Writing the Book on Keeping House

It's hard enough to get your hands on a piece of good real estate. How to take care of it once you've got it, well, that's another story. In fact, so many people have stories about keeping house--the good, the bad and the ugly--that writer Mindy Lewis collected them in an anthology called DIRT: The Quirks, Passions and Habits of Keeping House.

"People take pleasure and pride in creating home environments-even messy ones," says Lewis. "We express and define our idea of ourselves." The essays in this collection reveal people's [sometimes irrational] attachment to objects, their compulsive cleanliness or hoarding tendencies. "Many of us seesaw back and forth, making stabs at creating order, while resigning ourselves to some degree of chaos," she says.

In her own essay, "Abhorring a Vacuum" (excerpted on the next page), Lewis writes about how "38 years of living in my rent-stabilized apartment becomes a potential health hazard but seems perfectly natural as it accrues." There's nothing like regulated rent to lower one's level of objection to certain housekeeping situations (I'm a rent-stabilized tenant, too, and I live here with lead paint, black mold and cheap rent). "Abhorring a Vacuum"
© Mindy Lewis

"I hesitate to say this, darling, but your apartment is frightening." My neighbor, a retired piano teacher, speaks with motherly concern. She gestures at the piles of papers, paintings and books that dominate my living room/home office.

I know she means well, but I'm taken aback. I pride myself on my sense of order, and think of the clutter in my apartment as charmingly eccentric evidence of the three-headed hydra of my creative life: graphic designer, painter, writer. Paintings hang along every inch of the walls (the best lateral storage). Stacks of books represent a stratified archaeology of interests over the decades: psychology, Buddhism, French symbolist poets, artistic anatomy, landscape painting...all the way up to computer manuals. My stuff is who I am.

Like my neighbor, I am one of a rare breed, destined for extinction: a native New Yorker with a rent stabilized Upper West Side apartment in a classic prewar high rise. It's mine by inheritance: my stepfather grew up here with his parents, who remained here until sweet Sadie of the trembling ladle passed quietly away and dapper, dignified Sam moved to a seniors' residence, leaving the apartment to me and his hat and cane in the hall closet.

When I moved into this apartment in 1971, I had no idea I'd still be living here 38 years later. From my home base, I've watched the neighbors' kids grow up, go off to college, get married, and come back to visit with their own kids in tow. I've witnessed familiar faces exit the building a final time, wheeled out to waiting ambulettes. Having spent my entire adult life in this building, I can't help wonder if one day I will be carried out of here too-if they can find me in the midst of this clutter.

My place wasn't always such a mess. When I moved in here-my very first apartment-at age nineteen, I arrived with next to nothing, just a small trunk filled with clothes, books, and treasured possessions. Newly arrived, I registered each detail: herringbone parquet oak floors with maple trim, picture moldings, cut glass doorknobs, honeycomb-pattern hexagonal bathroom tiles edged in age-darkened grout. Wherever you looked, the place had character. It also had layers of grime. Evidently Sadie and Sam didn't see too well in their old age; the ancient stove and dishes were encrusted with remnants of Sadie's cooking (to the delight of the resident roach colony), and the colorful balloon pattern linoleum didn't hide the crumbs, spills, and decades of dirt quite enough. The place smelled musty, dusty, old.

I double-locked the door, looked around and felt the buzz of possibility. I would make this place my own, starting from scratch. I decided to get rid of the heavy, dark furniture; I'd sell what I could and give the rest away. I unfurled my Indian print paisley bedspread over the indentations in the sagging mattress left by Sam and Sadie, headed out to Broadway to buy cleaning supplies, then came home and attacked.

At first I swept and dusted daily and mopped once a week, usually on Sundays. My newfound domesticity felt poignant and piercing. "Home sings me of sweet things, my life there has its own wings," I'd sing along with Linda Ronstadt. With each swish of the mop, I'd vow to be strong, capable, independent, creative. All I needed was a true heart, elbow grease, and a do-it-yourself attitude.

My methods were primitive. I sloshed ammonia-laced water over the parquet floors, but instead of dissolving the dark, brittle layer of floor wax, it turned it a lurid green. Down on my hands and knees, I rubbed, scrubbed, and scraped the blackened wax, until I found it yielded more successfully to dry sanding. Inch by inch, I hand-sanded the floor, beginning in the corner of the bedroom, working my way towards the center. The logical solution, renting a sanding machine, was beyond my budget but also an insult to my romantic notions of self-invention. No machines for me! No fan, no air conditioning, and, most emphatically, no vacuum cleaner!

I have always hated vacuum cleaners. For one thing, there's the sound: an impersonal whining drone that drowns out comfort and pleasure, screaming: Nothing is permanent, there's nothing that can't get sucked up into my nozzle, and if you think you can escape you'd better get out of my way! If not, I'll swallow you and you'll disappear in an instant! It's the sound of arbitrary, voracious hunger. A vacuum cleaner does not discriminate. Anything that crosses its path-coins, lost earrings, buttons, fallen paper clips, small living creatures, dust balls, crumbs, outdoor dirt, indoor dust, microscopic particles-is equally stripped of value.

Supposedly a timesaving tool, a vacuum puts humans to work, lurching behind like a demented pet, blindly banging and crashing into furniture, walls, and shins, while its cord, an uncoiling snake, wraps and tangles and trips us up. When it eats something it can't digest, it chokes, screeches, whines, grinds and wheezes a protracted, staccato, hair-raising aria of machine complaint.

I grew up with the sound of the vacuum. Wielded on weekdays by Marie, our part time housekeeper, while my mother was at work, the appearance of the vacuum signaled an interval of empty time in the afternoon. For me, its roar was the sound of inescapable loneliness that in an instant cut off the sound of the human voice. I'd hum loudly while it was going and be startled at its cessation by the sudden reappearance of my voice. Marie hummed too, her voice warm and melodious and comforting; between strokes of the vacuum I'd catch strains of bluesy gospel.

On Saturdays, my mother would vacuum too, pushing the machine around with a vengeance. I knew to stay out of the way. The drone of the vacuum provided a cushion of sound that both muffled and contained a queasy, unnamable anxiety. It hinted at a larger vacuum: a malaise, a paralysis of life force, a void into which everything familiar disappeared. An absent father, a dissatisfied mother, an unknown future-everything swirled into the vacuum's relentless roar.


Over the years, I shared my apartment with a succession of roommates-seventeen in all-each of whom had their own cleaning (or non-cleaning) style. One roommate dubbed me Olive Oyl, for the way I stood, arms crossed, foot tapping, as I struggled to find a way to ask her to clean up that didn't seem too controlling. Who was I kidding? I couldn't go to sleep with dishes in the sink, or without straightening the things on my dresser. I didn't have to look far to see the reflection of my mother.

My longest cohabitation, in my early twenties, was my first, indelible, live-in love affair. As a gift, my boyfriend's mother gave us a compact, portable General Electric vacuum cleaner in a fashionable 'sixties palette of orange and gray. A hand-me down that had already afforded years of use, this machine was seemingly invincible (even after it stood on end for many years in my broom closet). During the years my boyfriend lived with me, I vacuumed around him as he sprawled on the floor (the parquet temporarily covered by a Rhya rug, another hand-me-down) in front of the TV. I mostly enjoyed these domestic scenes, and felt womanly and grown up (although once, as a statement, I deliberately left his socks out of the wash, which hurt his feelings).

After the relationship ended, the sight of the vacuum was painfully depressing, reminding me of the vacuum my life had become. I couldn't get a grip, couldn't calm down. But I could clean. Washing dishes, scrubbing the tub, mopping, dusting, straightening, making the bed-I couldn't undo my mistakes, but these were things I could control. I had a clean apartment, but I had no life.

Slowly, I healed. I left the GE in the broom closet, and did my best to fill the void by focusing on work, art, and the care and feeding of a series of cats who ran hissing from the sound of the vacuum. When I finally gave it away, its motor still functional and bag intact, I felt a physical sense of relief.

* * *

My life fills with work, art, friends. My apartment fills with stuff, which grows out from the walls in layers. A boyfriend wedges slats of wood atop the moldings high in the hallway, where I pile canvases and easels overhead (I imagine the headline: "Artist Crushed to Death in Hallway"). A long overdue paint job-the first in 23 years-forces me to clean up...for a while. Afterward, boxes sit around unopened, onto which are piled papers, folders, books-and more dust.

So how do I clean? I wipe away the dust I can't ignore with whatever's nearby-a Kleenex, a sock, my hand. I blow on the tops of books. I gather tumbleweeds from the floor with my fingers. I sweep on occasion with my nesting plastic broom and pan duo, and mop infrequently; there's too much stuff to mop around, and not enough time.

Dustbusters are a doable compromise. They're compact, easily portable, and don't make that hellish noise. They're small enough that I feel they're under my control, but the cordless ones aren't powerful enough; sooner or later, they bite the dust. They just can't stand up to my kind of dirt. Nor can I stand up to their demands; bending over was fine fifteen years ago, but now my lower back rebels.

I ogle state-of-the-art machines posed like sleek, alluring mermaids in hardware store windows; extravagant, sultry models in citrus green and lipstick red, with names like Carina and Botticelli-a far cry from the clunky cylindrical Hoover my grandmother dragged behind her for decades.

Then I find the one made for me, on sale at Target. My silver Super Shark is slightly bigger than a 'buster and more powerful than a cordless. Plant stems and leaves, paper clips: it all gets sucked up into the cup-shaped filter by a compact but capable motor hidden inside the handle. Beautifully designed-if not quite as "whisper silent" as the packaging promises. At first I use it often, but soon, reverting to my neglectful ways, I leave my new toy to gather dust.

Gradually, I just stop seeing. The dust has become part of the surface of things, the same way the drips on the kitchen floor blend with the speckled linoleum I installed...was it 18 years ago? Can it be that I've become like Sam and Sadie?

I know I need help, but the thought of an outsider judging my familiar squalor fills me with shame. Besides, how can anyone possibly clean here, with all this stuff? I would have to spend hours cleaning up for the cleaner, and then, what would be the point?

A friend tells me about a Hungarian couple, Attila and Rita, who work as a team and use only green cleansers. There's something about their names...they sound just exotic enough, strong enough, old world enough to do this job. It would take a warrior, or a couple-Attila and his Hon-to clean this apartment.

On the appointed morning, Attila and Rita arrive at my door. They are younger than I expected, a pleasant, fresh-faced couple. Attila does most of the talking; diminutive, inscrutable Rita breaks in occasionally to address him in Hungarian.

I tell them I'd like them to clean and mop all the floors, and dust wherever it's dusty.

"Oh yes," I add, "and could you please vacuum the rug?" I've had the kilim for three years and have dust-busted it only twice.

"We have only two hours, and we can't do everything," says Attila. Rita's face is expressionless-or is that a frown? I'm afraid they'll think this is too hard a job, and decide not to do it. I escort them to the place in my bedroom where my Shark sits neglected on the floor.

"I know this machine. I can work with it," Attila answers, and I relax.

But the clock's ticking. Rita's already working on the bookshelves, lifting and replacing each framed photograph to dust beneath it. My presence no longer needed, I head off to the gym.

Two hours later, I'm excited to get home and experience my "new" apartment.

As I enter, the place smells slightly of citrus. The floors appear less scuffed, without that familiar dull film. All the exposed surfaces have been dusted: bookshelves, tabletops, file cabinets. Everywhere I look, I sense Rita's hands have been there, while Attila has run the mop over every inch of exposed floor. And I know the vacuum has been at work: the kilim looks renewed, its earthy reds and greens just a shade brighter. The place is gleaming. I don't know how they did it, and in only two hours.

Meanwhile, if they can do it, why can't I? I pluck one of the remaining hypoallergenic wipes from the packet on the kitchen table and run it along at random, looking for places they missed: corner shelves, windowsills, blinds. Satisfaction! With each stroke I rediscover not only the pleasure of cleaning, but also the energy and spirit of my younger self, long-buried under the dust.

Attila and Rita have left little trace of the dirt they've gathered. The sponges are all rinsed clean. The mop sits in the bucket, just outside the bathroom. The Shark is enthroned on a chair in my bedroom, hose dangling, its cord wrapped neatly around its little silver body, looking sleek and shiny.

Seized by a sudden urge to call my mother, I pick up the phone-it too is free of dust. Before I dial, I look around once more. There are still papers to sort, things to throw away. But for now the dust is under control.

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