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05.11.11

Confessions of an Ivy League Cleaning Lady

Kia Grasty makes $140,000 cleaning up after Penn’s messiest students—and after her tales (and photos) of clogged toilets and feces-laden bathtubs, few would begrudge her it.

Kia Grasty makes $140,000 cleaning up after Penn’s messiest students—and after her tales (and photos) of clogged toilets and filthy bathtubs, few would begrudge her it.

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday in Philadelphia, and 51-year-old Kia Katrina Grasty, donning only her pajamas, is heading to a frat party.

Pulling up in her white GMC envoy truck to one of the University of Pennsylvania’s unofficial fraternity houses on Pine Street, Grasty marches confidently into the bash, shuts down the deejay and makes an urgent announcement: everyone needs to look for a package belonging to Penn junior Jack Cortese, one of the students living in the house.

Jack’s mother—actress Kim Delaney of NYPD Blue—was frantic that Jack hadn’t yet received the high-end suit and shoes she had overnighted for his upcoming internship interview. When Delaney couldn’t reach her son on the phone that night, she called Grasty. Unable to refuse the mother of a “privileged” client, Grasty darted out of bed immediately and took control of the situation.

“We need to look for a package!” she declares to the glassy-eyed college kids, who somewhat obediently stop carousing to search among strewn beer cups, cigarette stubs and other detritus. Moments later, Grasty emerges victorious from behind a bench on the front porch. “Got it!” she yells, and like clockwork the show goes on. Grasty can go home for the night, but she’ll be back soon enough to mop up the mess. That’s her job, after all.

Since 2005, Grasty has been cleaning up after Penn. While her partner at Diamond Cleaning, Candy Boyd, handles more conventional work—commercial buildings in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania—Kia has parlayed the effusive recommendation of one student, who found her on Google, into a customer base of dozens of Ivy League neat freaks and slobs—including high-profile scions like Delaney’s son, Vera Wang’s daughter, and the heir to the Beverly Hilton—many of whom pay her for the entire year in advance.

Gallery: The Messiest Rooms Grasty Ever Cleaned

Grasty doesn’t judge her clients for a sense of entitlement because she doesn’t see entitlement as a bad thing. “Students should be focusing on books not disinfectant and cleaning the bathroom,” she says. That said, what she sees could sometimes inspire a proper horror movie, from hay-bale-sized piles of clothes to clogged toilets to, at one frat, mounds of defecation in a bathtub, which she captures for posterity with her cell phone camera. While Grasty will often scold her kids, telling them “they done lost their minds,” that “they know better than that,” at the end of the day, she’ll still pick up the clothes or scrub the bathtub as long as it takes. Her only gripe: when they spent money on booze instead of hiring her more often.

Grasty recalls her first Penn cleaning job, a $45 fee from a student name Griffin Rotman. “I walked in and his house was de plorable,” she says, speaking in a preacher’s cadence and with a raspy cigarette voice. “Him sitting there on his bed like King Tut. After I finished, he said I’ll keep paying you $45 ‘cause [my room is] big and I’m gonna trash it.” Because of how much business he has brought her over the last six years, Rotman is another of Kia’s “privileged” customers. “When Griffin calls me, I jump,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie to you. As fast as I can get to him. I never tell him that ‘cause I don’t want his head to swell up, but I do.”

As she lets herself into Cortese’s house a few days after the party (she has her own set of keys) Grasty looks like an athlete—crew cut hair, a big T-shirt, sweats, and Nikes—hauling a sack of laundry in one hand and a box of cleaning supplies in the other. On her way to his room, she scans the rest of the place to see what kind of mess she’ll be facing after she’s finished folding his cashmere sweaters, lining up his shoes, stripping his linens, vacuuming—the full treatment.

More than a cleaner, many students view Grasty as something of a surrogate mother (Kim Delaney is far from the only parent with Grasty on speed-dial), who goes so far as to help coordinate moves and stock up apartments in advance of the new academic year. “To me it’s more than just cleaning,” she says. “I’m counting on my students to be the best that they can be. The smile on my face is when I ask my kids what’s your grade point average. That’s what inspires me.” Her clients taught her how to text and she lights up whenever she receives messages during school breaks saying, “Kia! We miss you!” and, “Hey, we didn’t want you to think we forgot about you.”

Never married and with no children of her own, the maternal feeling runs both ways, especially since the death of her own mother last year (she has since also become a regular churchgoer). “In the summertime I’m depressed,” she says. “When these kids leave me, I cry. I miss ‘em bad. When I hit that block and it’s early September they’re screaming for me, ‘ Kiaaaa we miss you’ and it’s a high.”

While she considers all her students—however messy and entitled—her Ivy League family, the golden child is surely David Alagem, a senior from Los Angeles whom she calls “David A.” Since Grasty coined the nickname, Alagem says that people whom he’s never met have begun referring to him that way. “I hear stories about myself from other people,” he says.

Grasty might be a gossip, but Alagem swears by her. “She’s genuine…you can tell. It’s not a business thing. If she doesn’t like someone, she makes it clear and she won’t be as nice to you.”

Alagem¹s father, an Israeli entrepreneur, owns the Beverly Hilton Hotelin Los Angeles. Alagem always promises Grasty that if she¹s ever in L.A., he¹ll give her the full treatment. I said you¹re bull-jiving me, she smiles. You got a hotel you¹d let an old lady stay at? Both devout Lakers fans, Alagem gives Kia Laker t-shirts as gifts and this past Christmas sent her cookies decorated with crèche ornaments. I¹m gonna cry like a baby next year when he leaves, she says. Come graduation, Grasty takes a front-and-center seat at Penn¹s historic Franklin Field to watch her favorite kids sport their cap and gown.

For Grasty, dirty work pays: even after expenses, and Boyd’s cut, she earned $140,000 last year, allowing her to cruise Philadelphia in a 2008 platinum STS Cadillac and fill her walk-in closet with designer dresses. “I treat myself,” she says.

And few would begrudge her a dime. “Listen somebody’s gotta do it,” she says. “Even if you gave everyone in the United States right now $1 million, somebody’s got to be a waiter, somebody got to be a waitress. Service work is very necessary. Everybody can’t be corporate America. Shut down all the service workers and see what happens.”

Daniella Wexler has written for Ha'aretz, the Philadelphia Inquirer, LAmag.com and Philadelphia’s City Paper alt-weekly.