by Sam Harley
When I joined the Creative Community Project in 1978, I was a skinny (148 lbs, 6’1”) vegetarian, almost vegan. In addition, I was so spiritually sensitive that someone becoming angry around me was like a very loud noise or a punch in the gut. After the second week of workshop, I had full permission to go into the storage shed behind the kitchen, grab a bowl, and gouge out a hunk from the 55 gallon barrel of natural peanut butter that was kept there. It kept me on the ground.
Eating a liquid breakfast and then hitting the streets of San Francisco to witness to people, invite them to dinner, was something of an ordeal for me. I felt like a helium balloon in a windstorm, desperately trying not to get blown away. For one thing, I was not a city boy. I grew up in a small town, where everything was on a manageable scale. For another, I was not used to people looking at me like I had two heads when they found out I was a “Moonie”. Some ran as if I had some strange magical power to make them lose their minds. Others just snarled at us.
Needless to say, I wasn’t much of a success at it. Talking to strangers made me very uncomfortable, even talking to people I knew was difficult sometimes. I had joined with the help of spiritual voices which guided me straight to this group, but spiritual voices were not always friendly. And the joy and closeness I felt at workshop vanished on these ugly streets.
My spiritual father was part of the maintenance company that was run by Mike Sommers and Jeremiah Schnee. Most of their work was carpet cleaning. I worked at their warehouse, where we shampooed and steam extracted red rugs from military bases. The company had won a contract with the GAO for Northern California. The steamer and wand were easy enough to learn; all you had to do was walk backwards, dragging the heavy wand over the carpet as you applied hot water through the jets and sucked it up. And you had to empty the machine before the tank filled up; if you didn’t, it sucked dirty water into the vacuum pump and you had to shut down and do a cleaning.
What was tricky was the rotary shampooer. It was a rotary buffer used for floor polishing, but we added one twist to it. The brush was our special order; you took stiff bristle brush and cut it short like a stubbly crew cut. The result was a brush that scrubbed very hard. It was also very hard to control. The rotary buffer glides stationary if you hold the head flat. If you tilt the head up, the top edge bites into the carpet and the head goes right. The same if you tilt the handle down. . With a polisher, or a soft brush, you could easily hold the machine in place while tilting to scrub a spot. With the bristle brush, you had to fight the machine. Many people put holes in walls learning to control the shampooer.
The idea was to scrub the carpet in circles, which meant rocking your hips and sending the machine out and back. While doing this, you held down the shampoo handle as you pushed out.
So once you learned the machines, then you went out on jobs. We cleaned restaurants of all kinds, from greasy Chinese joints to high end places with pictures of presidents on the walls. We did bars after they closed, we did offices on weekends. We occasionally did houses. Sometimes we did 24 hour restaurants a section at a time. We also did stores.
We practiced a ‘give out 1-0-0’ style of working. We ran into the place with our equipment, ran to fill buckets with hot water to do edging. Ran with vacuums and ran to put up chairs and tables.
The summit of the Oakland carpet cleaning experience was the weekends. The sales guys would try to pack the weekend with as many jobs as possible. 24 hours straight was not unusual. The idea was to go beyond our concept of human endurance, to challenge what we thought was physically possible. There were times when we did 40 hours straight. I remember one Sunday morning coming back across the Oakland Bay Bridge, we were singing at the top of our lungs to stay awake. The brother in the passenger seat was huddled against the door, in a windbreaker and beanie. As we sang one song, he closed his eyes and delivered a verse of the song that I had never heard before, and have never heard since. It fit perfectly, and made sense. He couldn’t remember it afterwards, and neither could I.
One motel in Palm Springs had us come every few months to clean their rooms. The owner was in a lounge chair, hawaiian shirt, drink in his hands, with his friends. As soon as we arrived he started following us around. “What are you guys into? You all look so happy. Him, he’s got that look of enlightenment in his eye. So what are you guys into? Who are you with? I just wanna know. Are you gay? I don’t care, Please, can’t you tell me?”
What we couldn’t tell him was that we were under strict orders only to tell people that this was a business. With the atmosphere in those days, we could be tanked overnight if word got out we were a “Moonie” business. Not to mention that, with the Unification Church/Oakland relationship, we were not really supposed to be in Los Angeles. I don’t think the UC had a competing carpet cleaning company, even so, we were ‘undercover’. So, although it broke our hearts to do so, we stayed quiet and cleaned the daylights out of his motel.
Thanks to our sales team, we began to get work in the skyscrapers on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown LA. One job was steam cleaning furniture for IBM’s office. It was a two man job, but really only one person could work at a time steaming the furniture. So we decided to bring along a book to read out loud to make the time go by.
So there we were, around 11 o’clock at night, kneeling by an orange sofa. I was working the little steamer wand, while Serge Brosseau, a brother from Quebec, was reading from Victory Over Communism, loud enough to be heard over the roaring steam machine.
Around the corner comes a puzzled looking IBM tech, wondering what in the heck we are doing, yelling about God and Communism while steaming sofas in the middle of the night. I tried to explain the idea to him, but he clearly thought we were the kind of people who only come out at night.
Restaurants got cleaned in the middle of the night, after closing time. The sales team usually negotiated for the cleaners to be able to help themselves to sodas during our mid-job break. One captain we had, a tall, lanky, brother who looked sleepy even when he was awake, would pray deeply over our drinks and bless them with ‘holy breath’ before serving us.
One time a manager came by while Bill was leaning over, his face nearly touching the bubbling sodas, his eyes closed, reverently blowing on the Sprites and Cokes. Today, of course, we could have snapped a picture of his incredulous expression as he watched Bill bless the drinks, on the verge of falling asleep right into them.
And being a devout vegetarian and herbalist. One night as my spiritual father and I were heading out to clean a restaurant, our equipment piled into a car, I felt a migraine coming on. I had had them before, and knew I was in for absolute hell unless I had quiet, darkness and an ice pack on my eyes. I began to explain to him what I needed, and why I couldn’t possibly work with noisy machines and chemical fumes. He said “I know just the thing for it!” and pulled into a Baskin Robbins.
He proceeded to order the largest sundae on the menu, the Matterhorn. It had something like 7 scoops of ice cream, 2 or 3 sauces, cherries, nuts, the works. My herbalistic training would have said this was halfway suicidal, my head would probably explode. But what the heck, challenge your concepts was one of our slogans, so I tucked in.
Between the two of us, we ate the whole thing, with me doing most of the damage. We hopped in the car, and cleaned a dingy dive with harsh clip lights, droning machines, cleaning chemicals, the works, And my headache had completely vanished. Go figure.