When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked part-time cleaning houses. I had just gotten my teaching certification, but there were no jobs for teachers in or around Santa Barbara. So in the mornings, I supported myself working as an aide in a fourth grade classroom. In the afternoons, I cleaned houses.
I like cleaning. It’s active and productive. When you’re done, you can see the difference. In those days, I worked fast and often finished early. I was paid under the table, too. All in all, it was satisfactory employment.
My first job was for a thirty-something woman with a couple of kids and a husband. They lived in one of those rambling Spanish style houses above Santa Barbara. Curry—that was her name—stuck around for the first couple of times I cleaned for her, and then she decided I was trustworthy and left me alone. I would put a record on her great stereo system, and blast the music while I cleaned. She had a lousy old vacuum, so I brought my own. I liked working there. It was an interesting house and Curry was a crunchy granola Californian like me.
Another regular job took me into a large house in a new development. It was way up on a bare hillside overlooking the town. My employer was an older WASP woman, maybe in her mid-sixties. She was slim with poofy gray hair, and she dressed in cashmere sweater sets. She had one of those white miniature poodles with eyes that drip dark tracks on its face. I met her husband only once, when he forgot something at home. He appeared to be about ten years younger than she, a tall, paunchy, florid man who barely acknowledged my presence.
One of my tasks was to empty and wipe out the refrigerator. I’d been a vegetarian for a while by then. Some of the food in that fridge was nauseating. I particularly remember a container of some ham aspic that wobbled and looked like vomit in Jello.
Right below the ceiling in the living room was a shelf displaying Louis XIV china figurines. They were each about twelve inches high. Ceramic lace edged their clothing. When Mrs. WASP asked me to dust, I would climb up on a stepladder with the feather duster and flap away at the china figures, and—oops!–occasionally knock off fragments of lace. Oh, well, I figured, the Mrs. will never see those broken bits from below.
Unlike Curry, Mrs. WASP supervised my work. When we changed the sheets in the bedroom, she made sure that I had the top sheet with the right side facing down, so that it folded over right side up. “Who cares?” I scoffed to my best friend.
The job with Mrs. WASP was short–lived. I didn’t like her dog or her refrigerator, and I think she didn’t mind seeing the last of me.
The teacher I worked for hired me to clean his house. I had plenty of opportunity to observe him in his fourth grade classroom, where he presented himself as a Cool Dude. The tasks he assigned to me were mostly organizational: sorting kids’ work, checking worksheets, and handing out papers. He didn’t share the teaching with me. Mr. Cool was still in his classroom when I cleaned his house in the afternoon.
He lived in a small cottage in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara’s poorer southern sister. The color scheme inside the cottage was brown and yellow, in abundance. I didn’t discover anything revealing or unsavory about Mr. Cool when I cleaned his house. Somehow, though, I learned that he was dating the mother of one of his students. The boy’s affect in class demonstrated how confused and uncomfortable he felt. He was quiet and withdrawn, almost sullen. I felt badly for him, having his mom’s boyfriend as his teacher.
My favorite employer was a motherly woman whose children were grown and no longer living at home. Mrs. M. and I worked together, organizing her spices and her messy pantry. One day she asked me to clean the grill in the enclosed patio. I went at it with vigor and steel wool, scrubbing that blackened grill clean. When Mrs. M. saw the results, she turned pale. I had taken the Teflon coating right off.
A friend and fellow cleaner passed her job on to me. I never saw the man whose house I cleaned. I’d let myself in—I don’t remember if I had a key or one was hidden—and I’d clean the house, pick up my check and leave. I noticed a lot of sex related items in the bedroom, including a large, schmaltzy reproduction of a semi-nude woman, condoms and lubricants. These made for snickering conversations with my girlfriends. Beware of what you leave around when the cleaning lady comes!
The cleaning jobs slid away when I found work at the Migrant Children’s Center. Yet my days as a cleaner were instructive. I’m glad I did that work and stood in those shoes. All these years later, I still prefer cleaning to cooking. The results last longer.