Thursday, July 14, 2011

In which I get a new cleaning lady who does windows

I told you guys about Marisol, my cleaning lady in Chile. It was a few years again before I had another cleaning lady. It took me 18 months to find a job once I returned to the US from my Peace Corps stint. Companies were not begging to hire me. Something about the reputation the Peace Corps has for being a haven for chain smoking, Teva wearing, kumbayah singing hippies.

Sure, there are chain smoking, Teva wearing, kumbayah singing hippies in the Peace Corps, but not many: cigarettes are expensive for a Peace Corps volunteer! And is there any sane person who can hear that kumbayah song without wanting to punch someone? It reeks of Marty Haugen, Gather hymnal triteness. Protestants are lucky: they get the good music in church.

No, I was in the Peace Corps where we made brownies and went to the movies and talked about how we were going to frame our Peace Corps experience on our resumes. We were in it for the adventure and the career enhancement. If we changed or saved the world in the process, that would be great, but my great takeaway from my two years in the Peace Corps was that the world does not want to be changed or saved.

Back to the cleaning lady. It wasn't until I'd been back at work and saving money for a few years that I felt that I could afford a cleaning lady. I was at a point where I was going to indulge in major luxuries: fresh flowers, new underwear (including gym socks), and a cleaning lady. I was tired of living poor.

My real estate fairy godmother/landlady Mary Linda recommended her two cleaning ladies, who worked as a team.

Susan and Cindy were nice. They had thick Arkansas accents, which was logical because they lived on the other side of the river in Arkansas. They did a decent job - better than Marisol. Nobody was using my vegetable brush to clean the toilet. My house was surface cleaned once every three weeks: dusted, vacuumed, tub and toilet cleaned, floors washed. It was nice to have one weekend a month where I didn't have to do that stuff.

Then came the day when I patched the plaster around all the outlets I'd had installed when I bought my house. My bungalow had been built in 1922 when one outlet per room seemed extravagant.

Digression to related story:

When I was in Chile, several of the women from my group, most of whom did not have electricity or indoor plumbing in their country homes, went to Washington D.C. for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as exhibitors. One evening, they had supper at the home of the Chris, the woman at the Inter-American Development Bank who managed the grant my organization got from the IADB. When the women got back to Chile, they were telling the rest of us about all the appliances in Chris' apartment: a washing machine, a dryer, a microwave, a dishwasher, a TV, an answering machine.

"Wow," one of the Mapuche women gasped. "There must be outlets all over the place!"

End digression. Back to my house. When I moved in, I had an electrician install an outlet on every wall and a phone jack in every room. In retrospect, the phone jacks were unnecessary, but had I known that in 2001, I would be a rich woman today from my investments in cellphone stock.

The electrician was careless and had knocked holes bigger than necessary in the walls. He did not patch the plaster after he installed the plates.

I, being a complete non-confrontational wimp when it comes to holding people to the standard to which they should be held if I am paying $1,200 for a job because what if they get mad at me?, never said to him, "Hey. You need to finish this job and patch the plaster."

Nope. It was far easier for me to spend a few hours removing the plates, spreading wet plaster in the hole with a putty knife, waiting for it to dry, sanding it, painting it and re-attaching the plates than to tell someone to do his darn job.

I had finished the plastering etc. and had vacuumed the plaster dust from my beautiful wood floors. Oh how I loved that little bungalow. Loved it and would move back there in a second. I had put the vacuum cleaner, a mid-century Electrolux that the previous owner had left in the attic, back in its attic home. That's where it had to live: Old houses have almost no closet space and I sure wasn't going to waste clothes and shoe storage areas on cleaning equipment.

It wasn't until I was getting ready for bed that night that I noticed the plaster dust on the floor in the bathroom. I had forgotten to vacuum it.

Oh tosh, I said to myself. What a mess.

Then I remembered that Cindy and Susan came the next day. Cool. They would be washing the bathroom floor anyhow, so I would just leave it.

I was not in the habit of leaving my house in mess for the cleaning ladies. First, I am not a messy person. I do not like clutter. My house is usually pretty tidy, although marrying a man who descends from hoarders has made my life a little more challenging. Second, I did not want my cleaning ladies wasting time putting away my clean dishes and throwing away newspapers. I wanted them to do the stuff I really hate doing, like cleaning the bathroom and washing the floors.

I got home from work the next night and discovered that the plaster dust was still on the floor.

The normal procedure for cleaning a floor is to sweep or vacuum and then use a wet mop or a rag.

Cindy had neither swept nor mopped. Neither vacuumed nor ragged.

For $60, I can not clean my house myself.

We had already had a few incidents that I had overlooked, so much did I hate cleaning my own house. I came home from work one night to find the trash next to the back door in the kitchen with a note explaining that Susan couldn't get the back door open.

Yes, the key was tricky.

But - it was also possible to take the trash out the front door and carry it around to the trash can in the back yard. Going out the back door was the easiest way to the trash can but not the only way.

I fired them.

Only I did it the chicken way: I told them that I had to cut back on my expenses. I should have told the truth but then, I wasn't their manager. I wasn't responsible for their professional development.

Then I had a problem: I had become accustomed to the leisurely life of a woman who does not clean her own house all the time. I wanted that one out of three Saturdays back.

I asked around. My friend Maria Antonette recommended her cleaning lady. I had seen Toni in action cleaning her own house and I knew she didn't play. Her standards were high and her house was spick and span.

I asked Esperanza, her cleaning lady, to come in for an interview. We walked around the house as I pointed out what I would have her do.

She looked at my windows, which I think I had washed once since moving in and then only on the inside - the outsides were dirty - and asked me how I preferred her to clean them.

We were speaking Spanish, so I asked her to repeat her question, thinking I had misunderstood.

"How do you want me to clean the windows? With newspaper or with rags?"

I stopped. Turned. Looked straight at her.

"You do windows?" I asked.

She was as baffled as I was. "Isn't it part of cleaning a house?"

Wow. She hadn't been in this country long. I recovered quickly. "Yes, it is. Of course."

Then she asked me how I wanted her to do the laundry, explaining that her husband, who worked at FedEx, which was why I was pretty sure she was not an illegal alien, was very picky and she separated everything.

I asked again, in astonishment: "You do laundry?"

And again, I got her baffled response. "Isn't that part of cleaning a house?"

So yes, I hired her, even though she told me she would have to bring her infant daughter to work with her. How much trouble can a baby in a carrier be?

The first day she cleaned, when I came home from work, she was waiting for me. She wanted me to inspect to make sure she hadn't missed anything.

My house sparkled. The light reflecting from the inside of the windows made it look like I was inside a diamond.

I gasped. "It's perfect!" I told her. I was so impressed at how good the windows looked half clean that the next day, I got out the ladder and cleaned the outsides of the windows.

I had high hopes for a beautiful relationship.

Unfortunately, that was the high point. I should have fired her after she let my friend's dog get killed, if not just for solidarity then just because her toddler daughter never would have had the chance to scribble with black ink all over my newly reupholstered white sofa.

But I'll tell you about that later.