I owned a cleaning business for eight years. For eight years, I went into two or three homes a day, juggling a full schedule of 20-25 clients. I can’t tell you how many toilets I have cleaned or floors I have mopped. I can’t tell you the number of hours of Howard Stern I have listened to or the number of books or hours of music that have streamed through my headphones.
I am not one to clean and tell people’s secrets, but I will tell you I have seen some, shall we say, interesting things during my time as a house cleaner. I have stumbled upon penis pumps, used condoms, and drugs—not all in the same house either. I have overheard teenagers having sex. I have heard couples fighting. I have heard married men and women exchange lover’s words with people they were not married to. I have been told things and asked not to tell. So I didn’t, and I won’t.
For the record, a perfect cleaning person will not open your drawers; a great one might open the drawers but won’t judge or steal your stuff. I was never perfect, and if a bedside drawer was open, I definitely took a quick peek before closing it.
But the cool and kind of boring thing about people is that we are all pretty much the same when it comes to what we think our secrets are. Hidden chocolates, weed, weird lotions, vibrators, and condoms were the highlights and common items that stood out from tissues and cough drops.
No one cares about your sex toys or dope, folks. At least I didn’t. I didn’t care about the medications people took, either. The pill bottles and creams and prescriptions could have been mine. They were what people needed to get through a day, through a life. The details of why they were needed were none of my business. I dusted around and picked up loose cash and change. It was not mine to pocket. I was in people’s homes to clean. I was being paid a fair amount for the job I did; stealing money, jewelry, or anything else was not my style. It shouldn’t be the style of anyone you let into your house.
I will confess, however, that I had been known to cut off corners of brownies or steal a cookie from a plate left out on the counter, but I usually left a note thanking the owners for dessert.
As good as some of the stories are and could be, I was never interested in what was in people’s drawers. What’s really fascinating to me are the relationships I observed, the lives I became a part of.
In fact, I sometimes felt guilty about the amount of detail I observed in people’s lives. Not the details of their stuff, but of their everyday routines and interactions with friends and family members. Many of the clients I had when I owned my business were the same clients I had 8 years later when I closed up shop.
Although the homes I cleaned were usually empty of people — with adults at work and kids at school — their literal and figurative fingerprints were left behind everywhere. Ultrasound photos on the refrigerator, pre-natal vitamins, and cards of congratulations told me a baby was coming. Once, the sudden removal of those things told me a baby had been lost. Devastating.
Dogs and cats wore spots on hardwood floors and carpets and were sometimes difficult to work around. But then on a few occasions, they weren’t there to work around anymore, and my heart would ache when I found their fur under furniture long after they were gone. Years ago, the day after I had to put down my Golden Retriever, I walked into a home that had a dog and instantly burst into tears. I hugged the Bassett Hound and marveled at how bad she smelled. I missed my guy, and hugging a client’s dog got me through the morning.
I have been privy to marital problems, family illness, and job losses. I watched a client grow increasingly ill and die of medical complications. I watched his family mourn before and after he died. I have seen the stress of parents with kids who have special needs. I have seen the guilt of working parents. Holidays and birthdays, vacations and promotions, lost teeth and gained milestones. I silently cleaned around the messiness of people’s lives. I was able to make beautiful lives a bit shinier. I helped make a part of their day easier. I was trusted to respect their space and their stories. And I did.
I took in the little things too. Marks on a wall to indicate the height of a child, cards given to one spouse from another, photos tucked inside of books, and children’s artwork hanging on walls all added up to what is really important. I found joy in organizing stuffed animals on a child’s bed. I took time to make an oven shine. I made sure people were comfortable with me in their home. That trust is not something to take for granted, and I didn’t. As a result, people left their things out for me to see.
I saw their flaws, their mistakes, and their dirty laundry. I saw their efforts and their attempts to keep it all together. I saw the constant tug and push of people trying to balance the love and hate of busy lives.
Sometimes the best thing I saw in someone’s home was a pile of bills, an open journal, or a bottle of lube left out on a nightstand. Those things reminded me that I was not just cleaning a house, I was cleaning a home. And when you are invited into someone’s home, you see a lot of good stuff. You get to see a lot of comfortable love.
The beauty of life is in all the little details. And that may be one of the most important things I learned in all those years of cleaning people’s homes.
Well, that and just how many people have lube or weed in their nightstand drawers.