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What I Watched Last Night

I live in a house with three college guys and housekeeping usually comes in somewhere after "buy beer" on the to-do list, so spotless isn't an adjective that pops up very often. But even at its worst, our place is nowhere near the cathedrals of filth, stench, and insect infestation that were featured on Sunday afternoon's How Clean Is Your House? marathon on BBC America.

Actually, the title question is misleading. It ought to be How Big Of A Remorseless, Filthy Pig Can You Possibly Be? These people weren't merely sloppy. They hadn't cleaned a thing in years. Seriously.

This British show is hosted by Kim Woodburn, a household manager "for several prominent families in England and the United States," and Aggie MacKenzie, a former associate editor at Good Housekeeping magazine, "where part of her duties included the investigation of new cleaning products and appliances." Woodburn - who appears to be some gene-splicing experiment gone awry between Mary Poppins, Angela Lansbury, and the United States Marine Corps - does most of the down and dirty work: sticking her hands in toilets, sniffing all manner of foul things, and pronouncing urine as "YOO-rhine." MacKenzie does the lighter cleaning with ordinary household products like salt, vinegar, and lemons, setting out bug traps, and scientifically sampling a lot of things to be grown in Petri dishes to show how much deadly bacteria should have killed these slobs long ago.

I met three of these folks during Sunday's programs: 1) Janet, a 60s-ish Earth mother-type woman who lives in a large country cottage that hadn't been cleaned in nine years. Her estate doubles as a chicken farm, so there was a lot of dirt and straw tracked through the place to accompany the stench that typically goes along with chicken ranching. 2) James, a 24-year-old science teacher with a one-bedroom London apartment, or "flat" as it's called in Britain. He had a habit of shaving his head and leaving the mounds of hair lying where it fell, leaving dirty dishes and half-full take-out containers accumulating for weeks, and keeping eggs in the fridge past their expiration dates long enough to turn brown and the yolks to become a semi-solidified gel. 3) Annie, a 30s-ish woman with a vermin-ridden Scotland apartment and a bathtub that apparently hadn't been used in some time given the amount of bone-dry dust and hair lying on the bottom. According to Kim's nose, the drain smelled like shit. Literally.

"How has this woman been cleaning herself?" asked Aggie as she toured the bathroom and the rest of Annie's place. "I feel like shooting myself. I cannot bear this." Annie's own mother wasn't much kinder, either. If the way apartments are kept say anything about their occupants, Annie's mom said, "her flat says . . . she's a slut."

Annie was unapologetic about the whole mess, which included enough living and dead larder beetles in every life stage on the window sills and in the carpets and floorboards to amaze the bug expert brought in to identify and comment on the breeding ground. "You're confusing me with someone who gives a damn," said Annie when Kim asks why she doesn't clean. "I find it absolutely soul-destroying. I have more interesting things to do."

I'm not sure whether Annie was the gold medalist in the landfill derby or James, who took 18 months to transform his one-bedroom apartment into a breeding ground for flies and carpet beetles. James was apparently counting on breeding enough of them to put the mounds of clothing heaped all over the place on hangers for him.

"[The flat] looks like it's been burgled. Something stinks in here," remarked Aggie before she and Kim got to the really foul stuff in the kitchen and bathroom: floors grimy and sticky with food and spills, mountains of half-eaten and baked-on food piled on the counters, mold and fungus in half-full coffee cups, and piles of his hair lying about with the occasional toenail clipping mixed in. He's also a poor shot when it comes to hitting the toilet (otherwise known among Brits as "the loo") instead of the wall next to it.

"There's a little bit of grime here and there. I dont think its a health hazard," said James. "It's the person that's important, not the environment they live in. I'm not a dirty, filthy person. I've just let it accumulate around me."

Hey, I'm not naturally dirty! I'm just naturally lazy! Wow. If any of you are ever able to make that argument work for you, let me know. The men of America need another hero.

There's one thing all three had in common that added significantly to the mountains of filth: free-roaming cats with the habit of springing out of the litterbox to walk on kitchen tables and countertops. Which they all do. Which is why my grandfather, wise man he was, refused to eat in the house of anyone who had a cat. Unlike my grandfather, James couldn't see the correlation between keeping the litterbox next to the stove and good sanitary practices. "I don't make food on the floor," he said. Aggie pointed to the cats licking at the old-food collection overflowing the counter and kitchen sink coupled with the proliferation of flies. The full cat litter box was, I'm guessing, a favorite gathering spot.

James: "Everyone has flies."
Aggie: "Not everyone has flies breeding in their home. There can be up to six million bacteria on one fly."

And they were landing on everything, which I guess demonstrates the wonder that is the human immune system. Either that, or it's simply a matter of no self-respecting bacteria being willing to take a risk on environments like James' flat.

Interestingly enough, the three episodes I saw of How Clean Is Your House? busted the myth that women are not just better than men at cleaning house, but they're better at keeping it that way. Two weeks after cleaning their charges' houses, Kim and Aggie typically pay a visit to see whether anyone has changed their ways. Janet's was well on its way back to being a dirt-caked barn, and Annie was so unapologetic about her squalor that Kim and Aggie didn't even bother going back. James, on the other hand, was the only one with a clean house. Not only was it clean, it was spotless. Even the loo, where James' marksmanship skills had improved to an astounding degree.

"It's such a good feeling keeping it tidy and nice," James remarked. "I never had the whole place spotless in a way that I can show it off to people. It's a pleasure to live here. I'm not going to go back to my old ways. If I see one thing that has to be done, I do it immediately because it's just one thing that needs doing."

A remarkably happy ending for the chap - even if a bit soul-destroying.


Catch up on what else Buckner has been watching, in the What I Watched Last Night collection.


Posted on March 26, 2007

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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