Coming clean about her trashy life

In her new memoir, housecleaner and author Louise Rafkin dishes the dirt on her rich clients' nail clippings, pubic hair and Prozac.


Lori Leibovich
May 22, 1998 8:36PM (UTC)

One dirty dish languishing in Louise Rafkin's kitchen sink at the end of the day -- even one coffee-stained mug, or butter-crusted knife -- and the woman can't get to sleep. Every utensil must be filed away, every throw pillow placed just so. As a housecleaner, it is Rafkin's job to worry about other people's messes. She battles their grout, makes sure their tubs are pubic hair-free. But a single walk through Rafkin's own home and it is clear: She applies the same fastidious -- OK, compulsive -- principles to her own home.

In a word, it is spotless. But not in a sterile, don't-touch-anything sort of way. The paint looks fresh, the faint scent of lemon cleanser clings to the air. Everything in the homey Bay Area Victorian is shiny and polished and seems to have a place. This is a woman who, at the beginning of each therapy session, feels compelled to empty her therapist's wastebasket.

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"I live for trash day, what can I tell you?" she sighs.

Rafkin is sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of postcards before her. On the front is a picture of Rafkin, donning sunglasses, broom in hand. The cards announce the publication of her fun new book, "Other People's Dirt: A Housecleaner's Curious Adventures." She is sending them to friends and family but also to many of her old clients, some of whom are portrayed -- not always generously -- in the pages of her book.

"Will they hate me?" she wonders. "I hope not. I mean, they knew I was a writer."

Rafkin dishes the dirt on rich clients and waxes philosophic about what it means to be intimate with the stuff -- material and bodily -- of strangers. Rafkin, 40, who spent seven years cleaning homes in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cape Cod, is also a gonzo journalist of sorts. She goes undercover as a corporate "Happy Maid," explores the seamy world of "exotic" housecleaners (women who "clean" in the nude), attends a support group for slobs called "Messies Anonymous" and trails a "decomp" specialist -- someone who scrapes up human remains from crime and suicide scenes.

"I found myself repulsed and then curious," Rafkin writes of her meeting with Kathy Jo, the crime-scene cleaner. "I wanted to know what body remains felt like on the backside of a sponge. Soft? Or hard like a cadaver?" (Answer: It depends on how long the body has been there, and which part of the body you're sponging up.)

Almost immediately after I enter her kitchen -- before she even offers me a cup of coffee -- Rafkin pulls me over to a drawer, jerks it open and says, "See? OK -- here it is." She's pointing to The Drawer. You know the one. The drawer in every kitchen where every orphaned utensil, every stray twistie tie, every random paper clip and every shriveled photo that used to be on the fridge are laid to rest. (My mother calls hers the "crazy" drawer.) Rafkin is showing me hers to prove that even she isn't above kitchen chaos. The contents of Rafkin's crazy drawer: candles, incense, swimming goggles and a harmonica, among other clutter. After the showing, Rafkin seems relieved, unburdened, as if she's gone to confession. Now, she says, the interview can begin.

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"Cleaning is a skill," Rafkin says between sips of tea. "Very few people can walk into a room and know what needs to be done." Part of the impetus for writing the book, Rafkin says, was her desire that cleaning be acknowledged as an area of expertise,
not just some menial, demeaning occupation reserved for the lowest-skilled workers. Rafkin, unlike many cleaners, is white and not an immigrant. Dressed in pastel plaid Bermuda shorts and a bright red Coke T-shirt, she looks more like a soccer mom than anything else.

"In some way I think people ... trusted me because of the color of my skin," she says, visibly frustrated. "I mean, they gave me the keys to their houses! Which I still have! I think they thought, 'I could get a Jamaican person to do this for $10 an hour but I would have to worry.' I think people want someone kind of like them but not really like them."

Rafkin's clients are educated, affluent professionals -- academics, movie producers and millionaire retirees. And they can be a pain in the ass. She was fired from one job for leaving two Cheerios in the sink. One New York editor insisted that the pin stripes on her sheets be precisely lined up. Rafkin, who holds a master's degree in comparative literature, who has published a book of short stories and has had articles in the New York Times, says that despite her credentials, some clients refused to think of her as more than a maid.

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"Some of them knew that I wrote, saw my stuff and would say, 'Saw your thing in the New York Times and can you come on the 30th?'"

Rafkin is what your grandmother would call a hoot. She swears, laughs uproariously and is endearingly flaky -- leaving sentences dangling because she is too busy explaining her next thought. Unlike her antithesis, Martha Stewart -- whose show she is dying to get on -- Rafkin is a girlfriend.

Before writing her book, Rafkin wanted to make a video about her job, sneaking cameras into her clients' homes and narrating them, Michael Moore-style, from the trenches. "I would say, 'This is the pond inhabited with fish that cost more than my day's wages from a woman who paid me in loose change,' and 'This is the note from the woman who asked me to keep the dead ants I found in her house' and 'Here is the bedside table of the most prudish, conservative woman ever and the camera would point to her sex toy.' You know, that sort of thing." Sadly, Rafkin couldn't convince any of her video artist friends to help out. "They were afraid of being sued," she sighs.

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"In this society, housecleaners don't talk -- you're not supposed to be smart enough to talk! And if you do talk you're not supposed to have noticed anything."

Boy, does she notice.

Take medicine cabinets. "Prozac is everywhere," Rafkin declares. "You could probably have a black market on Prozac just from the stuff that cleaners have pilfered." If Rafkin is snooping, I mean, cleaning, and discovers pills she's not familiar with, she's been known to ask a physician friend to look it up in the Physician's Desk Reference, a directory of drugs. And yes, Rafkin herself has pilfered on occasion, but not drugs. "Innocuous stuff like cans of tuna, a book or extra paper towels if I knew the next job needed it," she says without a trace of guilt.

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Rafkin has developed an eagle eye for eating disorders. Dead giveaways: "Refrigerators with models taped to the door, with little notes saying things like 'Healthy is as healthy does' and 'I am more than what I eat!'" she explains. And fridge and cabinets stocked with "non-foods" like celery, pickles and Snackwells. (Rafkin has also learned a thing or two from reading other peoples' grocery lists: One listed eggs, milk and penis butter.)

By cleaning up, Rafkin says she can tell whose bowels are moving (toilet bowls tell stories), who is cheating (illicit, low-voiced answering machine messages), who is a compulsive gambler (grown men forced to move home to their parents' house), who has AIDS (stuffed medicine cabinets), whose marriage is crumbling (sheets on the couch) and, of course, who is having sex.

"Middle-class people usually hide their sex toys under the mattress, but you go to the fags' houses and the whip stands are there and the hardware is hanging off the wall. I was cleaning with someone once who was, like, 'Why are all these pulleys on the wall?'"

Has Rafkin herself, alone for the afternoon in a deluxe manse, a sprawling Cape Cod beach house for instance, invited a lover over for a romp? "One lover once surprised me at work," she says. "It was pretty funny, we were on the bed and I looked up and on the bedside table there was a Hallmark card that said, 'Certain people are a joy to know ...'"

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Rafkin's job demands a stomach of steel. She hates when people leave dirty underwear lying on the floor, expecting her to pick it up. She gets really annoyed when people forget to flush the toilet before she comes. But in the hierarchy of grossness, Rafkin says that fingernail clippings are the worst.

"Tampons mummified in cocoons of toilet paper like little creepy voodoo dolls are bad," she writes. "Q-tips in catalog shades like 'Sunset' and 'Burnt Sienna' are really bad. But the worst of all is nail clippings. Nail clippings cling to carpets and can hide stubbornly in the crevices between grout and the tub." Add used condoms and flaky skin to the list.

"There is stuff that just falls off people," she says. "Even if you're clean, there is stuff that flies off you and sometimes it lands in the tub. What is it? It is just body."

Rather than getting too grossed out, Rafkin says she tries to see the humanness in it all. "I actually try to get all religious about it," she says. "We are humans made of human stuff and it falls apart."

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I'm dying to know -- what products does Rafkin swear by? "Lysol Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner," she answers without pause. "It takes all that s--- off. I don't know how, I don't want to know how." Rafkin will tell you straight: She is not a "green" cleaner. In fact, she can't really tolerate those who insist on natural products. "Can't we just pour bleach on this and we'll be done with it?" she once asked an eco-freak client. The answer was a firm no. "I felt like saying, 'It's all very well for YOU to be environmentally sensitive -- you don't have to clean it!" Rafkin ended up quitting the job.

What about paper towels? "I love them, I love them, I just love them!" (She is alarmingly ecstatic.) "Bounty is great, but generic brands are fine too. Paper towels are just good."

We are interrupted by the phone. As Rafkin disappears into the other room to take the call, I surreptitiously circle her kitchen. Sure, any home can look tidy from afar, but will it hold up to close inspection? The knobs on her stove are a little grimy. There are some dog hairs scattered across the floor. It is an unusually hot spring day and sun is streaming through the windows. I run my finger across the top of a red wooden table, hoping against all hope to find -- please God -- a smidgen of dust. I am desperate to prove that even the cleaning woman has not conquered the scourge of all homes, that even Rafkin is not above dust. I look at my finger: not a speck.


Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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Martha Stewart The New York Times



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