The Dirt on That Time I Went to Cleaning School

Our intrepid reporter, Judith Newman—a self-described lousy housekeeper—gets an immersive, hands-on lesson in scrubbing and dusting. 

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Photo by Maciej Toporowicz, NYC/Getty Images

My mother once gave me some valuable advice on housekeeping: “You want to feel better about your home? Take your glasses off.” (This was actually her advice for many things, including men.) For years her wise words contributed to my happiness. And growing up in the 70s in a suburb where many wives devoted themselves to ensuring that the nap of their shag rugs ran in the same direction, I got a certain perverse enjoyment out of having a mother who (a) had a career and (b) was a terrible housekeeper.

I inherited her lax M.O., which, while fine for me, is a source of frustration for my fastidious husband. This can all be summed up in a little story I like to call “Hair Ball”: Years ago, when we had a golden retriever, there was a tuft of Monty’s fur next to the bed. John wanted to see how long it would take me to notice, so he kept adding to it. Eventually it was nearly basketball-size. I never noticed. “Hair Ball” is now his shorthand for everything wrong with my cleaning aptitude.

So when Real Simple suggested I might benefit from what Merry Maids, an international cleaning company, calls “Boot Camp,” all John had to say was the magic word (Hair ball!), and I was—begrudgingly—on board. Staff training is typically held at a company facility, but for this story, a condensed version would take place in my home. When a person trains with Merry Maids, he or she has three weeks to learn the techniques. I had one day. It was a long day.

The House Call

As Debra Johnson surveys my apartment, I follow her around apologizing, even though it’s actually not so bad, because an hour ago I ran around straightening up. An easygoing blond from Memphis, Debra is one of Merry Maids’ top pros. About 18 years ago, she started as a house cleaner, and now she heads the company’s training program. If there is a stain she cannot get out, it must be made from the bodily fluids of aliens.

The plan is to clean three rooms: a bedroom, the kitchen, and a bathroom. Debra has brought along safety equipment (knee pads). My instinct is to crawl back into bed. But then she sits me down to discuss the cleaning implements that I should have. This makes me happy. I’m not great at cleaning, but I’m excellent at ordering things on Amazon. The first item is something that I already own: a device for getting rid of calluses.

“That’s not for feet. It’s a pumice scouring stick for cleaning toilet-bowl rings,” says Debra. “You wet it first, scrub a little, and the ring is gone.” Huh?

In all, there are about 14 products a Merry Maids cleaner uses (some custom-made), for every surface from tile to wood to glass. Nothing terrible will happen if you use the wrong product—except, perhaps, on stone surfaces. Colored all-purpose cleaners can bleed into stone, and foaming products you might use to remove soap scum can cause tile to pit. So it’s worthwhile to buy a specialized cleaner if you have marble, granite, or stone-tile surfaces.

Merry Maids uses green products with nonvolatile organic compounds whenever possible, as long as they clean as well as the regular products. Possibly the most important—and greenest—product you can buy is a steamer for hard surfaces that are sealed, like hardwood and ceramic-tile floors. They clean with heat and (steam-hot) water, not chemical agitation. Debra demonstrated on my tile floors. No question, it worked better than my regular cleaners, leaving none of the sticky residue that causes what my 13-year-old son Henry calls Gecko Feet.

Heart of Darkness

Debra and I decide to tackle Henry’s bed­room because it is the filthiest room in my house. It would be the filthiest room in your house, too. She explains two principles: Always clean from top to bottom so dirt falls downward and you don’t have to reclean, and tackle floors from the farthest end of a room, working your way toward the door. Just imagine that you’re talking to a crazy party guest and you need to back away slowly without getting trapped in a corner. That’s how it is with dirt.

The best way to clean a bedroom is to follow four steps:

  1. Straighten up. Make the bed; fluff the pillows; throw the toys in the bins. (You have bins, right? If you have young kids, you need bins.)
  2. Remove dust. Debra has a “high duster” for blinds, ceiling fans, and track lighting. It’s essentially a microfiber cloth on a stick.
  3. Wipe down. Use a microfiber (without solution) to wipe all furniture thoroughly. Work from the top of a piece to the bottom, and if it’s made of wood, follow the grain.
  4. Vacuum the floors. Merry Maids uses a strap-on vacuum that’s like wearing R2D2 on your back. For nonpros, Debra suggests the CleanMax Zoom. “It’s light and easy to carry up stairs, and it has two speeds,” she says. “Use the lower speed on an area rug so the vacuum doesn’t gobble it up.”

I am put on wall duty, using a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser on marks made from hours of bouncing balls. Debra has a crush on the Magic Eraser; it is second in her affections only to the microfiber cloths. I’m always a little afraid to find out what’s in them, because they’re great, and if they’re made of kittens, I don’t want to have to stop using them. (Not to worry, Debra says. It’s melamine foam.)

Land of Fingerprints

Next we go into the kitchen and wipe down the wood cabinets and the tile walls with a dampened micro­fiber cloth. Debra uses another cloth spritzed with Naturally Power-Polishing Stainless Steel Polish; it leaves my refrigerator shiny. The most used and most ignored area of my kitchen is the inside of the microwave, where apparently a murder took place. Turns out, it’s only the remnants of last night’s brisket. Debra takes a bowl of hot water and vinegar and nukes it for a few minutes. Ah, the miracle of steam! It is now easy to wipe off the goo. Finally, we use the stone cleaner on the marble countertop and the tile floor. I think I just saw my kitchen give off one of those cartoon twinkles you see in TV ads.

Oh, the Humidity!

According to Debra, a sanitized bathroom is all about precleaning: soap scum on the tub, hair-spray residue on the counter; the toilet rim speaks for itself. We spray product (multipurpose or stone cleaner, depending) and let it sit for five minutes. As the toilet bowl soaks, Debra attacks my globe lights and vents with a high duster. Evidently the vents were last dusted in the Age of Disco, because a frightening cloud of dust is released. Debra seems satisfied, and when the dust literally settles, she finishes wiping off surfaces with the microfiber cloths. “I give these as gifts,” she says, “along with the pumice toilet-bowl cleaners.”

“Everybody must look forward to Christmas at your house,” I say.

I discover that my soap dish comes apart for cleaning. Also, you may have a product formulated to remove soap scum from a glass shower door, but a spray bottle of heated water ( ½ cup), dish detergent (a few drops), and vinegar (1 teaspoon) works, too.

As I microfiber the shit out of my bathroom surfaces, Debra takes out a device called the Lil’ Chizler. It’s just what it sounds like. I chisel into the seams of the sink, countertop, and faucet handles. It’s as satisfying as cleaning your fingernails and a whole new arena for finding dirt.

While we work, I have to ask: What’s the worst thing Debra has ever found while cleaning a house? “One time, syrup had spilled in the back of a cabinet,” she says. That’s it? I was imagining a dead, flattened raccoon or something. I think Debra doesn’t want to be gossiping about clients, the way a therapist would be tight-lipped about patients. I press. “Well, there have been times you’re in a bathroom and think it’s a black shower,” she says. “Then, after cleaning a while, you realize it’s a white shower.” That’s gratifying. And it lets me off the hook. I’m pretty sure the worst I can be accused of is a white shower that looks more like eggshell.

Buy the Merry Maids-approved cleaning products here.