“Dirt Always Wins” — A Story in Six Parts

One: Stains    Stain wheel

Have you ever seen a stain wheel? It’s a practical novelty, die-cut layers of glossy printed cardboard that you’d have found in an old five-and-dime. Is something you love spotted or blotched? Merely turn the wheel to your problem: egg, gum, alcoholic beverages, axle grease, urine, mustard, glue, mildew, flowers, and the step-by-step stain solution, as it were, appears in a window. Similar wheels were made long ago for bashful young men who needed help in coordinating the colors of their suits, shirts and ties — before they were stained, I hope.

For decades, a stain wheel was my mandala, and because of it, I’m prepared now to clean almost anything. Still, in spite of an under-sink stock of detergents, solvents, ammonia, and magic bottle of glycerin, I’ve narrowed myself in most cases to a supermarket staple, Clorox cleaner with beach.

In some households, Clorox was referred to as “the white goddess,” but I’ll return to that.

First, I check to see if the surface in question has a delicate finish. Old and porous Formica, for example, will yellow if the cleaner Spot and Stainsinks in, but I have a way to fix that. Make sure any fabric you treat is colorfast, and do be careful with the Clorox cleaner in general: most of my black T-shirts have beige marks across the belly from when I leaned against just-wiped rims of counters and tables. I rarely spray the product directly because it flies everywhere, but instead apply it, full-strength or diluted, to a sponge or paper towel. If all goes well, chocolate, semen, berries, blood – immediately gone. Lady Macbeth rarely has time to enter the picture.

The instructions on the stain wheel, however, are worth going back to, just for their domestic poetry:

If safe for fabric, stretch stain over bowl, secure with elastic band. Then pour boiling water on stain from height of 1 to 3 feet.

That’s the one for Coffee and Tea.

I bet you’re thinking that my lifelong focus on dirt and stains is not exactly healthy. Don’t get me wrong, cleaning doesn’t run me, yet I must admit that my relationship to dirt does lend itself to some fairly basic questions.

Yes, I know that you can’t vanquish dirt, and a housekeeper is nothing more than Sisyphus with a mop. And yes, I’m old enough to be aware in a daily way that my spanking-clean body will eventually become burnt dirt, sprinkled into the closest ocean by rueful, maybe tearful friends to ultimately flavor some youngster’s poached fluke. Like death, dirt always wins.

Do I sound flip? Mine is a small defense, much like the countless cleaning routines I have almost perfected.

Problem is, I see  dirt. It’s a blessing that I live with a man who doesn’t see it, at least the dirt that’s obvious to me. (His actual vision is just fine.) For lucky ones like him, dirt’s nothing more than a fact on one’s shoe, but for me, it’s a taunt, a verb: in my world, dirt means “clean!” I know that’s like saying marriage means divorce and crime, punishment, but I’ve never known any other way to look at things. It may be time to figure out why.