How Much Does Your Cleaning Lady Judge You?

And do you ever gross out your dry-cleaner?


A colleague recently came to me for advice. Her “friend” had a Lewinsky-type stain on one of her favorite dresses and she was embarrassed to take it to her dry cleaner. It seems like a wave-off sort of dilemma — until you think about that scene in The Sweetest Thing, where Selma Blair takes a semen-stained garment to her family dry cleaner, only to run into her elementary school teacher, her priest and a class of little kids.

My thoughts flashed to my own dry-cleaner: sweet, sweet Helen, an elderly, stooped woman who works out of a cramped storefront at 16th and Sansom. There are little white silk baptism outfits hanging in the front window (signifying I’m not sure what – that she cleans very tiny clothes?). The thought of Helen’s face if I ever presented her with a stain of lust … I cringe just thinking about it.

But, we figured, dry cleaners have surely seen worse. “I mean, murderers take their stuff to dry cleaners,” my colleague said. Being a dry cleaner — or a housekeeper — must be like being a delivery nurse, or a homicide detective. In order to succeed, you have to eventually become immune to even the grossest stuff.

“Nothing shocks me,” says one Center City dry cleaner. “You get blood, wine, throw-up. But we try not to [judge people]. You never know what the circumstances are.” This is why I could not be a dry cleaner. Benign blood spots on the collar of a shirt would be evidence of a grisly murder. Too many wine stains and I’d stage an intervention. One whiff of poop and I’d throw up.

“A guy came in once and he’d gotten into a really bad fight,” said another area dry cleaner. “He had a suit that had some stains — stains from the alcohol he’d been drinking that spilled all over and blood. When he came to pick the suit up later, his girlfriend was with him, and he was mouthing to us the whole time, ‘Don’t tell her what happened, don’t tell her what happened.’” The dry cleaner assured me that he didn’t judge Fight Club man. How is that possible? I judge him.

I’ve speculated about what it takes to be in the cleaning service industry and I suspect it’s mostly a lack of judgment. At the very least, a lack of discernible judgment. Those who clean for others — whether washing blood from a suit or scrubbing dog crap off a kitchen floor —are privy to the things closest to us. They see the ugly: the sweat stains, the scummy bathroom tiles, the busted seam in the seat of a pair of pants, the tumbleweeds of dust under the sofa.

“The women who clean my house totally judge me,” says my friend Ashley. “They always rearrange stuff — like, put pictures in different places, rearrange my throw pillows —as if they don’t approve of my decor set-up and choices.”

It’s a funny thing, really, that we let people — most of them strangers — into our homes, our bedrooms, our bathrooms. We allow them glimpses of our intimate lives, we let them see the stuff that happens behind closed doors (or drunkenly outside of bars) and well, this stuff is messy. It’s why everyone is convinced that their cleaning people secretly judge them, and why everyone in the world cleans before the cleaning people arrive.

One cleaning woman who has been in the business for over 30 years has seen worse than a few questionably placed throw pillows. “It’s the hoarders,” she say when I ask her if she’s ever judged — or been shocked — by someone she’s cleaned for. “Oh my gosh. I’m talking mountains where you can’t even see inside the room. You can’t see the rugs. Used condoms. How nasty is that? I’m not touching that. And people leave their naked pictures out. One woman has a naked glossy of herself hanging over her bed.”

But after three decades, she knows what she’s in for: “Most of the people I work for now, I know them. I don’t even think about it anymore. Some of the people I clean for, I haven’t seen in 20 years. I have a key, I let myself in and I let myself out.” During her career, she’s only turned down one person, an extreme hoarder. “I couldn’t have done anything,” she says. (This is the same cleaning woman who would later call me back and tell me about the time the FBI tracked her down to let her know that she’d been cleaning for the parents of a convicted murderer who was on the loose. So you know that house must’ve been bad.)

“We have the masks and the rubber gloves,” Fight Club dry cleaner says. “But for us, we’re in the business of checking pockets.” I ask him what he’s found: $1,800 in one pocket, $1,600 in another. Keys to Porsches and Range Rovers. An AmEx Black Card. (Yes, they gave it all back.)

As much as I pressed, everyone I spoke to shrugged off the notion that they’ve ever really been horrified by a client. They’ve seen it all, each one assured me. So chill out: Those in the cleaning service don’t actually judge you as much as you think they do. It’s their job to deal with other people’s messes. It’s a dirty job, but they’ve signed up for it and they really have seen it all. So take your Monica Lewinsky dress to the dry cleaners! Let your housekeeper see your moldy tiles! But, please, throw your used condoms away. (And maybe your framed nude photo while you’re at it.)