Seeing a Homeless Man Sweep the Streets of Skid Row Brought Home How We Clean to Control of Our Lives

I should know: I relied on cleaning when my life was unraveling.

Homeless tents in Los Angeles Skid Row by Russ Allison Loar.

My boyfriend lives in the Toy District of downtown Los Angeles, otherwise known as Skid Row. He has a loft there in an old industrial warehouse.

With high ceilings and tastefully decorated, his loft is a beautiful space. However, the streets around his building are occupied by homeless encampments.

The streets are filthy here, the sidewalks black from soot and grime. Garbage litters the pavement, often in large piles. Rats are common.

A homeless woman salvaging in Los Angeles Skid Row by Russ Allison Loar.

And yet, because my boyfriend lives in this neighborhood, we too spend a lot of time on these streets as we make our way on foot past the homeless encampments to venture to other parts of downtown Los Angeles.

One day, we were on our way to Grand Central Market, a permanent farmer’s market in the historic core of the city, about a mile away from where my boyfriend lives, when we came upon a homeless man with a broom in hand.

I’m not sure if he lived in a tent on the street or just slept on the sidewalk. A lot of people sleep on the street at night with nothing more than a blanket to cover them.

Still, this man, armed with a broom, was sweeping the street. Regardless of the circumstances of his life, there he was, cleaning up.

He swept refuse from the gutter and cleared away the trash from the sidewalk. I asked myself: why? Why clean the street when, as a homeless person, this man had much more important needs, such as finding a permanent place to live?

Then it struck me: this sidewalk was his home. He was essentially sweeping his front yard. Isn’t it human nature to want to keep our homes in order?

But I felt like it went deeper than that. I believe it’s human nature to want to imbue our surroundings with structure. Isn’t this one of the ways we maintain control over our habitats?

Isn’t this how we maintain some control over our lives?

I once obsessively cleaned to control my unraveling life.

I should know something about using cleaning as a way to create a semblance of order in my life. I once used cleaning as a way to feel like my life wasn’t spinning out of control.

My life was in shambles after my husband and I lost our home in the 2008 financial crisis. No, we didn’t end up on the streets, but we did have to give up our four-bedroom house in a suburb of Los Angeles when we couldn’t keep up with our mortgage payments.

We moved into a two-bedroom rental and I’ll tell you, that’s when I developed an obsession with cleaning. My life was a cluttered, chaotic storm, but if I just cleaned the house, I felt like I could pretend that my life wasn’t such a disaster.

Not only were we now broke, bankrupt, and struggling to pay our rent and to cover our basic needs, but my husband decided this was a good time to stop getting out of bed. Instead of looking for work, he spent the entirety of his days reading about conspiracy theories.

I now understand how depressed he was. However, at the time, I didn’t get it. All I knew was that he had abandoned me emotionally, leaving me to fend on my own with our two young children. He never cleaned up after himself or our two kids. Our two boys were constantly creating their own messes.

With a broom, a mop, or a scrub brush, I tried to save our family from a jungle of disarray. Each day, I hacked back the vines of disorder trying to overtake us.

If anything, cleaning was predictable when nothing else in my life was. I could depend on the messes my sons and husband would make for me as I could depend on the inevitability of it being me who cleaned them up.

I couldn’t comprehend how the housing market had crashed, or how my husband had seemingly lost his mind. But I could depend on my family creating messes for me that I had to clean.

And so I sponged, mopped, swept, and scrubbed. When I was done doing that, I scoured, sluiced, dried, and shined.

At least the mess in the house was one I could actually clear away. When it came to the mess of my marriage or my life, I had no idea where to start.

So I continued to vacuum, dust, and polish. If our lives were caught in a tempest, at least cleaning was a ballast.

Was I just projecting?

I understand that when I witnessed this man sweeping the street in Skid Row, I may have been projecting too much of myself onto him. He might have been spun out on crack for all I know. In his heightened state, cleaning simply gave him something to do.

Still, I can’t help thinking that it’s human nature to try to bring order to the chaos of our surroundings, no matter how bad our circumstances are.

A man has lost his home and now lives on the streets in one of the dirtiest parts of L.A. Still, he cleans the grit and tries to tame the disorder. As he does, he takes back some control over his life.

Entropy rules. We do what we can to put things back together as they inevitably fall apart.

It’s human nature to attempt to clean up the literal messes of our lives in an effort to control the figurative ones.

Former Playboy writer. Professional over-sharer. L.A.-based. More about me: Support:

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