In which I learn the meaning of ‘hard work’

When we moved into our house, the shower needed some work. Two out of three walls had tile only up to waist level; stained linoleum covered the third. The grout between the tiles was rotting away, causing a leak in the basement. I sealed the grout in silicone, which stopped the leak but looked absolutely ridiculous (I learned the hard way how quickly silicone dries).

So last spring I hired a friend to retile the shower with an oversized subway tile. He did a wonderful job and the shower looked fantastic—but for one thing. In contrast with the bright white of the tile, the bathtub was really nasty.

Since moving in, I had tried many times over to get the grime out. Ajax, Bon-Ami, Soft Scrub, bleach, what have you. Nothing worked. I soaked, I sprayed, I scrubbed—no difference. The tub still looked grimy. Behold:

There’s no point in retiling your shower if it makes your bathtub look like a biohazard. I googled tricks for deep-cleaning a tub, and found that the intertubes gave me a lot of advice like this: “I’ve always used baking soda and elbow grease!”

The next day, as my friend was placing the last of the tile, he told me to clean off the grime before he started to grout.

“So, here’s the thing about grime,” I told him. “It will not come off. I’ve tried everything!”

“Oh, come on, you can get this off. All you need is a little elbow grease.”

“That’s exactly what the internet said!”


I went to Lowe’s for supplies. Picked up a few other items while I was there, including a couple of bags of cedar mulch, which is where I met a kind elderly salesman sweeping the floor on the other end of the garden center.

“We’re closing up in just a few minutes,” he yelled across the greenhouse. “Can I help you find anything else you need?

“Actually, yeah! I’m looking for elbow grease!” I yelled back.

“Excuse me?”

“What aisle is elbow grease on?”

He cupped his ear and started walking towards me. I figured he was hard of hearing. So I yelled louder:


He shook his head and kept walking closer. “I’m sorry, did you say, ‘elbow grease’?”

“Yeah, elbow grease.”

By now, he was standing right in front of me. “Oh, my dear, elbow grease is just hard work.”

“Huh?” What did he mean by that? I thought. Too much work and not worth the effort?

The old man began to chuckle and put his hand on my shoulder. “Oh, dear. Who told you to buy elbow grease? They were just pulling your chain,” he said. “It’s just a phrase. It means ‘hard work.'”

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I am not sure what is worse—that I actually asked a Lowe’s salesman where I could find elbow grease, or that I’ve gone through almost three decades of my life without ever once figuring out what people meant when they said that something required this elusive substance.

I can tell you that I did figure out a way to get the grime out. I found a pumice stone in the same aisle as all of the heavy duty cleaners. It sure wasn’t easy, and I probably scrubbed off whatever remaining enamel was left on tub, but I did manage to clean my tub.

All it took was a little elbow grease.