So I've been absent for a while. I could tell you all sorts of stories, but really, I'd rather offer the latest installment on Being Green in a Red State.
At our present juncture in homeownership, Expat and I are working towards Green, but we’re not quite there. In all honesty, we’re really more of a Cool Mint. Possibly an unfortunate Sea Foam. Oh, we’ve got the basics down. We’re switching all the lights over to compact fluorescents. We don’t run the air conditioner unless the house is just too muggy to sleep. As our appliances die (like the dishwasher) or get stolen (like the washer and dryer), we’re replacing them with Energy Star. For the eventual remodel of the kitchen, we’re already considering cabinets and countertops made of sustainably produced, renewable resources, and the fact that the flooring in the living and dining rooms will be either bamboo or engineered, reclaimed hardwood is a foregone conclusion. But these things aren’t really Super Green. These things are trendy. In order to really make a difference, Expat and I really want to go beyond trendy.
Take, for example, green cleaning products. I’m a little obsessed with the idea of nontoxic cleaners at the moment. Every time I go to Barnes and Noble (again, Tuscaloosa has exactly zero independent booksellers that sell things other than textbooks and unwieldy Civil War tomes), I gravitate toward the eco-friendly home improvement and renovation books and drool over projects that would be wonderful if I could afford them and let’s face it, I can’t. But right next to the home improvement books, right in the same section, are the green household cleaning books. The first one I picked up, Green This! Greening Your Cleaning by Deidre Imus, was a little preachy, what with opening with those statistics on childhood cancer and all, but hooked me by telling me that most everything I need to clean my whole house could be found in my pantry. The two I’ve decided that I like the best, though, are the more step-by-step “if you can’t do this, then at least do this” guides: Green Up Your Cleanup by Jill Potvin Schoff and my all time favorite, Squeaky Green : The Method Guide to Detoxing Your Home by Adam Lowry, Eric Ryan, the guys who make the Method brand cleaning products that they sell at Target. The Method guys sit down and discuss (quite clearly and irreverently) why carpet is highly unsanitary and how ironic it is that we worry about eating organic foods and then clean our kitchens with pesticides. But to that I say this: can you honestly tell me that some weird mixture of white vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and water is going to zap the mildew colleting behind my kitchen faucet better than Clorox? Really? It might be more healthy, sure, but will it be as effective?
And then there is the problem of the kind of house Expat and I have purchased. There are certain parts of our house—certain key problem areas that have been problem areas since the house was built back in 1972 or 1974 or 1976 (there’s some debate, here)—that simply refuse to be cleaned with anything but, say, full strength ammonia. Like my kitchen floor. My kitchen floor is vintage 1970’s, avocado green linoleum—or at least it was when it was put down over 30 years ago. By the time we moved in, though, it had been waxed and somewhat stripped and waxed and somewhat stripped heaven only knows how many times, and meanwhile it had been scuffed and scraped and stomped on with years of dirty shoes. Add to that the fact that I am pretty sure Verna Smith—original homeowner and product of the 1950s—did her fair share of greasy frying in the kitchen and probably didn’t do such a hot job getting all that greasiness cleaned up (our kitchen cabinets stand testament to this) and it’s no wonder that our floor was now more like scum-colored linoleum with an avocado green undertone.
When my older neighbors all eventually came over to say "Hi," every single one looked at the floor and said “Oh, those old floors. You’ll never get that clean. You’ll just have to replace them.”
And just like that, it became more than a desire for clean floors. It became a challenge.
Undaunted, I tried lots of things to restore my vintage 1970’s kitchen floor to its full avocado-green glory: regular old mopping, spot cleaning with white vinegar, scrubbing with more traditional cleaners like Soft Scrub (with bleach), straight up Clorox, old fashioned elbow grease. So on the surface, the floor was clean, but the surface was really just old scummy, greasy wax. It wasn’t really clean. It was clean-ish.
Now, I’m not necessarily the world’s most tidy person. I am by nature a Piler. I bring things home and stack them into neat piles all over every flat surface available: the counter, the dining room table, my desk, my dresser, and when I run out of raised surfaces, the floor works just fine. This is not a conscience decision on my part, more of an ingrained trait passed to me from my Piler mother on some strand of DNA, but while my mother’s Piling stops at papers and bills and magazines, mine extends to other mediums. Clothes, for one—by the week’s end I have the dirty pile at the bottom of my closet floor and several clean piles scattered around the bedroom of things I thought I might wear one day but decided not to and then never got around to hanging back up. Then there’s the laundry, which I wash religiously every week and then fold right away, but which then tends to linger in the laundry basket in its neat, square piles while my husband and I pull necessary items from it as the next week progressed.
But what separates me from people who have to sniff their shirts to decide whether they can wear them one more day is that, while my piles are messy, they are most certainly not dirty (with the exception of the dirty clothes, which are supposed to be dirty and which are always put in the same spot, so as not to be confused with the other piles). Besides the differences in denotation and connotation, there is a larger, more cosmic, innate difference between being messy and being dirty. I’ll own messy, sure. But I have never been dirty. Never ever. Dirty is gross.
And the sad truth was that my kitchen floor was deep down, 30-years-old dirty. It wouldn’t matter if I gave up Piling altogether and became the poster child for the organization section in RealSimple magazine, unless I did something about it, that floor would always be dirty. I knew that something more colorful and sanitary lay beneath the scum, I just had to find something to cut through it.
Then my mother mentioned ammonia.
As the Method guys put it, “The problem with ammonia is that the toxic ingredient in it is, well, ammonia.” Ammonia burns your lungs and your eyes and your throat and your skin and can be really awful for people with asthma and is deadly if you’re exposed to enough of it. It’s dangerous to have around the house because it doesn’t come with a child safety cap and it looks just like water. It’s not naturally a liquid—ammonia is a gas, specifically NH3. But you know smart people. Some smart person somewhere figured out how to make it not a gas, bottled it, and there you go, household ammonia. So-called household ammonia is really just a solution of some NH3 dissolved in water; once its opened and exposed to the air, it immediately starts evaporating and turning itself right back into a noxious, stinky gas. But it’s also a really good cleaner precisely because it evaporates—it leaves behind absolutely no residue. Plus, it’s cheap, so lots of frugal homeowners use it because it can clean everything from floors to countertops to windows.
Mom mopped her floors with diluted ammonia for years—she likes the no-sticky-residue trait. And sure, we’re probably all going to die some horrible death as a result of inhaling the fumes, but at least we had floors we could be proud of. The more I looked at my scummy kitchen floor, the more I began thinking that maybe one little bottle of ammonia wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Maybe. Just to get things started.
So I bought it. The first time I used it, I was very careful. I opened all the kitchen windows and the back door. I closed off the kitchen from the rest of the house so the cats couldn’t get in (and to contain the fumes as much as possible). I wore pants and long sleeves and those long plastic gloves that make me feel like a 50’s housewife doing her dishes. I had a paint fume mask—the kind all those residents of Beijing wear when cycling to work to block out all the smog. I bought a scrub brush just for the ammonia mixture. I even had an ammonia-only bucket. Screw green. I was red hot and ready to up my toxicity if it meant not feeling like I had to apologize for my floors. The whole “It’s not my dirt! I swear! It was here when we got here!” routine isn’t going to work forever.
At first, I tried using a standard 1 part ammonia/2 parts water ratio. It moved the scum a little, but not much. Then I tried 1-to-1. Again, not much luck. It was as if my house was taunting me: “You think a little water is going to do it? Awwww, you think your little eco-conscience hocus-pocus is going to work on me? Screw you, hippie. I was built back when DDT was legal! You ain’t got nothing I haven’t seen. Mmmmmwaaahaahaaaaaa.”
But no DDT-era house was going to get the best of me. Annoyed at the scum and at the previous owners and at myself for introducing miles of noxious fumes into my already less-than-stellar indoor environment, I finally just splashed a little full strength ammonia right out of the bottle onto the floor and let it sit there for a minute while I stepped out onto the carport for a little not-so-noxious air. When I came back inside, I gave the patch a half-hearted swipe with my scrub brush, fully expecting to just pack everything up and call it a day when the scum didn’t move.
Here’s the thing: it came clean. There, shining up at me, was a funny, splash-shaped patch of pure, unfiltered vintage avocado.
I sighed, uncapped the bottle, and set to work dousing patches of floor with full-strength ammonia. The difference was so startling that, indoor air pollution or not, I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I worked on my hands and knees for two hours and got through 2/3 of the kitchen floor. I took lots of air breaks. I set up a fan to pull the bad air out through the windows. I spent a fair amount of time standing under my carport gasping the cool Alabama spring air like a fish. And at 10PM that night, I called it quits. I had found the true linoleum. I knew how to get to it. That was enough. I’d get back to the other part or the floor later, after my lungs and eyes had some time to recuperate. I packed it all up, rinsed everything, tossed all my cleaning cloths and my clothes into our Energy Star washer, and put myself into the shower where I rinsed all remaining fumes and bits of floor scum off with my all natural, biodegradable olive oil soap, and scrubbed my hair with our sustainably-produced Aveda shampoo (with natural flower essences).
I felt like a phony. Like a trendy eco-consumer. That night, as I crawled into our 100% cotton sheets, I was definitely an unfortunate shade of Sea Foam.
So far in my personal battle for Greeness against my house, House=1, Sparky=0.