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Clean Dreams

Lupita Had Cleaned Their House Every Week for 15 Years. But It Took Becoming a Housecleaner Herself for the Author to Appreciate What That Really Meant.

June 29, 1997|LOUISE RAFKIN | Louise Rafkin is the author of "Dust to Dust: A Cleaning Odyssey," to be published by Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C

I was 5 when Lupita started work in our home. Though we lived only an hour from the Mexican border in San Clemente, she was the first Mexican I had ever been physically close to. Every Tuesday, before entering our glaringly new three-bedroom ranch house, Lupita left her black vinyl purse and a paper bag of torpedo-like green chile peppers outside the back door. She carried a transistor radio from room to room; a steady drone of mariachi music accompanied the buzz of the Electrolux. Lupita made her own lunch, roasting her chiles over the gas flame until their skins turned black and blistered off. She stuffed the chiles with cheese, dipped them in egg whites and spun them into a pan of hot oil. I enjoyed this torture of the chiles, and Lupita always brought extra for me, though as I got older I became embarrassed by this. I began to suspect that she might want to eat by herself.

Each week she changed a household of sheets, emptied and washed down the fridge and dusted and vacuumed everything in three bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, unlived-in living room, game room and TV room. She dredged beach sand from the tub and showers. She cleaned under the hamster cage but refused to go near my desert tortoises--she thought they looked like snakes. After finishing our house, Lupita went up the hill to the Medichis' house, miraculously ridding a four-bedroom home of the mess of kids, dogs, cats and various birds by the time Mr. Medichi returned at 6 p.m. and drove her home. (The fathers were always in charge of transporting Lupita.) On Mondays I saw Lupita at the Dressers, and on Thursdays she cleaned several houses across the canyon. I can only now imagine what Lupita's body felt at the end of each day. Housecleaning is bad on the knees and back, deadly to the hands. I never saw Lupita use rubber gloves.

A few years ago, I joined the ranks of housecleaners. With my head in a toilet, I'd suddenly retrieve a memory of Lupita, the way she actually washed our hairbrushes. Quoting an extra $15 for a fridge cleaning, I would recall Lupita facing our icebox. Did she really take everything out each week, replacing the bottles with the labels facing the same direction?

She worked for my family for 15 years. By the late '70s, when she stopped working for us, she earned $35 or $40 per shift.

*

Lupita adored my brother--a good-looking teenage surfer who was already selling pot by the time I was 10. Bucky, whom Lupita called "Bo-okey," spoke more Spanish than any of us, a bonus from his dealings south of the border. Lupita enjoyed chitchatting with him. Whenever he was in trouble, she would mutter his name in this curious chant while cleaning his untouched room. "Bo-okey, Bo-okey," she said, moving each item on the desk as if he would be back the next day to administer the white-glove treatment.

The day before Bucky got married, I discovered that no one had invited Lupita. I was appalled. I called her immediately and, in stumbling Spanish, explained. The next day, I picked her up in my mother's BMW. It was hot, really hot, and my pantyhose stuck to the leather upholstery. I ditched them before the service. I noticed that Lupita had forsworn pantyhose altogether and that her pale blue dress made her hair look more gray than I had remembered.

In the car, I attempted to make conversation, but by this time the familial stress had put me in a foul mood. Lupita didn't notice, and was pleasant. "Kat-y," she said, "Kat-y," and I didn't correct her, even though everyone was now calling me Louise (my middle name).

"Kat-y," Lupita muttered and clutched the most recent incarnation of the black vinyl purse. I suspected a transistor inside.

I cried at the wedding, possibly because I knew the coupling wouldn't last (it didn't) but probably because I felt like an alien. Lupita sat with me at the service, in the row behind the immediate family. Later she sat next to me after we filled our plates at the buffet. We both ate sparsely but had no hesitation about taking advantage of the free cocktails. I have problems remembering much of the afternoon. I lost my peach-colored heels and danced with the best man, whom I began to referring to at some point as my old boyfriend. I made it a point of introducing Lupita to the bride's father and telling him she had been our housecleaner.

*

I decided to visit Lupita some years later. On the phone, I explained that I was writing about housecleaners, and that I myself was now cleaning. Could I come talk with her?

Lupita said only "Kat-y, Kat-y" and put her nephew on the line, who translated, and after some confusion an appointment was made.

Leaving the house I grew up in and the empty streets of my mother's neighborhood, I drove to the other end of town, where, at 4 in the afternoon, people were dog-walking, baby-strolling and porch-sitting. I stood awhile in front of Lupita's quiet apartment before I finally knocked. When a gray-haired woman opened the door, I assumed it was her.

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