|The Wall Street Journal|
The $4,000 Spring Cleaning
I can think of a zillion fun ways to blow $4,000. I'm dreaming about a fancy, four-week vacation—with a personal porter to carry my iPhone. Or 388 stacks of pancakes at Café Luluc. Maybe a house in Detroit. Or how about...a really, really, really clean kitchen. I mean, super-duper clean. So clean you could invite your 10 most immunodeficient friends over for an Eat-Off-the-Floors-and-Ceiling party. Tempted?
I first heard about the super-deep spring-cleaning concept last year, while chatting with Sabrina Fierman, vice president of the high-end cleaning service New York's Little Elves. The company focuses on post-construction mop-ups, she said, but clients readying their Hamptons homes for the summer will occasionally spend thousands on a really thorough cleaning job.
"Oh," she said blandly, "$3,000 to $5,000, on average." Roughly a buck per square foot.
Of course, when you break it down, it all sounds very reasonable. A detailed, day-long cleaning (light fixtures, closets, ceiling fans, etc.) requires a crew of four to eight workers at $45 an hour, plus a higher-paid supervisor. And when the crew comes from the city, you're on the hook for travel time, which adds another $700 to $1,000 to the tab. Windows cost extra.
Last week, Little Elves booked one of the season's first spring-cleaning jobs on a three-bedroom contemporary out in East Hampton. (The owner, wisely, asked not to be identified: This is the sort of thing that gets the Occupy Wall Street folks camping on your front lawn.) Before she got started on the $4,000 job, cleaning-crew leader Edilma Martinez offered a tour of the interior. "Very dusty!" she sniffed, surveying the vast, sunny living room.
"It looks clean to me," I said.
"I know!" said Ms. Martinez, marching into the guest bedroom, her long black braid swinging behind her. "But if you look underneath, you see the dust. You see the dust everywhere! See? It's a lot of dust!"
I had to admit, there were a few dust kittens under the bed.
Ms. Martinez wasn't done. She pointed out the door, as if accusing a filthy criminal. "See the fingerprints? Dirty!"
What I did see, out in the hall, was a mountain of cleaning supplies. Ms. Martinez and her crew of seven came armed with four vacuum cleaners, step ladders, packs of yellow dusting rags and a five-foot stack of cleaning towels. There was a 90-ounce bottle of Palmolive, six cans of grout cleaner and a 100-count box of rubber gloves. Once they were done with the house, perhaps they were planning to tackle the Staten Island landfill.
In the kitchen, Catherine Bautista was busy dusting off cookbooks and arranging them on the shelf by size. Bedi Castro had an elaborate staging operation (Ajax, Fantastic, vinegar, Scrubbing Bubbles) organized for cleaning small appliances. She used spray bleach to sterilize the chord of an electric knife. She used a pen wrapped in a towel to excavate crumbs from an ancient food processor. She spent 10 minutes degreasing an electric can opener.
Ms. Martinez chatted as she took utensils (funnels, potato mashers, a ball of twine) out of the junk drawer and cleaned them one by one. She sees a lot of rich people's homes. You'd be surprised how filthy some let their houses get, she said: "We need more of those people so we can keep working."
The rich may have very fancy things, she continued, "But they all have the same stuff."
Ms. Martinez vacuumed the empty drawer, wiped it with bleach and carefully replaced the utensils, aligning the pastry cutters and butcher knives like museum pieces in an exhibit. Born in Ecuador, she worked as a nanny in Rome before waitressing in New York. But cleaning, she discovered, pays better than waiting tables: The going rate in the Hamptons is $30 an hour. Little Elves pays her $20, but the gigs help in the slow season. Besides, the company always pays right away. Some of her personal clients take their time—or never pay at all: "That's probably why they're so rich."
Most are sweethearts, she adds. In fact, she liked one so much, she married him. After five years of dating, she got hitched to the local custom cabinetry man. They have their own house in East Hampton. Ms. Martinez hires a maid to clean it.
Two hours into the cleaning day, Amauris Acosta, who had traveled three hours from the Bronx (and who would work a second shift in the family furniture business before his day was done), was finished cleaning the guest suite. He'd beaten the rugs, polished the mirrors and taken a hundred or so books outside to sweep off the dust, one-by-one. He used cotton swabs on the crevices of the bathroom shower and sink.
The suite looked spic and span, but I snuck back in later for a closer inspection. I wiggled under the bed, ran my hands over the tops of the picture frames and licked the fireplace screen. Everything was spotless. We can only pray that Mr. Acosta's labor of love is never sullied by an actual guest.
The crew took a 20-minute lunch break, reheating last night's pork and rice in the microwave and gulping cans of soda. When I left Ms. Martinez, she was scrubbing the inside of the stove with a toothbrush and digging at the corners of the hood with a pick. I suggested that no one, in a million, billion years, was ever going to peek inside the stove, or notice a little grease between the seams of the hood.
"No one's going to see it," agreed Ms. Martinez. "But the owner, they will realize. It is nice to have it nice and clean."
And the feeling lasts right up through dinner time.