08 August 2010

Cleaning Up

Have you read the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich? If not, I highly recommend you do so. I think about that book every time I go out to eat, every time I stay in a hotel, and whenever I clean my house, and so will you when you're done.

Such a time came yesterday, when I made a more thorough attack on the upstairs bathroom than usual. The gloves were ON, and I was scrubbing every corner, even the ceiling.

There's a lot more to cleaning than making things look clean. I know — I used to be a maid in a hotel. All that mattered was how quickly we got in and out of the room. Our cleaning rags were the guests' used towels, and we almost never got into the corners with those towels or the vacuum. This part of Nickel and Dimed is right on; maids have to hurry because their supervisor has to meet a strict budget and the best way to keep the budget in line is to cut housekeeping hours.

When I was in college, for both undergrad (after that summer as hotel maid) and grad, I made my way by cleaning for professors at the university. It was a lot better than hotel work, because I could spend the time I needed to get things right. I liked putting in that extra effort — I mean, even if they're never going to lie on the floor of their bathroom and look up at the bottom of their pedestal sink, I have, and I've cleaned the dirt and muck that accumulates there until the porcelain sparkles again. And I've climbed a ladder to dust away cobwebs and shake down lost socks from vaulted ceilings and cross beams.

I liked being a housekeeper — as long as no one was home. Trying to clean with the professor or the family at home made me nervous. I didn't want to have to talk to anybody, and I certainly didn't want anyone to be in the same room where I was working.

I was housekeeper for a family of five (a law professor father and his four kids) for a couple of years. The father required that I wax the kitchen floor (Wax! Who does that anymore?) at least once a month. That involves stripping off the old wax, then cleaning, getting into grooves and shaving off stuck foodstuffs with a razor blade, and then painstakingly coating the floor in even mop rows of wax, trying not to overlap at the edges like you would if you were mowing the lawn. In the middle of that, without asking or warning, one or two of the boys would almost without fail come tramping in on the floor to cook ramen! They were hungry teenagers — but the question became — would I allow them to do this and mess up my floor (including probably getting noodles stuck in the wax) or did I risk making their dad angry by telling them to get out? They had no understanding of what I was trying to do. They had no respect for me — I couldn't believe it when the youngest (9) brought a friend home and in passing introduced me as "our help." I continue to wonder what became of those kids, brought up in such a way, having someone paid to come in and clean their rooms, their bathrooms, do their laundry, and all the rest, while they just went about their merry ways not even understanding the luxury of the situation or the damage it was doing to them.

I grew up having to do chores, and I think that's the right thing for all kids. Discipline, work, creativity, and plenty of play outside. Kids need consistent, patient discipline, and part of that is giving kids jobs to do, to be proud of, and to earn rewards for (10 cents a chore when I was young). Housework in and of itself is not as tedious and dull as some might think. It's a creative process; moving from dull to sparkling, from disorder to order, from grimy to beautiful.

I gave up maid work after earning my B.A. in psychology and went to work in a group home. The "residents," kids ages 12 to 17, were assigned to the home due to various crises in their families, or lack of families. One 12-year-old girl had been taken from her mother's house because her mother-slash-pimp had been selling her as a prostitute. 12 years old! My job, if I could, was to get her to at least smile and laugh a bit.

All the kids in the home had to do a certain amount of cleaning. But the the place had some senseless, archaic rules, one of which was that the kids weren't allowed to listen to music or play until all chores were completed. Well, at least on my shift, I turned that rule on its head. Who wants to clean without music? You do a half-assed job to get it done as quick as you can. But what if you have music? We did dance-sweeping and dance-mopping — the more you mop, the more you get to blast the music. On my Saturdays, the house was rocking AND sparkling. And people were smiling, even the 12 year old.

It's funny how I don't remember their names, but I remember each of their circumstances. I worked the night-shift there once in a while, and had to call the cops several times because a couple of the girls' pimps were outside their windows threatening them with violence and enticing them with drugs and money to come out and get back on the streets. Luckily, all windows and doors were chained shut. Not good for the fire code, but good for these girls. Some of the girls would have left quite willingly.

On night shift, another part of my job was to prep dinner for the next day. My specialty, if you can call it that, was quiche. You can make lots of servings out of a few government-issued blocks of cheese, eggs, flour, and lard. Add in some onion, spinach, maybe bacon or ham if you're lucky to have it, and you even have a pretty good meal. Thing is, I never got to see the kids eat the quiche, so now I think about it, I don't know if they even liked it! What if every dinner they knew I had cooked they would groan and shove the food to the side of the plate? I'll never know now.

I just hope I made a positive impact on some of their lives, at least in some small way.

How did I get here from Nickel and Dimed? Mostly this was just a free flow of ideas. It does follow a theme, in a way — I got paid more to clean those professors' houses than I did as a counselor in that group home. I joke that I once had a job where I got paid to play pool (with the kids, in the afternoons), but I didn't get paid much. And now those kids, many of them, are probably out there being nickel-and-dimed into a lack-luster existence when they deserve more.

I don't have a magic answer or moral to this story. I just wanted to tell it, and hope someone listens. For that 12-yr-old girl, and the thousands or millions out there like her. Maybe she's even your hotel maid — so next time you're away on business or vacation, try to remember to leave a good tip for the person who cleaned your room. You'll be helping her out, and you just might make her smile.