AN APARTMENT'S CARPET IS DIRTY when, at night, you get up to use the bathroom, are padding your way across the hall, and glance into the living room where you see tiny red eyes staring at you from the floor. Not the cats, for their eyes aren’t tiny or red; and the cats don’t leap that way or make whooping sounds. You turn on the light, there’s a scurrying, then silence, then a final whoop, over there, near the big bookcase.
Yes, the carpet was dirty.
In addition to the fountain pen ink, the espresso coffee stains, the debris from the foot traffic of many years, the carpet has developed its own ecosystem, and its inhabitants were not friendly.
So last Monday, after that walk to the bathroom and a sleepless night of guard duty, holding a Black and Decker Hand-Vac and a crucifix fashioned from chopsticks, I called Eco Carpet Care. “We’re Green. Non-toxic, dry cleaning for your carpet. Pet Safe. Special with this coupon, $89.95, three rooms. Senior discount.” I’m a cat-loving, green old fool; so I called the toll-free number. A technician would be right out to give me an estimate.
As the technician is making his way to my apartment and its approximately 400 square feet of accessible dirty carpet, allow me to tell you something about myself and our domicile. Most importantly, let me say that I am not embarrassed by the condition of that old gray carpet as a matter of aesthetics. That is very important. In my view, life should be lived; and in living a life, seventy-one years now, stuff gathers—books, dust, stains and large inexplicable holes. I am not embarrassed.
I’m shamed by other things about me. A certain idiocy when it comes to money, which I’ll tell you about soon; and I am shamed by old-man fool things, like sticking my shirt into my underwear instead of my pants so that several inches of my white Jockey shorts show above those pants, and then walking around all day smiling and nodding at people on the sidewalk as if I were the goddamn ambassador from Bright Cuckoo Land. I’m embarrassed when later I look in the mirror and see the great expanse of white dumb (speaking of the Jockeys) and begin to understand why people on the sidewalk smirked and moved out of the path of my grinning largesse. That embarrasses me, but a lax carpet aesthetic does not.
It was the cleanliness of the carpet, its absence, the nocturnal leaping and whooping, the tiny red eyes, the carpet’s plague-carrying potential that finally got to me and made me call Eco Carpet Care.
And now the technician has arrived. The intercom has buzzed, the gate has been opened and here he is now, a large Latino male, and his helper, a small Latino male, standing at my door.
Wave goodbye as we leave Political Correctness Land, for in speaking of Arturo, Santos and their boss, to be introduced presently, whose name was not Bob but who called himself Bob, we must speak of cultural differences and, yes, animosities; and some of what we say will not pass the Kumbaya test.
“Please come in,” I say. I introduce myself and Arturo and Santos introduce themselves.
And then I say something that I should not have said. “The carpet hasn’t been cleaned for quite some time.”
I remember a glance between Arturo and Santos, I do, which should be thought of as a silent high-five, or, better, a silent jump-and-bump, that move you see with young male athletes when a touchdown has been scored or a member of the opposing team has been dismembered.
“Let me do a demonstration for you,” says Arturo. “No commitment.”
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks.” (I said thanks.)
So they bring in their equipment, clear an area of carpet near our kitchen, and do a demonstration of their cleaning ability, about nine square feet. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
“Looks good, right?” says Arturo.
“Yes, it does,” says The Old White Guy.
“Let me give you an estimate,” says Arturo.
“Okay. And I have this coupon, this eighty-nine ninety-five coupon, and I get a senior discount.” I hand it to him.
“Right,” says Arturo.
Arturo is now working his calculator for some reason. Oh, sure, he’s figuring my senior discount—click, click, clicking—he must be subtracting.
“Okay,” says Arturo. “That’ll be eleven sixty-two. For the deep cleaning. Because the carpet hasn’t been cleaned for a while you said.” And I’m sure that Arturo and Santos gave each other a look.
“Oh,” says The Old White Guy.
Remember what I told you about the day that I stuffed my shirt into my Jockey shorts, that white-expanse-of-dumb day? Please imagine that man now as he stands in his living room thinking, his hand to his chin. Because for one moment of sparking synaptic failure, I actually thought, “Hell, eleven sixty-two…that must be because of my senior discount, a savings of over seventy dollars from the coupon price of eighty-nine ninety-five. Terrific! Eleven dollars and sixty-two cents.” And I say to Arturo, “Oh, that’s very good.”
Arturo looks puzzled. Because he has never had that kind of reaction before. After giving his estimate, after bringing out his little kill and gut calculator and click, click, clicking, after remembering, as he worked, all the old white guys who have ever messed with him.
“White Devil! Diablo blanco! I will now mess with you!”
Click, click, click.
Isn’t that likely? How else to explain his estimate for the cleaning of 400 square feet of carpet?
“Because of needing the deep cleaning; it needs deep cleaning,” Arturo continues.
“What? I don’t understand. But eleven, uh, eleven sixty-two…,” says The Old White Guy.
“Yes,” says Arturo. “One-thousand, one hundred and sixty-two dollars. For the deep cleaning of your carpet,”
“Viejo loco. I am messing with you, messing with usted now, diablo blanco!”
Oh, god! Couldn't we step away from all this? Couldn’t you and I now find an espresso bar or, better, just a bar somewhere? There are still a few of those out there. Let’s have a drink. Let’s find a bar and sit and drink and forget about all this because I do not want to tell you what happened next.
You’re a good person, and you know about money too, don’t you. And you want me to show Arturo and Santos the door; I know that you do. One-thousand, one-hundred and sixty-two dollars? Four-hundred square feet? What do I look like? An Old White Expanse of Dumb?
But I didn’t do that. The machines were in place and the whooping carpet needed cleaning. So I did my version of negotiation, which is much like, “I can’t pay that; I just can’t pay that.” And then I think that I must have had a small fit. I have a tic, not as severe as Tourette’s; but still I have a tic, which must have kicked in. So my head jerked for a few moments, and I said something, like, “Ech, ech, ech.” Then another jerk and “Feech, feech, feech! Raaaaack!” And my tongue shot out of my mouth, like I was trying to catch a fly.
Arturo and Santos stepped back and then looked at each other. Alarm, this time. And Arturo said, “Would five-shundred work for you?”
I sat down and made an astute calculation: “Oh, that’s a significant adjustment in price,” I thought. “From eleven sixty-two to five-hundred.”
“Sure, sure, five-hundred,” I say, “Sure.”
The machines were in place, and I am unable to negotiate. A seizure is not a negotiation.
And they cleaned the carpet. For five-hundred dollars. Five-hundred dollars.
After a few days I stopped shaking. The carpet was now clean (cleaner) and finally dry. I checked my credit card’s web site and saw the charge from Eco Carpet Care. Yes, there it was, $500.00. It was not $1162.00, but there it was, $500.00, about three-hundred dollars more than I should have paid, belatedly realized. And I must tell you that I finally became angry.
So I called the toll-free number for Eco Carpet Care and asked to speak to the owner. He came on the line and told me that his name was Bob. His name was not Bob. He had a middle-eastern accent, and his name was not Bob. Let’s call him Mohammed.
I was very polite but firm. I told him that I did not understand how Arturo could calculate an estimate that was more than ten times the coupon price of eighty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents.
Silence. Then I heard Bob, Mohammed—let’s just call him Bohammed—breathing. Is it possible to breathe menacingly? Yes, it is possible to breathe menacingly; and as I listened to his breathing I had a vision. I saw myself standing in a dusty bazaar on a windy day, Cairo, Riyadh, some desert city; I was naked, without even my white Jockey shorts or shirt. I heard the cries of the vendors (forgetting that they were speaking Arabic): “Sweet dates here. Come buy sweet dates. Camel bells here. Most pleasing sound, our camel bells, here. Colorful cloths, all colors. Perfumes here.” And then laughter and loud voices, “Okay, you’re stealing from me. But it’s been a good day. Take it. Allah be praised.” And then I heard, “Carpet Cleaning here” and I was standing in front of Bohammed’s booth, and he was screaming at me. “Carpet cleaning! I will kill and gut you and leave you in the desert for the birds! Infidel! Eleven sixty-two! Eleven sixty-two!”
You see, it’s a cultural thing; I have finally understood that. Bohammed must be from a country, I know it’s true, where the people stand in dusty streets and bargain, Cairo, Riyadh, some desert city. Laugh, drink tea and bargain; it’s their social life; it might even be their way of life, and Bohammed must still live that way.
But I’m from a different country. Oh, yes, I am; and I said to Bohammed, interrupted only by his loud breathing, “Rather work it out with you…don’t want to get involved with Visa, dispute this charge.” I did not shake or drool or have a fit. And Bohammed finally agreed to a discount of one-hundred dollars. “As a courtesy. We want our customers to be happy.”
Of course he does, but I am not. What I am is tired.
And the next time that I see those little red eyes in my old gray carpet and hear the whoops I’ll make a call to a different number. And it’s my hope that an old guy who looks something like me will drive on over and walk in…
Take out a handkerchief and wipe his face.
“How you doin’ today? Damn, it’s hot.” He looks at my carpet. “God almighty, what happened here? Was anybody killed? This old gray thing needs some cleaning. Damn, it’s hot! You got some water?”
I give him a glass of water; he has a few sips, looks around.
“Well, for a basic cleaning we usually charge $150. But this thing…you race dogs in here? This thing needs some work. Damn!”
He looks at the carpet up close.
“What the hell is that? I think it’s still alive.”
“So, look…so I’m going to have to charge you a bit more for this old gray thing. Two-hundred dollars. That okay?”
And that would be okay.
Some of the names have been changed; the carpet care company was not called Eco. But the estimate and charges were accurately quoted.—B.L.
30 October 2009 Update: Why would I choose to protect the people who screwed me? No idea. Lawsuit? Fire away. The name of the company is Pro Carpet Care. The proximate screwers were Andreas and Santos and the owner called himself Mark.