The Salmonella colonies on my kitchen counter could kill me - assuming the sight of cat litter scattered on the carpet doesn't do me in first. If I'm lucky, fungi that vaguely resemble oyster mushrooms won't sprout on the bathroom floor, the way they did in one of my old apartments.
Like many people these days, I don't have much free time, and when I do, scrubbing floors on hands and knees isn't my top priority. I'm pretty good at keeping clothes in drawers and papers in folders, but the mechanics of "deep cleaning" - the heavy-duty, below-the-surface kind - evade me. I'd considered hiring a maid service, but then I read activist Barbara Ehrenreich's account of working for one in her exposé Nickel and Dimed. The bosses she encountered ordered her to whip through the clients' houses as quickly as possible. Forget deep cleaning; all that mattered was a sparkly countertop.
And think of what that sparkle could be hiding. Some years ago, I read a "Straight Dope" column that's haunted me ever since. In it, author Cecil Adams profiles microbiologist Charles Gerba, who studies the levels of bacteria in ordinary households. Not only is the average sink filthier than the average toilet, we learn, but careless cleaning is worse than none at all: "Single men tended to have lower bacteria counts, since they never cleaned and thus didn't spread the crud around," he writes.
Damned if you scrub and damned if you don't? So, what's a conscientious person with embryonic neat-freak tendencies to do? To get a perspective on the cleaning conundrum, I turned to someone who tidies up for a living and is his own boss. That's right - his.
When you think of a house cleaner, you tend to imagine an older woman with creaky joints, or maybe Jennifer Aniston donning a French maid's outfit in the movie Friends With Money. You probably don't picture someone like Cory Woolsey, 49, who has intense blue eyes, a neatly cropped black beard and an earring. He also has a compact build and muscular arms, which probably came in handy during his previous, 15-year career battling wildfires in Oregon. "Firefighting, I used to have to cut down trees right and left, carried a chainsaw - life-and-death situation," he recalls casually. "I was the foreman, so I was in charge of, like, 40 guys out there."
Now he's the embodiment of Whishbroom Housecleaning, a Burlington-based business with almost 40 regular clients. Woolsey's girlfriend, Mindy Kimball, 39, started the service 16 years ago in Oregon. In 1995, the couple began cleaning together. In 2004, they brought the business to Burlington, where Kimball ultimately quit to become a hair stylist; Woolsey is now the sole owner.
I ask Woolsey to come to my house and assess its cleanliness, or lack thereof - in short, angling for a free consultation. No dice: He's too booked to eyeball my house on short notice. Instead, he asks me to drop by his place on his day off.
Woolsey and Kimball share a trim home in the Old North End. My attempt to assess the cleaner's cleanliness is foiled by the sheer visual interest of the living room. The walls are painted aqua and tangerine and covered with artwork, including two striking banners from Bread and Puppet. "We both like to do a lot of art," says Woolsey, who used to make and sell jewelry out West.
Right now, I'm more interested in his artistry with a broom. But when it comes to his tricks of the trade, Woolsey isn't revealing a thing. "Can't give out my secrets!" he says.
While he won't tell me how to clean my house, he will describe in very general terms how he'd do it. Woolsey usually visits each house every other week and sees a couple of clients a day. Once inside, "I start at the farthest part of the house and work towards the doorway," he says. "I have to clean the whole, entire house from top to bottom in two hours. So it's a race. Then I go to the next house, start all over again." It adds up to a 35- to 40-hour week. "I'm trying to work up to three [houses] a day," Woolsey says, "but it really takes a lot of energy. You're like a tornado in there."
A careful tornado. Woolsey enumerates his tasks: "The kitchen is spotless, all the appliances, the bathroom, the tubs, the sinks, the mirrors, the vacuuming, the floor, making beds, the toilets, the stairway. Then you gotta dust knick-knacks and such. You're working really fast, and you've got to slow yourself down to a pace where you're not gonna break things."
Woolsey doesn't want to go on record with his rates, which vary with the size of the house. Not every home needs the same level of cleaning, either, and Woolsey says he's flexible. "I've got some clients, their houses are spotless, and they just want everything scrubbed down. Other people, they have a hectic lifestyle, you might say, and they just want to leave the house and come back and have it clean."
His clients run the gamut "from people in Charlotte with $800,000 houses - immaculate, beautiful places - to single college students who don't seem to have much money at all," Woolsey says. "I got therapists, I got [Vermont] House representative people, I got people in the arts community here, I got people who work in the justice department." As far as he can tell, "It doesn't seem to be their social status or whatever" that makes people decide to hire a cleaner.
The one constant, Woolsey says, is that he's always hired by women. Married or single, these aren't desperate housewives, he adds: "They're not sitting around the house waiting for me to clean 'cause they're on the couch. These women work; they work hard, and most of them got kids."
Do women mind hiring a guy for what's traditionally women's work? Not around here, Woolsey says: "We started the business on the West Coast. They're more liberal out there in the West, but they seemed to think it was odd to have a male housekeeper. Out here on the East Coast, it's a little more conservative, but I've never had anybody say anything to me." He's never met another man in the business. "I like to think it gives me an edge," he suggests.
Still haunted by the sink-as-toilet comparison, I broach the subject of germs. Woolsey isn't of the douse-everything-in-bleach school. "You don't want to disinfect your house; that's bad for your immune system," he says. "You need to have something to fight against to build it. It's like the hair of the dog that bit you. If you're living in a sterilized house that has been bleached and everything else, on top of drinking the water that's been bleached, then you have no immune system, and you're gonna be sick." Woolsey prefers milder, Earth-friendly products, though he uses stronger ones when clients request them. When he can, he helps clients recycle.
What about the corporate maid services? Not surprisingly, Woolsey isn't a fan of his competition. "I'm very busy, and I could just as easily hire three or four people," he says. "But I can't find anybody honest enough to clean house, and hardworking enough to get the job done, and anal enough to pay attention to the details at the same time. You gotta have all three."
Woolsey also explains why chronically curious reporters probably wouldn't make the best professional cleaners. Far from sharing hair-raising anecdotes about dirty houses, he takes his clients' privacy seriously enough to compare his role in their lives to that of a doctor. "You see something weird in someone's house, it just doesn't affect you," he explains. "It's not personal. Somebody naturally interested in what other people do, they probably couldn't do that for a living. You're going to a different house every couple hours, and you'd be overwhelmed. You wouldn't be able to get anything done."
Woolsey thinks a lot about housecleaning - in fact, he came prepared for our meeting with notes written on index cards. "Housecleaning is good, hard, honest work, if you don't mind getting up close and personal with people's toilets," one reads. Another: "When I go into someone's house, I like to imagine that just anything that might be lying around might be their family heirloom." The metaphor Woolsey likes to use to describe cleaning is Disney-esque: "You imagine fairies have been in there: Glitter, poof, the house is clean," he says.
It's the image evoked on Whishbroom's homemade business cards, which show a broom stirring up dust that becomes tiny stars. Kimball designed the name and concept, which Woolsey sees as a good-luck talisman for the business: "She kind of, like, called the spirits and came up with this magical name, Whishbroom. It works like magic every time."
Kimball joins the conversation. With her cropped leather jacket and hip, '80s-inspired hairstyle, it's no surprise that she works at Burlington's upscale salon Indigo.
When do people know it's time to hire a housecleaner? I ask, still fishing for guidance about my own predicament.
"When they feel like they want to treat themselves, because they deserve it," Woolsey answers.
Kimball adds, "Or when you start being in a grumpy mood every day, and you're complaining about the clutter in your house."
"Or you work too hard," Woolsey picks up the tune. "After working all day, you want to come home and clean your house? Not really!"
These two really know how to sell. And according to Woolsey, what they sell in their now-separate careers is pretty similar. "We're both like therapists," he says. "She cuts people's hair, I clean their house, and both jobs are just like therapy for people."
He has a point. Viewed as a battle against germs, housework is a grim prospect at best, full of difficult choices like the one between using toxic chemicals and worrying about food poisoning. But on the macro level, there's something intrinsically pleasant about coming home to a vacuumed floor or a neatly organized basement. Some- how the order outside puts things in order inside your head, too.
Do you have to do the chores yourself to feel the satisfaction, or can a professional cleaning elf offer it to you? I'm curious, and Woolsey's rates sound reasonable. But for now, until I get busier - and richer - the ascetic in me wins out. I remember my Swiss German grandmother, who used to come to my divorced dad's house and promptly start wiping down cabinets. True, I barely even saw the dirty fingerprints she was attacking, much less cared. But when it comes to controlling your space and imposing your vision, I get where Grandma was coming from.
Plus, after a day at the desk, some sweating feels good. Woolsey reminds me of another benefit of DIY cleaning: It's cheaper than a gym membership. "Housecleaning, if you do it properly, is the hardest job in the world," he insists. "But it's the best aerobic workout you can possibly get."