Cleaning Lady: The worst jobs I ever did

I’ve been asked before “what’s the worst cleaning job you ever did?” and really the answer kind of depends how you define “worst” but I’ll assume you want juicy details of something really gross. No problem, I got three.

I once cleaned for a man who was a shut-in and had a mental illness. He also had some medical problems and took a cornucopia of very serious medications. He had a pet bird who resided in an open-doored cage. This means there was not only bird droppings everywhere, there were birdseed hulls everywhere as well. And feathers.  When I say “everywhere” I mean, the room this man stayed in. He lived with his brother, the man who hired me. The room was covered in trash, which was expected, but the trash was kind of mixed in with “important” things too. I know because the brother spent considerable amount of time detailing the kinds of things I was NOT to throw away. Because he knew his brother (who was away at a doctor’s appointment) would probably freak the hell out if any of his important things were gone. Most of the Important Things were books. I can certainly understand that as books are very important to me as well. He had a lot of them. Very good books, too from what I could tell. Sadly, not all the books were in good condition; many had been broken into parts and strewn about. We tried to organize them together but it was not something we wanted to spend a lot of time doing because I wasn’t even sure he would appreciate it. Maybe he liked them being broken into pieces and strewn about. We debated about it but decided to just do whatever we could in the time we had (the brother had told us how much time he could afford)  It was a pretty amazing mess but bird droppings, seed hulls, book remnants, old clothes (some of which were moldy and had to be thrown away) various hygiene objects (toothbrushes, nail clippers, combs etc) and letters (LOTS of letters) – that was all familiar territory (well okay maybe not the bird stuff). What made this quite possibly the worst job I ever did was the bathroom. I worked with a partner in those days and I pretty much always did the bathroom and kitchen because that’s my specialty. I  don’t just clean kitchens and bathrooms I TRANSFORM them.

So I went into the bathroom and nearly vomited. There was stains on the toilet, the sink, the cabinets, the shower curtain, the tub the WALLS – all stained with a brown-ish coating of… well, it appeared to be a mixture of diarrhea and vomit.  I could tell because it was… textured. I spent at least two hours in that bathroom alone. And it was a very small bathroom too. I bleached the shower curtain in the tub and discovered it was actually supposed to be white. I organized his medication box too – tossed out a BUNCH of expired bottles. I threw away underwear he had stained and stashed under the cabinet.

So between the shit-vomit scrubbing and the utterly depressing state of the man’s library, it was pretty heinous. But really it was very sad to me. Because this man was a veteran… I know it was no exaggeration because  I found medals he’d been awarded and pictures of him in uniform. I don’t know exactly what happened to him after the war (Desert Storm, I think) but something did.  I found his college writings. I found his personal notes. I found pictures of a happier time in his past. Even drawings: the man could draw! I found many little pieces of a former life that pointed to a highly intelligent, curious, creative and happy individual. And here he was, living inside a room with nothing but a bird and his loving but overwhelmed brother. Schizophrenia isn’t pretty, but it isn’t scary either; its very sad.

On the other hand, that job had a sort of weird feeling to it: it was sad but because of that, it made us feel kind of good about what we were doing. I mean, we were getting paid so it wasn’t like we thought of ourselves as Florence Nightingale, but really, we were helping them. After all, we got the job because the brother had twice tried to hire someone else and each cleaner had walked in, taken one look and walked right back out again. And there’s something about brushing up against someone’s tragic story without even knowing them that makes you gain a kind of attachment to seeing a decent outcome. I doubt those two men had any kind of miraculous conclusion but at least for a couple of days (we came probably about three times) their lives maybe weren’t so incredibly awful. Maybe?

So perhaps I should say the worst job I ever had was the time I cleaned an apartment that was home to (I think) around 15 cats. In one room. The woman who hired me wasn’t exactly a neatnik herself – her floor was so covered in trash that I could not SEE if there was carpet or wood in the living room – but she had somewhere along the way decided to give the second bedroom over to her growing collection of cats.

A room with around 15 cats and three litter boxes. Three. For 15 cats.

The litter boxes were sitting on a shower curtain …actually two shower curtains. I remember because the second one was clear so I didn’t quite realize what was going on after I moved the boxes and peeled the first curtain up. I can’t even begin to describe what it looked like so I’ll just tell you what had happened and maybe you can imagine for yourself. The litter boxes were resting atop two shower curtains BUT the cats had managed to urinate on the outside of the boxes enough that the urine had seeped into the wood floor, warped it creating furrows and hills which allowed for more urine to travel down under the curtain. Over time, the floor deteriorated and the curtain was starting to get dissolved by the festering urine. Also, some interesting forms of mold were growing under and around the whole setup. So the clear curtain was more or less fused to the floor and when I tried to pull it up, it came in pieces. Bits of it fused well enough (or were decomposed? enough) that I could not pick it up to pull it off. I had to use… a butter knife. Why? Because I generally do not bring a paint scraper when I go to clean someone’s place. So I sat there and tried to carefully scrape the new chemical arrangement of “feline floor soup” without scraping the varnish of the floor itself. It didn’t take long before I realized that the varnish was no longer protecting the floor and had at some point become part of the cat offal batter. I figured this out because the wood under the “varnish” was blackened. Yes, blackened.

So I cleaned that one room for about four hours. I got it as clean as I was capable of doing and applied oil-based floor polish in a vain attempt to protect whatever was left of the floor.

Then I worked on the trim. Some of which came away in my hands because the wood had rotted from repeated spraying.

Then I went into the kitchen and did a mini-version of what I had done in the cat-room. Because you see, she had about five *other* cats who were allowed to roam the rest of the apartment. They had two litter boxes of their own which were also sitting atop shower curtains. Luckily (I feel almost hysterically insane using that word) those boxes were in the kitchen. On vinyl flooring. Next to the wall. Which had wood trim. Which had been repeatedly sprayed as well.

Then when I was done, I cleaned the kitchen. All I remember of the kitchen was washing a LOT of dishes.

Then I bagged trash. TWENTY BAGS.  I wish I was exaggerating. I am not. TWENTY BAGS (13 gallon bags) of trash from teh floors. This is not including trash from the cat boxes which I had already taken out.  Infuriatingly, her garbage dumpster was at the other end of the apartment building. It took me at least 7 trips and 30 minutes just to carry it all to the dumpster. I had never wished for a wagon so hard in my life.

You know why she hired me? Because she was in danger of eviction. Her neighbors had complained about the smell of her apartment. ALL the neighbors. THe ones upstairs AND next door. AND two floors up. I had to explain to her that the saturation of urine in the wood trim and floors meant I could not remove all the smell. Her apartment was going to keep reeking of eau de chat until all the wood was ripped out and new floors and trim were put in. She was distressed that I was not able to “fix” the floors myself.

Then there was the apartment of the woman who had done a study-abroad thing in India. While she was gone, a friend of hers “cat sit” for her. Apparently “cat sit” does not include changing a litter box. In fact, her friend, rather than clean out the litter box, went and bought a new one for the woman’s cat to use. She did that TWICE. Also, “cat sit” apparently does not entail taking out one’s own trash OR doing one’s own dishes.  FOR SIX MONTHS. That was the only job I have ever done where I had to clean the dried remains of MAGGOTS. All. Over. The Kitchen. It took a long time because I had to keep going outside to breathe. The smell of maggots makes me gag.  I asked the woman about her friend and she said when she returned the first thing she did was call her friend and say “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS WRONG WITH YOU!?!” and no, they most certainly were not friends any more. I had to agree with her wisdom. I did think that her cat deserved an award for continuing to use the litter box despite it piling up and up and up for two months. The fact that the cat did not once poop or pee outside of the box amazes me. But the woman wanted to keep two of the litter boxes so I wasn’t able to just throw them out, I had to actually empty one of them. I swear that was at least fifty pounds of cat detritus. The rest of the mess was just her “friend’s” trash and garbage. While I covered my nose and vowed to always bring breathing masks to new jobs.
That woman didn’t tip me.

So I don’t know. One of those three would probably be “worst job evar”