Book: My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag . . . and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha

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CHAPTER 2

Cleaning Floors, Ceilings, Walls, and Other Immovable Things

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In a perfect world, we could pick up our floors and throw them in the washing machine. Actually, in a perfect world, our floors would never get dirty, mold would never grow on ceilings, and humans would never projectile vomit, hitting every available surface including the walls.

But it is not a perfect world, and so it’s time to talk about caring for the things in your home that are immovable and therefore a million times more frustrating to keep clean.

Floors

We’re all allowed to have one chore that we absolutely hate and avoid for as long as humanly possible. For me that chore had long been Dealing with the Floor.

I hated all of it: vacuuming, mopping, Swiffering (oh God, don’t even get me started on the homicidal rage into which the sight of a Swiffer can send me). Sweeping is okay. But only okay. Let’s not get carried away here or anything, because there’s still the maddening task of sweep, sweep, sweeping the detritus into the dustpan and auuuuuuggggggghhhhhhh. Oh God, and then with the baseboards! Why must there always be the baseboards???

The point of all of this is to acknowledge, before we even get into it, that keeping the floors clean is a beastly task. I know you’re not going to like to hear this, but the truth is that the more often you do it, the less beastly cleaning the floors becomes. And you might not like to hear this, either: I used the past tense to describe my feelings about doing the floors on purpose because once I mastered the art of it? It turns out that I actually kinda like washing the floors. Shhh, though, don’t go around telling people that, or I’ll spend the rest of my life on my knees, and oh boy, did that ever sound not at all the way I meant it to sound!

The biggest problem I always had with the floors was that pushing a mop felt really awkward and there was always either too much or too little water slopping all over the place and OH MY GOD WHY IS THERE HAIR EVERYWHERE THAT IS NOW WET HAIR EVERYWHERE AND GROSSSSSSSSS.

Do you feel me? I bet you feel me.

And then one day I was kvetching to a similarly Clean Friend about how much I hate doing the floors, and he was all, “I do mine once a week on my hands and knees.” And then I stabbed him because seriously.

But also? I’m willing to try just about anything when it comes to cleaning, and I figured the only thing I had to lose by trying out his technique was the use of my knees for an hour or so afterward.

And you already know the happy ending here, which is that I tried the hands-and-knees approach—or as I call it because everything sounds better with a cutesy name, handsies and kneesies—and yup, it was so much better than any other way I’d tried before. It went way faster than I would have expected, made me feel like the floors were actually getting clean, and generally was a surprisingly painless process (except for those kneesies, ouch! I’ll explain some tips on minimizing the physical pain part of things when we get into the nitty-gritty of technique).

But before you ask me, “But, like, how?”—and we’ll get there, I promise!—we’ll review various floor-cleaning techniques, including sweeping, three kinds of mopping (dry, wet, and steam, oh my!), and, of course, my beloved handsies- and-kneesies method—how about an overview of flooring types? And a wee primer on the cleaning products and techniques that are best suited for each? Yes, sure, let’s do that! Especially since I’m forever getting questions from people being all, “So I have these floors that are, like, made of something?” and it actually really matters what your floors are made of, in terms of keeping them clean.

Wood and Laminate Flooring

What is it?

It’s wood. Have . . . have you really gotten this far without knowing how to identify wood? Sorry, I’m just teasing, and actually it’s good to be able to determine the difference between surface-, penetrating-, or oil-sealed and laminate flooring because they need to be treated quite differently.

To determine if you’ve got surface-sealed versus penetrating- or oil-sealed floors, run your finger across the floor; if there’s a smudge, you’ve got a penetrating- or oil-sealed floor. If not, you can breathe a sigh of relief, because you’ve got surface-sealed floors, which are way easier to keep clean.

Surface-sealed, by the by, generally refers to polyurethane-, urethane-, or polycyclic-coated flooring. The penetrating- and oil-sealed category includes shellac, varnish, or lacquer; though they’re technically surface sealants, they need to be treated the same way penetrating and oil sealants do. Also, it’s okay if you don’t really understand any of that. I don’t really either.

Laminate flooring mimics the look of wood but needs to be treated differently from wood. A common brand name for laminate flooring is Pergo.

What should I use to clean surface-sealed floors?

• Dish soap and water solution

• Ammonia and water solution

• White vinegar or glass cleaner and water solution

• Floor-cleaning products like Pine-Sol, Fabuloso, Spic and Span, etc.

What should I not use to clean them?

• Excessive amounts of water

• Very hot water

• Wood furniture spray (like Pledge or Endust)

• Wax

• Abrasive cleansers

Which method shall I choose?

Sweep or dry mop first, then either damp mop or handsies-and-kneesies wash, then polish with a dry cloth. It’s important to dry the floor! You really don’t want water hanging out with your wood floor; it’s a real bad influence and before you know it your floors will be out behind the Dumpster, cutting class and smoking cigarettes.

What should I use to clean penetrating-sealed floors?

• Broom

• Dry or microfiber mop

• Vacuum

• Wax stripper or mineral spirits to remove old wax buildup

• Liquid or paste wax

What should I not use to clean them?

• Water

• Acrylic- or water-based wax

• Furniture wax

Which method shall I choose?

You never want to damp mop a penetrating-sealed floor. For regular cleaning, either vacuum or sweep, and then go over the floor with a dry mop if necessary.

To keep things looking shiny and nice, every six to twelve months, go ahead and strip the old wax finish, which will dull over time, using a stripper or mineral spirits (which can be found at any hardware or home-improvement store), and refinish with either liquid or paste wax. Once the wax has been applied, buff the floors with a soft cloth, being sure to work with the grain of the wood. You can also spot treat sections of the floors with wax as needed.

What should I use to clean laminate floors?

• Dry or damp mop

• Vacuum

• Ammonia and water solution

• White vinegar and water solution

What should I not use to clean them?

• Excessive water

• Soap

• Wax

• Abrasives

Which method shall I choose?

Sweep, vacuum, or dry mop regularly. Laminate doesn’t love water, but a deeper cleaning will be necessary from time to time, which can be done with a damp mop or cloth. Just be sure to dry each section as you go, as water left on the surface can cause warping.

Tile and Grout

What is it?

It’s the square stuff in your bathroom. Okay, sorry, sorry! The actual thing you need to know about tile is that the three most common types of tile are ceramic, porcelain, and stone. Ceramic tiles are generally used in high-traffic areas like entries and hallways, whereas porcelain is generally found in bathrooms and laundry rooms, as it tends to be more water-resistant. Stone tiles are made of marble, granite, slate, etc., and need to be cleaned differently from porcelain or ceramic tiling.

What should I use to clean porcelain or ceramic tile?

• OxiClean and water

• Bleach and water

• Bleach-based cleaning products (Tilex, Clorox Clean-Up, and the like)

• Ammonia and water solution with a blurt (technical term) of dish soap, but never never never never never mix ammonia and bleach together—do you promise? I want to hear you promise!

What should I not use to clean it?

• Vacuum with a beater bar

• Abrasive cleansers

Which method shall I choose?

Sweep or dry mop first, then get down on your haunches and scrub that tile using a scrubber brush before wiping dry with a soft cloth. If the grout doesn’t look as fully bright as you’d like, let everything dry before you knock yourself out scrubbing at it—as it dries, the grout will continue to lighten in color.

What should I use to clean stone tile?

• Dish soap and water

• Stone-cleaning products

What should I not use to clean it?

• Ammonia

• Vinegar

• Lemon

• Abrasive cleansers

• Oils and fats

Which method shall I choose?

Sweep or dry mop first, then mop or handsies-and-kneesies wash using a soft cloth.

Linoleum

What is it?

Linoleum is a flooring type generally made of solidified linseed oil, pine pitch, and fillers laid onto a canvas or burlap backing. Think of the stuff on the floors of sinfully ugly ’70s kitchens—there’s your linoleum. (Note: Sinfully ugly ’70s kitchens are totally righteous, and don’t you dare update them.)

What should I use to clean it?

• Dish soap and warm water

• White vinegar or window cleaner and warm water

• Ammonia and warm water

• Floor-cleaning products like Pine-Sol, Fabuloso, Spic and Span, etc.

What should I not use to clean it?

• Wax-based products

• Solvent-based products, which can soften and damage linoleum

• Abrasives

• Excess water

• Very hot water

Which method shall I choose?

Sweep or dry mop first, then either damp mop or handsies- and-kneesies wash with a soft rag or sponge, wiping dry when you’re done to create a nice shine.

“But, like, how?”

So there are your basic floor types, which means it’s time for us to get into what I call the “But, like, how?” portion of the festivities, otherwise known as “floor-cleaning techniques,” but that’s sort of boring, so we’ll stick with “But, like, how?”

Sweeping

Grab a broom. Sweep the floor. Move all the grunge into a little pile. Sweep the little pile into a dustpan or vacuum it up. Sweeping, I feel, is highly underrated. The combo of a broom and a handheld vacuum? It’s life-changing, seriously. Also? You can sweep an area rug. I bet you never thought of that, but you absolutely can. As a reminder of the way history works: people were cleaning floors, including rugs, long before vacuums—or heck, electricity for that matter—were invented. And what do you think they used? Ding, ding, ding! They used brooms. And also the handles of brooms to beat the ever-loving tar out of the backs of rugs to thwack out filth.

Dry Mopping

Dry mops, while they’re good at what they do, are a little bit gross. They’re those ones that kind of resemble a Muppet with the yarn-looking oval pads attached to a long handle. If you don’t have your own washer and dryer, you can basically forget about them because that Muppet-looking pad needs to be washed frequently, and you definitely don’t want to throw it in with anything other than other cleaning rags because yuck. This is because the moppy part picks up a boatload of hair and dust bunnies, and you’ve got a dust animal living in your home. So unless you’ve got your own laundry setup or a good vacuum that can get the mop head clean of all that mess, I would suggest you stick with sweeping.

If, however, you decide that dry mopping is for you, here are a few tips you should be aware of:

• Work in straight lines for the best results. So start in a corner and push the mop forward in a straight line. Then turn, overlap a small portion of the line you just cleaned with your mop, and do the same on the next section.

• Periodically clear the mop of hair, lint, dust bunnies, etc., with your hands as you mop.

• For better results, use a dry-mop spray, which will help to pick up more dirt. However, and this is really important, so after I tell you once I’m going to tell you a second time to make sure you get this, you mustn’t ever use a furniture polishing spray like Pledge or Endust on your floors. Doing so will cause them to become too slick and can result in someone slipping and seriously hurting themselves. I REPEAT: you mustn’t ever use a furniture polishing spray on your floors. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Damp Mopping

The biggest thing I want you to know about mopping is that this is a DAMP process. Not a wet one. I’m pretty sure the reason I so often hear the plaintive wail of “Jolieeeeeeeeeee! How do I mooooooooop?” is because you all are trying to mop with a sopping wet piece of equipment and no, no, no. DAMP. This is a damp process.

With that said, here’s how you mop:

Regardless of which type of wet mop you choose, sponge or string, the technique is the same: put your mopping solution in a receptacle big enough to fit the mop, so . . . a bucket, the sink, your tub, a trash barrel, a punch bowl, whatever you like, really. I’m not here to dictate these sorts of things to you. (With that said, the idea of filling up your sink with filthy mopping water gives me a bad case of the squirms, so if you do that, be a pal and lie about it right to my face. “Oh, of course I use a bucket for my mopping solution, of course!”)

Once you’ve got your receptacle up and running, it’s time to stick the mop in. And for those of us with a dirty mind or, as I like to think of it, those of us who know how to live, it’s also time to make some untoward comments about your mop along the lines of “Awww yeah, stick it in, baby. Plunge it!”

Who said cleaning can’t be fun?

Once you’re done dirty-talking your mop, it’s time for the most important part of this operation: wringing out the mop. You have to wring it out because this is a damp process. (DAMP, NOT WET! I know you’re tired of me yelling that at you, but you also keep getting it wrong, so.) Please do not soak your floors.

Once you’ve wrung out your mop, it’s time to hit the floors. Work along the grain of the floor; push the mop forward while bearing down firmly but not overly hard. When the mop starts to feel too dry, is no longer gliding smoothly along the floor, or you notice that you’re just pushing dirty water all over your floor, put the mop back in your cleaning solution, wring it a few times while submerged in the solution to release the dirt it just picked up, then remove it from the solution and wring, wring, wring, wring, wring. Then back to your mopping. Depending on how vast and/or filthy your floors are, you may need to change out your cleaning solution partway through the process. When you’ve mopped the entire surface, you’ll want to go over it with a dry cloth to get up any excess cleaning solution and dirt and to avoid streaking.

So that’s how you mop! Try it out, see if it works for you, if you like how it feels, all those important things. For whatever this is worth, I don’t care for mopping. Mostly because it feels pretty awkward, but with practice it feels less awkward, which is something to consider. But I feel like mops can get super gross, as can the mopping water, and so I prefer other methods. But that’s the great thing about having choices!

Steam Mops

Steam mops are fantastic for larger homes, especially ones with a lot of tile or linoleum. They’re not, however, so great for wood or laminate flooring, because they can oversaturate those flooring types with water, which you don’t want. If you have wood floors that are surface-sealed, you’ll have better luck with steam mops, but I would highly recommend keeping a dry rag on hand, working section by section, going over the parts you’ve just steam mopped with the dry rag to minimize any potential warping caused by too much water.

Washing and/or Scrubbing on Your Handsies and Kneesies

I know that, despite the cutesy-sounding name I’ve given this technique, you still hate me for telling you that this is the best way to clean a floor. So truth time: the first time you wash a floor on your hands and knees, you’ll want to kill yourself. You may even curse my name! That’s okay, my feelings will be hurt, but I’ll understand. But stick with it for at least a second time, when you’ll be surprised to find that while, yes, you maybe want to cut yourself a little bit, it won’t seem remotely as bad to you as it did the first time.

Here are the basics you need to know: you’ll need a bucket filled with cleaning solution, a sponge or rag to dip in the solution, and a dry rag to polish the area you’re washing. Dip your sponge or rag in the solution, wring it out, and then go over the floor in sections, sort of working a wax-on, wax-off maneuver with the wet and dry rags. Just like with mopping, you’ll need to change out the washing solution when it gets really murky.

Handsies and kneesies is also the technique of choice for tile and grout, provided that they’re relatively small spaces. If you have wide expanses of tile, you should think seriously about investing in a steam mop.

I know that the prospect of being knee-down on tile is pretty gruesome sounding, and to that point I’ve got a secret to share with you! The real trick to dealing with tile and grout is to let the cleaning products do most of the work for you. The two best options for cleaning tile and, more important, that pesky grout are bleach (or a bleach-based product) or OxiClean.

If you’re using OxiClean, you’ll want to dissolve a cup of Oxi in two gallons of water and pour the solution all over the floor; if you’re using a bleach-based product, spray the floor liberally with it, making sure to wear rubber gloves to protect your delicate paws. Unlike wood floors, tile is an area where you should feel free to soak the surface with impunity. (Of course here I mean “impunity within reason”—don’t go flooding your bathroom, please!)

Once the cleaning solution is down, walk away. Let it sit for fifteen to thirty minutes, then go back in with a scrub brush—this is where the scrubbing part of the handsies-and-kneesies technique comes in—and do your lil’ ch-ch-chhhh thing with your brush. You may also want to have a toothbrush on hand to get into corners and up against the seam of the wall. Work in sections, going over the areas that you’ve scrubbed with a sponge or wet rag to wipe up the suds, then again over the area with a dry rag. Then walk away again. It might not immediately look as clean as you want it to be, but as the grout dries, you’ll start to notice a huge difference.

Hoo boy, that was a ton of information I just threw at you, wasn’t it? Would you like a chart? Yes, let’s have a chart.

Flooring Type

Products to Use

Products to Avoid

“But, Like, How?”

Surface-Sealed Wood

• Dish soap

• Ammonia

• White vinegar

• Glass cleaner

• Floor-cleaning products like Pine-Sol, Fabuloso, Spic and Span, etc.

• Excessive amounts of water

• Very hot water

• Wood furniture spray

• Wax

• Abrasive cleansers

• Sweep

• Dry mop

• Damp mop

• Handsies and kneesies

Penetrating-Sealed Wood

• Broom

• Dry or microfiber mop

• Vacuum

• Wax stripper or mineral spirits to remove old wax buildup

• Liquid or paste wax

• Water

• Acrylic- or water-based wax

• Furniture wax

• Vacuum

• Sweep

• Dry mop

Flooring Type

Products to Use

Products to Avoid

“But, Like, How?”

Laminate

• Ammonia

• White vinegar

N.B. Cleaning solutions should be used infrequently on laminate floors

• Excessive water

• Soap

• Wax

• Abrasives

• Broom

• Dry mop

• Damp mop

• Vacuum

Porcelain or Ceramic Tile

• OxiClean

• Bleach

• Bleach-based cleaning products

• Ammonia

• Dish soap

• Vacuum with a beater bar

• Abrasive cleansers

• Sweep

• Dry mop first

• Handsies and kneesies

Stone Tile

• Dish soap

• Stone-cleaning products

• Ammonia

• Vinegar

• Lemon

• Abrasive cleansers

• Oils and fats

• Sweep

• Dry mop

• Wet mop

• Handsies and kneesies

Linoleum

• Dish soap

• White vinegar

• Glass cleaner

• Ammonia

• Floor-cleaning products like Pine-Sol, Fabuloso, Spic and Span, etc.

• Wax-based products

• Solvent-based products

• Abrasives

• Excess water

• Very hot water

• Sweep

• Dry mop

• Damp mop

• Handsies and kneesies

Walls, Ceilings, and Interior Doors

I see the looks. You’re thinking that you’ve never cleaned a wall or a ceiling and can’t imagine the circumstances under which you might do such a thing and also you’re very, very worried about what kind of weirdo Clean Person mumbo jumbo I’m going to come up with by way of convincing you that you need to clean your walls and ceilings.

You’d be right about the mumbo jumbo: ponder, if you will, the bathroom. Think of all the spraying and brushing and trimming and powdering and projectile vomiting (barfers, every last one of you) that takes place in your bathroom. Now stop and consider how much fallout from those activities ends up on your bathroom walls.

Convinced? No, not really. Well how about this: remember the time you knocked over a glass of red wine and it splattered all over the walls? Hurrah! Now I’ve got you! That would certainly be a circumstance under which you might need to know how to clean a wall, wouldn’t it?!

We’re going to get into a whole bunch of specifics, but first a few overall tips to consider.

Walls and ceilings—unless you’re simply spot treating them—are fairly large surfaces; given that, rags (old towels, T-shirts, flannels, sheets, etc. that you’ve cut or ripped up into workable sizes) work better than sponges because you can cover more surface area with them. Regardless of whether you choose to use a rag or a sponge, you’ll want to wring it out so it’s not sopping wet with your cleaning solution before you apply it to the wall. You’re not looking to saturate the wall, just to wipe it down.

Speaking of wiping things down! If you’re executing a general cleaning of your walls or ceilings, it’s not a bad idea to take a pass with either a dry rag or a vacuum fitted with the brush attachment to remove any loose dirt or dust. Otherwise that loose dirt or dust will turn to mud when you hit it with your damp (DAMP, NOT WET!) rag and make more of a mess.

If you’ve got cobwebs hanging around (heh), you can use the hose attachment.

To reach up to ceilings, wrap the straw end of a broom with a large rag, secure it with a rubber band, and use it to dust the ceiling. While you’re at it, pat yourself on the back for being such a genius MacGyver!

Speaking of that ceiling! It is a common thing in bathrooms, especially the ones suffering from a lack of ventilation, to find mold growing on the ceiling. Do not leave that untreated! You don’t want to be breathing in mold spores. Use the same broom technique, but with a thicker layer of rags, dipped in a one-part-bleach-to-four-parts-water solution to kill that foul mold. BUT, BUT, BUT! Please remember to be safe—before doing this, invest in a pair of safety goggles to protect your eyes. They can be found at any hardware or home-improvement store and will only run you about two bucks. A small price to pay to protect your precious eyes, yes? Yes. Goggles, wear ’em.

And finally, a brief word on Magic Erasers. I love Magic Erasers! Magic Erasers do just what the name suggests: magically erase stains and scuffs from all manner of surfaces and are fabulous on walls (less so on ceilings because of the reaching factor), but there are some things you need to be aware of before you go about Magic Erasing things willy-nilly: you must promise that any time you even think about using a Magic Eraser you’ll test it out on a bit of wall/floor/ceiling far off in the reaches of whatever space you’re thinking about Magic Erasing to ensure that it won’t ruin the finish.

Since you are such an apt pupil, who even managed to pay attention during the lecture on the composition of linoleum, it’s time for the class participation portion of our lesson: true tales of messes made on immovable surfaces. Hoo boy, are these ever fun/horrifying to think about having happen in your home.

The Great Ginger Beer Explosion

My boyfriend was trying to make ginger beer in our kitchen because, you know, why not? Except he put too much yeast into the glass (GLASS) bottles that he was using to ferment. We’re sitting in bed one night and we hear this sound that sounds like the cabinets falling off the walls. Both bottles exploded all over the kitchen, leaving everything that wasn’t in a cabinet drenched in sticky, yeasty ginger and tiny shards of glass. We washed the things that could be washed. We mopped up the excess and then went over everything a few times with all-purpose cleaner. But it’s been almost a week and everything is STILL STICKY. And we’re still finding glass in our hands and feet. And worse, the ants are starting to come in.

Getting it off the tiles is challenging but doable. But it’s on the drywall in these slightly shiny trails that I’m afraid to attack with cleaning products because I don’t want the wall to cave in or scrub off or anything. So is there anything that will get rid of sticky almost–ginger beer once and for all that’s also safe on my walls?

I need some serious help with this one, because I’m two seconds away from going at the kitchen with a sledgehammer.

Well, that sounds utterly obnoxious! I hope you beat your boyfriend soundly for his foolishness, not to mention his crimes against ginger beer.

Whenever you’re facing a greasy or sticky situation in the kitchen, the thing you want to grab for is ammonia. A few things first: you’ll need to use gloves when working with ammonia, because it’s pretty chemical-y, and you should consider opening a window as well. Once the gloves are on and the windows are open, mix up your ammonia solution in a bowl or bucket—you’ll use equal parts ammonia to water, with a splurt of dishwashing soap if you’re feeling festive—and get after those surfaces. Rags work best in this situation; just wring out the rag so it’s not sopping and you won’t have problems with the walls caving in. You actually won’t have that problem anyway unless your walls are made of cardboard, in which case they’ve already collapsed from the ginger beer.

If you’re opposed to ammonia, you could use a cleaning solution made up of hot water and regular dish soap. Caveat emptor: this solution won’t cut through sticky residue as well as the ammonia, so you’re going to have to put a lot more elbow grease into things. You might consider grabbing a Dobie Pad, which will help scour the grease off without scratching the surfaces you’re trying to clean up.

The Uninvited Mushroom

What I thought was a dead bug (ew) on the top of our windowsill turned out to be a mushroom. Growing out of a sizable crack in the ledge. “Ew” turns to “WTF?” There’s always been water damage to the wall by the window—we live on the top floor and it’s been unusually rainy to boot—but we’ve never smelled anything peculiar before, or had any mysterious symptoms. This is the weirdest thing I’ve encountered. Since we never had any drips or leaks in this apartment, I didn’t really bother to complain about the visible water damage, but now I’m flipping out.

Of course we will be talking to the landlord and super. But on a scale of one to eleven, how freaked out should we be? And is there anything we should do in case our notoriously slow landlord takes forever to solve the problem?

In the short term, you will be fine health-wise, but you do need to take steps to eliminate the problem because mushrooms can be dangerous in the same way mold can be. So you’ll want to have it taken care of as soon as possible if you’re going to continue to live in the apartment.

This really isn’t something, as a renter, that you want to take into your own hands. You can remove the mushroom and treat the area, but honestly you’re really better off asking your landlord to bring in—and pay for—professionals. The advice about bringing in professionals also stands for homeowners, unless you’re a very, very handy homeowner, except that you’ll have to be the one, rather than the landlord, to find and call the professional. The reason for this is that there is likely some pretty major structural damage going on for things to get to the point where mushrooms are growing out of the windowsill, e.g., water behind the wall and/or cracks in the exterior of the building. There is clearly a MAJOR leak if enough water has collected that fungi can grow, and the mushroom will keep coming back and worse if it’s not fixed.

The Leaching, Beading Surfactant

I have a gross cleaning question! You see, a previous renter apparently used to smoke in the bathroom, and over time the smoke stains plus bathroom condensation have formed all these yellow beads on the (painted drywall) walls. They’re tacky, like dried craft glue, and when I first noticed them I blamed my boyfriend for somehow peeing on the wall. Not attractive. And they’re EVERYWHERE, on the walls and the ceiling.

I’ve tried using Windex, vinegar, and bathroom cleaner, but nothing works except scraping each bead off with my fingernail (and even then it leaves a little yellow ring). Do you have any ideas short of power-washing this room, or should I just continue to avoid touching the walls?

I’m going to dismiss the class so that I can put my head down on my very clean desk and shake with laughter for thirty or so minutes at the mental image of you berating your boyfriend for peeing on the walls.

Now that I’ve had a chance to collect myself, let’s get back to the business at hand. It actually sounds like the problem with your walls isn’t due to heavy smoking in the bathroom but rather surfactant leaching out of the latex paint used on the walls. This problem is particularly common in kitchens and bathrooms because of the high humidity in those areas of the house. To help prevent it, turn on the exhaust fan if you have one and/or open the windows as often as possible.

The Paint Quality Institute (seriously) has this to say about treating leaching surfactant:

Wash the affected area with soap and water, and rinse. Problem may occur once or twice again before leachable material is completely removed. When paint is applied in a bathroom, it is helpful to have it dry thoroughly before using the shower. Remove all staining before repainting.

The thing is that your problem sounds like it needs something a bit stronger than soap and water. So if you’re up for it, get your hands on some TSP, or trisodium phosphate, which is a cleaning agent often used to strip or prime an existing coat of paint. But, but, but! It’s a serious chemical, so you’ll need to use gloves, open all windows, and generally be careful with it. TSP also comes in a phosphate-free version (look for something at your local hardware or home-improvement store called TSP-PF—that’s the stuff) that’s slightly less toxic.

With all that out of the way, if you’re really sure nicotine stains are what you’ve got on your hands (or, um, your walls, I guess) here are some ideas for getting those gone. Either bleach or ammonia—but not together! Never together!—is the thing here. However, some people are opposed to serious chemicals, which is weird but okay, I guess, and those people can mix up a vinegar solution instead. Use a large sponge, rag, or scrub brush to wash the walls, and a clean rag to dry each section as you go along.

The Devil in the (Popcorn) Walls

After a very fun, very drunk birthday, I paid for it the next morning. Long story short (I’m sure you can fill in the blanks): how do I get vomit marks off a textured wall? My wall is white and it’s kind of like a toned-down popcorn ceiling wall. I blotted up all the excess moisture, but now I’m stuck with the color left behind. Help, Jolie! I don’t want to look at this every day.

Oh, those lovely textured walls and ceilings that are certainly not the work of the devil during his brief stint as an interior designer. (They are.)

When you’re dealing with textured walls, the primary difference in terms of care is the tool you use to clean it off; things like sponges or paper towels are going to shred instantly upon contact with a nubbly surface. So you’ll want to use a rag, the sturdier the better—something like an old terry-cloth towel, cut into small pieces so it’s easy to work with, would be perfect here. Also worth noting is that a good pair of rubber gloves will help to protect your hands and forearms from getting scratched up.

You can treat the stain with regular old dish soap or, if it’s really stubborn, a bit of bleach. Magic Erasers are also an option except that you might experience shredding depending on how popcorn-y the wall is.

One final thing to be aware of with popcorn coating: older versions may have contained asbestos. If there’s any chance at all that this is the case with your walls, DO NOT TOUCH THEM. Attempting to clean asbestos will release that insanely toxic stuff into your living environment even more than it already is, and you definitely don’t want that. So if it’s indeed a question, make sure you bring in professionals to do the appropriate testing. And then sue the living daylights out of your landlord.

The Confetti Cannon Conundrum

At my boyfriend’s birthday party earlier this year, one of his friends shot off several dollar-store confetti cannons all over the place. Drink spills ensued, and the confetti dyed the hardwood floors (as well as linoleum) in numerous conspicuous places. I’ve tried scrubbing with dish soap and water, as well as a variety of useless stain-remover products designed for use on hardwood floors. Is there a way to remove these stains or is refinishing the floors the only option?

I propose that we all have parties that end in confetti-stained floors. What fun! Also there are a whole bunch of ways to clean up dye stains off floors, which means that we can have parties that end in confetti-stained floors with impunity. *Sets off confetti cannon*

Before we get to the options you’ve got for cleaning up dye stains, the usual rule applies here: test a discreet spot to ensure that the method you’re going with doesn’t damage the floors. With that out of the way, here are some options for you.

Ammonia and Dish Soap

Mix about a quarter cup of ammonia with one to two tablespoons of dish soap and a few cups of water, swirl that all around to make it sudsy, and use the solution to wash the floors with a sponge or old rag. A scrub brush will help move things along if the staining is present in a large area of the floor.

Rubbing Alcohol

Pour the alcohol onto a clean rag and hit the stains in a circular motion.

OxiClean

I love a stain remover with grit, which is what the powder formula is when it’s mixed with water. Oxi will go a long way in lifting dye stains without harming your floors.

Magic Eraser

Magic Erasers are amazing but should be the last stop before refinishing, as they’re quite likely to pull up the finish and ruin the floors. I know we already talked about this and that you promised to obey me, but as a reminder: you must, must, must test out a Magic Eraser on a bit of floor far off in the reaches of the apartment to ensure that it won’t lift the finish right up. If it doesn’t take the finish off, go wild and erase those stains.

Other Immovable Things

Forced Heat Radiators

Huddle around, campers. I’m going to tell you a scary story about a filthy forced heat radiator that bedeviled me. For three years—three years!—I lived with this dusty, cobwebby, filthy thing in the corner of my bedroom. Every now and again I’d stare dejectedly at it, wondering why it didn’t come with a self-cleaning mechanism, before slipping back into the blessed state of grime denial I’d created for myself.

And then one day, someone asked me about cleaning forced heat radiators and I had to admit that I wasn’t really sure how one would go about such a thing and was also hell-bent on figuring it out.

And figure it out I did! Fair warning: the process? SUCKS. And you know what else? Martha, Heloise . . . none of them gals are going to tell you that hard truth. But I will, because we’re all friends here and friends don’t let friends approach a dirty forced heat radiator without knowing all the facts.

Despite the suckage involved in this task, it’s worth doing, and not just for cosmetic purposes, because all that dirt and dust and God only knows what can cause a person with allergies, asthma, or other respiratory issues major problems.

With that preamble out of the way, let’s get down to it. I am truly sorry for what you’re about to go through.

What You’ll Need

• Rubber gloves

• Small bucket or bowl for cleaning solution

• Cleaning solution of choice (I used ammonia solution, but soapy water would work just as well, as would any sort of all-purpose cleaner mixed with water)

• A pile of thin rags (T-shirts, sheets, or dishcloths work well for this; bath towels much less so)

• A hair dryer

• Music

First move everything away from your work area. There’s going to be water and muck slopping all over the place, so it really is important at the offset to move everything—books, furniture, curtains, pets—well away from your workspace.

Next up, put on some music. This is crucial to the process in that it will help to keep you from killing yourself. Not that this task will make you want to kill yourself! (This task will make you want to kill yourself.) Some other things to consider:

• Make yourself as comfortable as possible—if you’ve got hardwood floors, fold up a towel to sit or kneel on to give your tush and/or knees some relief.

• If you’ve got a bad back, take a couple of painkillers prior to starting to stave off aches and pains that will come with the weird stretching and bending this task calls for.

• If you’ve got allergies, make sure you’ve taken your allergy medication, because there’s going to be a ton of dust flying and you’ll be an allergic, miserable mess if you don’t.

• Wear appropriate clothing. This is basically yoga with dirt, so dress accordingly.

Once you’ve got things set up, plop down in front of the radiator. Oh! Make sure it’s turned off and cool to the touch. Starting at the top and working down, you’ll want to wipe down the exterior of the unit with your cleaning solution, being careful to wring out your rags before doing so. Don’t soak the radiator, because it’s metal and you’ll wind up with rust problems.

Once you’ve gone over the exterior a few times, you’ll want to get in between the coils. Basically you’re going to floss the radiator. So sort of roll your rag up and then stick it through the opening of the coils, then move it up and down, pulling it tight to get maximum friction. This will take some time and definitely more than one going-over for each coil. The majority of the built-up dirt is going to be at the bottom of the coils, since that’s where dust settles, so pay particular attention to those areas.

I also found that dipping my begloved hands right in the cleaning solution and using my fingers to pull off dirt and grime was effective on spots that the “floss” didn’t reach. But be aware that I have small fingers and that this won’t work for everyone. Also, if you have small children lying about the house perhaps you could press them into service. Promise them an extra bowl of gruel as a reward.

The back portion of the coils is tricky. Depending on how the unit is configured in relation to the room, the flossing method may not be possible (it wasn’t for me). Start off by turning on a hair dryer—set on cold air—facing the unit; the blowing air will help to dislodge some of the dirt coating. It won’t get things off completely, but it will make it easier. If your wingspan and arm size allow for this, reach around the back end of the unit and get your fingers in there. Sort of grab at the barnacle-like dust bunnies that are clinging to the coils and then dip your digits in the cleaning solution and try to rub off as much grime as you can by wiggling your fingers.

That’s really it! You may want to augment your equipment with a long, skinny-bristled brush, which will probably be rendered a one-time-use-only object when you’re done with this task, but if you don’t have miniature hands it will help immensely.

Good luck out there. This is the worst thing ever.

Air-Conditioning Units

There are two things to know about cleaning an air- conditioning unit; the first is that a thorough cleaning that gets at all the parts is a task that involves being quite handy. If you’re not up to it, you can and should call in a professional. The second is that there are a few simple things that you should be doing regularly during air-conditioning season. These are very, very easy and will save you money because they will allow the unit to cool better and faster and also will help with summertime allergies, if you have those. Because your air conditioner won’t be blowing dust and pollen into your home.

An important safety note before you go mucking about with your AC—please turn off the unit and unplug it. I say this out of an abundance of caution; it’s pretty easy to knock the ON button and have the darn thing turn on while you’re futzing, which is why I want you to take the extra step of unplugging the unit.

The few simple things are as follows:

Cleaning the screen: Take the screen out of the unit, put it in the kitchen sink or bathtub if the sink isn’t big enough, and cover it with warm water and a bit of dish soap. While it’s submerged, use a sponge to clean off the dirt and whatnot. Things get even easier if you have a hose attachment on your kitchen sink, which you can aim at the back of the screen, i.e., the not-dirty side, and force the grime off with just the water pressure. Once it’s clear of dirt, dry it before you put it back in the unit so the water doesn’t get into the machinery. It’s best to use a dishcloth or rag for this task rather than a paper towel, which will get all torn up and stuck to the screen.

This is a thing you should do monthly during the time when your AC is in regular use. It takes, honestly, less than five minutes.

Dusting the exterior unit: Dusting the unit will also help cut down on any summer allergy problems you might be having. If you’ve got a feather duster, great; run it over the vents to remove dust. If you’re dusterless, you can use a dry cloth that you’ve sprayed lightly with an all-purpose cleaner and go over each vent. Just wiping down the front of the unit won’t do much, honestly; you really do need to take the time to wipe out each slat. It won’t take that long!

Visible innards: If you notice, when you’re removing the screen, that the innards of the unit have built-up dirt on them, you can use a dryer sheet rubbed gently over the grimy areas to remove the dirt.

Ceiling Fans

Oh, well, this is so stupidly easy you’re going to be mad that I even had to tell you about the secret to cleaning a ceiling fan: get an old or cheap pillowcase that you’re willing to donate to your cleaning pile, spray the inside of it with all-purpose cleaner or a dusting product, put the open end around the blade, and slide the case down its length, grip tightly and pull it back. Et voilà! All the dust will come off right into the pillowcase, meaning it won’t get all over the area under the fan.

Don’t you just love it? It’s okay if you don’t; I love it enough for both of us.

Carpeting and Area Rugs

First things first for my fine carpet-having friends: if you live in a home with carpeting, please have a carpet cleaning product like Resolve or its ilk on hand, because you will inevitably make messes. If you accept that at the outset, things are going to be a lot better for you down the road. OxiClean is also great on carpeting if you want to reduce the number of products you’re keeping in the home, or if you’ve ignored what I just told you about taking the preemptive measure of having carpet cleaner on hand. Also, I’m hollering at you, “I WON’T BE IGNORED, DAN.” Later I’m going to boil your bunny. Don’t worry, I’ll clean the pot out when I’m done.

Another thing that I’d encourage you to accept now: with the exception of mud, which is best treated when it’s dry and can be vacuumed or brushed up, pretty much anything, stain-wise, that you get on carpeting really needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Oh right, vacuums. If you have carpeting, you really ought to own a vacuum. If money and/or space is an issue for you, look for what’s called a “stick” vacuum, which is fairly narrow and can be stored easily, and will generally cost in the $50–$100 range but can be found for as low as $25–$30, especially if you keep an eye out for sales at big-box-type stores.

But back to those carpet-cleaning solutions! The good news about carpet-cleaning products is that they do much of the work for you, especially if you’re prompt about triage. You should follow the manufacturer’s instructions since products vary greatly, but your general procedure will be something like this: spray the stain and then let the product do its work for the recommended amount of time (usually five to fifteen minutes) before rubbing gently, so as not to grind the stain into the carpet, with a damp cloth or sponge.

Depending on what the nature of and how bad the stain is, it might be necessary to rinse and wring the rag a few times. If the stain is really bad, or if your carpet needs an all-over freshening up, steam cleaners are great and worth the price of rental—which is, believe it or not, one of the most common questions I’m asked! Yes! Yes they are wonderful and worth it! Also, they’re not as expensive as you think, generally running about $30. The more you know!

Wow, that was a lot of expounding on the care and keeping of floors and walls and other immovable things. I sort of want to collapse in a heap now. Do you want to collapse in a heap too? Well, then it’s a good thing the floor is so clean!

Previous: CHAPTER 1: The Kitchen: Clean It, or Just Set It on Fire and Be Done?
Next: CHAPTER 3: Le Pissoir (Because These Things Sound Fancier in French)