Painfully Employed—the Caste System Alive and Well in America

How I Got to the Bottom

I was born and raised in Connecticut and lived there until 2006. I was as close to the land as a native could be—the woods, meadows, streams; the seasons and the wildlife of a New England state. I left it to come to the desert, but not before a fight to hang on to what I had. I lost.

Connecticut has a reputation for being a well-off state, but there are pockets of real poverty there, as well as some very bad slums. We were in the middle—my parents always worked, sometimes at two jobs, and the kids were expected to work as soon as we were old enough.

There are areas of Connecticut that are a haven for the rich, and for yuppies doing well. They have enormous homes that serve as excellent examples of conspicuous consumption. Somebody has to take care of all these people—why doesn’t anybody ever consider that? Are we invisible?

I held a variety of jobs in Connecticut until I knew for sure I wanted to be a typesetter. I took out a loan and financed the machine, and built the business myself by working 60-80 hour weeks and loving every minute. It lasted twelve years until the popularity of personal computers prevailed and put typesetters out of business. After another crappy job or two, I scored an amazing job at a publisher of reference books and knew it was my calling.

Fast forward about eight years—like so many other people, I lost my job to the recession. I was devastated. I tried to stay in publishing but it was impossible to find a job. I was deep in debt, had a mortgage, couldn’t make ends meet.

While I was working for a small newspaper, and hating every minute of the attitude of apathy there, I placed a classified ad for housecleaning services. At this point I knew I would rather do something completely different and physical on my own than be trapped in a miserable low-paying job with a boss who doesn’t know or care where the apostrophe goes. Before long I was getting calls for housecleaning, and my little business began.

Degradation and Inflammation

The next five years were an adventure in pain and humiliation. Not all of my customers were insensitive twits, but this is about the ones who are.

Over the years I met many people who think a housecleaner is some sort of untouchable. I was often treated like a servant, so low on life’s ladder that I don’t rate air conditioning on a swampy August day. Do you really want an overheated housecleaner dripping sweat all over your personal belongings? Gross, huh? It is for me too.

Winter sucked. I don’t have a big fancy SUV like my customers so sometimes I couldn’t make it to the top of their steep and icy driveways. No problem, I’ll just schlep my equipment to the top. Don’t shovel a path for me to the door, make me walk through a foot of snow so I have to carry shoes and boots. If people were home in the house, the heat would be cranked up toasty high, and I would sneak around lowering thermostats and worry about getting caught.

It takes its toll physically too by wearing body parts down through repetitive strain. The constant scrubbing motion—the one where I scour some McMansion’s three behemoth bathrooms, each bigger than my bedroom, every day—caused permanent inflammation in my right arm and shoulder. Miles of tiles.

Entitlement Disease

One very pampered, shallow woman hired me to clean and do laundry twice a week. She was divorced from a really rich guy and had three young sons. These little Damiens reminded me of those movies on PBS where maids were molested in country manors by the baron’s evil sons but no one would believe them. These particular little beasts attended a private school where their superiority complexes were indulged, and they held not a shred of respect for anyone.

The boys wore their clothes for a couple hours and then threw them on the floor. My job was to keep up with the excessive amount of laundry this family created. One day, as I was pulling jeans out of a hamper my hand slid into something slippery and foul. The jeans were covered in chunky kid vomit. I was disgusted and felt degraded that the mother left that mess for me to deal with. The boys’ bathroom habits were ungentlemanly as well. How’s a kid ever going to learn not to spray his piss and shit all around the room if there’s always somebody to clean up after him? Have they no shame at all?

Not All Housecleaners are Equal

I often hear of bad experiences people have had with previous housecleaners. I’m sorry there are so many who do not take it seriously, because it makes people distrustful of the trade in general. But we are not all like that, and like any service you contract, you have a choice and should do a little research. Do ask for references and do call them. Do pay attention to who you are hiring. If I’m to be intimate with your personal belongings, aren’t you curious about me? Ask questions, show interest. Few of my customers have ever known about my other life—they don’t want to know, they don’t ask, they wouldn’t get it anyway. They think I was born a housecleaner, like I came out with a fucking mop in my mitts.

Uncomfortable Stuff

How do you like the boss looking over your shoulder at work? When customers are home they often follow me from room to room. I am obliged to be cheerful and chatty while I’m trying to work. People who are home always seem to have the TV blasting either soap operas or CNN nonstop slit-your-wrists news stories. It’s all pretty oppressive, so I don’t work for people who are home anymore. I’m not crazy about kids running around tripping on my wires either.

I’ve had people whose houses haven’t had a proper cleaning in years demanding to know why I can’t clean their house in two hours, because they could. Or the last girl could—the one who they fired because she didn’t do a good job or they think she stole from them.

Booby traps—furniture and knickknacks a thread away from collapsing. Broken rungs on chairs, loose picture frames, lamps hanging on by a wire—I pick it up, it falls apart, I feel awful, I have to explain and apologize.

Zen and the Art of Housecleaning

A detail-oriented housecleaner like me works hard. I start at the top of each room and work down. I do corners and baseboards and windowsills and move furniture to get behind and underneath. I  don’t like blinds and louvers because they take so long but I do them. If you want someone to flit about with feather duster and pretend to clean your house for an hour or two, that’s not me.

My hands are tiny compared to the amount of surface I have to cover in a big house. I don’t smoke cigarettes, talk on the phone, eat, take breaks. I work my tail off.

But I simply don’t have anything to complain about in a house where the owners are thoughtful and kind to me, no matter how dirty the house. I like dirty houses. Housecleaners need job satisfaction too!

I have encountered difficult customers in Arizona, too, but the caste system is not strong here, at least where I live in southern Arizona. I don’t get a sense of “old money” here. More of a sense of no money. I love working for the military families in Ft. Huachuca, they are so polite and never home.

In Bisbee, it seems that you are more respected for being able to eke out a living on your own, it doesn’t matter if you shovel shit for a living. Bisbee people would be impressed that you found a way to support yourself shoveling shit, then they’d probably ask you if you needed any help. We don’t seem to have as many yuppies here because there isn’t enough to draw them. When you land in Bisbee, it’s understood you’re on your own.

How to Have the Adoration and Loyalty of Your Housecleaner

Please do not take offense, but the number one rule is Go Away. Let me do my job without feeling like I’m in your way.

Let me have some climate control…if you went to an aerobics class on a summer day and the AC wasn’t on, would you stay? Housecleaning is like aerobics. I need it cool to function. If you don’t have AC, fans help a lot.

Save me a parking spot near the entrance if possible, I have stuff to carry.

Replace lightbulbs so I can see what I’m doing.

Don’t make me have to chase down the check.

Communication is Everything

I can’t stress this enough. We both need feedback now and then. We can leave a note, e-mail, or voice-mail. It’s not hard to find me.

Tell me if something in your house is shaky or fragile so I’m aware.

If I missed something, tell me! If there’s something important to you that I consistently miss, for god’s sake tell me!

When customers treat me right they get it back a hundredfold. I do extra stuff for people I like, and I like all my customers, because if I don’t, it doesn’t last. I want my customers to be delighted when they walk through their door. The sight and smell of a just-cleaned house is a sensory experience and I want them to enjoy the moment, and they tell me they do.

I have utmost respect for my customers’ property, my livelihood and reputation depend on it.

In the End

In the end it’s all about mutual respect. Without it, nothing works.

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11 responses to “Painfully Employed—the Caste System Alive and Well in America

  1. Debra,

    What a description of your working conditions. The loss of typesetting as an occupation set you back, way back. Makes you want to swear allegiance to the Luddite movement. Your narrative reveals the false sense of entitlement that some people think they have — built upon money in the bank and over-indulgent backgrounds. There are three cardinal social sins: presumption, arrogance and bad manners. Most rich people violate all three before they arrive at the office or spa in the morning. There are walls and lampposts for them.

    You have grit and drive like few people I’ve seen. Brisbee is a good place it seems. You have clients that deeply appreciate you and others that work you over. At least you can drop a client.

    Military folk know respectability. Good for that source of work.

    As always, fine writing. Makes me angry to read what happened.

    Jack

    • Jack, I know! And there are Neo-Luddites too.

      But you can’t fight technology–I am one tiny speck in the masses of people who have lost careers or businesses due to technology and subsequent cutbacks in budgets and workforce. Hey that’s what we should call the first 10 years of the 2000s—the downsizing decade!

      Those people make me angry too—and you know what? When I quit a customer I never even tell them why—they would say I was being unreasonable or something like that. So instead they get a polite letter saying I’m not the best fit for their needs, etc.—and hope they read between the lines that it’s their loss.

  2. Wow Debra, just this one post makes me feel you’ve lived 3 lives already. Your stories serve to confirm my belief that somebody’s worth is measured by their sophistication of mind and not how much $$$ they have to throw around. I admire your strength to stay true to yourself and not sell out to a soul-less office 9 – 5. What you do is great inspiration for your writing – you get to see some of the best and worst sides of human nature – E xx

    • Well Empress, like I always say we’re all works in progress but I’m sure sick of starting over again every ten years or so! I think anyone who is no longer a kid, and has to start over again for whatever reason, is expected to quickly adapt to the new, modern workplace of cubicle hell, entry-level pay, and low-quality products! At that newspaper I worked at, you couldn’t even get a package of post-its—that’s how cheap they were. You had to buy your own.

      You’re right about seeing the best and the worst of human nature.
      Thanks for writing…D.

  3. Hi Deb,
    What part of CT may I ask? I completely understand the caste system you describe as I am (currently) in CT myself, but looking to leave as soon as possible. I miss living out west, much different lifestyle and mindset. I am inspired by your life changes since I am unemployed and very few prospects are out there and honestly, I am so sick of the 9-5 crap that I am trying to find a better way to make a living. There has got to be something better then slavery of one form or another and being surrounded by arrogant, self entitled spoiled brats who think you owe them something because they hired you.

    • Cala Lily,
      CT! I’m not surprised you’re trying to escape, most people are. Cost of living is insane there. For my last 20 years in CT I lived in the “shoreline” area, Deep River, Centerbrook, Ivoryton, then Chester. People always ask me, don’t you miss the ocean? What ocean? All the beaches in CT are private and if you don’t have the right sticker on your windshield, you can sit in traffic for a couple hours and pay $10 to get in to Rocky Neck, or drive to Rhode Island.

      Somewhere out there is the perfect job for us…but we might have to create it ourselves. Somehow. Because we won’t find it in a cubicle.

  4. Hi Debra,

    it is so sad to hear how you are abused by people who think that they are better persons because their parents have had more money. Probably it’s sometimes really hard for you to stay friendly and to keep your anger inside, isn’t it?

    I hope you don’t have to do this jobs for a long time any more because being treated in this way is so unfair. But I think there will be a new opportunity for you soon. Although I don’t know you very well I think you are one of these guys who don’t have to wait for a profession to come true – you are able to make a profession from the moment. (I hope you understand, this phrase is hard to translate^^)

    And another question: How old are you, Debra? 😀
    These are enough jobs for a LIFETIME!

    Best wishes,
    Robert

  5. Hi Robert
    Good to hear from you. I’m going to answer in an e-mail…
    D.

  6. Marvelous. I can’t wait until wonderful Michele, my cleaning gal, comes on Thursday so I can show her this blog. It mirrors many of the horror stories she has told me. For most of her working life, she was a waitress and hated it. Then, in her 50s, she discovered housecleaning and adores it. She said one day, “Ann, I never knew I would love working, like I do now!” Everything she does is invested with her enthusiasm. There is something to be said for finding one’s niche, whatever that is. At 52, with a string of dead-end 9-5 crap jobs behind me, including 22 years in the news business, I discovered pet sitting as a way to earn extra$$. I was the first in my area to do this, so I got a client base right away. By the time I was 65, I had tripled my WORK income. Like the book says, “Do what you love, the money will follow.” And don’t ever think you’re at the bottom. What you do takes talent, energy and commitment. Keep it rockin’.

  7. According to Forbes, 70% of the employees in the U.S. hate their jobs. (11/11/2011, “70 Percent of your Employees Hate Their Jobs). We might look at the way American Style Capitalism has treated and is treating working people in all of this, though the Forbes article follows a top down approach, saying “The trouble is nobody is inspired to get up Monday morning because their job offers free soda in the vending machine. People want to be inspired. They want to work toward a higher purpose and feel good about themselves and their leader. It requires better communication, not more perks.” Sounds like rote “wisdom” from the Basic Fascist’s Handbook, doesn’t it? No mention of, say, a 30 hour week…or even a 35 hour week as in France. Or a bigger sharing out of the proceeds we’ve derived from overall productivity gains. That would be socialism! And of course, we don’t want that! Simply handing out money doesn’t hurt the character of the rich, but it’s deadly regards the character of those not so rich or poor, apparently. And it might strike this writer at “Forbes” as a bit odd, but often enough people don’t want leadership that inspires. They are well satisfied with leadership that doesn’t interfere with them actually accomplishing their jobs, and a leadership that doesn’t come along and fire them in large numbers to savagely move their kind of productivity to, say, China. The suggestion that working people should be willing to increasingly settle for less, and for a less secure future, in our high theft economy is incredibly wrong headed.

  8. Wow, you are one strong, resilient woman! To do it, in the first place and then to write about it. Thank you for sharing.

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