Looking for Mr. Clean: An All-Purpose Memoir

You are nuts, I said to myself as I picked up the kitchen phone. You should be taken away and locked in a clean white room, I said as I dialed the number. Even then I didn’t know what I would say when someone answered, if anyone would answer at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning, but I wanted to call before my husband and teen-age daughters woke up and overheard.


“Thank you for calling Mr. Clean … Our office is closed now but open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.”

I would have to wait until Monday.

From the label on the blue plastic bottle in my hand, a bald man with one gold earring and a strong, friendly smile looked back. His enormous biceps strained against the short sleeves of his white T-shirt. Rays of light streamed from his torso to the edges of the label. He didn’t at all resemble the short, slight artist who had fathered us both.

I poured myself a cup of coffee, an ambivalent mix of regular and decaf, and set the bottle across from me at the breakfast table, like a guest. What did I expect from this phone call, anyway—a family reunion with a logo? Did I think I could heal my divided self by calling a cleaning-product help line? As the Colorado sun came up, a surreal daydream of Monday’s phone call began to form.

A cheerful woman would answer, “Mr. Clean information line.”

“Is Mr. Clean there?” I would ask. “I’d like to speak to him, please.”

The woman wouldn’t laugh or hang up. She would merely ask, “May I tell him who’s calling?”

“His sister,” I would say, and she would connect us.

An internal war breaks out whenever I pick up a bucket and sponge. My skin gets hot. Nameless panic seizes me, and I look for the door. I have argued with my insanity by listing reasons to clean: Germs can make you sick. It’s nice to he able to find things. An uncluttered room pleases the soul. Yet when I do housework, I feel inexplicable rage, desperate loss, wild emotions. It has always been this way. Whenever I sweep dust balls from behind the dryer, I feel as though I am dying of loneliness. Whenever I scrape ashes from the oven, I think that I will be ashes myself soon enough, and I should be doing something else, anything but this.

Leviticus first separated us, the unclean from the clean. Unclean were the cloven-footed beasts that didn’t chew the cud, and lepers, and women seven days a month. Pigs and the sick and the female: The righteous could not touch them. Maybe that’s when it began. Maybe ever since the third book of Moses, we have been divided. I have been divided.

I write about things I don’t understand. “I’m going to write about cleaning,” I told my husband later that Saturday morning. He beamed, knowing how I immerse myself in hands-on research. My loose plan was to go gently into cleaning, to gather momentum by starting with the graceful tasks even a poet could do without compromising herself. I polished the silver teapot and creamer in a cushioned basin. Rubbing the pink suds over their smooth, round bottoms didn’t feel like housework at all but like giving a warm bath to silver babies. I dusted the piano while reciting Adrienne Rich: She had thought the studio would keep itself; no dust upon the furniture of love. But soon I ran out of pretty chores and felt myself start to balk. I drifted to the family room and put the last three years’ worth of New Yorkers into chronological order, 150 some, neatly stacked, and then forgave myself for stalling.

It was time for real cleaning. How about the Venetian blinds? They had gone beyond dust to grit. One slat, I cajoled. Just do the first one and see how it goes. There. How about counting them as you go along and writing the number in your notebook? This is research. Two. Three. How are you doing? Good girl.

It’s not my fault that cleaning feels like an unnatural act. I had no early imprinting. When I was born in New York, my mother was a writer whose priorities did not include cleaning the apartment. I remember when I was 3 or 4 years old seeing the vacuum cleaner and its attachments strewn about the living room; I thought it was one of my mother’s toys, but she never seemed to have time to play with it. She did have time to visit her painter friend, Helen, with me in tow. And she always had time to read to me, especially Dr. Seuss books, like “Bartholomew and the Oobleck.” The pictures of that silly, green goo falling out of the sky and messing up everything in the kingdom sent us into fits of laughter. My mother and I loved Dr. Seuss.

My father hated Dr. Seuss. Dad and Theodor Geisel had both gone to Dartmouth, and after World War II, both then started their careers as commercial artists for ad agencies. But when Geisel’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” broke onto the market, “Dr. Seuss” became famous and rich while my father became Grinch-like at his peer’s success with those silly drawings and absurd verses and he wasn’t a real doctor, anyway. My father could never understand the appeal of the ridiculous. He never understood whimsy; my mother understood little else.

Dad moved out when I was 5 but still came over every Sunday for dinner, when my bohemian mother put on an apron and pretended to be a housewife who cooked. On their last Sunday together, as she bent over the stove, frying chicken, the kitchen ceiling of our old apartment collapsed over her, breaking her neck. Over the following six years, surgeons would try to reconstruct her neck and her ability to think and speak and move. She told me later that, for much of that time, she couldn’t remember she had a daughter.

My father and I had to go live with his widowed mother in a big white house in a green suburb of Chicago. I missed my mother deeply those six years, but my father and grandmother plainly didn’t. Grandma mentioned her only once that I remember, in the same sentence with the word slovenly. When I was about 8, I asked my grandmother why my parents had divorced. All she said was, “She wouldn’t wash his socks.”

The only career my grandmother had ever known was keeping a house clean, and the way she kept it clean was to keep people out of it. “Outside!” was her dictum. When weather or night forced me inside, it was “Be still!” I shared the master bedroom with her, and a person could break a hip on a clutter of toys, so I wasn’t given any except a doll, whose clothes were to stay on. My father worked at a series of ad agencies in Chicago those years. He left on the commuter train before I got up in the morning and returned just in time for dinner. After dinner he retreated to his bedroom or his third-floor studio, drawing pictures and being still.

By the time I was 11, my mother had recuperated enough to take care of me again. She moved from New York to a town near us in Illinois and won custody of me. Somehow, cleaning the apartment never entered our long, late conversations over the next six years as we tried to make up for the six apart. We took piano lessons from a lady with an accent and learned a Beethoven duet and some Bartók. We talked about Chagall and Jack Kennedy and debated who was sexier, Huntley or Brinkley. We did the New York Times crossword puzzle in bed. When there were no more clean dishes, we went out for ice cream.

I had a room of my own for the first time, a pink maelstrom of stuffed animals, costume jewelry, little porcelain figurines, Degas prints, piles of rumpled clothes, torn magazines, risqué paperbacks, Scrabble tiles and the occasional half-eaten cup of pudding. My mother never asked me to clean my room, nor did she ever take a shovel to it herself. Her own bedroom was as bad, with its dizzying stacks of papers and books in impossible, Seussian balance. The bed was never made because my mother, in soft layers of pale blue lingerie and a neck brace, was usually in it. My mother’s room was as much an obstacle course as mine, but that was where she held court with all her strange friends, like Ruby Rose, the 6-foot songwriter, and her twin sister, Pearl Lily, and the black carpenter who continued to visit long after he had finished paneling the basement, and the Hungarian puppeteer, and the cab driver who quoted Dylan Thomas, and the door-to-door shoe salesman whose short, deformed arms made him look like a kangaroo. Characters as improbable as any on Seuss’s Mulberry Street paraded through our apartment. But despite the crowd, my mother always made it clear that I was her most fascinating guest.

It’s not my fault that every cell of my body thinks chaos is love and cleanliness is not next to godliness but next to nothing.

My house, I learned during my research, has 396 slats of Venetian blinds. I washed every one of them and every broad leaf of the house plants and wrote the numbers in my notebook. I brushed cat hair off the couch. I washed the dining-room chandelier and all the windows. I emptied wastebaskets, filled them, emptied them again.

Monday. l-800-8MRCLEAN.

“Mr. Clean’s 800 line. This is Mike. Can I help you?” I asked Mike which ad agency handled the Mr. Clean account these days. He thought it might be Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. I called New York. Saatchi & Saatchi said no but to ask Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. I called Cincinnati. They said to try Tatham Euro in Chicago.

My pulse jumped. One of the ad agencies my father had worked for was Tatham Laird; surely this was another incarnation of the same company. I called Chicago.

“Tatham Euro.”

“Art department, please.”

A bright young female voice in the art department answered, “Message Center.”

“Could I please speak to the artist who draws Mr. Clean?” I asked.

Message Center wasn’t sure who that was. “It might be Kim. Hold on.”

Kim’s answering machine. I left my name and number and called back to the art department.

“Kim wasn’t in. Is there someone else we could try?”

“Maybe Keith. Hold on.”

Keith’s answering machine. I left my number.

Stranger in a strange land, I stood agog in the cleaning-products aisle at K-Mart. I had come to make friends with substances that admitted being harmful or fatal if swallowed. I started an inventory of all the products, writing them in my notebook—aisles of gaudy spray bottles, cans, boxes, tins and tubes. There was, of course, the whole X series—Ajax, Clorox, Purex, Rid-X, Tilex, Windex and X-14, and the lovely human-emotion names like Cheer and Joy. I put them into sentences: The Sunlight broke at Dawn over the Surf as the Tide rolled in. A Comet crossed the sky, and I made a wishnay, a Pledgeto Endust in my lifetime. Cleaning toys called to me—pretty colored sponges of all shapes, dust mops, cotton mops, corn brooms, corner brooms, feather dusters (they still made them?) and a rainbow of rubber gloves. I put an assortment into my basket.

At home I took the Lysol Basin Tub & Tile Cleaner to my daughters’ bathroom for a test. The label said, “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” Ah, I thought, one of those things young people inhale for recreation, and I turned on the bathroom fan. I sprayed a few scum-dulled shower tiles and wiped. The tiles shone. Magic. I sprayed all the rest of the tiles and wiped. Effortlessly dazzling. I was dumbstruck. Some commercials are true? The fumes started to get to me, though, so I stepped into the hall and filled my lungs with fresh air before tackling the bathtub ring. Then I stepped back into the bathroom, sprayed, wiped, stepped to the hall for a breath, stepped back in, sprayed, wiped. But then I got out of sync—breathed in deeply as I was leaning over the tub in the heady fumes. Oh, God.

Oh, what the hell. I took another deep, toxic breath and waited for the high.

The custody agreement said my father could have me once a week. He picked me up from my mother’s apartment every Sunday and drove me back to my grandmother’s house, where the three of us sat in the living room and talked politely. Then we ate in the dining room at a mahogany table overlaid in white damask. That’s the way we spent every sedate Sunday until I was grown.

Years later, when I had three children of my own and my grandmother was long dead, my father would come to my house for holidays and occasional Sunday dinners. We chatted and smiled, always cordial with one another, but always as if from a distance, as though he were still up in his studio and I were still outside, with all that cleanliness between us.

Keith returned my call.

“Hi, Keith,” I said. “Are you the artist who draws Mr. Clean?”

“No, that’s Kim. She’s the artist and I’m the writer. She isn’t here today, but we’re partners. Can I help you?”

“Oh. Well. You see … my father used to work at Tatham, back in the ‘50s. He was the artist who created Mr. Clean, and—”

“No kidding? Really? Your dad?”

“Yeah, really.” I took a breath, not sure what words would come out next. “I’ve been writing sort of a memoir about my father,” I said, which surely sounded better than Hello, I am one of the unclean, and I don’t know why I called, hut maybe I was hoping to connect somehow with my symbol-of-cleanliness brother, and then the unclean and the clean wouldn’t be divided any more. I wouldn’t be divided any more.

Keith thought it was nice that I was writing about my father.

“Yeah,” I said, “I was writing and, I don’t know, I got curious about who’s drawing Mr. Clean now, and I just sort of wanted to talk to him.” Then I remembered Kim. “Or her.”

Instead of just taking a message for Kim, though, Keith started to chat. He told me all about the new series of Mr. Clean commercials that had just been shot at the computer-animation house in London.

“A computer?” I groaned.

Keith assured me that Kim still drew all the pictures by hand, just as my father had, but then they went to London to be animated. He wasn’t exactly sure how it was done. “I’m way over my head there,” he said. “They put the drawings into the hummena-hummena computer-thing that gives them dimension and shadow.”

Hummena-hummena? I hadn’t heard that filler-word since my father died. My insides went soft.

“So, you’re the writer,” I said, trying to keep the conversation going, one writer to another. “How do you think of new story lines?”

“Are you a copy writer,” he asked, “or a normal writer?” I shuddered at the thought of writing commercials but didn’t feel good about calling myself normal, either.

“Not a copy writer,” I hedged. “But how do you come up with stories?”

“First we establish a situation, a problem, a little shtick…”

Shtick. Not since I hit the Rockies heading west.

We talked for a while about stories. Then Keith asked if I knew how my father had come up with the character. I said I suspected that Dad had created a tall, strong alter-ego for himself but then had decided this hero was a little too perfect, so with an envious swipe of a gum eraser, had made him bald. Dad always had great hair.

“What I heard,” Keith said, “was that ‘The King and I’ was popular then. So they wanted a character a little like a genie, so you got the earring, and little like Yul Brynner, so—”

“—he’s bald!” I finished the sentence with him, “Yes, of course. And do you remember—I remember after Dad left Tatham and some other artist was drawing Mr. Clean, they ran a campaign that went, ‘Mr. Clean, he’s mean! He hates dirt!’ and my dad was crushed. He said he had created Mr. Clean to be friendly and helpful, not mean.”

“Oh, I’ve seen the historical reel,” Keith said. “It’s a laugh to watch. I think it went, ‘Mean, mean, Mr. Clean,’ and they had a jingle that went along with it. And they’d pan to his face—”

“And he had a scowl,” I said.

“He looked like he was gonna rip your head off,” Keith said and laughed. Keith got a kick out of all the old ads—the Secret Agent Mr. Clean and the Motorcycle Mr. Clean, and the one where the neck of the bottle turns into a rifle barrel and the housewife shoots the dirt with it. And then there was the Mr. Clean of the psychedelic ‘60s.

“His face changes colors,” Keith said, “and at the end of the commercial, the woman is lying on the floor, rubbing the floor.” Keith and I were both in hysterics by then, two people a thousand miles apart who had never met, reminiscing like a grown brother and sister about some eccentric relative.

Before we hung up, Keith had a question, though, which he asked in a small voice that caught me off guard.

“How did you find me?”

“I started with the 800 number on the bottle,” I told him.

“Well, aren’t you the detective,” he said, sounding happy to be found.

Momentum kicked in. I scraped gunk from around the kitchen sink with a knife blade. I washed walls. I washed the washing machine. I washed the furnace. “Go, Mom,” my 16-year-old said as she passed through. The cat wasn’t used to all the commotion and threw up on the carpet, but I cleaned that up, too.

A few days later, Kim phoned. Keith had filled her in.

Kim called Mr. Clean “an American pop icon.” An impressionist rendering of him, she said, had appeared with a recent New York Times Magazine essay defining the American male. She was sure that if Andy Warhol were still alive, the Campbell’s Soup-can genius would by now have created some avant-garde work of Mr. Clean art. Kim told me she would copy the historical reel onto a videotape and send it to me. I told her I would send her a picture of my dad. My American icon pop.

I dipped a silver baby spoon into the open bottle of Mr. Clean and let one slow, blue drop fall into the upturned cap. I filled the cap with water, wet a fingertip in the solution, and touched it on my tongue in the name of my father and his son. The bitter, astringent drop soaked deep. I washed it down with a glass of clear water, then another, and imagined it moving into my bloodstream, into every cell of my body.

A week after my flurry of research, I saw them. There, across the family room in the sunlight: dust motes settling peacefully on the Venetian blinds.

It is hopeless, I thought. In the end, dust and ashes always win. This whole cleaning thing is ridiculous, irrational, foolish and absurd, almost as silly as, as … as oobleck, for God’s sake, or green eggs and ham, or the 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins or anything else wild and improbable, like wishing you could touch and be touched by someone who died years ago.

But when you clean, you find things. I had no idea what was on the old roll of film in the back of the dresser drawer. When the black-and-white photos came back, some were double exposures, but most were clear enough for having slumbered undeveloped for 35 years. There it was, a picture of my father and me on vacation in the Wisconsin Dells when I was 12, the only trip we ever took without my grandmother. We are standing on a pier about to board the Dell Queen for a river tour. We are both smiling into the sun. He is behind me, and his hands rest gently on my shoulders. We are touching.

When I grow old and die, I will leave behind a letter of instructions for my three daughters. Put my ashes into a hollow log and drip water slowly through them, it will say. Collect the drips in a washpot and build a fire under it. Add a good amount of tallow and stir all day, taking turns, until it is thicker than syrup, thicker than pudding. Shape it into three cakes of soft, brown soap, one for each of you, and wash your tear-stained faces. Then have a party and make a mess. Like divorced parents, the clean and the unclean may never come together, but you can visit one, and then you can visit the other. You can move between them, touching them both.

About the Author

Tracy Ekstrand

Tracy Ekstrand is associate editor of Creative Nonfiction and assistant director of the annual Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference. She lives in Colorado and in 1997 won the Artist’s Fellowship for Literary Nonfiction from the Colorado Council on the Arts.

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