Bertha the Cleaning Lady or “I don’t do Windows”

Domestic Help Wanted
Dependable person to clean 1 BR apart. Weekly. Midtown Manhattan.
Non-smoker. Ref req’d. 555-2121

It all started innocently enough with my placing the above advertisement in the Sunday Daily News. The ad was to run for one week and I was confident that I would find a loyal employee, and, perhaps, even a friend. The light duty work requirements were not difficult and I looked forward to the screening process to find the most qualified person. The week passed. Nothing. Midweek of the second week, when the ad was no longer running, I received my one and only call. It was one of the most interesting telephone conversations that I have ever had.

I picked up the phone, just as the mantel clock chimed 10:15 a.m.

“Yes?” I asked. I never say hello, one of my many quirks.

“What time do you want me?” The voice was female, I thought. But, because it had a raucous timbre, it could also have been male, and I did not recognize it as that of a friend.

“I beg your pardon? Who is this?”


At least, I was making some headway. I now knew my mystery caller was a woman. “Bertha?”


I’m terribly sorry,” I said, with a combination of annoyance as well as curiosity. “What number did you dial?” I was annoyed that I was put on the spot but also curious as to what kind of person would be so direct, apparently with no malice or guile.

“Do you want me to start or not?”

I was losing my patience, the one attribute that I was inordinately fond of and one that my friends marveled at. “You must tell me who you are.”


I determined to try a different tack. “Bertha, how – did – you – get – my – number?”

“Don’t shout.”

I looked at myself in the mirror hanging just above the telephone. My facial color had flushed slightly. It would have been apparent only to someone who had a ColorSync monitor. I knew it was from embarrassment, not anger. I realized that I had spoken to Bertha in a condescending way, by articulating each word slowly and at the same time, raising my voice an octave.

“Bertha, I apologize. Let’s start over. Why did you phone me?” I was now my calm, stable, patient, self.


“Cleaning?” I repeated, semi-dumbfounded. Almost immediately, a light bulb flashed in my head. “The cleaning ad,” I said out loud and sighed in relief. “You’re answering my cleaning ad.”


“Good. Bertha, I’m glad we got that sorted out. Can you come to my apartment and we will discuss the duties I expect you to perform? And,” I added as an afterthought, “of course, we will also determine the financial arrangements.”

“I don’t come to apartment.”

I paused as I rethought my strategy. “But how will you know if you like me or want to take the cleaning job?”

“I married woman. You man. Must be careful.”

A smile crossed my lips and I was thankful we were on the phone and she couldn’t see my face. “Yes,” I said solemnly, “you are quite correct, we must follow proper etiquette. Perhaps your husband could accompany you one evening?”

“He no want his wife work.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. How about a daughter? If you have a daughter she could…”

“No!” Nothing could have been more emphatic as she jumped in before I could finish. “Two woman, one man no good.”

I chuckled outright and tried to camouflage it by coughing and clearing my throat. My love life was nothing to write home about. However, even my blunders at love here in the big Apple might be construed as steamy back home in Silver Springs, Iowa. Trouble was, I could barely manage a relationship with one woman at a time, let alone Bertha’s vision of our ménage a trois.

“Bertha, please believe me, I am very mild mannered and would never take advantage of you. If we seal this arrangement, we must have trust on both sides.”

There was a long pause. Just as I was sure the connection had been broken, I heard a long sigh on the other end. “You men all the same. My husband he say that to me when we court. He say lot of things. I don’t listen much. But then he squeeze my arm and try kiss me.”

“But if he is your husband now, it all worked out, you see?”

“No. He a bum. He no work. I work. When I start?”

I threw up my hands, or at least my one free hand, in defeat. “Is this time next Tuesday OK?”


“Well, then bring your supplies…”

“No!” Another emphatic, no-nonsense reply. “You give supplies.”

“Fair enough. My address is 255 East 63rd Street. It’s an old building and a walk up, I’m afraid. I’m on the fifth floor, apartment 5B. I’m economizing until I get more settled and established.” As soon as I uttered the last sentence, I felt like an utter fool. Here I was apologizing to a stranger and justifying my living arrangements. It had more to do with my own feelings of inadequacy in not being able to make it in the big city. Moving to New York and then facing countless rejections of my work had eroded my self confidence and also my pocket book.

“Yes,” she answered, either not listening to the baring of my soul or choosing to ignore my rambling.

“See you Tuesday, then?”


“Good day, Bertha.”


I put down the phone and reran the conversation in my head shaking it in wonder. I fancy myself as a writer by profession, although I had not made much real money. Of late, I had a semi-regular job at the local ethnic radio station, sprucing up copy for their English-speaking listeners. As far as I knew, Thornton Wilder didn’t start this way, but it was paying for my overinflated rent. My second job as a waiter at The Spider Web Cafe paid me little in hard cash. However, the meager pay was augmented by free meals. As such, it allowed me to eat above the poverty line.

My small town, Iowa upbringing would not allow me, even living on my own, to be slobbish in any way. I’m not a clean freak, by any stretch of the imagination. Well, perhaps I am, but at least I admit it. Now I would have to pay out additional money for Bertha’s cleaning services.

The Spider Web Cafe, where I did my waiter bit, was an internet meeting place and eatery. It was open 24 hours and was stocked with a veritable plethora of old and new Macintosh computers. They had an SE-30, a couple of Quadras, one Power PC 601, a G3 desktop, and all 5 colors of iMacs. When it was quiet, usually early afternoon, I often used that time to complete my radio commercials for my number one job.

I needed a quiet, tranquil environment, so I did my best work in my apartment late at night on my used IIvx. The small dining room is my designated work area. The table, courtesy of the Salvation Army Store, is my desk. The three chairs are the beginnings of a set of eight that I am purchasing as I save up the money. The books that are scattered and littered about are my sanity, my refuge, my inspiration and almost my life. I have bookcases in every room filled with books and I’m proud to say that I have read every one of them at least once. Looking about the living room I thought, I’ve got to clean this place before Bertha comes. Cleaning up for the cleaning lady, that’s me, a classic clean freak.

Tuesday morning at 9:30, more than a half hour earlier than I expected, there was a knock at the door. I checked the door viewer and got the usual distorted image, this time of a middle-aged, large woman wearing what appeared to be a black, Eleanor Roosevelt-style flower pot hat, complete with netting over the eyes. I opened the door and the distorted image looked almost the same in person with the exception that she had a cigarette dangling from her pursed lips.

Bertha?” I asked tentatively.


“Come in please.”


“I beg your pardon?”

“Stairs, filthy. Dust bunnies everywhere. This room, messy.”

“Yes it is. I apologize. Usually it’s not this bad…


What?” I was just about to shut the door.

“Door stay open. We speak. You stand there, me here.” She pointed and I obeyed.The door was left ajar. She looked around, saw my dining room/office, with my table/desk piled with paper and reference books. She sniffed, in either disgust or resignation, I could not tell which. She turned, still looking about while the long ash from her cigarette fell to the floor. She picked the cigarette from her mouth with her thumb and index finger, all the while cupping her hand palm up. She blew the smoke out in a massive cloud that drifted by my ceramic frog with the caption ‘Please don’t smoke or I’ll croak” that sat on the edge of my desk/table.

Frozen by her direction of where to stand I said pointedly, “I’m sorry I don’t have any ashtrays.” Bertha ignored my sarcasm. She continued to scan the apartment minutely but seemed more interested in my work area.

While she surveyed my surroundings, I gave her the once over. She wore an ornately flowered dress with a multicolored broach that reminded me of the iMac second generation. She stood about 5′-10″, but looked taller. Her big-boned figure somewhat dwarfed and intimidated me. Her complexion was chalk white due to the overabundance of face powder and she had deeply rouged her cheeks, giving her the look of a puppet. Her eyes, hard and black, had a deep and penetrating stare when she looked directly at you.

“I don’t do windows!” she said abruptly.

“That’s fine Bertha, I’d prefer for you to concentrate on dusting, vacuuming, and kitchen and bath cleanup.

“I talk computer talk. I got Preferma.”

“Oh, you mean you have an Apple Performa computer,” I corrected.

“Yes.” She belted out another smoke cloud. I was amazed that there was any tobacco left in the cigarette, as she was dangerously close to the filter. “Easy as pie,” she said. “Apple pie.” She laughed uproariously, with a deep guttural chortle, at her little joke. She dropped the cigarette butt and with her black, ankle-strapped, open-toed pump, mashed it into my gleaming hardwood floor. “Do you want me to start or not?”

“Why… yes, of course,” I said, pausing, as the possibility of a burn mark flashed through my mind, “but we haven’t talked salary.”

“I know you pay what I ask. You and me evangelistas.” She winked at me through the veil that hung from her hat. “I start tomorrow and every Wednesday. I make you spic and span and you pay me $X.” She mentioned a sum, slightly higher than I had anticipated, but I accepted.

Here I was, an anti-smoking advocate, and I had just hired a smoking cleaning lady. I had wanted the designated cleaning day to be Saturday and now it was to be Wednesday. I had overshot my allotted cleaning budget amount and accepted without a murmur of dissent. Who was this decidedly different and one-of-a-kind woman? Life was going to be very different around here, I thought. Very different indeed.

Ralph J. Luciani

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