Quite a bit is revealed about someone’s character when visiting their home. Squeaky-clean kitchen counters and alphabetized cookbook shelves usually mean the home’s inhabitants are well organized and function best with structure. Stacks of reference books towering next to sofas and back issues of the New Yorker strewn across coffee tables usually indicate that the residents are excellent conversationalists. Little Zen sand trays in entryways, prayer flags across doorways and Yogi Tea bag quotes designed in nifty mandala patterns under refrigerator magnets may mean the residents have spiritual leanings, although everyone knows that people with too much clutter can’t really like Thich Nat Hahn or the Dalai Lama that much. Broken windows, doors struggling to stay attached to hinges and faulty (or entirely absent) plumbing mechanisms mean the people dwelling in these types of homes are either complete psychopaths or have very lazy landlords. Porno mags left on the back of the toilet usually mean it’s a good time to bust out the disposable toilet seat covers tucked in your purse.
The only thing that reveals more about a person than simply dropping by their apartment for a quick martini after a Thursday night Zumba class, is working for them. As a housekeeper.
Housekeepers have up-close-and-personal access to people and their varied and bizarre habits. We catch glimpses of—and sometimes become frighteningly aware of—very intimate details about people. Many are often oblivious of this despite the fact that we are often washing their 8-gazillion count Egyptian cotton sheets and disposing of all of the interesting things they toss into the trash and recycling bins. We mop up their messes. We make their kids’ beds and organize their bookshelves.
I say “we” even though it is embarrassing to admit—I am one woman in the vast and growing population of housekeepers. I have, and sometimes still do, clean other people’s homes for extra cash.
People often think little to nothing of the hired help that clean their homes, rarely entertaining thoughts of how this type of work stood out as an employment option for so many. We all know that no child in the history of the world ever stood up and proudly declared, “I want to be a maid when I grow up, Mommy!” It has never happened. I can guarantee it. Still, many of us find ourselves face down in mop buckets, sloshing across floors that we see no more than once or twice a week.
For me, it wasn’t my dabbling into the world of Eastern spirituality and its non-attachment and Seva (selfless service) philosophies that led me into the world of tossing strangers’ silk panties into the delicate cycle. Nor was it a curiosity of how the other half (the half that can afford housecleaners) lived. It was sheer desperation. The threat of ending up homeless again. The fear of never having enough to feed my children. Cleaning the homes of strangers always put cash in my pocket, even if that cash only amounted to an extra fifty bucks a week. Fifty bucks meant gas in my shitty car. Fifty bucks meant my kids could have snacks between meals or could attend a handful of some kind of academically, culturally or spiritually enriching after school activities. When money wasn’t so tight, fifty bucks also meant that Mama sometimes got a much-needed night out on the town.
I’m aware that I’ve been more fortunate than others, who spend forty or more hours per week in the esteem-crushing work of housekeeping, bless their souls. It hasn’t always been awful, either. But it has always been eye opening.
One thing I’ve learned about being the hired help is that it is always more comfortable to clean someone’s home when the house is empty; while the residents are off shopping, working, having their hair frosted or feathered or whatever the current fad is. My favorite client was rarely home when I arrived to clean. A feminist psychotherapist, she seemed to really feel good about helping my struggling single-mom-grad-student self out. She’d leave kind yellow Post-it notes next to her entertainment center, Dear Dani, no need to vacuum the upstairs this week. Feel free to listen to this new Santana CD. It rocks! So I would. I’d slip the disk into the player, imagining the limited release 2003 Chateau St. Something Sauvignon Blanc she and her husband would knock back later that night, while Santana’s sweet guitar licks slipped through her study and into the kitchen. By then, I’d be home counting my bills, hoping that in addition to my salary from my other part-time job, my four cleaning jobs that week would mean I could pay my rent.
On occasion, I brought my own CDs. Nothing like Metallica’s Ride the Lightning to get in gear for some serious fucking dust removal in someone else’s house. Sometimes, this particular family would hire me for events, like their big Passover Seder. I’d stand at attention in the kitchen, a lone, weary butleress, waiting to clear plates from the table, serve dessert and wash the antique dinnerware one by one, drying each carefully before returning them to their special china cabinet. I’d eavesdrop on the family discussing recent trips to Paris, Istanbul, their apartment in Manhattan, all the while praying that my car would start at the end of the evening so I could drive the twenty miles back home, pay the sitter and start in on my own dishes before finishing term papers and packing up the following day’s lunch for my kids.
Sometimes, I’d work as a team with a fellow single mom friend. Meredith and I would scrub the floors of an indoor smoker, a woman with seventeen rescue cats who worked as a Russian translator for the CIA in her home office. She had an extensive collection of tiny fragile figurines. We cleaned them one by one while she coughed and puffed away, shouting over the phone in Russian. We always left reeking of a back alley, chain-smoking dumpster dive in close proximity to a frequent health code violating cat food factory.
We hit the jackpot—or so we thought—when we were hired on as regular cleaning ladies for a local alternative healing clinic. The clinic’s owner, a seemingly nice pseudo-hippy with a spiritual connection to her darling opium poppy garden, gave us keys asking only that we tidy the place up sometime on Sundays, when the clinic was closed. The first few months were virtually effortless. We’d let ourselves in after slow-moving mornings of coffee and day-old croissants at the local cafe and begin our wiping and scrubbing, pacing ourselves along to the rhythm of whatever New Age melodies we could tolerate from the CD player. The inner environment of the health clinic, even this one owned by an opium growing Rastafarian wannabe, was generally spotless. I’d take the upstairs restroom and treatment rooms; Meredith would conquer the downstairs kitchen, apothecary and waiting area.
Our time at the clinic came to a screeching halt one cloudy Sunday afternoon when we were met with a bathtub three or more inches full of pubic hair, along with empty enemas tossed across the bathroom floor. The owner’s response to our refusal to ever again dispose of what appeared to be a small nation’s shaving ritual gone awry? Sometimes people need to do things to make themselves feel good.
We wondered if she even considered the number of voodoo dolls we could have needle felted all of that hair into.
We’d polish the Legos of home-schooled kids, vacuum discarded weed and broken glass out of closets during move-out cleanings, peel paper plates—crusted together with wet cat food—off of kitchen floors. We’d gag as we ran rotten fish from stovetops to outdoor waste bins and tossed skid-marked tighty-whiteys into washing machines with the help of pliers.
And it made no difference how kind the bosses were, how much cleaning prep the owners did beforehand or how much they paid (note: the going rate at the time, circa 2003-2007, was about $50 a pop), the fact was, I was scraping pricey, molding basque sheep cheese off of the same Heath Ceramics that I wanted, ironing toddler-sized Burberry trousers and dusting rare ivory carvings and all other sorts of things I’m pretty sure I still can’t afford, before driving home to eat leftover beans and rice.
Filtering the Kitty-Cat Almond Roca out of fancy litter boxes and shoveling dog poop wasn’t very fun, either.
And it wasn’t just that it was quite awkward to stumble upon pornography or enema bags. It was how we, the hired help, felt about ourselves when we went out into the world—Bon Ami powder rinsed from our hands, fresh clothes replacing the jeans which molding orange juice gushed onto just hours before. It was almost a secret, a taboo for us—my friend and I—both mothers, spending our kid-free time picking up after the kids of strangers. Throwing out expired yogurt and wilted lettuce. The wastefulness, that crushed me the most.
Still, we, a lot of us, do these things. Sometimes we have to. We set out, applying our skills in any way we can in order to make ends meet. We drop expensive, unworn clothes off at Goodwill for people who can afford not to sell them on eBay for a few extra bucks. We sanitize the toys of strangers’ kids while our own are home with babysitters. We slouch, we tweak our necks dusting rafters, we listen to Santana, spill sour fluids down our clothes in a hurry and suck it the hell up to tie together a living for ourselves. We do our best. And unfortunately, doing our best sometimes means we need to dispose of twenty pounds of pubic hair shavings.
Sometimes we throw a fit while pouring expensive wine down a drain, imagining what it tasted like a few days before. And yes, sometimes we are shocked, encountering bondage gear where we least expect it; usually tucked around some dark corner, resting quietly alongside our humility.