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Cleaning My Room

The author cleans his room and, to some extent, himself.

7'6" stack of books.

I find it hard to clean. Certainly the basics are simple. If I can kneel, mix warm water with chemicals, and hold a broom or mop while moving my arms, I should be able to bring a blessed sense of order to my tiny apartment. Yet it's taken me 5 years in this space to have even the desire to see it organized.

What I need is fundamental order, not nice carpets and fine furniture. I want to let a friend into the bathroom to pee without insisting she wait while I fix a few things first. I want my bed to be sleeved in clean sheets, not cluttered with books and papers, my closet to be a sorted index of good clothing options, not a chaotic pile of shirts and pants, clean and unclean, which must be sniff-tested moments before I run out the door. But keeping any real order has been stunningly hard.

Something always gets me down when I have the broom in my hand. I ask myself, how could I let it get this bad? How can I be such a fuckup? Going through boxes, I uncover photos of old girlfriends; one woman's face, in particular, crops up every time I clean, and I always put it away somewhere with the idea that I'll find a place for it in some album at a later date, only to find her again a few months later, her 19-year-old face, framed by blond hair, smiling at me across the table of a coffee-shop in Alfred, New York. I say “hello” to her, now, even though she stopped speaking with me years ago. “How you doing?” I ask. “I hope it turned out okay. Sorry I was such an asshole.”

Usually, after an hour or so of such discoveries, I put down the broom, telling myself I've got a good start, and step over the stacks of undershirts and printouts to the bed, where I curl up on the mattress with a random collection of sheets, clothes, pillows, and printed matter. I sleep very peacefully, then, having just escaped the weird emotional territory into which cleaning sends me while feeling I've accomplished at least something. Within three days things are just as messy; entropy trumps progress, and I'm back where I started, humbled by my own - laziness? denial? I don't know.

If you wanted psychological reasons for this inability to keep order, you could find a dozen - but I don't trust easy, causal rationales. My father and mother are no strangers to clutter, although of different sorts; my mother's clutter is comprised of projects in flux, unfinished rag dolls waiting for her needle to add eyes and limbs, half-painted canvases, stacks of books waiting to be sorted. My father's clutter is of the more fundamental kind, an eccentric bachelor's chaos, old sofas with rips in the sides, piles of printouts with poems and stories, two wooden wardrobes turned on their sides with a mattress on top to form a bed. But neither of my parents seem unhappy in their homes; they sculpt their environments to their liking, whether by constant adaptation and shuffling, in the case of my mother, or through accumulated, but comfortable, neglect, as with my father. My mess, on the other hand, has been a source of guilt and shame.

Perhaps you could find the source of this angst in my most structured years, from 1990-1992, when I went to Milton Hershey School, an institution for poor kids of moderate promise, which encouraged the development of Christian morals through strict discipline. We were scolded out of bed at 05:30 and given chores - to scrub toilets with toothbrushes, to dust the baseboards of the common areas, to vacuum elegant triangles into the carpets of the bedrooms and communal living room. The bedrooms were inspected daily to ensure flat bedspreads and organized closets; an infraction would lead to demerits, and demerits determined whether you could go to town for 4 unsupervised hours on Friday night, to taste the mundane delights of Hershey, PA. When we came back from school there were still more chores, an endless supply of sorting and sweeping and scrubbing.

On the weekends, we waxed everything. We waxed the stairs and the floors of the basement room, where the boys entered and changed into our house shoes - ugly slippers which were never to touch the outside ground. We waxed the laundry room and kitchen floor. We cleaned out the fridge and hosed the driveway. Every surface gleamed, and there was absolutely nothing unique or creative about our space. Freedom - sneaking out at night, writing stories with swear words in them, going for a walk after dark - could only be obtained by carefully hiding your intentions, by pretending to do something else. A locked door was unthinkable, and the bathroom stalls had no doors.

Occasionally I still find a spare dress sock from those years, with my name and student home printed on a nylon tag: “Paul Ford MHS Rosemont.” So perhaps my sense of chaos is a latent rebellion against such structure. That would be a logical explanation, but the truth is, I enjoyed the work. In absolute boredom, I once triple-waxed the laundry floor, turning it into a Sisyphusian challenge, attempting to find the limits of shine. It took me 4 hours and when it was done, the housefather clasped my hand, laughing, and congratulated me with an extra merit point. I didn't understand the need for such hygiene, I didn't feel it, but I accepted it as a responsibility, an obligation in exchange for free room and board and education.

In college all of this was undone; I was a slob, but so was everyone, and it's hard to mess up a dorm room, when you take your meals in the cafeteria and move every year. Even so, I was known for my clutter - at one point I had several boxes of magazines (for making collages), two stereos, and a 7-foot-tall puppet theater with brocaded curtains in my room, which I shared with a roommate who kept several typewriters and a number of books at his call. We were avid about junk.

I carried much of that junk with me to New York, finally coming to rest in Brooklyn. For the last 5 years I've struggled with my apartment, as I described above. It amazes me, when I walk into the place after a client meeting, wearing an ironed shirt and tie, having presented myself successfully in a PowerPoint presentation, to find my trash can overflowing, crusted dishes resident in the sink, and everywhere books and clothes, with nothing hung on the walls, and a slowly deepening surface of books on all exposed surfaces. The paradox of my exterior self and interior space made me feel that I was presenting a total lie to the rest of the world. The young, capable fellow who was describing the merits of good branding and smart data sharing to corporate souls was a complete fraud who could not keep his bed made.

In the intervals when I was dating, I would try to clean prior to a woman visiting, but it was another kind of fraud. A few hours before her knock was due, I shoved things in the closet, dumped soapy water on the bathroom floor, put the dishes away. It was an obvious cover-up, like putting a tuxedo on an orangutan, or lipstick on a harelip. Sometimes as we slept in my hurriedly made bed whole stacks of books would fall, or unevenly piled boxes (“I'm going to get to those this week!”) would topple and their contents - photographs, paperclips, cassettes - would fan out across the dirty wooden floor. The fitted sheet would snap loose and tangle in our feet.

.  .  .  .  .  

Once the plug to the fridge slipped its outlet. I was working full-time, often going out to restaurants with clients or ordering dinner to my desk, so it was a full three weeks after the plug fell out before I happened to open the refrigerator to get some ice.

The smell was a solid thing that came forth and slapped me hard across the face. I pushed the door closed, confused and horrified. My grapefruits had grown fur, and turned brown and amorphous, dribbling through the bars of the metal shelves, looking more like monkey heads than grapefruits.

Overwhelmed, I plugged the fridge back in and left the apartment for a walk. When I returned the reek was dissipated. A few days later, burning incense, I held my breath, opened the white metal door, and turned the temperature setting to maximum cold. It was my strategy to freeze the evil matter before opening the fridge again. In the meantime, a friend came to visit for a few days.

“Make yourself at home, but don't open the fridge,” I said.

“But see, Paul, that's scary, when you say that,” she said.

“It's scarier in the fridge,” I said.

“I'm not confident, right now, that I'm staying in the right place,” she said. “What's in there? A human arm? Your ex-girlfriend? I haven't seen you in a few years, and you won't let me look in your fridge. Anything could have happened.”

“It's just a problem I'm having. I could explain it, but I don't want you to be as disappointed in me as I know you would be if I told you the whole story. It's just in your best interest to leave it alone. I only want you to enjoy your time in New York.”

“And I'll enjoy it less if I look in, say, your freezer?”

“Given that the freezer is inside the fridge, yes, I think so. I think that would make you feel sad, and concerned for my well-being.”

“This conversation has already had that effect.”

“I'm painfully aware of this, and I calculated that this would be the case. But the vague mistrust you're feeling is nothing compared to what you'd feel if you actually looked in the fridge.”

She frowned, suspicious, but did not open the fridge during her visit. Then, when everything inside the fridge was close to freezing, I opened the white door, and, holding my breath and squinting - because the smell was strong enough to affect my vision - I shoveled every item into two trash bags which I immediately sealed and took down to the curb.

Returning, I opened the fridge again and scrubbed at a variety of green and brown residues, sponging out the evil that had festered, then frozen, and was now coming back to life in the warmth of the soapy water. When it was over and the last remnants of awfulness had circled the kitchen drain, I felt genuinely accomplished, as if I had wrestled some mold-demon. I slept soundly. A day later, as if to remind me that my problems ran deeper than simple rotting food, rats began to scratch under the sink.

.  .  .  .  .  

The story of the rats is a long one, and I will only summarize it here. I have never seen the rats. They are too large to escape the steel-wool barriers I have installed at every possible rat entry point.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, mice can get through. The mice are a constant threat. I once discovered a mouse in my bed with me, which resulted in a complete screaming flip-out, and once, after I'd left out a box of green-pellet poison which slowly vanished over a week, I watched as a parched, poisoned mouse walked into the center of the room, struggling with each step, fell, and lay there, legs twitching for an eternal minute, until I could stomach putting it into the dustpan and throwing it out the window.

My neighbor has also suffered at the paws of the mice. One night he was listening to avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and when Coleman hit a particularly noisome note, 4 mice ran out from under the stereo cabinet. He screamed like a girl, and the next day, he set many traps with pickles, and waited up at night to hear them snap, and rose the next morning to find each trap licked perfectly clean. The next night he pressed the pickles into bits of peanut butter; the adherent qualities of the peanut butter would force the mice to pull on the pickles, and this would set off the traps, he reasoned. The next morning, the traps shone like fresh-minted coins. He added more peanut butter the next night, and the mice appreciated it fully, and ambled back to their holes with full bellies. At my urging, he took some of my poison and, before many days, the mice came no more.

Another friend, in Manhattan, caught a mouse in a glue trap, and when he picked it up it began to thrash, and he lost his grip and the mouse and glue trap were both stuck to his shirt, the mouse twisting against his chest, squeaking. “I took off the shirt and ran out bare chested and threw it into the gutter,” he said. “It was winter, and snowing, and it flopped around in the gutter. I went back into my apartment to hyperventilate.”

Even though my apartment was messy, I was always cautious about food trash - but in the winter months they sense the warmth and come to investigate even the tiniest crumbs. If you think I am cruel you have not experienced the feeling of sharing your tiny, open space - your bed, even, where you are naked and vulnerable, alone with the gloom of streetlamps and the sound of passing cars - with unknown, befurred living things. If you find my lack of mercy unappealing, you have not found fecal pellets - green, because they have feasted on poison - in your bedclothes, or been woken up by resolute scratching at the base of your stove. If you had, you would have developed a cold and brutal eye towards vermin, no matter how cute, no matter what their rights on this earth; you would have found in yourself a primal, urgent desire to kill without mercy, a perverse wish to see your enemy so that you might see them suffer, to entrap and destroy each and every one of the toxic, plague-carrying beasts.

I've been writing about mice, probably because they are pleasant to contemplate in comparison with rats. Mice are small and dull creatures which will retreat if you keep fighting them. Rats are a different story; they are cunning, strong, and have the evolutionary wisdom of thousands of years of outsmarting humans. I live near the Gowanus canal, which breeds monster rats in its toxic depths, bulletproof rats the size of Easter hams, with red eyes the size of dinner plates and whiskers as thick as broom straws. Sometimes they come right up on the subway platform at Smith&9th and you must walk past them, teeth clenched, vowing not to show fear. You expect them to bark, or to steal a human baby from its stroller and secret it away into their ulterior tunnels.

Sometimes, about twice a year, rats come up the pipes and scratch beneath my sink. They are so loud that I have been able to hold the phone to the floor so that a friend in Pennsylvania could hear them. To rid myself of them I have drilled holes into the sink cabinet and stuffed poison and bleach into the holes, then filled the holes with steel wool.

The first few times they came to visit, that scratching filled me with horror, going on for hours at night, during which I would lie awake and wonder when they would break through, and how many there were, and if they would eat me. I would thrash spasmodically when I felt a blanket brush my toe, imagining that they were upon me. But now, three years and three visitations later, the sound of their scratching is familiar enough that when I hear it I go immediately into action, and following my routine of poison and bleach, inviting them to enjoy themselves, welcoming them to dine. “Eat up, motherfuckers! Have a big green dinner!”

Within a day the scratching ceases and, a few days later, my neighbor and I discuss the smell coming out of the walls, a smell of sweet rot, and while we are disgusted and depressed to have to live here, we are also grateful that we never directly witnessed the dirty gray-brown rats themselves. We joke that our building, which is old and worn, cheaply constructed, prone to shaking when trains pass by, is actually supported by rat skeletons, that the entire thing would falll into dust if the rats were not filling the walls.

.  .  .  .  .  

Besides the rats, there is dust. The dust in this busy, semi-industrial part of Brooklyn is cruel. A slow, constant blackness of exhaust and dirt rolls in through the window-screens. I often got sore throats until I set up an air-cleaner, which gives off a mild roar and saturates carbon filters with filth every three months or so. I wash the filters in my bathtub, and the water turns ebony as it passes over them.

The dust is a force unto itself, a feature of New York life. Weekly, I can be found - 6'3" with 54-inch shoulders, a scruffy face and shaven head - spinning delicately around my room with a blue feather duster, singing my dusting song, which goes:

Fuck fuck fuck fuck.
(Cough for 5 minutes.)
Jesus Christ.
I have to move.
Oh my God. Ungh.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck. (Cough).
Oh Jesus.

The dust is powerful; it penetrates the apartment completely, even in winter, no matter how hermetic the seal on my windows.

.  .  .  .  .  

In this plaza of dust, amongst milling rats, I have lived my last 5 years. I have only been ill two or three times, perhaps because the constant presence of environmental poisons has inured me, like a steady vaccine, to most forms of infectious filth. I have been moderately happy here, with an excellent friend for a neighbor and numerous places to eat greasy, emotion-numbing food. Lately the neighborhood looked to be picking up, but the recession has fixed that, and the methadone clinic around the block is doing a brisk business, while the new, upscale restaurants of Smith St. seem much more empty than they were 6 months ago.

In this environment, suddenly, recently, without warning, as the acrid and unmistakable smell of the still-burning WTC wafted through my windows, with winter waiting impatiently for its turn on stage, as anthrax spores drifted through mailrooms, I had a total desire to clean, to really clean, and to face down the beast of disorder. I had no clear motive: there was no woman I wanted to invite over. I seemed to be cleaning only for myself.

When people meet me they often think me quite capable; a year or two later they might thing me still capable, but less mature than they thought - not that I am immature, but my ability with language often casts me in the eyes of others as a sort of emotional savant, and I am not - I am a 27-year-old goof, and I am as much an idiot as the next guy, as much a seeker after comfort and as little likely to hold any keys to life. I just know how to make it sound good, and unfortunately, people associate this ability with wisdom, an association I can avow as entirely false.

And one of the indicators of my immaturity has been this chaos, this hurricane of objects with myself at its eye. Why can't they come out to Brooklyn, they ask themselves. Why can't Paul, who seems mostly sane, let me up into his apartment?

The answer was simple: because I am not ready. I am not ready to have people witness the chaos manifest from my inner life. My home, my apartment, has no neutrality; it is filled with me, with my energies, my smell, my ideas, my loneliness. All the things I shuttered from view were there, and I knew that people would find them disappointing, that they would reveal an ugly vulnerability.

And more importantly, I had no desire to change. Even though I knew that by most standards I was a horrid slob, I enjoyed my cluttered nest, the sea of books and papers, the closed-in pressure of my world. It kept me safe, a cross between a junk shop and a library, with elements of the womb. So while I feared others seeing it, feared them intuiting my inner chaos, I felt safe in the chaos, and did not wish to give it up.

And that was how I was for 5 years, from age 22-27, until in the last few days, something finally changed - something I'd been building up to for at least a year, and I found myself on my knees with a plastic brush, scrubbing and singing. Within only a few directed hours, my apartment came into a ruddy focus. The books settled into the shelves I'd built last year. The filing cabinets opened up to received the bills and notebooks that had previously mixed in milk crates. The soft span of the bed, with its box spring and mattress, became even and comforting, the pillows in their cases. I took 8 bags of garbage to the curb.

In the middle of this long, sweaty day of cleaning, I felt a familiar fear, the fear which normally sends me into the bed for comfort. I kept at it, though, refusing to be distracted until I'd reached a point of real progress, something I couldn't screw up.

A few hours past that moment, when I wanted to retreat, I became unexpectedly furious. I was in a blind mopping rage, with sharks in my stomach. I began yelling at people I hadn't seen in months or years, at the old girlfriends who had been offended by the chaos, at the friends I hadn't invited, at myself. The anger came out in short bursts, full of curses, dust billowing everywhere as I filled dustpans, forcing the bathroom tiles into whiteness, attacking the toilet with an old toothbrush and cleaning powder until it gleamed like a tooth.

That anger, which was thick as caramel, finally dissolved back into my blood, worked out by the vigor of my sweeping, and I identified it as it left me: it was directed at all those people who'd been disappointed, or who I felt had been disappointed in my physical chaos. It was directed at anyone who had thought less of me for being a mess, for being overweight, for not having control over those simple of my being, for those who saw my potential as a write and my ability to speak smoothly and could not accept those talents but instead desired for me to be a little bit cooler, a good bit thinner, more presentable - and even if they held their tongues, I could always tell what they were thinking, because the people I'm thinking of, men and women, are those who loved me, and whom I loved.

Isn't that a common story? The narrative of lost potential? Possibilities squandered in nights of drinking, the shape of a body lost between slices of pie, lovers dawdling lovelessly until frustration forces their relationship to crack open? And here I was, as foolish as everyone else, feeling a long and unspoken anger emerging because (read this line in a child's whine) no one loved me for who I was. This was the same adolescent angst I thought I'd abandoned when I went to college, but it seemed to have chased me to New York, where it permeated the squalor of my apartment.

It's a strange combination of feelings: I make a mess of myself to keep people away, then blame them for not loving me enough. I have always felt this specific inadequacy, as if my intelligence and capabilities were somehow false promises - I'm a bright, blue-eyed man with a big voice but I can't clean my room; like being fat, it's a comically tragic flaw, something easy enough to remedy (just clean the fucking place! just throw stuff away!) but somehow always out of my reach. A few days ago, finally, the branch lowered enough for me to pluck at it, and here I was, treating the floor with pine-scented soap.

As I put down a rug, aligning it as best I could with the crooked walls, I felt like an explorer reaching the highest point in the arctic after years of struggle, his mutinous crew long departed, and I wanted to raise my mop like a flag and yell, “you see, you gave up on me, but I made it, to this trivial point, to this small and stupid place that seemed entirely out of reach, and even though I'm 3 years from 30 and it's too late, I'm here, and I can invite anyone in, without shame, no more crammed closets, no more boxes filled with things I'll deal with later, nothing hidden. I am out in the open, exposed, open to criticism.” I put the mop away, and called a friend to ask her over.

.  .  .  .  .  

2 sneakers

We sat on the futon and read Plato's Republic out loud, taking turns as Socrates. I can hear eyes rolling as you read that; reading philosophy is certainly not a cool activity, and it seems pretentious, but it wasn't, and it was nice not to have to come up with my own sentences, to have someone else's words available. We each had a different translation - mine from the 1880s or so, allusive, with long, florid sentences, hers very modern, accurate, with more attention to the gender of pronouns, and simple, plain style. There was entertainment in comparing the translations, sensing the ancient Greek hiding somewhere between the two, trying to put some drama in the text, criticizing Socrates awesome arrogance.

2 hours later, I walked her to the Carroll Gardens stop and we waited outside, watching the tracks for the train. She gave me a kiss (a Platonic kiss, in context), and I walked home and sat in the lamplight and felt a radiant pleasure at the blue of the carpet, the brown of the deeply scratched floorboards, the glimmer of my manual typewriter's glass keys, elements of a chaos now put into place, my black jacket hung by the door, the bathroom floor comfortable to my bare feet. All the small things which, when they were scattered, were emblems of my confusion and private sadness, now rested quietly above the floor, on shelves, free of fear and anger.

In the gloaming.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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