I forgot the cleaning lady was coming today, so the place was a mess when she arrived at noon. Usually I try to pick up after myself before she gets here, just to maintain some semblance of self-respect: empty beer cans, sexual devices, controlled substances, and unfinished song lyrics are stowed safely, out of sight. And yes, I do have a cleaning lady, it’s better than listening to my girlfriend lecture me on my hygienic lapses and their bacterial results—-also cheaper, if, like Marx, you count the “historical and moral element” in calculating the costs of being human.
This girlfriend wrote a whole book about such lapses, and, more to the point, why women are more determined to clean up after everybody. OK, not a whole book, but a very long chapter on Dirt, in The Female Thing (2006). Here’s what I avoid by paying the cleaning lady $40 an hour:
“Our apertures make us permeable, but we desire not to be—or only under those special circumstances, like sexual attraction or when in love, and even then the desired permeability is frequently achieved only in tragically defended and self-limiting ways. Besides which, for most of our lives, unfortunately we are not in love, meaning that the bodies of others often produce anxious aversion in lieu of desire; disgust is always right around the corner. And who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly turning that corner, after which things just aren’t the same, and those little physical traits that were once endearing suddenly seem . . . really gross. Or obscurely angering. How many marriages could have been saved by separate bathrooms?” (pp. 88-89)
My place is a one-bedroom apartment, no chance of separate bathrooms. But the bathroom does have two sinks and matching medicine cabinets; mine is full of drugs, hers is stuffed with makeup. Besides, my girlfriend doesn’t live here full-time: she’s got her own bathroom downtown. So neither of us has turned that corner on disgust, not yet.
I knew today was going to be different, I could sense it in my unfounded animus toward my friendly and competent cleaning lady. When she arrives, I want to say “Get the fuck out of here, Vickie, I have shit to do!” Instead I mutter a greeting and vow to ignore her until I write the grand end-of-year check with a big tip, when I can smile benignly and bequeath season’s greetings by spending money on cleanliness.
She starts as usual by stripping the bed, but today it’s the center of a disaster area littered with beer cans, used towels, the machine that ices my replacement knee, books I won’t bend to pick up, and the more random detritus an invalid produces in two days of isolation. It takes her much longer than usual to make the room navigable. “What this, beer cooler?” she asks of the ice machine. “Yeah, that’s a cooler, a very special one,” I say, pointing to my knee.
“What wrong with knee?”
“Ah, well, nothing now, it got replaced, it just hurts a lot. On its way to not hurting.”
Then she starts scrubbing in the galley kitchen across from my workplace, which is a barstool at the counter that officially separates the cooking from the thinking and the writing that take place here. There’s a division of labor for you. I’m always facing the Viking range, I realize, as I tap out these words. I like the angle because it reminds me that I’m here for good, in this beautiful new apartment equipped with a Subzero fridge and that Viking range and Bosch appliances (dishwasher, microwave, washer/dryer). I’m not leaving New York, ever, I know this just by looking at the stove. It’s a splendid view, and a comforting sight.
“What you do to stove,” she says, “I do nothing.” She’s been wiping and polishing the Viking range for five minutes already. “I do nothing, it stay on. I turn off, nothing.”
“What are you talking about,” I say, but I’m already alerted to the possibility of liability—-blame—-by the repetition of the nothings and the question that preceded them.
“This, see, I turn, won’t go off. Still on.”
“Oven on, burning, here,” and she points upward from her crouched position, to where the broiler’s flames are now licking the outside of the oven’s open mouth, obscenely inviting me to intervene.
I limp around the counter and tell her to get out of the way–suddenly she seems frantic, and I swear I can smell fear, but I don’t know if it’s hers or mine. By this time the fire alarm is going off, so I roll out the Miele fan about the stove and close the oven, but I realize that this last move will just heat the thing up faster. I grab a chair, sit down in front of the Viking and start playing with the knobs, moving one to another position, using an insulated glove now to turn them because the unit is so fucking hot. I ask myself, does it blow up if I don’t turn it off? I tell Vickie to open the back door.
I decide to get safe. I call 911, explaining very carefully to all respondents that this is not an emergency but may yet require the Fire Department’s attention. Meanwhile I call Viking, whose operator gives me three numbers of certified appliance repairmen, warning me however that the backup is deep this time of year. My call to the guy with the 212 area code verifies the warning: the first appointment available is on December 30.
Then the party starts. First three firemen wielding pikes and axes, wearing helmets that bang up against the Miele fan as they move the stove out from the wall and cut the gas connection. Then two guys from Con Edison who test the firemen’s handiwork and confirm the cutoff with paperwork, everybody busting the balls of the other party. And then two uniformed police officers arrive, explaining apologetically that they’re probably uninvited guests, just in the neighborhood answering a call. More balls busted all around.
The party lasts a half hour, and the whole time I’m thinking, “You gotta love this town.” Where else would a call to 911 produce seven public servants within twenty minutes? The cost of living may be high, but the benefits are higher: living here, I tell myself, is a good investment.
The doorman and the super have checked in by the time everybody clears out. But the cleaning lady remains, polishing that Viking range as if she could force it back to life with the mere friction of her vigorous motions.
“I think we can give up on that old hound,” I say, scolding myself immediately for using an idiomatic expression she won’t understand. I’m back on my stool across the counter, facing the range, wondering what she thinks she’s doing.
“Off, yes, but no clean,” she says. “I clean, before I go.”
“Don’t bother,” I say. I write her end-of-year check with a flourish. “Here’s your check, Vickie. Happy Holidays.”
She looks at the check and nods, nothing more. Still, I smile benignly as she leaves.