A maid, by Webster's definition, is "a female servant." You know the movie version: short black skirt, starched white apron/cap and a fluffy feather duster.

Muscular, bushy-bearded, curly-topped Robert Starkey, 32, is also a maid, only he's not in the movies. And he takes his job seriously.

"We're into dirt," says Starkey, who founded Man-Maid three years ago because he was "tired of being underpaid and overworked" in his job as assistant manager of a bookstore.

"I mentioned to a lawyer friend of mine that I was unemployed and that I would do anything, even clean houses, which I started doing. And once I started doing that, I decided that I liked it. It was therapeutic, I could do a lot of thinking and it offered me a lot of free time to set up my own schedule and travel when I wanted to."

Cleaning comes naturally to Starkey. Even as a kid, he says, his mother did not have to prod him into straightening his room.

"I've always been a clean fanatic. Whenever I was uptight, I just went through the house and cleaned everything. Then I got into other people's homes, and I realized it was the same thing. Just because it belonged to someone else, it didn't change the therapy part of it."

Now people pay Starkey for his "therapy," and he's tripled his income. The Man-Maid payroll includes five males, age 20-30, and artist Heidi Tobias, 27, the first full-time woman.

"We call her our 'Man-Maidette,'" cracks Starkey. "I've had four women working for Man-Maid over the last three years and they always go on to something different because they don't want to be part of the stereotype of a woman being a maid."

Man-Maid (and "Maidette") stresses a strong sense of professionalism. "We don't come in and raid the refrigerator," says Starkey. "We don't watch the soap operas. We spend all the time that we're there working.

"We listen to people's complaints about their maid services -- like not showing up regularly or not paying attention to detail -- and then try to provide the things that our clients want." (None of the Man-Maid staff has a car, but use public transportation.)

Except for washing and ironing, Starkey and staff will do anything else "within reason. I think it's ridiculous when a maid says, 'I won't do this,' because most of the things that other maid services say they won't do, like waxing floors, take less than 10 minutes. I feel that if you're offering yourself as that service, you shouldn't say no.

"What I try and impress upon the people who work for Man-Maid," says Starkey, "is that before you walk out the door of a client's place , turn around and pretend you're the owner coming home from work at the end of the day and put yourself to the test. See if it passes your own specifications."

Once you hire Man-Maid, they'll negotiate a fee, based on regularity of service and number of rooms to clean. Jobs range from a $30 minimum for weekly service on an efficiency or small, one-bedroom, to $50 for three bedrooms and two baths. If the job gets too big, they charge a flat rate of $10 per hour. At the start of service, they ask for three cleaning periods to get a place in order.

"Things that you wouldn't think of cleaning, like the tops of doors, the tops of windows, under refrigerators, under the couch and under carpets that aren't tacked down," says Starkey. "If you get it all in the beginning, then you've got less dirt to work with from then on."

But the Big Question: Do they do windows?

Yes and no. "We don't do windows just as a single job, but we will do windows for regular customers."

Regular customers, says Starkey, "tend to be people who have never had a cleaning service before. We thrive on middle-class people where two people in the family are working and it's a necessity."

There's talk now of opening a Man-Maid franchise in San Francisco. "They've seen everything there," says Man-Maid partner Robert Villacari, 23, "so the idea of a male cleaning crew is not new. But what that area needs is professionalism and every kind of service. Anyway, we're considering it."

Although most customers come to Man-Maid via referrals, Starkey has circulated leaflets with a sketch of himself looking more macho-maid than French. Does he really show up on jobs looking like that?

"I do in the summer. I don't wear the apron, but I do wear the construction boots and the cut-off jeans and T-shirts when it's warm. I never know if the apartment will be air-conditioned or not, and I'm going to be comfortable when working."

The ad, as might be expected, has elicited responses for more than cleaning. "We've had propositions from both women and men," says Starkey, "and I just tell them flatly to try a call service. We clean houses and that's the end of it."