Mr. Clean, explain thyself

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, April 4, 2019


It’s spring, and the smell of chemicals is in the air. From a visceral place located deep within baby boomers’ brains (the olfactory bulb of the limbic system), Mr. Clean’s face pops to mind, his smiling eyes, bald head, hoop earrings, crossed arms and fiercely positive demeanor. It’s unclear if they have always been there or I’ve just noticed, but the stars of the universe are his backdrop.

We boomers grew up on all sorts of just plain wrong smells, from Chlorox and Windex to Pine-Sol, Play-Doh and school paste. Because of the instantaneous connection between nose and nostalgia, we might find ourselves gravitating towards these products as the chutes and ladders to our past, a way back to the gumdrop mountains of a simpler time and place, a time when your mother (mine anyway) seemed to be cleaning the house all the time — the windows, the wood floors, the silver, the oven, the curtains.

When I think of my mom in our six-bedroom house listening to Mozart, smoking her first cigarette of the day, probably wearing a sweatshirt with flowers on it, it breaks my heart. She was the most academically inclined of all of us, but never really got to shine that light — mainly because she had kids to raise and a house to clean. Maybe Mr. Clean made her feel like she had male company in the unequivocally female domain of the “domestic engineer,” that ha-ha-not-really-ha first euphemism for the American housewife. Let’s face it, in America cleaning has been a con job — a male advertiser’s heyday — since advertising began.

Consider the live actor on the Mr. Clean TV ads in the 1960s, a man with a mysteriously accented voice, as if he’s just arrived from a distant world, like Shangri-La (James Hilton’s utopian lamasery in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon”). He seems to have at his disposal a vast amount of information and comprehension we simply do not yet have. And because we’ve also grown up watching “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” (two perverse, confoundingly sexist shows about women with magical powers), we’re prone to needing magic from our pantheon of everyday mascots. Gimme the genie in the bottle, please? Not just for life, but more importantly, for cleaning!

Procter & Gamble has today updated the Mr. Clean story on its website with a bizarre short video about an unusual bald baby boy with white eyebrows who arrives on this plane (on the doorstep of foster-parent farmers) actually cleaning (kid you not), here to teach (about cleaning), surpassing the knowledge available in books (with knowledge about cleaning) and eventually able to transmit the ultimate truth (which is All. About. Cleaning.). Of course! His strong, hairless, doughy and ferociously chipper demeanor generate a humility and service as yet unseen in the world of marketing cleanliness. It’s creepy though, as if with a Marvel Comics overhaul you’d get the real goods — the dirt on Mr. Clean. His dark side.

This is what I am thinking about right now, as the spring light streams into rooms, revealing the centillions of dust motes in the air, the film on floorboards and furniture, the schmutz, dirt, grease, grime, gradoo (a word I learned from my southern friend, Angela), and crud on appliances, not to mention the orange cat hair — from a puny, 8-pound around-the-clock factory of it — that can be found in virtually every cubic foot of house as the shedding season begins. (Why does cat hair float — almost fly — does anyone actually know the physics behind it?)

Some of us may have been brainwashed into thinking all we needed was the magic of a strong, chipper and confident fantasy-genie in a bottle (a product originally created to clean ships), but today we can opt for the real superhero of cleaning, a certain Dr. Emmanuel Bronner whose five-generation story, complete with trials, tragedies, brilliant successes, activism, All-One moral teaching, tie-dye, organic and everything-else certification, leaves absolutely nothing to be desired.

“Our cosmic principles define our most important relationships, and guide us in everything we do, from soapmaking to peacemaking — All-One!” Yeah, baby, All-One.

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