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The Detailer

Housework, if it is done right, can kill you. — John Skow

David emitted a little grunt each time he advanced, making it only a few inches at a time as he faced the wall and scooted along on his behind, his legs crossed before him. Beads of sweat gathered on his smooth head, and a few dark spots appeared on the back of his shirt. I stood behind him and felt a twinge of guilt with each grunt. “There must be an easier way to clean those baseboards,” I said.

I’d already suggested affixing a wet rag to the end of a stick or using one of the brush attachments for the vacuum. But David was impervious to my counsel. Now he craned his neck to look up at me, his face an exasperated scowl, and snapped, “When cleaning, there’s the easy way and there’s the right way.”

As long as there’s no visible filth around (i.e., dishes in the sink, gunk on the counter, dust bunnies on the floor), I think everything’s hunky-dory. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate an extensive scrub…as long as someone else is doing the scrubbing. And it’s not as if David was getting some kind of high from scouring the place from top to bottom. It’s just that, as with everything he approaches, from cooking to formulating travel itineraries, he’d rather do it himself than see it done wrong.

When I told David of our friend Carolyn’s impending visit, I offered to hire a professional to help make our place guestworthy. I’d even put out a call to friends for recommendations. Not that I would ever refer to a hired hand as “the help,” of course. In fact, I learned during my inquiries that “maid” is no longer an acceptable title for “she who comes to clean the house.” One can’t even assume it will be a “she” — equal opportunity and all that — for which, as a “woman on top” sort of gal, I am wholeheartedly down.

My friend Kerry, who has a man-woman team, calls them “cleaners.” But that didn’t sound right to me — cleaners are the guys who are called in after a hit to make sure the forensic team’s ultraviolet lights don’t pick up any traces of blood. So, if “cleaner” makes me picture Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, and “maid” is now akin to calling someone a wench, what was acceptable? I asked friends on Facebook for suggestions. “Housekeeper” seemed to be the most popular but a bit highfalutin for someone who’s just cleaning and not receiving packages or answering the phone. I appreciated the political correctness of Al’s “domestic assistant,” which I upgraded to “domestic engineer”; almost as good as Eric’s “sanitary improvement specialist.” Another common term, right up there with “housekeeper,” was “cleaning lady.” But, again, there’s the gender issue. I guess “cleaning person” could work, but I wouldn’t want to insinuate that cleaning is all that person does in life.

I was amazed to discover, during my search for a suitable word, the number of people I know who use a regular cleaning service. Friends spanning all income brackets manage to include cleaners in their household budgets. It’s one thing for my friends in Rancho Santa Fe and Del Mar to keep a staff of helpers, but for my friends who teach elementary school or style hair or have office jobs, it’s a luxury that requires sacrifices in other areas.

Three times I have paid for someone to clean our place. The first time doesn’t really count because it was my friend Stephanie who did the cleaning — though she appreciated the gesture of the small handful of cash I could afford, she enjoyed the work too much to be considered a hired hand. Performing a good compulsive scrub-down is for Stephanie what receiving a spa facial is for me.

The second time I hired someone it was through a Merry Maid–like temp agency. I had requested someone who spoke English. I wondered if the dispatcher was trying to teach me a “careful what you wish for”–type lesson, because the woman who showed to clean my place spoke excellent English — but she wouldn’t stop talking. She had that tweaked-out gift of gab, making me wonder what she did with all those cleaning products in her off hours. By the time she left, I was as exhausted as if I’d been the one toiling away for two hours.

The third time, I decided to go with a higher-end condo-cleaning service that had been recommended by neighbors. Because David feared some of our art was vulnerable to becoming the casualty of a vigorous cleaning, he used wide blue masking tape to demarcate a no-go zone around certain areas. We instructed the team (this time we were sent two people) not to tread past the blue tape. Less than 30 minutes later, we watched — me baffled and David horrified — as the woman barged right into two separate cordoned-off sections, nearly scraping an exposed photograph and thrashing a string of large paper lanterns that had wrapped around the head of her mop, thus completely ruining the light display that had taken David hours to construct.

As soon as I mentioned to David that I had been gathering recommendations from our friends and acquaintances who indulge in paid assistance, I could see on his face that he was recalling our disappointing experiences. I expected him to balk at me, to remind me how our money had been wasted those last two times. Instead, his features relaxed and his eyes fixed on an idea located somewhere over my left shoulder.

“Do you think there’s a home-detailing company?” he asked.

“What, like with cars? Yes, that’s what I’m talking about, hiring help,” I said.

“No,” said David. He walked across the room to fetch his laptop and, with a gleam in his eye, consulted Google. “You know,” David said as he searched, “like someone who would go around with a Q-tip. Or, there — see that?” He pointed to a white spot on the wall where the miso-red paint had been nicked. “Someone who would come in, see that, and just automatically touch it up. A detailer.”

“You mean someone like you,” I said.

“Exactly, just like…” David closed his laptop, reality confiscating his dimples.

“You know what I’m thinking?” I said.

David nodded. “Doesn’t exist,” he grumbled.

“Doesn’t exist,” I said.

When he was finished buffing the baseboards, washing the windows, scrubbing the stove, and power washing the patio, David took a break. “Looks great,” I said, handing him a cold soda. “Want to go on a picnic tomorrow?”

“Are you kidding me?” David squawked. “There is at least two more full days of cleaning to be done. I have to do the floors, both bathrooms, the inside of the windows upstairs…” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. Then, under his breath, he muttered, “I am so alone.”

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