Until we announce ourselves with the hollow ding of knuckles on aluminum. A keycard, a rubber doorstop, a single word. Some of us, as if to suggest we are meek, industrious mice doing Cinderella’s work, add a question mark: Housekeeping?
Housekeeper, I always said. It wasn’t a question. No doubt why I was at your door at 9AM.
“Understand the difference,” the head housekeeper told us. A maid has no dignity. People fetishize her, treat her poorly. “The housekeeper has dignity. The housekeeper puts things right.” Keeper of the house.
The famous French maid costume, thigh-highs and sky high stilettos, won’t cut it. Our uniform – khakis and a simple green tee-shirt that blankets us – gets washed until it fades or we do. Sore backs, sciatica, split knees leaking through our khakis. Blistered toes crammed into tennis shoes, the blood drying after the first hour, flaking after the next. A pin on the shirt grafts our names, as if in marriage, to the hotel. Tiffany for Super 8. Marilena for Microtel. Us girls, no longer girlish, chained to a chain.
In the beginning, we learn and re-learn how to clean, deeper and faster. We spray cleaners with cancer warnings, swallowing mists of poison. We clean around your toothbrush, float above your things, only touching them to stack them neatly, though we know you think we steal.
I never knew any thieves, but I knew everyone’s mistakes. Not enough soap. Washcloths folded flat instead of accordioned into fans. Bloody sheets in the laundry chute.
On my first day I held a pillow under my chin to slide it into a fresh pillowcase. When the head housekeeper screamed at me, I put the dirty pillow in the laundry bag and started over.
Each day when we clock in, the rooms are waiting for us in various stages of deshabille, wanton women after a week-long bender. Sheets lay damply twisted on the floor, hour old puddles in the shower. Balls of human hair. Feces in the toilet. Thirty minutes to make it all disappear.
While we work, we hear tales. Stories from the front desk, where the clerks work longer hours and deal with a lot of shit, but never go home with sewage in their hair. Strange men from Corporate appear like a new moon, hovering, chatting with the rarely seen manager who sports a new hairdo and shouts our names in a false display of solidarity. The men from Corporate have actual clipboards. They ignore the housekeepers altogether, except to remind us to pull back our hair. They glance cursorily at our carts.
They understand that our carts are perfect indicators of our abilities, our identities even. We share, each of us responsible for emptying trash and re-stocking at the end of the day. Glass cleaner, furniture polish, sheets, pens, toilet paper, towels, shampoos, soaps, plastic cups, instant coffees, makeup removers, laundry bags.
Sometimes you need a thing, or five things, so you snatch these things from our carts while we’re scrubbing urine from the base of a toilet. You never ask, and we never say anything. We work the rag, shoulder the toilet, hum whatever’s playing on the television you left on, broadcasting a dingy light against the bare mattress. You take one more thing than necessary, because, why not? We know that when you need something, it’s like you’re holding your breath, sticking your head out into the hall, gasping after your life. You can’t sleep on just this pillow, alone. You need so much, yet you will remember none of it.
Sometimes, while your wives are in the shower, you wait for us to knock, then stand naked before us, your penises dangling like chum against the door knob. We’re too tired to shrug.
A high school sports team grazes through in the spring, vandalizing our tip envelopes and comment cards. They trot down the halls, barking at each other. After they’re gone, the pipes burst, and we fill trash cans with pool water to flush the toilets. Another season passes, and when we stand up, it’s like we’re not even standing, our bodies still assuming some previous position, and we know then that none of this matters, that it’s not even worth it to laugh or spit or curse you when you ask – you did – if we come with the room.
Still, we realize that you must think highly of us, to think us electricians who can fix your television, mothers who can babysit your children. You would give us all that, wouldn’t you? What is broken. What is living.
Our days are calculated by the number of rooms we must clean, further calculated by which rooms need a deep cleaning (because they’re empty) and which need basic cleaning (because they’re occupied). Thirty minutes per room, longer if it’s a family room with extra beds. Longer still if you’ve trashed it, if your baby’s leaden diapers have curled under the bed, if your teenagers have torn through greasy boxes of pizza and soaked the carpet yellow with beer.
What you don’t understand is that our lives our bound to your lives, a chain of scavengers. We can’t leave until you leave. We can’t leave until we’ve cleaned our rooms, helped other housekeepers, emptied dirty linens in the laundry, re-stocked our carts, and taken all the trash out to the dumpster. Sometimes you tell us you’ve changed your mind and would like your room cleaned after all. Oh well. If you could just tidy up a bit.
Except for the bathroom, it’s not that bad.
Some of us will work this job until we’re crippled, well into our sixties. Marco for Motel 6 is 62. Carole M. for Comfort Inn and Suites. We call Carole, a grandmother, “Ma,” offer to do her rooms so she can make it to her husband’s funeral. Think about Marco and Ma, the people who make your bed.
If you’re staying in a double and only sleeping in one bed, don’t roll around in the second bed just for fun. We’ll have to change the sheets on that bed too, and one more bed means we’ll sleep on our sides all night because we’re afraid of what will happen if we move.
These are the jobs no American wants, we’re told. The immigrant jobs. Yet we’re not a single race, ethnicity, or demographic. Some of us have degrees. We speak perfect English. We go on to other jobs, cleaning offices and private homes, sometimes becoming lawyers and doctors. We’re not perfect, but it’s worth remembering that your pancreas may one day end up between our fingers.
Before we leave, we spray a deodorizer, cinnamon or apple. We make sure the blinds are open, the air conditioner on in the summer, heat in winter. We place a card on the desk for you to tell us how we’re doing at our minimum wage job, along with an envelope for a tip. If we find a tip the next morning, we take you quickly, rapturously, into our hearts. God, we love you then. A love song of blood and ammonia, the promise of one last dirty room. We put your change in our pockets, feel it there for the rest of the day, rattling around with your stories, your secrets.
Everything you could afford to leave behind.