maidI hate cleaning. (I’d guess the lady on the left here doesn’t get much of it done while dressed like this, either.)

I don’t think that I’m a total slob, but I don’t mind when the laundry backs up or I have things strewn about my apartment. I have a closet that I can’t even open the door to because it’s filled so precariously.

I’m intrigued by people who love cleaning or at least are driven to it, probably because I, myself, am so laissez-faire about it. These compulsive cleaners are, no doubt, sleeker and more organized than I am. (I’m typing this while a stack of junk mail I haven’t thrown away is spread across my carpet in a colorful stripe.) I’m also intrigued, like Louise Rafkin, by the access to a house and a life that a housecleaner is given. (And apparently there’s a difference between a housecleaner and a maid.)

She talks about how, without peeking in anyone’s diary, she’s able to piece together a picture of the lives or even the energy of the house: who’s having an affair, who’s on a diet, who’s getting divorced. In Other People’s Dirt, she shares some vignette-y tales of “a housecleaner’s curious adventures”: jobs bad and good, a stint with a Japanese sect who lives only to clean up their community, the phenomenon of “exotic” maids (topless or nude).

What’s most interesting about this book, though, is Louise herself. Unlike most essayists/columnists/first person bloggers, she makes little effort to ensure she comes across as likable. She’s honest and unsentimental, the way that I imagine a professional housecleaner would have to be. Even in a chapter about the Mexican housekeeper she grew up with–how, as a professional housecleaner herself, she recognizes just how hard this woman worked for less money and less appreciation–she remains clear-eyed, even as the chapter ends with the woman’s death. That’s not to say that she doesn’t display great warmth and a sense of humor at times, but she’s always at a one-step remove from her subjects, and doesn’t hesitate to throw out a barb or expose a tough, prickly streak.

I admire that.

 Whether she’s interviewing a 95-year-old former maid to royalty who has absorbed her employers’ worldview (and now employs a maid herself), or a two-day run as a maid for a cleaning franchise (just like the similar experience in Nickel And Dimed, the women who actually do the work are getting ripped off, while the male owner profits), you never forget that, before everything, Rafkin is a writer who doesn’t opt for easy punchlines or cute endings.

 One of the most effective parts of the book lapses the closest to genuine emotion over writerly distance, when she writes a letter to a friend, saying goodbye to his recently deceased lover. She talks about cleaning for AIDS and cancer patients, how the act itself becomes almost talismanic to (as she puts it) “scour away fear.” As she moves around the corners of her employers’ lives, straightening up, she describes how a clean house can bring peace to someone returning…or leaving.

One day I sat on the bed with a dying woman. Full of chemicals, she was bald and wouldn’t let me see her head. She wore a huge, floppy, battered straw hat. Her round, hairless face reminded me of a Cabbage Patch doll. I had just been dumped by my girlfriend.

“Honey,” she told me, “life is short. Find some love.”

We both cried, the vacuum whirring in place, the smell of sickness and Endust mingling to evoke in me a slight nausea. I wanted to hug her, but didn’t. She died the next day.

Compassion cloaked in toughness…it’s powerful stuff, and I really admire Louise Rifkin. Early in the book, she talks about wanting to grow up to become Harriet The Spy and I’d say she’s nailed it: recording honestly the warts-and-all reality with an appealing, wry humor.

Even though I have to admit this book made me feel like straightening up my place, I stand by my belief. To me, cleaning seems like an attempt to control the impossible. (Entropy is inevitable, y’all!)Yes, you should keep things reasonably neat, but if you truly live and breathe, eat and sleep or fuck and fight in a place, it’s going to get messy.

Life is that mess.

What I (and I’d guess Ms. Rafkin) love, though, about writing (and I can see the cleaning connection, sparkling like a freshly Windexed window) is an attempt to take something messy and confusing and, with a few strokes of a pen or a broom, to set it in an order that makes sense, that speaks to a greater truth or a greater whole.

Or just smells like lemon Pledge. Yum.

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