No maid has ever smiled as much as the maids in promotional photos for maid services.
This morning I jolted awake at the crack of 11:30 to the sound of my phone ringing and buzzing on my headboard. I grabbed the phone and then embarked on the challenge of using a touchscreen interface while still 75% asleep.
“Hello!?” I croaked into the phone once I’d gotten it working.
The voice on the other end was an older woman’s, speaking English with a heavy Hispanic accent. Between poor reception and the fact that I was still regaining consciousness, I had to ask her to repeat what she was saying several times until I was awake enough to understand it:
“This is the maid. Your door is locked. Can you let me in the apartment, please?”
I stammered out half a dozen apologies, threw on the first pair of pants I could find, and ran to the front door. When I flung it open I was promptly blinded by the unrelenting light of California’s midday sun, but I could still see the silhouette of our maid in the doorway – petit, older, Hispanic, clutching a bucket full of cleaning supplies.
“Hi!” I exclaimed, realizing as I do every time I see her that even though this woman has been cleaning my apartment monthly since January I still can’t for the life of me remember her name. Since I couldn’t offer a personalized greeting, I figured the next best thing would be yet another, more detailed apology. “I’m so sorry about all the confusion on the phone just a second ago!”
She laughed warmly and shook her head as she walked in. “Don’t worry about it. You can go back to sleep.”
“Here, hold on.” I said, rushing into our sweltering living room to turn on the air conditioner for her. “Can I get you anything? Do you want some water, or something to eat?” I hesitated for a second, mentally taking stock of the food that I currently had on hand. “Okay, well, I mean, I mostly have peanut butter, but if you’re hungry you can have as much of that as you want.”
She smiled again, already getting set up in the living room. “No, thank you. Don’t worry. You can go back to sleep.”
This interaction – which I have with our maid every time I’m home when she comes over – fills me with white hot loathing for everything about myself and the life I live.
In the past year or so, both because I’ve been living in an extremely diverse place and listening to copious amounts of Louis CK, I’ve started to become more aware of race and class. This newfound “awareness” usually manifests whenever I start to feel good about myself.
For example, I could take stock of my life and think:
“Wow, Truman. You were able to hold down a job for almost a year and a half and also save money so that you could take time off to write when they finally laid you off! You should be proud of yourself!”
And then, before I’m done thinking it, this other, more confrontational thought comes up and dumps my original thought’s books:
“So a white man from an upper middle class family with a college degree he didn’t even fucking pay for, living in the richest country on Earth, was able to briefly hold a decent white collar job? Fuck a doodle do. You know what? Give me a call when you encounter an obstacle greater than your own laziness and insecurity and then we can talk about being proud of yourself.”
I’m pretty sure that I’m blowing the whole ‘white privilege’ angle a little bit out of proportion, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling self-conscious whenever I drag myself out of bed at noon on a weekday to open the door for a Hispanic woman three times my age so she can clean my apartment top to bottom while I lounge around my room reading The Atlantic and thinking conceptually about possibly doing some writing.
I get self-conscious because I feel like I’m rubbing it in her face:
“Oh, you’re here to clean? Thank you so much. Even though I am currently unemployed by choice, light housework is still so far beneath me that I’d rather have you do it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I was up pretty late last night marathonning some Sopranos episodes, so I’m going to go back to sleep.”
Our maid is the mother of a friend of a friend who cleans apartments to make extra money. We pay her $60 – rolled into our rent – to come once a month and clean our living room, kitchen, other common areas, and both bathrooms, and she does such a good job at it that it almost hurts. Right now our apartment is so clean that you can smell the bleach from outside.* On top of all that, she is, based on my few interactions with her, a really lovely woman – warm, outgoing, smart, quick to laugh, and fluent in English.
*As a germophobe I take a certain pleasure in the smell of bleach. To me it says, “Anything that could possibly make you sick in this apartment is currently dead as dogshit.”
So it’s not like she’s some barefoot, illiterate woman who we’ve tricked into working for us – she set her own price, and whenever she’s around we always go out of our way to thank her and compliment her on the great job she does. She has a wonderful, loving family, some of whom I’ve met, and seems to be a generally pretty happy person who just happens to clean apartments in her spare time because she needs the money.
So why the hell do I feel so bad about what seems to be a fair and mutually beneficial business relationship!? Is it some kind of ingrained liberal thing that I’m incapable of seeing a non-white person do manual labor for me without feeling crushing guilt? Isn’t it culturally insensitive in its own right to feel sorry for someone just because their life isn’t like yours?
I’ve given it some thought, and I think this is what it is:
Because of how I am, having a clean apartment means the world to me. Being able to have an apartment that’s cleaner than I could ever make it without having to lift a finger is, to me, worth a lot more than the $60 our maid charges for her services. I could look at this as a really great deal, but instead, again because of how I am, I choose to feel like I’m taking advantage on her based on a few hundred years of history that I am both powerless to change and 100% not responsible for.
You know that phrase, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”? A spotless apartment at a great price is a gift horse and I’m looking it square in the mouth anyway – and since there’s nothing bad in its mouth, I’ve instead started to invent my own equine dental problems to fret over when really the only thing I should be doing is trying to wake up a little earlier on weekdays.
Truman Capps can scarcely imagine how guilty he would feel if, in addition to being himself, he were also Jewish.