic about their opportunism. They belonged to another rank of professional service work comprising somehow essential people who wore beautiful clothes and moved confidently in and out of their own bedrooms, which were adjacent to their boss’ kids’. Very wealthy people were rarely home, and often I’d interact solely with this kind of staff. Many affected warm proxy personalities that were chummy and distant, like teachers’. They’d appear suddenly, brushing by to snap a bureau door shut, bearing a credit card and pen, and flash me a knowing, toothy smile, as though my presence in the house had been arranged for my benefit and was somehow fun for me. They’d disappear just as quickly. Once while cleaning a three-story brownstone with shellacked black walls like the sides of a limousine, I accidentally leaned against the glass of a fish tank behind a wet bar and pushed open a secret door. Inside was a cramped office where three or four manicured women, all talking on BlackBerrys, turned to look at me.
Later, one of them materialized beside me with her business card. It was printed on heavy cardstock and embossed with the shape of her eyeglasses. Her title was Organizer. “I was a waitress around the corner and we used to see each other a lot,” she told me of her relationship with the owner. “We got to talking, and I realized it would be great for me to just come and be here full time!” I had just cleaned her living quarters, which were decorated with the same woven grass rugs and scented candles used in the master bathroom. “Just a tip!” she said.
I felt a different kind of envy when cleaning houses of girls my age. They never seemed to notice that we were peers, or if they did, the information didn’t seem to embarrass them the way it did me. In their homes I felt the way I did in college, only more intensely: deeply curious about the nice things my wealthier friends owned, which manifested as a kind of hunger for tactile access. I took my shoes off so I could feel the calfskin of their rugs; I pressed my fingernails into the creamy leather of their boots.
One of the last cleans I did was for a girl close to me in age. She opened her door sadly, her blond hair falling across her face. The apartment was filled with small figurines, which she warned me to be careful of when dusting. “We don’t have kids,” she explained. “These aren’t really toys. He’s a toy designer.” She pointed out the toy her boyfriend had invented, a kind-faced monster pillow and corresponding miniature in molded plastic.
In kitchens, I wiped down individual bottles of spices and rotated their labels to face front. In bathrooms, I arranged shampoos by height in attractive phalanxes on the tile. I fanned magazines into pinwheel shapes. I lined up the spines so every book was flush to the edge of its shelf. I wiped dust from between radiator ribs and off the individual slats of venetian blinds. If the client was a smoker, I learned to scan the walls for faint yellow grime and to spend an extra twenty minutes on a footstool wiping it down. I became adept at picking flecks of spinach and broccoli from empty ice cube trays and wiping hot sauce from the refrigerator’s rubber insulation tube. Many of my nicest moments involved sneaking leisure while slowly counting the seconds of its passing, standing stock-still in a living room listening to the sound of my throat as I downed a full glass of water from one of the client’s heavy cups.
Inevitably, when I was alone or unseen, I slacked off. I didn’t do more than I was paid to do, and I didn’t go overboard for clients who didn’t tip. Whenever suspicious customers double-checked my work at the end of the day, instead of passively trailing them through the apartment I would argue convincingly against their complaints, maintaining that the stench we could both smell in the freezer had indeed been eliminated by my baking soda rinse.
“Was that scratch there before?” a client might ask, fingering the stovetop.
“Yes,” I’d say, and look her right in the eye until she started talking about something else.
I learned to confront filth with an unblinking expression. I treated all surfaces the same, as though the detachable seat of a bedpan covered in an unidentifiable spatter was no different from the front door of a new fridge.
One day a client answered the door in a pantsuit, mid–conference call, and waved me into the bathroom. She’d asked for “special attention” there, and this was why: all the bathroom’s surfaces — tub, sink, and floor — were obscured by several inches of soiled cat litter. She must have been dumping new bags of it straight onto the floor. I spent several hours loosening urine-soaked clods of litter from the tub and matted tufts of hair from the sink drain. As I vacuumed away the last bits of clay, I found an elegant dangling earring hugging the back of the toilet bowl.
Under her bed, beside a nest of strappy sandals, I found a small island of petrified little cat nuggets. Another nugget tumbled off the end of the bed when I adjusted the covers. I picked it up in my hand and began a pile in the corner of the apartment, taking the turd pile with me to the trash compactor on my way out.
People with appalling habits were interesting, at least. And being around them made me feel observant, as though their eccentricity made them readable, although of course it did not — it just made them easier to reduce to type. When I first encountered “characters,” I was delighted: the anti-anxiety prescriptions poking out of the pockets of fur coats were like movies I’d seen coming to life. But on the whole — of course — my clients were more complicated than that, and more ordinary.
After I was done cleaning, I’d hurry to the evening dance class, wedging my arm through the hard plastic handle so my cleaning bucket sat against my side like a giant purse. At the studio, I stowed it under one of the church pews that lined the dressing room.
The studio was large, beautiful, and more than a little run-down. Often I’d find myself casing it like a new clean, squinting down at the gray rubber flooring and wondering whether a wet or dry mop would be best. The women’s bathroom stalls closed crookedly and the paint on the high ceilings of the main space was peeling away. The studio walls were lined on both sides with fickle windows, which would either stick open, unbudgeable, or fly shut with a nasty bang at the slightest touch. The views — Greenwich Village on one side, the Hudson on the other — were as beautiful as the ones from my clients’ apartments.
On my last job, I didn’t even clean. The client lived in the basement level of a pet-friendly apartment complex near Lincoln Center. The smell of dog grew stronger as I approached her doorway, sweet and stinky, like microwaved peas. When I knocked, several dogs threw their large bodies in a rhythmic, anxious way against the door, making it shudder. No one came. I banged on the door again; the dogs banged back. Finally, I heard the sounds of unlocking, and the door opened. A woman’s face peeked out over the security chain. She looked bleary, as though I’d woken her. Her body jolted back and forth as the dogs bumped her legs, but she didn’t seem to notice. She wouldn’t let me in. I stood in the sunshine outside, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry,” I wrote to my boss in a text message. “The dogs were making it impossible for me to communicate.”
During the spring, my dance studio held a weeklong workshop. It involved learning a piece of choreography from one of the company’s former dancers and performing it at a recital. If I attended the workshop, which I wanted badly to do, I wouldn’t be able to clean for a week.
I met the boss in person to ask for the time off.
“You want to do a workshop,” she echoed dully.
I nodded. She gave me a cool look. I realized that I had no idea how many other employees she had. For all I knew, she’d end up doing my cleans herself.
“Well,” she said, “I guess you’d better go.”
The week of the workshop, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland. A plume of ash blew across the continent, grounding flights for days. The instructor, who was on tour with the dance company, couldn’t leave the South of France. The company sent pictures of themselves to the studio’s administrative offices, smiling and sunbathing on the beach, raising frosty drinks to the camera. “We’re stranded, ha ha,” the email said. I wrote the boss my own email, begging for my cleaning days to be rescheduled, but she never replied.