white house cleaners

mandala (determined),

William r. Struby, (CC by-ND 2.0)

I’d been calling the White House switchboard pretty much every day since the inauguration. I know a lot of people, they call their Member of Congress and I’m happy for them. But I live in DC, and I’m sorry, my representatives aren’t shit. They don’t even get a vote. So I called the White House instead.

I didn’t call them every day, just when they did or said something to piss me off. So, pretty much every day. But I still had a life. I went to work and the gym, I met up with my friends, I had dinner with my moms once a month at their retirement home in PG County. I planned a dinner party to show off my new place. The neighborhood wasn’t great, but the apartment was incredible: syrup brown hardwood floors, hanging lamps wrapped in sepia-toned parchment, and a spot above the couch for the Gordon Parks print I’d been carrying around rolled in a poster tube since college.

I was cleaning up for the dinner party, and my carpet sweeper wasn’t having it. It rode rough over broken chips, it choked on the hairs in my short carpet, and then its rotor stopped spinning. Just froze in place. So I called the White House.

“I’m over here minding my own business,” I started telling off the switchboard operator. “Trying to live my life. I’m having people over tonight, and you know my place is a mess so I’m cleaning up, vacuuming and that, and my carpet sweeper dies.”

“What would you like us to do?” the operator asked, all lemony.


“Why don’t you send over the butler or something. I’m sure you’ve got, like, a whole cleaning crew over there.”


“The domestic staff at the White House is thirteen people who work full time, and two dozen more part timers,” she told me.


“Well then send them over here. They won’t take but a minute to get my place cleaned up.”


“What’s your address, sir?”


I read off my address to her and she told me they would be there in thirty minutes, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” And then, I realized I had only that long to try to make the place look presentable.


I had a hamper full of clean clothes still unfolded on my couch, and two piles of folded clothes on my dining room table. My bed was unmade, and I’d been eating cereal from the same bowl for a week because all my other bowls were dirty in the sink. I’d invited actual strangers to my house, and they’d be here in less than thirty minutes. I had just enough time to wipe everything curly off the toilet seat and flush twice, wring out the dish rag, and set the last bowl to drip in the dishrack before the knock came. I opened the door on six bodies, all of them wearing white Tyvek jumpsuits with hoods to hold down their kinky hair and paper facemasks, the Great Seal of POTUS stretched in black ink between their shoulders. One held the hose of a shop-vac, another held a mop, string-end up, like it was the worst ventriloquist dummy ever. When I stepped out of the way, he kicked the mop bucket, already half-full of sudsy pink water, into my apartment. Even though his mask was pulled up and he tried to avoid making eye contact, I recognized my Uncle Deacon right away. He was my mother’s brother, and the last time I saw him he smoked me and my friends out at my high school graduation party. Last I heard, he was in prison, but I don’t know what for; my mother never wanted to talk about him.


My uncle pushed his mop bucket to the bathroom, so I followed him. “Uncle Deke,” I said, “how are you?”

He squinted at me before he continued. “This your place?” he asked and pulled a soft pack of cigarettes out of his jumpsuit pocket.


“Yeah,” I said. I let him take in the artisanal tiles in the bathroom and WPA-era molding. I felt lucky to live here. “I got people coming over, and I just felt overwhelmed. You been doing this for long, this cleaning biz?”


“You still with that girl, Molly?” he asked, and he licked the end of his cigarette before lighting it. “This her place?”


“Nah,” I said. “This is my place. I live alone. You know, my mom, I bet she’d love to hear from you. Just to know, you know, that you’re all right.”

“She know about me.” He exhaled a dragon’s worth of smoke and slid a digital camera from a fanny pack. He fired off a barrage of shots before he looked back at me and lowered the camera. “This is your place? And you called us?” He sucked two inches off his cigarette and then dropped it in the toilet.

“Why you trying to make me feel bad for living in this place? For being successful?” I asked him, not liking the whine in my voice. “The only thing you ever did that anyone noticed got you sent to prison.”

He smiled back at me. “You know what I learn on the inside? Nobody notice you till you make it a point to be noticed.” He held the camera over one eye and snapped a picture of me. “Everybody going to know you successful now.” He zipped it back into the fanny pack. “You worried I’m still going to be here when your friends show up? You think they don’t already know you?”

“I should really leave you to it. There’s some stuff I needed to get for the party.” The room was suddenly too small for both of us. The whole apartment. “I’m going to run to the store. There’s a Dean and Deluca, it’s practically one train stop away.”

I backed out, and my uncle called after me, “That’s not near far enough.”

Matt Dube

Twitter Handle: @Matthewdube

Columbia, MO