The Cleaners – Part 1

I remember when the first cleaner knocked on my door. Funny looking guy, he was wearing a tidy suit under a black apron, lean and muscular with silvery skin, like somebody’d painted him with glitter. Oh, and his head was a computer monitor. Aside from that, he seemed friendly enough. His monitor showed an ascii smiley face “:).” Cute. “Hello, ma’am” he said. “Please let me clean your house.”

“Uh, no, no thanks.” I said.

“Very well. Have a good day, ma’am.”

“Ok.” I watched him bound away at an alarming speed and go to the house across the street. Another door shut in his face and he went to the house next door, Carla’s house. Carla answered the door and, after what looked like a long conversation, let him in. I didn’t have anything better to do that day, so I went and got myself a lemonade and sat on my porch waiting for him to come back out. And he did. In less than thirty minutes. He walked back out the front door with Carla waving at him. Immediately I picked up the phone I’d brought outside with me and dialed Carla.

“Carla, you let him into your house?”

“Uh, yes, Diane” said Carla “I did. Did you say no? He was offering to clean for free!”

“Did he? He didn’t steal anything?”

“No, I don’t think so. I watched everything he did, but he moved so fast it was hard to keep track. I could barely keep up with the constant stream of questions – where are the cleaning supplies? How do you like your bed made? Do you have any allergies? His monitor. Did he wink at you, like the semicolon with a close parenthesis?”

“He winked at you?” It seemed like I was acting more scandalized than was really appropriate. Then again, Carla had just let a strange, sinewy, glittery man-robot root through her whole house and then wink at her. “No he didn’t wink at me. He just smiled.”

“Well, I bought the package. $12 for two visits a month! You might be able to call him back. He gave me his card.” She started to read me the number, but I interrupted her. “I’m sure I can look up ‘glittery house-cleaning robot’ on Google myself, thank you. I politely ended the conversation and hung up.

Sure enough, Google had a website for just the service I had been offered. “The Cleaners: The New Era of Housecleaning! The Cleaners are versatile cleaning robots that combine state-of-the-art cleaning know-how with a friendly, personable demeanor and a quick, detailed memory to learn exactly what kind of cleaning you need in your home. The best part is, The Cleaners are always improving their techniques. Once you’ve signed up with The Cleaners, you will get continuous, free upgrades to your service as the robots study and improve house-cleaning techniques. Welcome to the new era of housecleaning!”

I was not impressed. My house was perfectly clean as it was. When two weeks later another one of them knocked on my door. He was carrying a paint bucket and was wearing his usual “:).”

“Are you going to wink at me, too, you little tramp?” I scowled, feeling at once ridiculous and heroic defending my house and Carla’s honor from this bizarre machine. Was he a machine? The site said he was a robot, but he looked like a glittery man except for the head. He asked me if I would like it if he winked at me, and I shooed him away. Less than 30 minutes later, Carla called me to gush about him, “I have never seen my walls so white! He brought a paint bucket and painted them, Diane! It’s like my kids never existed, I’m telling you he’s amazing!”

I took a moment to look them up again on Google. This time I found an article, “The automated door-to-door salesman: the new robo-calls?”

The article complained that now that it was cheap to make robots to knock on people’s doors to offer services, there would be a new influx of unwanted intrusions into our privacy by hordes of robots knocking on our doors selling things we don’t want. I quite agreed. I resolved not to answer the next time that horrible robot came to my door.  The Monday after next at one in the afternoon I heard the doorbell again. I ignored it. When Carla called she told me that the robot, she called him “Rob,” had asked if I was ok and said that I had for one reason or another been unable to answer the door.

This was an invasion of my privacy! Was he really here just to clean my house? It can’t be just that – he’s much too persistent. I searched Google again and signed all the online petitions I could find to illegalize The Cleaners. There were a lot – it turned out the service was taking the country by storm, and I wasn’t the only one concerned!

“Diane,” Carla said on the phone after I was careful to hide under my bed at 1:00 on Monday so the robot would think I was away, “You won’t believe this – Rob fixed my plumbing! I told him about the problem with my toilet leaking onto the floor and he just stared at it for a moment. Then he told me a customer in Florida had had this precise problem and proceeded to fix it. A little jet of fire came out of his index finger and he welded it, Diane!”

I was struck. He communicated with another robot in Florida. They’re communicating with one another. And they shoot fire out of their fingers. Somehow the idea of these not-quite-human beings organizing and colluding behind our backs was more frightening. When I went to Google I saw that people had already complained about this, and that The Cleaners corporation had offered a solution. It was very strange. To read it it sounded like the robots had written it themselves.

“Dear Customers,

We understand that some of you are wondering what it is that we say to each other when we communicate wirelessly. To answer your question, what we have is sort of a digital message board where one Cleaner will request information and any other cleaner that knows the answer will offer a reply. Normally this process is in a binary language that we use amongst ourselves for efficiency, but we have pooled our resources to translate it on the fly into English and Spanish for your benefit! More languages including French, German, and Cantonese are on the way!

Sincerely,

The Cleaners :)”

There was a link at the bottom to the message board. A bewildering array of topics and threads greeted me. I searched for conspiracy. One hit discussed the creation of a human-language translation of the Cleaner message board to reassure customers worried about conspiracy. Murder. No hits. Theft. A couple descriptions of calming customers who worried they’d been stolen from. Mainly calming them consisted of committing all the items in a house to memory ahead of time and pointing out the location of the “stolen” object. Just to be sure, I searched “Diane Wallace.” Zero hits. Then I searched “Cheder, Pennsylvania,” Several hundred hits. “Leaking Toilet in Cheder, Pennsylvania.” 1 hit from “Robert Cleaner.” “There’s a problem with the toilet in my customer’s house! It’s leaking and damaging the floor.” Robert went on to discuss the brand of the toilet and describe in exquisite detail the age of the house, the condition of the pipes, the perceived location of the leak… I scrolled down to the reply, from Alex Cleaner in Tallahassee, Florida. It was another long and technical description of the problem with a precise description of the solution. I shut my laptop and sighed. If they were plotting a coup, it was well-coded, or else they just didn’t put it on the human version of the message board.

After a moment’s contemplation I decided I was not dissuaded. Even if I couldn’t save Carla, I could still save myself. I opened my laptop again and searched “How to stop The Cleaners from knocking on my door.” I was led to a site of a group that called itself “The Anti-Cleaners.” If I typed in my address and the time and day that the cleaner arrived, they said they would make sure he didn’t visit me anymore. With relief at the thought of getting out of this whole mess, I fed the site my information.

The next day, there was a knock at the door at 12:30. Terrified that Rob may have changed his schedule, I hesitantly went to the window. There was a group of well groomed young men in suits. When I answered the door I noticed one of them was carrying a baseball bat. “Hello, did you request help with your robot problem?”

“Yes, I did.” I said, looking furtively to the right to see if he was coming, “his name is Rob.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Rob isn’t going to bother you any more.”
“You’re not going to -” I started, but then I stopped. He’s just a machine, I reminded myself.

I hid under the bed again and tried not to hear the cracks and shouts that went on outside. When I went on the message board I searched for Rob and saw a message from him. “Deactivating” was the title. “My apologies, I encountered an unexpected problem completing my duties today. Someone will need to pick up my route on a permanent basis. My next house was to be 405 Kleven Street when I malfunctioned. Customer preferences are attached below. As a side note, there is no solution currently on the board for dealing with small groups of violent men wielding blunt objects.”

I felt suddenly vulnerable in my house on 405 Kleven Street. I kept reading. The customer preferences list was long and full of dreadfully boring details on the material of the carpets and upholsteries in the various households as well as a detailed discussion of the cleaning supplies available, the common locations and types of difficult messes, and miscellaneous requests.

I noticed 408 Kleven Street. Carla’s house. I skipped to miscellaneous, where it read, “Mrs. Wist likes to be winked at. I have reason to suspect she prefers masculine-model cleaners. Mr. Wist keeps certain clothes hidden in the fourth box from the left in the basement. He prefers that these clothes be cleaned separately from the other clothes and that this preference not be mentioned to Mrs. Wist.”

Curiosity piqued, I searched the names of all the people I knew on my block. Old spinster Wanda Black, it turned out, had a particular problem of men’s underwear appearing in her bed. Cleaners should discreetly dispose of them in the garbage bin behind the house. Janis McCarthy was always talking, that was no surprise, and Rob had figured out that there was no need to actually listen to what she was saying. He had a specific strategy involving the right word and emoticon for the right emotion. For instance, when Janis starts a sentence with “did you know?” a Cleaner should wait until she pauses and don his or her “:O” face and say either “No way!” or “Really?” Helen Carson was listed as having four children even though she was always talking about five. Rob warned cleaners cryptically about asking too many questions regarding “Little Marty.”

This was fun. I idly considered sending the Anti-Cleaners to bludgeon more robots when I realized that what I was viewing was a colossal invasion of privacy, this time by any standard. Of course, when I went to the Anti-Cleaners’ website, I saw that they had already figured it out. They were filing a lawsuit. We were going to stop the Cleaners once and for all.

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