WHEN A FRIEND asked me to join her condominium-cleaning business some years back, I recoiled. Moi? A black woman with degrees, fellowships, travels abroad, a library of dictionaries within my library – a cleaning woman? Cleaning other people’s houses was necessity to my grandmothers, anathema to my mother and history to me. Was she out of her mind?
For certain black women, the Task is laid out early: get a good education, a good job; don’t let any man bring you down; and don’t look back. We’re marched into society like toy soldiers to uphold the virtue of the race. When the mechanism runs down, the well-meaning elders who equipped us with our weapons of education, enunciation and etiquette are often several cities away.
Out of work, out of gas, going through a hellified midlife crisis, I had wearied of the Task. But, even in a breach, I was not supposed to clean toilets for a living. Loaded down with clients, my friend, a resilient, red-haired, onetime hippie, asked again. She and I had burned out as teachers. My funds narrowing, I accepted with a barrage of provisos: just for a while…just to see what it was like…until something better comes along.
For the next twenty months, we cleaned pricey condos in suburban New Jersey, luxury Siamese boxes with a sameness of design that made cleaning a matter of tactile geometry. My dismayed girlfriends, journalists and teachers all, suggested I incorporate, set up an agency for cleaning women, be a supplier of labor, not, for heaven’s sake, the laborer herself. I had even written about domestics, paying homage from the safe distance of poetry: the last maid in my line my grandmother young/a chambermaid in a Muskogee hotel gingerly/picked up soiled towels shielding the pupils/of her young eyes from couples coupling uncoupling/requesting fresh white towels her daughter told/me this young/teaching me to read and read well/so I’d never have this to fall back on.
Nevertheless, some fundamental driving curiosity, and necessity, wouldn’t let up. I fell back on it. The daughter who had been spared housework to do homework found cleaning other people’s houses full of goalposts and tasks, the completion of which yielded immediate benefits. Shine, freshness, order and tranquility displaced metaphors, sestinas, end rhymes and point of view.
The experience had an adolescent tinge to it. With the music blasting and time sliding by in four-hour, eighty-dollar blocks, the money piled up. As in adolescence, the goal was speed. Finish a condo, do a second, eat Tex-Mex, do a third. I learned shortcuts for every possible household chore.
Bathrooms and kitchens were singularly important. Clients looked there to see their money’s worth. Getting the showers clean was sloppy at first. Standing on rags and towels, we applied fabric softener (less toxic), rinsed it off, dried the surround, and ended up sopping wet. Finally, we figured if we cleaned the shower in the buff, our clothes would stay dry and we wouldn’t use up rags which we laundered. Of course, one day, our psychiatrist-client came home early. Marvin Gaye was blasting, the water was running, the doctor was in his bedroom before I knew it. I hollered, “Don’t come in!” When I came out, I let him know exactly how we got his glass shower to sparkle. He seemed amused.
Typically, our mostly male clients never saw us. Bachelors, divorced men, gay couples, widowers, they left early or were away on business for days at a time. I liked cleaning their houses, polishing their mirrors, turning on their superior sound systems, and dusting and bopping my way through their cool environments. Instead of the forced voyeurism I had heard about, I discovered an inverted voyeurism, an intimacy minus the intimate. I was inside their lives; their lives were inside mine. I knew which deodorant they used, which sections of the paper they treasured, the radio stations they listened to, the real color of their hair, the amount of liquor they consumed, their taste in books.
I found these forays into the male domain like role-playing a wife for invisible men. It should have been no surprise that I had more problems with women, especially those who had difficulty relinquishing dominion. There were those who couldn’t leave the room, let alone the house, while we were in it. Those clients didn’t last long. One woman had her toddler present me with the day’s pay, crumpled and sweaty. The second time it happened, I told her off. “This is beneath demeaning. You’re saying, in effect, that my coming here cleaning your house is child’s play?” She half-apologized, the old dodge -“I’m sorry if I offended you.” But we had more business than we could handle. It was refreshing to flounce my black ass out of there only pausing to say, “You’re going to have to find somebody else.” Oh my, I fired her.
I think it was harder for women to pay for a service they traditionally provided free, as an unspoken stipulation of the marriage contract. It was also harder for some women clients to accept that their houses needed extra cleaning, i.e. extra money, whereas the men wanted the work done and us out of there when they got home. Period.
The home of an interracial, professional gay couple was my favorite. The black man, Ron, had an arresting blow-up of his grandfather upstairs; its piercing eyes followed me as I dusted and vacuumed. I found myself asking his portrait questions, giving rejoinders, packing whole histories of my life into twenty-minute conversations.
One week, I couldn’t help notice a book about AIDS on the nightstand. As weeks went by, more books appeared. My friend and I speculated over lunch as to which one was sick. It didn’t take long to discover that Ron was in an advanced stage. I got used to his being home, the clink of his spoon as he ate ice cream, the way he padded from room to room as we cleaned, switching on cable news.
The grandfather’s gaze encompassed my feelings, an array that surfaced involuntarily as the illness progressed. I felt reproach, anger, sorrow, anguish. One day, I came downstairs, my “dialogue” finished for the day. I walked into the living room and recognized instantly the two women there as Ron’s mother and sister. Their physical similarity to the gruff grandfather was softened by their protective stances. We stood there, a strange familiarity between us, this gay man, his family and me. Little in our upbringing had given us sight of these eventualities, that he would be openly gay, that they would be supportive as he died of AIDS, that I would be his Beulah.
Whenever I ran into problems, cleaning or otherwise, I fell back on the great rhetorical “Why am I here?” Testing my strength against that of my ancestors? Tackling a horrific job that no one should ever have to do? I knew it was temporary, and it wasn’t horrific, just tedious and inglorious.
One afternoon, a wife of a cardiologist was reduced to tears because a neighbor had snubbed her. Politely I offered sympathy, but I thought her sheltered, self-absorbed, spoiled. She constantly offered me lunch. I refused. I was intent on finishing her three-story townhouse in six hours. She offered more money because her place was larger. I accepted. Gradually we got to know each other, shared experiences in mothering, growing up, romance, grad school. It turned out we were both doctoral dropouts. I found out she was a wonderful cook; she learned I had read at her YWHA and asked to see my poetry. When she cried again, I could not dismiss her tears as trivial. I could no longer dismiss her point of view or her frame of reference.
I have never looked at myself as much as I did during those months of cleaning. Mirrors were everywhere. I began to see my life clearly, even starkly. In a pique, I quit one week and found work as an office temp at one-third the pay. The supervisor kept calling me Bertha (“I’m sorry, you look like a Bertha.”) I stuck it out for four days before heading back to condo country where nobody called me Bertha, Beulah or Bessie.
I found out how strong I was, mentally and physically, after all those hours of bending, squatting, twisting, elbowing, polishing and emptying. However strong a mind I possessed, though, my body couldn’t take it. My back, always strong, began to ache.
One morning, a fiftyish matron insisted that we sit and discuss The Color Purple which she had just finished reading. We talked about the horror and beauty in Alice Walker’s vision. The irony of our discussion didn’t escape me. Alice Walker had championed Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist-folklorist of the Harlem Renaissance who had spent her last impoverished decade as a domestic in Florida.
I didn’t last much longer. The experiment was over.
Not long after, I passed a woman, black like me, carrying her plastic bags into a subdivision lined with three-story colonials. I felt a mixture of empathy, relief and gratitude. With no alternative choices or yuppie townhouses to “lite” clean, I suspect her working conditions were much harsher than mine had been. Cleaning other people’s houses was her necessity, and, for a time, it had been my necessity too. Doing her job helped me cross the threshold of middle-age. Cleaning other people’s houses had made my own life habitable again.