What the cleaner saw: dirty secrets of the upper crust | The Knowledge Dynasty

What the cleaner saw: dirty secrets of the upper crust

The Long Read: When I took a job cleaning expensive Manhattan apartments, I had no idea what I would find out about my clients.

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 Brooklyn, sharing a windowless bedroom with a friend. She worked at a health food store on Sixth Avenue, ringing up sandwiches she brought home the ones that didnt 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 specialised in expensive one-time detoxes, rather than routine cleanings: shed send you to a different apartment almost every time. You never knew what youd 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 ones 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 maximise 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 companys website posited an unlikely but appealing correspondence between cleaning and art. The owner wrote that she saw the cleaning business as a creative pursuit and was upfront about her own preference for art over work.

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 working on my first apartment: a spotless condo on one of the upper floors of a building in Lower Manhattan. While I worked, the owner of the cleaning company followed on my heels. Good pour, she said when I tipped the bucket of grey water into the toilet. As the day wore on, Id catch sight of her standing at the periphery of whatever giant living space I was crouching in, peering around the door frame while I stacked books. Later, while evacuating Cheerios from between the couch cushions, I saw her pick up the miniature rake in the familys decorative tabletop Zen garden and carefully comb the sand with its tiny teeth.


The owners 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 microfibre 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 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 telephone call, in which she performed some kind of calculus that factored in a prospective clients reported square footage, number of pets, and frequency of other (presumably less thorough) professional cleans. Shed jot their answers in an email and forward it to me. This email would be followed promptly by a Google Calendar invite, which bore an address and the start time of the clean.

It wasnt practical to carry vacuums from house to house on the subway, so we used them only if the clients had them already. In old houses, where the shower caulk had aged into grey ridges, it was nearly impossible to do a satisfactory job without resorting to the chemical-laden supplies under the clients sink. After dousing a tub in Ajax, Id sprinkle tea-tree oil on top to mask the scent.

I’d usually start my day at 8am and spend most of the morning sneaking sips of the iced coffee I hid in the sink. Most people didnt want to talk to me, which was fine. Sometimes clients would offer me water, tea, or soda, which I rarely 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 clients laptop. The client had announced herself as a friend of the owner, then led me through a 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 face-up 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 a pile of womens 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 clients diary, it turned out to contain a series of cheery, colourless 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 favourite client lived in the West Village. His office was covered in Broadway playbills, tacked to the wall and strung across the mantelpiece like holiday greeting cards. When I dusted his bookshelves, I found that his books were not 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 car washes and diners hung delicately on individual clothes hangers like formal wear. 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 protagonists bedside and took turns making tearful expressions of guilt.

Once, 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 mantelpiece 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 colour of a juice glass. The dustpan, however, was curiously clean so clean that I suddenly realised that it, too, was probably decorative.

I called the musician friend who had got 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 mobile phone.

“Don’t move, I’ll be there in 10,” she said. Like a superhero, she was already in the neighbourhood. 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.

Illustration
Illustration courtesy of Emiliano Ponzi, Sunrise Hotel exhibition, Wunderkammer, Rome 2012 Illustration: Emiliano Ponzi

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 a lucrative side gig, had consumed her life accidentally. She didnt like leaving her apartment in Harlem, and so communicated mainly by all-caps text message. WHERE ARE YOU, CLIENT FURIOUS, shed write.

Despite her background in finance, her way with money was strange. She had me collect cash payments from my clients, which Id tote around for weeks in an envelope before shed meet me to collect her share. Shed 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 neighbourhood 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 Im cleaning it.”

When I arrived, she was giving the place some finishing touches. A friend of mine who works for me was supposed to do this, but she couldnt finish, she offered as we ascended to the street. Shes 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 shed 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 flautist who stored bins of catalogued sheet music in transparent containers. The second time I cleaned for her, she offered me pancakes. 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’s uniform, but we were supposed to wear green (an environmental colour), so I wore a bowling shirt my boyfriend had once favoured for barmitzvahs. When I wasnt cleaning, I sported the white-shirt-and-jeans ensemble favoured by young women who don’t have very much money but aspire to some kind of recognisable 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.

I knew dimly that I might gain advantages by befriending my wealthier clients, but I wasnt 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 those of their bosss kids. Very wealthy people were rarely home, and often Id interact solely with this kind of staff. Many affected warm proxy personalities that were chummy and distant, like teachers. Theyd 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-storey brownstone with shellacked black walls, like the sides of a limousine, I accidentally leaned against the glass of a fish tank behind a cocktail 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 materialised beside me with her business card. It was printed on heavy cardstock and embossed with the shape of her eyeglasses. Her title was Organiser. 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 realised 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 didnt 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.


Inevitably, when I was alone or unseen, I slacked off. I didnt do more than I was paid to do, and I didnt go overboard for clients who didnt 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, midconference call, and waved me into the bathroom. She’d asked for special attention there, and this was why: all the bathrooms surfaces bath, sink, and floor were obscured by several inches of soiled cat litter. She must have been dumping new bags of it straight on to 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 Id seen coming to life. But on the whole, of course , my clients were more complicated than that, and more ordinary.


After I had finished 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 handbag. 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 Id find myself casing it like a new clean, squinting down at the grey rubber flooring and wondering whether a wet or dry mop would be best. 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. 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 womans 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 didnt seem to notice. She wouldnt 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 week-long workshop. It involved learning a piece of choreography from one of the companys former dancers and performing it at a recital. If I attended the workshop, which I wanted badly to do, I wouldnt 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 realised that I had no idea how many other employees she had. For all I knew, shed end up doing my cleans herself.

“Well,” she said, “I guess you’d better go.”

The week of the workshop, the Eyjafjallajkull 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, couldnt leave the south of France. The company sent pictures of themselves to the studios administrative offices, smiling and sunbathing on the beach, raising frosty drinks to the camera. Were 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.

Illustrations courtesy of Emiliano Ponzi, Sunrise Hotel exhibition, Wunderkammer, Rome 2012

This is an adapted version of an essay from the new issue of n+1. To find out more, visit nplusonemag.com/subscribe

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

  • This piece was amended on 28 September to remove an inconsistency. An earlier version of the piece stated that the author never accepted food or drink from clients. This has been amended to rarely.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/28/what-the-cleaner-saw-manhattan-new-york

Comments are closed.

Categories

Coursera

New Skills, New You: Transform your career in 2016 with Coursera

Likes

Follow us on Twitter