Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Madame Caputo

Okay, I'm trying to get back into this. Apparently it's harder for me to get into writing habits than I thought. Below is a little story about housecleaning, hope you enjoy it.


It all started with facebook, what doesn’t these days? A friend of a friend had typed “Christina now has clean laundry and a mostly clean house” as her status update. I know Christina through my friends Holly and Jeremy. I’d run into her a couple times by chance, most recently in Grant Park at the Obama rally, and once last winter at the Alliance Française for a screening of short films. I’d gone to the screening alone, as I sometimes do to these kinds of events, and was happy to see a familiar face. The films ranged from great to forgettable. My favorite was about a woman who was about to get fired from her job selling candy wholesale, when her boss unexpectedly gets dumped by her boyfriend and is stranded at work. The saleswoman sees her boss looking forlorn at a bus stop, and offers her a ride home. The two spend the evening line dancing at a Texas themed club, and stay up late drinking red wine and talking about men. Whether or not the saleswoman ultimately gets fired is open to interpretation, as are most endings in French cinema. After the screening, Christina and her boyfriend Phillip invited me to join them for tapas, and we had a fabulous time. The moment I got home I sent Holly an email that started with “guess who I ran into at the Alliance Française?”

I commented on Christina’s facebook status update with:

“wanna come over and clean my house too?”

“What does it pay? LOL”.

“I would SO pay you to clean my house”

“I’ll do it!” she wrote.

Christina had recently been laid off from her job doing something mysterious in the suburbs. She had once been sent on an errand to buy $40 candles that were scented with her boss’s favorite cologne. The shop owner was familiar with him, and while holding a candle to her nose said:

“It smells like him!”

“I know,” Christina replied, “It’s like he’s in the room!”

I’ve toyed with the idea of paying others to do my housework for some time, but never go through with it. I’m intimidated by the efficiency and demeanor of housecleaning services, and feel like they’re for people with multi level homes in the suburbs, not people who have a 50% share of a two flat in northwest Chicago and can’t keep up with cleaning all of seven rooms.

My family had a housecleaner once when I was little, before my parents were divorced, when my mom was a homemaker and we lived in western Switzerland. Her name was Madame Caputo, which my mother said means “broken” in Italian, but according to the online dictionary could mean either the 1st person singular present indicative of the verb “capitare” – to happen or to occur, or the masculine singular past participle of the word “capire” –to understand. She had a daughter named Orfelina who was my age, and sometimes she’d come over and we’d play with my stuffed animals while Madame Caputo scrubbed our kitchen counters and mopped our floors with her substantial arms. We spoke to each other in French, as her English was limited, and my Italian was negligible. I had stolen an eyeshadow from my teenaged sister, and Orfelina used it to beautify a stuffed monkey. It never did come off, the monkey’s face forever locked in a wide eyed look of lavender surprise.

My mother drove me to Madame Caputo’s two room apartment once for a playdate with Orfelina, and we spent the afternoon inventing stories for her dolls in broken French, and trying our best to keep out of Madame Caputo’s way. Her father was still in Italy, the exact circumstances were unclear, but I’d heard that Madame Caputo sent part of her earnings there each month. When it was time to eat, Madame Caputo asked me:

“Jesska, ta famm?” stressing the “m” in the word “faim”. For years I would mispronounce this word, corrected only recently by Virginie Dasse, a teacher at the Alliance Française, who said to me:

“On ne prononce pas le ‘m’ J, ‘tu as faim’” pronouncing it something like “fan” without the “n”, and stressing the nasal ending.

“Faim”, I repeated, to indicate that I understood.

When my parents split up, my mother gave Madame Caputo an earthenware salt cellar that she’d admired during her tenure as our housecleaner. My mother replaced it, but the new one wasn’t quite right. The lettering was off – the old one had the word “sel” pressed into it in a pleasing sans serif font. The new one had the same word, but the lettering looked like an attempt at old English, like something you might find on the cover of a heavy metal album. She keeps it on a counter next to her stove, and every time I look at it, I miss the old one.

After our exchange of facebook comments, I sent Christina an actual email:

“I'm not even kidding about paying you to clean my house. The big problem right now is that we had some water damage in the basement that weekend in September when all it did was rain, and our main bedroom is in the basement. Since then we've torn up the part of the carpet that was damaged, and moved our bed into the "guest bedroom” (it's really a junk room), and it's been chaos ever since. Does $10 per hour and all the coffee you can drink sound fair? I'd pay extra if you cleaned the inside of the refrigerator. I'll throw in whatever beer happens to be in the fridge too.”

She accepted, and I told M that we were getting our house cleaned on Monday. His argument against hiring a housecleaner has always been that in order for someone to clean our house, it has to be orderly enough to for a stranger to come in and make sense of it. We would have to do something about the mountains of paper on the dining room table, and the clothes hanging limply over the backs of chairs and stacked in piles on the floor. After discussing the relative weirdness of having someone else go through our things, we agreed that it was not okay to ask her do laundry, but okay to have her clean the bathroom, and impossible to ask her to clean our disaster area of a bedroom. We decided it was fairer to pay her a flat rate than by the hour, since our place is small, but disgusting.

Christina and I had a few more email exchanges, and spoke on the phone Sunday evening. For an amateur, she sounded very professional. She asked that I leave the cleaning supplies in a central location in the kitchen so she wouldn’t have to root around looking for them, confirmed which rooms needed cleaning, and offered a refund if we weren’t completely satisfied with her work.

“Just the fact that the house will be clean and I won’t have to do it will be awesome,” I said.

I wrote up a quick checklist to make it easy for Christina to mark her progress through each room, put the compost bucket on the back porch so it wouldn’t gross her out, and wrote a note telling her not to use comet on our tub because it’s made of fiberglass.

It felt strange to write such tediously domestic details in a note, and for a moment I felt like an ageing dowager unable to keep up with the housecleaning, shouting orders at hired hands from my daybed. In a surge of guilt, I put an extra $10 into the envelope that I’d left for her next to the coffee pot.

The pre-cleaning done, I settled into the couch with the remote control. And then I heard something. It was soft, but insistent, like snow landing in big flakes on a screen window.

“Are you sweeping?” I asked.


“What are you doing? Someone is coming to clean our house tomorrow.”

“I can’t leave it this way, I’m too ashamed,” M said, sweeping together enough fur to make a new cat.

“Well, just do that one thing, and then stop,” I said.

In the morning I made an extra large pot of coffee, and left for work. All day I wondered what it meant that someone was else cleaning my house. Was I a slob? Perhaps. Did I officially have disposable income to throw around? Well, this week I did. To soothe myself, I imagined that I was doing my part to stimulate the economy in a time of financial crisis, and putting good karma into the world by throwing a few extra dollars to someone who needed it.

When I got home, it was like stepping into a dream. Where there had been dust there was shiny wood floor, where there had been oil and drippings cooked onto the stovetop, there was smooth reflective surface, and where there had been a colorful assortment of refrigerator spills, there were now neat rows of condiments.

So this is what it’s like, I thought. Unsure of what to do with myself, I surveyed the spotless scene. It was like walking through someone else’s house, someone better than me, someone who kept up with vacuuming and knew how to pronounce things correctly in French.

I made dinner, obsessing over every tiny drip on the stove, and wiping it up immediately. Afterwards I put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink, and set up the coffee maker with water and grounds instead of leaving it for the morning.

With no housecleaning chores hanging over our heads, we settled into the vacuumed couch, disturbing the perfectly arranged cushions, and turned on the spotless television.

We watched a documentary on PBS about Kennedy’s assassination, which was riveting even in its repetitiveness. Was Oswald acting alone? Was Sam Giancana involved? Why are assassins always known by their first, middle, and last names? As I watched Jackie climb onto the back of the convertible in frames 212 to 230 of the Zapruder film, I couldn’t help but think that maybe she was just concerned about the appearance of the automobile, tidying up after bits of her husband’s grey matter had sprayed onto the back of the car.

And then I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. One of the cats was playing with something, something small and brown and shaped like an Easter egg.

“Is that a turd?” I asked.

“Is what a turd?”

“That – that thing there.”

I got up from the couch and walked over to where our tabby sat, just outside the closet that houses three litter boxes.

“It’s a turd all right” I said, and went to find some tissue to pick it up. “Well,” I said, flushing it down the toilet, “how long was that, about four hours?”

“How long was what?”

“Having a clean house.”