Every other Monday, the cleaning people drive me out of my house. They bustle in with their plastic tool boxes that have handles of various cleaning implements sticking out of them. They drape towels and rags over their arms, and they drag their vacuum cleaner over the threshold with bumps and odd clicks.
They speak in tongues, laugh at inappropriate times, and shake hands meekly. Hello, they say, we are here to clean. They bundle in and start, one goes into the kitchen and the other to the bathroom. They must draw straws for that one. The kitchen has to be more attractive than the bathrooms. We have men in the house, and one of them is a 13-year-old whose stream doesn’t always hit the target.
Don’t get me wrong. The cleaning people do good work. Everything shines when they leave. The toilets are clean, the bathrooms smell good, and the kitchen gleams with the kind of clean that only comes with use of mild abrasives.
They work around me. That is, they pass me as they go through their rounds. If I happen to be in their way, they work in the spaces next to me until I move, and they move into that empty space like water after someone has removed a rock from the stream.
Their accommodating demeanor and patience make me uncomfortable. With all their courtesy and hard work, I feel in the way. They have no use for me. They’re not passive aggressive. They truly accommodate my presence. Maybe, it’s me. It’s that I can’t stand to be around people who so enthusiastically go about work that would drive me to distraction and perhaps insanity within the span of a workweek.
So, when the cleaning people show up, the local coffeehouse becomes my workspace. The coffeehouse possesses an air of self-importance but it’s clean. The workers choose good music—not popular drivel and not classic rock abominations. The place echoes with metallic chair legs drawn across concrete. But it is comfortable. People speak in low voices and try to maintain discreet conversations without getting too furtive.
I like working there. Of course, I have to actually buy something. Money is not the object. Usually, the cleaning people come after I’ve had my morning tea. If I was hungry, I’ve eaten. I arrive at the coffeehouse sated. I have to buy something. A cup of coffee would put me into caffeine somnambulance. (Yes. Coffee puts me to sleep. Caffeine seems to work on me like Adderall works on kids with ADHD, only more powerfully. I can drink two cups of coffee in the morning and go back to bed for another two hours.) A cookie, scone, or muffin would make me feel badly, as I’ve lost some weight lately by staying away from such items. Plus, who needs the sugar crash?
So, I generally go for the tea. But it chaps my hide to pay $4.25 for a cup of tea. I know the cost of tea, cheap and expensive. I drink loose-leaf black teas from Sri Lanka, India, and China. I’ve sampled teas from Japan, Taiwan, and Kenya. My favorites are Keemun from China and Ceylon produced in the Matale region of the country.
The coffeehouse people get snobbish over tea. They’re snobby anyway but they really put on the long noses when it comes to tea. And that’s too bad because by the time they have produced the hot water and floated a tea bag into it, the cup has grown tepid. Coffeehouse tea, in my experience, is mostly inferior to what you can do at home.
There I sit, my computer open, listening to conversations between men who meet over business, kids who make the coffeehouse the center of their social lives, and other ardent looking computer hounds. I get a little wistful as I go back in time to coffeehouses in Germany, dark little places that served up cappuccinos and cortados that tasted like manna. I was young then and the woman in the coffeehouses were pretty and vivacious, students mostly, and blessed with the blush of youth. I dodder around these thoughts, which transport me to a time when I was careless and full of excitement about life living. The disappointments and inhibitions of age had yet to touch me. Those times wrapped me in new experiences. I cannot go back but the memories remain.
I’m the old man in the back underneath the art of the week looks dreamily into his past.
After an hour or so, I ride my bike back home. As I come up the street, I look forward to an empty driveway, the cleaning people gone. I don’t misjudge my time but sometimes those little workers are still around. In that case, things become more awkward than before I left. They act as if they haven’t worked hard enough. They want to apologize for not being finished. There is no place in the house for me.
Now, all this sound like first-world problem, and it is. But I never wanted a maid service in the first place. My wife, after years of saying she was going to do it, decided on her own and did it. I don’t know why she wanted it, except that maybe my housecleaning wasn’t good enough. (I clean house while she makes all the money, which is one reason I couldn’t say no when she hired the service.) We really are in a position to have people come in and clean our house, so I should just shut up and be happy about it.
Before we had the service, I vacuumed at least once a week. I cleaned the toilets and bathroom floors regularly. Now, I don’t do anything. We live in a perfectly clean house for three days after the housecleaners are here. It’s really wonderful. Then, slowly, things accumulate. Dishes sit in the sink. Kid pees on the toilet rim. Dust and dirt and animal hair fall on the floor. We don’t do a damn thing about it because in 10 days or so, some people will come and clean our house.
Where it used to be that our house maintained a steady level of clean, now it gets clean and then collects a thickening patina of filth. The dirt gathers until the cleaners show up and make me uncomfortable enough to drink expensive tea, wander around in my past, and listen to the conversations of others.
When I think, maybe we ought to go back to the way things were, I find myself stuck. I don’t want to clean and vacuum anymore. I don’t want to smell a toilet up close. Let the rings in the tub amass one on the other. Someone will clean it up.