Cleaning Up New York


First Person

Cleaning is a two-way street. There is you (the cleaner) and there is the street …

Vintage Hoover advertisement.

A vintage Hoover advertisement.

I cleaned for Sylvia Smith two or three times last year. She lived on East End Avenue in a studio apartment that was falling apart from being recently built. She edited a trade magazine. She would only have me every so often when things got really out of hand. Her kitchen included defrosting the refrigerator and cleaning the oven each time. First I had to get the dishes out of the way. She used cheap tin silverware that was once painted gold but the paint had chipped away enough to leave it mottled tin. The advantage of this silverware was that she had enough pieces to supply a munitions factory and could eat for weeks without needing to wash a spoon. Although the apartment was always very dirty, Sylvia always wanted a fastidious job from me. This is really impossible to do the first time around on a dirty apartment.

It would take at least two cleanings to really bring every surface to clean clean status. Sylvia would always detain me at the end of my day with short imperatives like, “Clean this shelf please.” “I think you missed something here.” I performed my duty by being patient and thankfully escaped after much courteous bowing. Sylvia was a person with a need for sleeping pills. Next to her bed was a prescription bottle, which I sampled. 

When I steal pills, I try not to be greedy and I try harder to be smart. What I count on to avoid detection is that people don’t count their pills. I don’t like to steal. Stealing makes me feel low and treacherous for breaking my own trust in myself, but that is outweighed by several factors. One is that I cannot afford to get my own prescriptions or to really be ill either. I take drugs every so often to have some fun or get a medicinal night’s sleep. When I steal, it is one of the few times I ever justify my actions by saying, “I’m an artist.” I am an artist and I need this pill just because I am an artist. Gulp.

Sylvia calls me up after the summer is over. She has moved to the East Fifties and needs some work done. The new place is much larger and not in the least recent or falling apart. A first glance says easy to clean. A second glance reveals Sylvia’s untrained puppy who shits everywhere. Once again every inch of every thing needs a cleaning. I cannot work meticulously for her because she is not set up to be meticulous. The strain of course is that she wants a perfect job. I can’t relax at her apartment for it is all miserable to me. Sylvia is a mess. She is depressed. She has physical illnesses. She has no love in her life. She doesn’t even like her job. I just can’t bring a feeling into her apartment that she can’t supply from within herself. It is her home and her life; my slave instincts about work cannot make me do much better than her best feelings. Nevertheless Sylvia is sharp and observant. She finds a few crusty bits of red food fastened to the inside of her refrigerator door. She points them out. I try harder than my first attempt to get them up. Sylvia leans against the counter and asks me, “Did you go to school to learn to clean? Did they teach you?” I laugh and keep scratching at those food bits. My mind flashes to The Cleaning Man’s Institute. “Become a Cleaning Man. Good pay and terrific benefits. We will train you on real refrigerators, stoves, and toilets. There is an ever-increasing demand for ecologically sound cleanliness! Approved for veterans … ” Those red food bits will not come up so they stay and I never come back.

Barbara calls me up with a job in Brooklyn. The name is Evelyn Berkson. I call her up and she jumps into a long story about her apartment having had a fire and the painter is finally done and she has never had a fire before! I reassure her in some way and make the date to work.

Shelley and I go to dinner at the apartment of some friends, Pat and Sanford. Pat works in a bookstore and Sanford is a house painter who operates through the same agency as I. We are talking about the similarities of our work. Sanford and I are both into it in our total ways. Sanford and Pat talk about a painting job he had just finished. The job took him a long time and the lady of the house was very curious. I say that I would recommend Sanford anytime I could and he says he would do the same for me. As a matter of fact, that curious lady had asked Sanford if he knew a cleaner but he had forgotten that he knew me. I mention that I just got a cleanup job following a painting in Brooklyn. Sanford lights up and asks for the name. Berkson is the same person he just finished painting for. Pat and Sanford start building Evelyn up. How crazy, how weird; everything she does is interesting.

I take the F train to Brooklyn. When I reach the small Park Slope building, an unexpectedly old woman lets me in. The apartment is large and beautifully painted. The elderly lady is Evelyn’s mother and she sets me to work hauling out bags of garbage and extraneous pieces of lumber. Evelyn soon comes home and tries to tell me in distracted terms what there is to be done. She repeats the vague tasks a few times and walks away. Her mother on the other hand is a burning lamp of clarity. She points out little ledges to clean in the kitchen. Evelyn comes back and pulls her mother out of the kitchen and in equally clear tones of the daughter to the mother, she tells her mother to be quiet. Evelyn says to me, “It is hard to have two bosses.” It really makes no difference to me. Soon the mother is leaving to return to Baltimore. “You wouldn’t be hurt if I called you tomorrow?” says the mother to the daughter.

Everything not recently painted is covered with dust. It is a very full day’s work, which includes taking books out of boxes, dusting them, and then putting them back into the boxes. I can tell a lot of the dirt I am cleaning is pre-fire dirt. After I clean the living room and make things look straight, Evelyn walks in and screams. “AAAAHHH! It looks like a hospital waiting room!” She orders me to pull some magazines out of the closet and to throw them around. I do this with the certain sense of perversion that is Fun. Evelyn says, “If you can’t see it [dirt], it isn’t there.”

Evelyn has black hair and a nice figure. She has a little Jewish girl’s face that must be in its late thirties. She is very friendly and talks all the time. She has an older brother who is becoming very well known. He is a sculptor. Evelyn is going to school in a branch of psychoanalysis that doesn’t involve medicine or therapy training. I tell her that my father is a psychoanalyst and we talk it up a mite. She brings Chinese food home for our lunch. When I get home, I call up Sanford to compare notes. He asks many pertinent questions and says the best food he got was pizza.

A month later Evelyn calls me up. She hardly knows what she wants me to do. “Things are still so clean from the first time.” She complains and compliments at the same time. She says that Sanford told her about a way to wash records. Just put them in a sink of soapy water and wash ’em. I start to wash her records. Evelyn has more records than I can wash at one time so I devise a system. First fill the sink with warm water and add some mild liquid dishwashing soap. This soap is plastic-like and seems to be gentle on vinyl records. So many records are taken off the pile and placed in order into the bath. They are carefully kept in order so that they can be reunited with their jackets, which also are kept in order. The batch of records is rinsed and placed single file into the dish rack. A dish rack stacked with gleaming records is a sight not appreciated until attempted. I think it is really one of my finest moments as a cleaner! A new bunch of records are dipped into the soapy water. The records in the rack are lightly towel dried and placed back into their jackets. This takes a long time because the records were not in the correct jackets in the first place.

Evelyn makes her money by giving IQ tests. She judges me to be about 130 IQ points. She asks me a simple question to back up her judgment. “What do a fly and a tree have in common?” I stop to think. Later I ask my friends the same question. They both have wings. They both have branches. Shelley answers, “God.” I think a minute. My first impression is that they are both brown. I think longer; I remember SAT exams and how interesting answers show up badly. “They are both alive,” I say. “Right.”

A few months pass and Evelyn calls me up. She needs her stove top and oven cleaned and the refrigerator defrosted and cleaned out. I arrive about noon on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Evelyn has to get out of the shower to let me in. She is loosely dressed. Her stomach and navel seem relaxed as they peer through her robe. Evelyn is walking into the walls and mumbling. I think she is hungover on sleeping pills. I say something and she misunderstands it; answers, “I’m not that old yet!” As I work in the kitchen, she talks to me from the washroom. If I can’t understand what is being said, I just throw back affirmative or negative grunts depending on her tone. I always talk around Evelyn because she is talking, too. It is what is supposed to be done; part of the cleanup. Evelyn yells that there is some open champagne in the ice box from the night before and I might as well have some since it certainly can’t last much longer. I do pour myself a glass. By the time Evelyn comes into the kitchen sobered up and clearheaded, I feel a bit bubbly.

I work and we talk. She says there is a poltergeist in the house. He is a mischievous spirit that usually plays tricks on young girls such as hiding things or making noises. Over the stove we talk about her brother’s rising fame and fortune. In fact, she has to go to Manhattan later in the day to attend a reception for him. She hates these affairs but has to go to oblige her mother. Then Evelyn reads the Sunday Times to me. Evelyn says that I should be making about forty dollars an hour and she could get a new shrink any day but I couldn’t be replaced. The funny thing is that I feel the same way about Evelyn. I should pay her forty dollars an hour to work on her house because it is HER house.

The bubbles burst, however, when Evelyn mentions my “charming girlfriend.” Evelyn is always a step ahead of me. Usually I am the one to mention Shelley’s name to a customer, especially if I want to distance them and get back to work. This time I needed to be distanced. Cleaning is a two-way street. There is you (the cleaner) and there is the street. If sex were to drive up that street in a shiny new automobile, most likely it would run me over in my clean tracks. On the corpse, they would find the uniform of a cleaner. I always try to wear the same clothes when I clean. It makes me less visible and more like a machine and it adds psychic energy to my work. If my uniform walks through a dirty room, it seems cleaner. My uniform also happens to be the one most comfortable to clean in. I wear slightly painted up blue jeans, white socks, old sneakers that I just slip off and on; the soles are smooth and thin, making it easy to crouch on my toes. I wear a headband to keep my hair out of my way and a green T-shirt with some painted and some real holes in it. Evelyn asks me what I normally wear. “The same thing,” I say, “just in better shape.”

Even with my cleaning and my uniform and my girlfriend and my therapy, I want to make it with Evelyn. I never make the move. This is just a part of me; it keeps me in the cleaning business. Sexual relations would make the cleaning hard to get to and it certainly would louse up my regular customers. I gotta make some money; so I sing, “Be good, Bob, Be good.” Evelyn dresses up in an incredible evening gown and her hair is sitting neatly on top of her head. She is taking a cab to her brother’s reception and gives me a lift into the city. She tips me regally. The cleaning man gets out and says, “Thanks for the ride.” I am happy and Evelyn is happy; she has forgotten her invitation.

Cleaning Up New York by Bob Rosenthal.

Cleaning Up New York by Bob Rosenthal.

This piece is an excerpt from Cleaning Up New York by Bob Rosenthal, out now from The Little Bookroom.

Bob Rosenthal is a writer and poet who studied under Paul Carroll, Ted Berrigan, Joel Oppenheimer, Bernadette Mayer, and Alice Notley. He worked as Allen Ginsberg’s secretary for twenty years until Ginsberg’s death, was an associate producer on the 2010 film Howl, and currently is a chief advisor to his estate. Rosenthal is working on a chronicle of the business of Allen Ginsberg.