It was Terry Chan who suggested that I get into carpet cleaning, the idea had never occurred to me. Thinking back, perhaps I should have been less impetuous. When I first met Terry and his wife Priscilla, he had a pizza outlet and a little later his wife opened a fashion boutique. Both shops failed. It was a curious thing, Terry thought about very little other than how to make money, and he already had plenty from his parents, but he didn’t seem to be much of a businessman.
Anyway, he’d bought the necessary gear and in the evening when he’d finished serving up slices of dough-with-cheese, he’d go out with a helper or two on carpet cleaning missions. He told me about this one day when we went skiing together. He was enthusiastic, ‘Easy money’, he said.
I decided to give it a try, but out of caution, I thought I’d attempt to sell a couple of jobs before spending money on equipment. At this point I knew nothing about how you clean a carpet, but I did have a lot of experience of making sales calls. My philosophy was (still is), ‘They can’t punch you on the nose over the phone’. So I got a local directory and started making calls;
‘My name is Robert, I’m a carpet cleaner. Do you have any carpets or rugs you’d like to have cleaned?’
That isn’t too hard is it? Guess what, it didn’t take long before someone asked, ‘When can you do it?’ And if you’ve spent any time in sales, you’ll know that a good way to answer a question like that is with another one. ‘When would you like to have it done?’ The lady was looking to have her whole house cleaned the next day and I agreed that I would come and do it.
Not having a carpet cleaning machine was, of course, a bit of a problem. But there was a big Janitor’s Warehouse store on Marine Drive so I went down there and spoke to the boss. ‘I know nothing about cleaning a carpet but I’ve sold a job and I need a machine’.
Lyle, the owner, seemed impressed by this and promptly signed me up for a hire-purchase agreement on a portable machine. He threw in five minutes of instruction too. ‘Use the hottest water you can get, a couple of scoops of detergent, then one wet pass and two dry’. Not exactly a three year university course, but enough to be able to make a thousand bucks a week.
Next morning, at the appointed time, Adam, my assistant, and I are at the lady’s house. There is some trepidation about how we are going to do the job, but, glory be, she says, ‘I’ve got to go out. Can I pay you now?’
How perfect is that?
So, she’s away and Adam and I put our new equipment together. Not that complicated actually. What it comprises is a tank which we fill with hot water from the tap, and a long hose which connects a vacuum pump to the ‘wand’.
I liked that word right from the beginning. Not many trades use a wand. As far as I know, it’s limited to magicians and carpet cleaners. I’d sooner be a magician, but there’s a little problem with talent and practice.
The gear’s ready, so power on and blast-off. It’s fun; hot soapy water squirts out of the jets within the wand and once you’ve gone over a stripe of carpet pulling the trigger for the water, you dry the same area using just the vacuum. That sucks the dirty water out of the carpet. It definitely works, the proof is to be seen when you empty the dirty-water tank; very unappetizing dark, dark, grey water, with added nasty bits.
The logic is: if the dirt’s in the water, the carpet must be cleaner. Sometimes you can’t really tell, though and that’s a shame because if the difference is dramatic, it really impresses the customer. The most spectacular example we ever had was a Chinese restaurant on Lower Lonsdale. It was quite a big place and it took us most of the morning to do, what made it memorable was that the carpet, which on our arrival was brown, was sky blue when we left. The owner expressed his astonishment; he’d been there for a long time with a gravy-coloured carpet. That got us pay and a Chinese meal. A few years later I found myself in the neighbourhood and looked out for the place, but it had burnt down.
We scrubbed merrily at filthy carpets for two or three seasons. It was making money, but nothing special, and there is one aspect of the work that wouldn’t occur to you unless you try it; the machine fills the room you are in with moisture-saturated air. If you are exerting yourself agitating carpet with wand, this is as good a way to sweat out body water as a Turkish bath. We worked in white cotton coveralls, after twenty minutes they were soaked.
With an eye forever open for additional business, we thought up the idea of using dry-cleaning stores as our sales force. I laminated some notices saying, ‘We clean rugs’ and went round the mostly Iranian establishments which offered dry cleaning. They liked the idea; they took in the rug, we cleaned it, and they got paid by the customer. So far, so good.
But the blithe confidence in being able to do our part of the bargain was ill-founded. One day I was given a rug to work on and I attacked it the way we always did, with the machine and hot soapy water. This, I can tell you with authority, is not a good idea on a delicate, hand-woven, silk carpet. Can you guess what happened? The reds, bled into the blues, the blues into the yellows. If it had been in the sixties, you might have got away with explaining that melting colours was groovy. Thirty years on, I didn’t have the face to try that one. So then it was a rather forlorn and desperate series of bleaching operations to try and recreate something like what we had first been handed. In the end I convinced myself that it wasn’t too bad, dried the rug and went back to the merchant. Next time I saw him he went nuts, and that was only a shadow of the performance that the rug-owner had treated him to.
Didn’t get paid on that one.
Nor did we see any money for our efforts on another exotic item of underfoot padding. This one was some kind of Afghan, shaggy white special. The reason we got it to clean was that the owner’s shaggy white Afghan doggy had peed on it. Men, if you’ve ever written your initials in the snow with the warm and yellow, you have some idea of what it looked like.
At that time Juan, a Peruvian was working for me; I took him to this job and left him to get on with it. When I got back later on the lady of the house was having puppies. ‘You’ve destroyed my rug’. That was a bit of an exaggeration; there were still quite a few square feet of ruggy substance remaining. But she did have a point; there was a conspicuous bald patch – formerly the yellow area. ‘Juan, what have you done?’ ‘Robert, I worked on it until the yellow was gone’. Couldn’t fault that; definitely no yellow, unfortunately, no white, shaggy pile either.
Tried thinking of a brilliant excuse to cover this. Standard procedure, for workers, of course, is to blame another trade, failing that, the customer. This, I have to admit, is one area that I’ve never managed a pass mark in. The old mea culpa tends to slip out with very little prompting. Fat lot of good it does, though. In the end I think I issued a hundred or so, ‘Sorry’s’ and then we did a very speedy runner. Although threatened, didn’t get sued, yeeha.
I told another carpet-cleaner about our incident and he recounted his worst moment in the game. He’d had to clean up the rather dirty premises of a printer. It was on an upper floor and there had been enough ink spilled over the years for the cleaner to spray out a lot of soapy water in an effort to get a good result. So he’s conscientiously scrubbing away, well into the job, when there is a knock at the door. It’s the guy from the suite below. He’s pretty mad, ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ Daft question of course, but understandable; inky water was flowing in some volume out of the ceiling light fittings in his apartment. And from there, all over the fashionable white carpet and furnishings.
Glad it wasn’t me.
Later on, my various assistants had found other employment and I was going out doing the work on my own. It’s harder of course, but you don’t have to split the money. There was one downside I hadn’t thought of though.
On this very sunny day, I’ve got an appointment at the top of Lynn Valley, It’s an unusual house, most of the front is glass and it’s blindingly bright inside; pretty straightforward cleaning job though. And I set up, fill the tank, plug in the electric lead and switch on.
I liked to start at the far end of a place and work back towards the front door. So I’m in a bedroom on the third floor and using long hoses, I’ve left the machine one level down. It’s the usual, energetic scrub action. By now, I’ve done so many homes, there’s no thinking needed, my head is on holiday. But now I dimly register something intruding on my dream. It’s the homeowner, she’s saying something, but I doubt it matters much, so I pretend I haven’t heard. Now she’s tapping me on the shoulder, urgently.
‘Your machine . . .’ something or other which I couldn’t make out over the noise.
So I go and have a look. She wasn’t wrong to call me, there’s flames coming up from out of the base. Never seen that before.
She’s screaming now – quite appropriately. And I am trying to think what the hell to do. I dash to the kitchen, grab a big bowl, fill it with water and chuck that over the fiery carpet sucker. Doesn’t achieve a bloody thing, flames not impressed. With courage which comes to the valiant in dire times, I now grab the blazing machine, dirty water and all and dash for the stairs, through the door and out on to the grass. It’s still burning nicely, and one more bucket of water doesn’t change that. Finally a little logic creeps in and I realise that I have to turn the thing upside down so that water can actually get at what is on fire. That does the trick, now there’s just a stink of flame-grilled rubber and plastic.
I did a post mortem; an electrical connection that I had made when installing a replacement pressure pump wasn’t waterproof. It had started sparking and one little thing lead to bigger, hotter ones.
The lady was still wailing and shaking. I stuffed my gear in the van and shoved off quick . Didn’t even charge her.
Took it as a sign to quit carpet cleaning though.