The Bachelor and the Dust BunnyBy WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
ARE men pigs?
Tom McNulty, an advertising copywriter, likes to clean. Mr. McNulty, the only boy of three siblings, was divorced a year ago and forced to confront the truth about keeping his house in order. He is now the author of "Clean Like a Man: Housekeeping for Men (and the Women Who Love Them)" (Three Rivers Press).
If evolution is a genetic accident, favored by circumstance, the future of man could be living in a tidy apartment in exurban Minneapolis with Mr. McNulty.
Mr. McNulty's guide to the clean life is a primer for a species, the single male, which he believes has lived, to date, in an inviting sty of ignorance toward vacuuming, bed-making, kitchen maintenance, clothing care and other homemaking arts.
The challenge is summed up neatly in a piece of advice on changing sheets.
"Don't wait until you can actually see that your bedding needs washing."
Excellent point. It was then that I trusted that Mr. McNulty knew his audience.
"I had a friend also going through a separation," he recalled last week, sitting in the living room in his town-house-style apartment, which was as neat as a pin. Mr. McNulty moved there a year ago, after his divorce. "He had horror stories — the `liquid dishwashing detergent in the dishwasher' story. Suds filled the kitchen. I had done the same thing, with my own first dishwasher." It was like testimony in a 12-step program. "I thought, Boy, we're just so pathetic," Mr. McNulty said of his fellow man. In college, he and his roommates swept the carpeting with a broom. Mr. McNulty has another friend who throws everything "important looking" in a box, labeled with the year. I can relate to that.
Men, in fact, are on the radar of the cleaning products industry. "Today, more and more men are participating in home care," said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist at Procter & Gamble. "It's generational. As we talk with younger families and empty nesters, we speak with more and more men."
Ms. Berning explained that the trend has resulted in the greater development of products that side-step any want of expertise or patience, like premeasured dishwasher soap, dry mops and single-use dusters. Product design and packaging are also increasingly gender-neutral, and men are appearing more frequently in advertising, like Procter & Gamble's current television campaign for Febreze, a fabric refresher.
"We avoid making the products feminine," Ms. Berning said, acknowledging the company's observation that while men might not represent a new, stand-alone market, the broom is being passed.
Brian Sansoni, vice president for communication with the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group in Washington, said that the association's annual surveys recognize that women continue to do a majority of the cleaning in homes. But the popularity of idiotproof products indicates that an increasing segment of men are helping, or cleaning for themselves.
"The floor wipes, the detergent tablets — frat guys can do this," Mr. Sansoni said. "There's been an explosion among these types of products."
In "Clean Like a Man," Mr. McNulty is careful not to disturb the dust on men's attitudes and habits involving housekeeping, and he has an innate respect for their haplessness toward cleaning chores and their particular pride of place. Legends persist. If you use a towel to dry yourself after bathing, why would the towel ever get dirty? Doesn't it get cleaner?
Even brush in hand, the book never bristles with advice. Nagging is not welcome, as Mr. McNulty well knows. And information like "don't vacuum wet surfaces" can never be assumed unnecessary. With hope, cleaning, like exercise, will produce its own encouragement by appearance.
The stain removal chapter is a litmus for the presence of men at home — beer, barbecue sauce, pizza, nacho cheese sauce, salsa, chips, ketchup and vomit. And the chapter on odor control will be welcome to anyone who has sniffed the armpit of a shirt before putting it on, or followed a smell to its source as though it were footprints in wet paint.
Mr. McNulty's approach is practical — anything you can't see you're not responsible for. And he has a philosophical gift. In a preamble to actual cleaning, he encourages readers to get rid of as many things as possible, on the theory that the less you own, the less you have to take care of.
That leaves the house. At home, Mr. McNulty, who is dating regularly and owns a dog, Coco, was surrounded by spotlessness — a glass coffee table in the living room, a glass dining table, a mirrored headboard in the master bedroom. There was a framed picture of his mother, a homemaker, displayed in a bookcase.
Mr. McNulty, who has traveled extensively because of advertising clients in the hospitality business, learned to clean by watching professional cleaning people.
"Hotel maids don't like to be watched," he recalled. "They like to work alone, not in front of a person sitting there asking questions."
In the house he shared with his wife, which he was responsible for cleaning alone during a two-year separation before his divorce, Mr. McNulty bit the bullet and taught himself technique.
"I'm a right-hander, so I move clockwise, stay close to the wall, keep everything in front of me," he said. Mr. McNulty's ground rules: work on one room at a time, work from top to bottom in a room, and stay focused on a task until you finish it.
"The average guy gets distracted so easily," he explained. Mr. McNulty also advises against eating pretzels while you work; it's antithetical to your goal.
He works with what he calls his M.C.U., or mobile cleaning unit, which is a double bucket with cleaning agents like Pledge and Windex that operates as his basic handyman's kit in each room. He has also set up site-specific stations under sinks in kitchen and bathrooms with products particular to the tasks.
Mr. McNulty listens to music on an iPod when cleaning.
"The Stones," he said, asked for a recommendation.
Though he characterized himself as "brand neutral," Mr. McNulty uses a Eureka vacuum, a self-propelled, 12-amp "Smart Vac" model with a 15-inch cleaning path, a "True HEPA" sealed vacuum filtration system, a headlight and onboard tools. He called it his "Formula One." Mr. McNulty is big on onboard tools.
And he is unafraid of cleaning agents. My cleaning index stops at Formula 409. Mr. McNulty uses Formula 505 (the escalation is unclear). Cello, which makes it, also makes a product called Strike Force. In his book, Mr. McNulty is dismissive of foot soldiers like antibacterial soaps. And baking soda, the Mr. Rogers of the housecleaning team, is relegated to rear-guard stink-capturing missions under the sink or in the refrigerator.
The refrigerator, though, is an important front in a single man's home, Mr. McNulty stressed. If men treated relationships with the optimism they treat expiration dates, it would be a rounder world. Mr. McNulty personally kept a piece of fish in his refrigerator for over a year before his conversion, he said.
Now, he would not develop a relationship with a woman who allowed a food package's deadline to slide.
"Well, we're all human," he said, standing in his kitchen, which had a bone-shaped hooked rug on the floor for Coco's two bowls. "Would I eat it? No. Would I have a relationship with her? No."
Rising to men's defense, Mr. McNulty said he knows "sloppy" women. "I've dated a few," he explained. Housekeeping is an issue.
"I'd have a problem with that," he said.
Mr. McNulty is not perfect yet, as a white glove test revealed. Though he admitted to three hours of cleaning the day before, in anticipation of my arrival, I got a healthy swipe on the tops of several wall pictures, a lamp base, the back of the outside of a toilet bowl and the inside of his microwave oven. Mr. McNulty keeps the stove's oven clean by never using it.
In our visit, he also taught me to iron a shirt, a 15-minute task that he promised could be reduced to 5, and that I promise never to repeat — a project, possibly unique, that numbs the mind as it requires attention. And for readers like me, Mr. McNulty's book has a section on "crisis cleanup," which can be accomplished in 10 minutes. You throw everything into a box.
The last chapter is advice on hiring a cleaning service.
"There's a lot of things I'd rather do," Mr. McNulty said of housekeeping. But he leapt at me as I started to hang my freshly pressed shirt on the back of a bar stool.
"I'll get you a hanger for that," Mr. McNulty said. Sad to say, he seemed to enjoy the prospect.