Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In which my cleaning lady uses a vegetable brush to scrub my toilet and the mystery of my frequent illness might have been solved

I know it seems like a rich lady, first world problem to complain about How Hard It Is To Find Good Help These Days, but that's not going to stop me. It is hard to find good help. It is hard to find someone who will clean your house as well as you would, that is, assuming you are a good housecleaner.

If you are a crummy housecleaner, it is pretty easy to find a cleaning lady who will do a crummy job. I have employed such women before.

It's not just a first world problem, either. It's hard to Find Good Help when you are a Peace Corps volunteer. I had a cleaning lady when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile.

Yes, you read that right. I was a Peace Corps volunteer with a cleaning lady. (I also had a gardener.)

Don't laugh. You, too, would get a cleaning lady if it cost you ten dollars for half a day's work and your alternative was to wash your clothes by hand in the bathtub.

Note I did not say your alternative was to take your clothes to a laundromat.

The only laundromats I ever saw in Temuco, my Peace Corps town, were the kind where you drop your clothes off and pick them up, clean, ironed and folded, three days later. It cost more than ten dollars for the service.

For ten dollars, I could not only have someone come to my house and wash my clothes, I could also (in theory) have her clean my house.

Maybe you wouldn't get a cleaning lady for only ten dollars. Which, I might note, was four times the market rate for cleaning ladies in Temuco because I felt like paying someone only $2.50 for half a day's work was a bit much. Maybe you think hiring someone else to clean your house is exploitation.

I don't.

I think it is honest labor and that as long as you are not making your cleaning lady take daily photos of your nude, pregnant body or ordering her to get you a glass of ice water when or requiring that she pick up your dirty underwear off the floor (tacky), as the employer in the novel Minding Ben does, then your are not being exploitative. Cleaning is a job. Being a slave and a personal servant <> cleaning.

My grandmother was a maid before she got married. She worked in Chicago and in Milwaukee. Had a half day off on Saturday, which she would spend walking around town. She would walk to save the streetcar fare and spend the nickel savings on a candy bar, which was her meal.

My great aunt on the other side of the family was the head housekeeper for a wealthy Milwaukee family. Aunt Katy never married. She was in charge of a large household staff. Not too shabby for a woman who probably did not go past 8th grade.

My friend Julie has a cleaning lady. She says her friends are troubled by this - they think she is exploiting the cleaning lady.

What are the work options for an uneducated woman in this country? People don't become housecleaners because it's fun, but because they don't have many choices. Feeling guilty about hiring someone else to clean your house is unproductive. Feeling guilty about hiring someone else to clean your vomit? To clean your bloody underpants? To clear your clogged toilets? That's worth feeling guilty about. Clean up your own bodily fluids and pay a plumber to do the toilets if you'd rather pay $200 an hour than figure it out yourself.

But feeling guilty about hiring someone to do laundry and vacuum and dust and wash the floors? Dumb. Pay a fair wage, give her vacation pay once a year, be nice and move on. It's a job. That's all.

Back to my cleaning lady in Chile. I hired Marisol when I realized I did not want to spend my entire Saturday washing blue jeans, socks and underwear in the bathtub. Washing clothes in the tub is a pain in the neck. I was willing to pay someone, especially once I discovered that hanging out at the laundromat for two hours while my clothes almost cleaned themselves in a nice machine was not an option.

Which makes me think that perhaps a laundromat is a great business idea for Chile. Except it's not - who would go to the laundromat when she could pay someone to wash clothes in her house? Never mind. Capital is more expensive than labor in many places yet.

Although you do have to look at the total cost of ownership of bathtub washing.

Do you know the word "threadbare?" Have you ever tossed it off casually to describe your paint clothes or old gym socks?

You don't know what threadbare is.

Threadbare is when your blue jeans have been scrubbed on a rough pine board once a week for a year. All the blue has been scrubbed out and all that remains are the white vertical and horizontal threads. There is a technical term that weavers use but it escapes me right now. The warp or woof or something. Anyhow, threadbare blue jeans can be see through. Yes they can. And socks only last a few months when washed on a board.

So when you are considering whether to take those clothes to the expensive wash service (that uses machines, I would expect), you need to include the cost of replacing the board-washed clothes frequently.

The other cost you have to include is replacing your gym clothes when they catch on fire because you have hung them to dry on the device that fits around the chimney of your wood burning stove.

Here's a story about wood burning stoves.

1. Jamming a wood stove full of logs does not make it burn all the way through the night and provide for a nice, toasty house in the morning.
2. Jamming a wood stove full of logs just makes the fire burn hotter.
3. Which means that if there are gym clothes hanging right above the stove on the device that fits around the chimney, it is pretty likely that the clothes will start to burn.
4. Which means that you, who are about to fall asleep, smell something and think to yourself, "Did I leave the iron on? It smells like clothes burning."
5. And then you remember that 1. you don't have an iron and 2. even if you did, you would never leave it on so 3. what's burning?
6. It's the gym clothes that are burning.

You have to include all the costs when you are making a decision.

My roommate and I hired Marisol. I thought it would be easy. "Marisol, please wash our clothes and clean whatever is dirty."

To me, the cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling were perfectly visible. The grime on the walls and doors was visible. The dirt was screaming, Clean me!

It's not like there was clutter all over the place or a kitchen full of dirty dishes. I did not want her spending her time tidying. I wanted her to clean. I can tidy. Tidying is easy. Cleaning is a pain in the neck, which was why I was paying her to do it.

But Friday after Friday, I would come home to find the cobwebs intact. The walls grimy.

Finally, I started leaving her notes: Marisol, please clean the cobwebs on the northwest corner of the kitchen ceiling. Please wash the kitchen floor.

The day I left her the note to clean the grime around the doorknob and returned home to find an 8" circle of pure white around the knob and gray on the rest of the door, I realized I needed to be even more specific.

Marisol, I wrote, the doorknob looks great! Now please clean the rest of the door.

What I really wanted was a cleaning lady with initiative. One who would seek dirt and destroy it.

Perhaps her father had never played Seek and Destroy with her when she was a little girl. When we were getting ready to move out of our house in Spain, my dad gave me a bottle of 409 and a rag, explaining that my mission was to seek the dirt on the walls and destroy it with the 409. The house had to pass inspection or else. Or else I don't know what, but it probably wouldn't have been good for my dad's career.

I guess that's fair. Why should the people moving into the house after you have to clean your mess? I have adopted that attitude with every move, leaving every house and apartment spotless.

Alas, I have never moved into a house vacated by someone like me. I have never moved into a house being vacated by an air force brat. If I had, the house would have been clean.

Now we are getting to the main point of this story and I cannot believe I have never told it on this blog before as it is one of my all-time favorite stories.

One Friday, I stayed home from work. I was sick, which happened a lot when I was in Chile. Something about living outside your own culture that is really hard on the immune system. I think the culture shock in Chile might have been worse than culture shock in the middle of Africa. Chile looked western. Looked middle class. I was in a three bedroom, two bath, brick tract house. My town had Mercedes dealership. On the main plaza there was a movie theater, a coffee/chocolate shop, two department stores, a bank, a church. I recognized everything.

But I recognized only the surface. This was still a foreign country and they did things differently. Every time I thought I understood what was going on, I discovered I had completely misunderstood. The popcorn was not salty, it was sweet. French fries were served with mayonnaise. (That was an easy adjustment to make, believe me.) Stores didn't take returns. Shopkeepers controlled scarce resources - why should they care if the customer was happy? Only really rich people had a checking account, so I had to go to the gas office and stand in line for 40 minutes to pay my bill.

I'm not saying that they do things wrong or badly in Chile, just differently (one benefit: the post office was open until 7 p.m.), and always feeling as if the ground is not solid under your feet* takes a lot of energy.

So I was sick a lot.

This Friday, I stayed home. Saw Marisol come in, start working. Wondered why she didn't do the laundry first so it would have more time to dry before the usual afternoon rains came.

My friend Paul wondered the same thing about his cleaning lady: She didn't seem to plan her activities with the critical path in mind. First you chop veg for the soup, then you get the soup started, then you clean the kitchen floor. You don't wash the floor and then do a lot of messy work in the kitchen.

I watched Marisol work and realized that she did more than I thought but there was still wasted activity. Whatever. As long as she did what was on the list, I suppose. I wasn't there to micromanage. I mostly just wanted clean clothes.

I returned to my book and only looked up again when I saw her kneeling next to the toilet, scrubbing it by hand.

Her hand was in the toilet. Even though there was a toilet brush behind the toilet. She was cleaning the toilet with a hand brush.

Why was she cleaning the toilet with a hand brush?

How odd. Marisol, I called. I didn't realize you brought your own cleaning supplies.

I don't, she answered, puzzled.

Then where did you get the brush that you're using?

This? she asked, as she looked at the brush. Oh, this is from under the kitchen sink.

From under the kitchen sink.

Marisol, I said slowly. That's the brush I use to scrub vegetables.

Oh! she replied cheerfully. Well, I'll put it back, then.

No, I told her. That's OK. I'm not going to be using it for vegetables any more.

And I didn't.

By the way, I have not been seriously sick since then. Just saying. It takes work to build an immune system.




* In little hotels, the bath mat would be turned so that the suction cups were facing upwards. I asked my friend Monica what that was about. "So you don't have to stand in the water!" she told me.