Barbara chooses Maine because of how white it is—from college students and professors to the hotel housekeepers and cab drivers. She feels she’ll fit in as an English-speaking Caucasian in search of low-wage work. She also had noted on an earlier visit that Portland seemed eager for employees—a TV ad mentioned a “mothers’ shift” for a telemarketing fair, and the radio was promoting job fairs. The lengthy help-wanted ads she downloads from the newspaper’s web include several promises of “fun, casual” workplace environments, which she finds appealing.
In Key West, Barbara had found herself steered towards particular jobs and not others because of her ethnicity and native language ability. In Portland, all the talk of job faires, special shifts, TV ads, and appealing workplace environments seems to suggest a tighter labor market (meaning that there are fewer available workers per open job), which should, in theory, provide better economic possibilities for low-wage workers because they should have more leverage.
On August 24th, Barbara arrives at the Portland bus station and takes a cab to the Motel 6 where she’ll stay until she finds a job and home. She knows it can’t be common to leave a familiar place and settle down far away where she knows no one, but she figures that these kinds of dislocations take place in the lives of the very poor, who might lose their job or babysitter, or live with a sister who throws you them because she needs the bed, et cetera.
Barbara admits that her experiment can sometimes be less authentic than a true low-wage workers’ experience, but the disjunctive nature of her project—how she jumps from place to place—also gives her an opportunity to mention how stressful and discontinuous the search for jobs and attempt to settle down can be for many low-wage workers.
Barbara has arrived with a laptop and suitcase with some clothes, a tote bag with books, and $1,000. She’s paying $59 a night for a room in a Motel 6 that still contains remnants of previous inhabitants, like deposits of cigarette smoke and Cheeto crumbs under the bed. Outside the main entrance there’s a Texaco station and Clipper Mart, and across the turnpike (which is terrifying to cross on foot) there are more food options, like a supermarket and Pizza Hut. She brings pizza and salad back to dinner.
As usual, Barbara is able to paint a garish but effective portrait of the bleak shopping strips and suburban outposts that cater to the less affluent members of society, through details like Cheeto crumbs and fast food marts. The detail of the turnpike shows how Barbara’s car provides a particularly useful advantage—places like these are not made for those without one.
Barbara reasons that it should feel exhilarating to blow off all old relationships and routines and start over from scratch. But educated middle-class professional like her, she realizes, never hurl themselves into the future without a plan or to-do list. Everything is always anticipated. Now, to get a job she needs an address, but to get an apartment it helps to have a history of stable employment. She decides to do everything at once and use the hotel phone as her answering machine.
This time, rather than comparing her move with those of low-wage workers, she contrasts it with the experiences of those in her own income bracket, for whom economic precariousness is just not a possibility. Now, lacking any job or address that would tie her down, she sees no way of getting out of the complicated loop of instability.
It turns out that while there are plenty of condos and $1,000-per-month apartments, the only low-rent options seem to be thirty minutes south—though even there rents are over $500. A few phone calls reveal that the poor tend to live, at least during the winter, in the low-rate motel rooms after Labor Day.
Having experienced the inconvenience and expense of a long commute, Barbara knows that that is not a sustainable option for the kinds of jobs that she’ll be looking for.
Barbara goes to check out a room share instead, for $65 per week. The landlord shows her around, saying that the roommate is a “character” but has a job. In the basement of the motel-boardinghouse, there’s a closed door to the kitchen, but there’s someone sleeping in there, so they can’t go in. the room is down the hall from the kitchen, with two unmade twin beds and a few light bulbs, with no window.
In financial terms, the room share is Barbara’s best bet, but she had also committed herself to sticking with the best job and apartment she could get, and given the details she provides here, it doesn’t seem like the room share would really count as stable, safe housing. For the working poor, cost-effective can also mean unsafe.
Barbara decides to forgo the room share, and visits the SeaBreeze motel, but at $150 a week it’s too much. On the way home, she notices that the Blue Haven Motel on Route 1 has apartments to rent for $120 per week, and it looks almost picturesque. The security deposit is only $100, so she pays on the spot. She probably could have found something better with more time, but she’s eager to get out of the Motel 6.
While Barbara had expressed shock at Gail’s idea of moving into a motel, now she finds that living in a motel is probably her best, or only, option. While she mentions she could have found something better, often the working poor simply can’t afford to wait long enough for something affordable to arise.
Barbara now knows to apply for as many jobs as possible. She’s ready to move on from waitressing, and she doesn’t have enough office-type outfits for clerical work, so she calls about cleaning, warehouse and nursing home work, and manufacturing. Applying is humbling, since it consists of offering yourself and your life experiences to a series of people who just aren’t very interested. She is interviewed by a bored secretary at a tortilla factory, and fills out an application at Goodwill, which she knows has been positioning itself as the ideal employer for the poor recently out of welfare. There, no one meets her eye except for one person staring and making swimming motions above his head, perhaps to warn her off.
Equipped with several lessons from her first attempt in Key West, Barbara sets out on the job hunt. She had learned earlier, but now can confirm, that the process of filling out constant applications is draining and, at its worst, emotionally damaging. She casts a wide net, as is shown by the mention of both a tortilla factory and Goodwill, where the contrast between its self-presentation in its marketing attempts and the unappealing atmosphere of the place becomes acutely evident.
At a Wal-Mart advertising a job fair, a woman shows up after a ten-minute wait, flustered since, as she explains, she just works there and she’s never interviewed anyone before. Barbara fills out a four-page “opinion survey” with, apparently, no right or wrong answers. The form has questions about forgiving or denouncing a coworker caught stealing, and if management is to blame if things go wrong, with answers ranging from “totally agree” to “totally disagree.” Barbara finds it hard to believe that employers can learn anything from these tests, since most people can see through to the “right” answers—knowing to say she works well with others, but would denounce them for any infraction, for instance.
The “survey” bears much resemblance to the test Barbara had to fill out at the supermarket in Key West. Questions about ratting out fellow employees appear to be a common trait to these tests. Barbara can easily see what they’re meant to do—weed out potential employees who would cause any strain on management or be anything other than dutiful, obedient, and loyal only to their managers.
At a housecleaning service called The Maids, Barbara is given the “Accutrac personality test,” which warns at the beginning that there are multiple measures that detect attempts to “psych out” the survey, but the “right” answers are just as transparent. Barbara decides the real information is for the employees, who learn that they can keep no secrets from their employers, who will control every part of them.
“Psyching out” the test is just what Barbara has been doing all along, and she doubts there’s any way to prevent that. In general, for her, these tests symbolize and are meant to promote the authoritarian nature of low-wage work for a corporation.
Barbara is surprised to learn from her job hunt that Portland, despite its labor shortage, is still a $6-7-an-hour town. At another housecleaning service, Merry Maids, the interviewer tells her not to try to calculate the “$200 to $250” per week in dollars per hour, but of course she does anyway and discovers that it comes to $5-6 per hour for heavy labor with risk of repetitive stress injuries. She realizes that one job will not be enough, and that the laws of supply and demand do not seem to apply here.
Having seen various examples of Portland’s need for labor, Barbara now shows that wages in Portland seem impervious to the economic laws of supply and demand that should increase workers wages. Employers, she notes, find sneaky ways at getting around these laws, by calculating in weeks rather than hours, for example, without accounting for the grueling physical nature of the job.
After two days of job applications, Barbara sits and waits in her small, dingy Motel 6 room (she can’t move into the Blue Haven until Sunday). The phone rings twice that morning, and she accepts both jobs immediately: a nursing home on weekends for $7 per hour, and The Maids starting Monday for $6.65. She isn’t sure how “maid services” differ from agencies, but the office manager assures her that the work will be easy and familiar. She’ll supposedly be done at around 3:30, leaving time for job hunting for better options in the afternoons. She celebrates by eating dinner at Appleby’s—$11.95 plus tip for a burger and glass of wine.
Another skill Barbara had learned in Key West: be flexible with the jobs being offered that day. This time, she’s managed to secure two jobs right from the start, which hopefully will prevent the kind of financial precariousness she experienced once the tourist season ended in Key West. Her optimism is further shown through her confidence that she’ll have time to job hunt in the afternoons, and by her willingness to “splurge” on a dinner at Appleby’s.
The next day Barbara wakes up early to be at the Woodcrest Residential Facility (also a made-up name) by 7:00am for her first day as a dietary aide. Her supervisor tells her about her rights and responsibilities. Today they’ll be working in the locked Alzheimer’s ward, which involves transferring food from the main kitchen to the ward kitchen and serving and cleaning up after the residents.
Having applied to every job she could find, now that she has one Barbara has to adapt to the needs of the workplace. Again, she’ll have to learn a new skill set and learn to work with a new set of management probably with its own particular (and overbearing) style.
As a former waitress, Barbara finds this work relatively simple, rushing around pouring decaf-only coffee and taking “orders.” The fact that it’s an Alzheimer’s ward means she doesn’t have to worry about forgetting things, but she tries to remember the residents’ names: Grace, who demands that her untouched cup be refilled, Letty, a diabetic who sneaks doughnuts from others’ plates, and Ruthie, who pours orange juice all over her French toast.
Here, Barbara can draw on her previous experience in developing these new skills. As she had done at the Hearthside, she makes an effort to reduce the monotony and impersonality of the job by forming relationships with the customers, remembering specific details about each one of them.
Cleaning up is less pleasant, since a “dietary aide” ends up meaning a dishwasher—rinsing, presoaking, and stacking the dishes of the forty people at each meal, before bending down to the floor with the full rack of 15-20 pounds. Though Barbara is used to washing dishes at home, it’s a struggle to make sure there’s always a new rack ready as soon as the last one is done, all while keeping an eye on the residents.
Once again, the less visible elements of work tend to be the least appealing, as well as requiring physical strength and exertion. Barbara’s title of “dietary aide” would hardly seem to suggest the need for such physical endurance and stamina.
Barbara chats with Pete, one of the cooks, during the midmorning break. She’d like him to be an ally, since she realizes that a dietary aide is dependent on a cook just like a waitress is. They sit in Pete’s car smoking cigarettes. She tells him that her dad’s last days were spent in an Alzheimer’s facility, so it already feels familiar. Pete warns her about one coworkers backstabbing and their manager’s strictness.
Barbara has also learned how helpful, as well as enjoyable, it can be to have fellow employees as friends. Pete helps Barbara get a handle on the social dynamics of the facility—she’s seen how much they can differ from place to place.
Pete continues asking Barbara questions, and she feels awkwardly that Pete might be treating this as a date. He says that he’s made far more at restaurants than he makes now, but it doesn’t bother him, since he’s gotten rich from gambling and investment (even though he’s driving a rusty old car and his front teeth are in a sad state). He says he tried just staying home since he doesn’t need to work, but he got stir-crazy from not being around a community. Barbara is somehow touched by this, the idea that the facility could be a true community.
Pete’s stories are fantastical, but they also speak to the broader disjunction between economic classes, which can lead to wishful thinking and a longing to break out of one’s lower economic position. At the same time, Pete’s reasoning confirms for Barbara the importance of establishing human relationships in these kinds of jobs.
At lunch, Barbara is surprised to find that many residents seem to recognize her and are happy to see her. She starts thinking she’ll become the star of the facility and compensate for her own father’s more impersonal care—until she refills the milk class of a tiny old lady who immediately throws the entire glass at her, soaking her clothes.
Now it’s Barbara’s turn to concoct her own fanciful stories, a path that nevertheless doesn’t last long—though she will often return, seemingly naturally, to a kind of white knight or savior complex she has toward her coworkers.
That night, Saturday, is Barbara’s last at the Motel 6, and she decides to try to see what there is to do for fun with limited means. There is a marquee in front of the “Deliverance” church downtown advertising a “tent revival,” and, as an atheist, Barbara is curious enough to drive over. About 60 of the 300 seats are filled, mainly with white “hillbilly” types, and a woman gives Barbara her own Bible. There’s singing and preaching, from a man saying that the Bible’s the only book you need to another attacking the “wicked” city for its low attendance at the revival. Barbara wonders what good an immortal soul would do for her Alzheimer’s patients at the Woodcrest.
This is one of the few times that Barbara ventures out of her stated purpose of simply trying to equate income with expenses. Here she casts an anthropological eye on a religious tent revival, injecting some humor into the narration. Barbara clearly shows her cards here—she’s an atheist, and is skeptical of the preacher’s claim on spiritual knowledge and truth, especially when he seems mainly concerned about the bottom line.
Barbara thinks it would be nice if the preachers mentioned income inequality and Jesus’s precocious socialism, but only the crucified Jesus seems to make an appearance here—she sneaks out.
Barbara is constantly thinking about her experiment, and manages to draw connections between the economic troubles of the poor and whatever she’s experiencing.
On Sunday Barbara moves into the Blue Haven, though it’s smaller than she remembered, with the toilet less than four feet from the kitchen table and the bed right next to the stove. But her anxiety starts to ebb, since she now has an address, two jobs, and a car—this time a Rent-a-Wreck. She is one of the only people in the community with a unit to herself: the others are mainly blue-collar couples with children, crowded three or four into an efficiency or one-bedroom. A grandmotherly type tells her that living in a motel can be hard at first, but she’s been there for eleven years now.
Barbara had begun her stay in Portland with none of the three things she lists—a car, address, and job seem to be general markers of stability allowing her to become less anxious. However, the situations of the other people in the motel that Barbara surveys seem to challenge the inherent stability of just any living space, since the residents are often crowded into small rooms.
Barbara arrives at The Maids’ office on Monday morning at 7:30, knowing little about the cleaning service besides that it has three hundred franchises nationwide. Her uniform will be kelly-green pants and a blinding yellow polo shirt. In the next day and a half of training, she learns about the code of conduct—no smoking, eating, drinking, or cursing in a house.
Barbara had accepted the job as one of the first she could get, and now once again must adapt to the specific skills, necessities, and social requirements (not to mention uniform) of this new job opportunity.
About 20 other employees arrive for the free breakfast provided by The Maids. The average age is the mid-twenties, and all but one is female. Barbara and the other new girl sit and wait while the teams are dispatched to the day’s houses—one woman tells her that you aren’t necessarily on the same houses every week or even the same team from day to day. Perhaps one of the advantages for the owners is the lack of relationships developed, she thinks, since the customers almost exclusively communicate with the office manager or the franchise owner, Ted.
Waiting for her orientation gives Barbara the chance to observe the (mainly) women heading out to work around her. Unlike at her previous jobs, no one stays in the same place or even with the same group each day, and she’s already familiar with how management’s suspicion and sense of distrust can hobble attempts at developing relationships with other coworkers.
It’s difficult to see the advantage to the cleaner, since while independent cleaners can earn up to $15 an hour, and The Maids charges $25 per person-hour, the cleaners receive $6.65 per hour. The only advantage seems to be that you don’t need a clientele or a car.
Just as Barbara had had to choose between convenience and affordability for a trailer in Key West, this same economic choice pops up again—it seems it’s impossible to have both.
Barbara is led into a tiny room to watch a videotape of the company’s method of dusting, bathrooms, kitchen, and vacuuming. Each is broken down into sections: where to begin vacuuming, how to disinfect surfaces, and where to polish or buff. Ted stops in sometimes, mentioning proudly that this was all figured out with a stopwatch. He warns that there’s a danger in undersoaking the rags with cleaning fluids, which are less expensive than her time, and Barbara thinks it’s good to know that the company considers something cheaper than her time.
While Ted is officially Barbara’s boss at The Maids, the franchise has such a devotion to efficiency that the orientation is conducted completely by video, so the company can ensure that everyone is following the exact same method at no additional cost. This method seems to be one, once again, that prioritizes efficiency and low cost for the company (though not, Barbara thinks, for the employee).
The vacuuming video is the most disturbing, dealing with a vacuum that is meant to be strapped around one’s back like a backpack. When strapped in, the video seems to say, the maid will become a vacuum cleaner. Barbara is exhausted by this video and by the sterile, impersonal model home and model maid.
The possible physical discomfort of such a task seems to be banished from the video, which considers maids as just another useful tool in the efficient, seamless cleaning of each house.
Barbara realizes that there is no water involved, unlike the methods taught to her by her mother, a compulsive housekeeper on a war against germs. The video never mentions germs: scrubbing is only for removing visible impurities, while wiping is for everything else. The cleaning, in fact, is entirely cosmetic, from giving toilet paper rolls a special fold to spraying the house with the signature air freshener.
This detail about the pure surface value of the cleaning serves to make Barbara—and the reader—recoil against the implications of a corporation’s dogged pursuit of profits and efficiency, not only at the expense of employees’ well-being but also of a job well done.
On her first day, Barbara realizes the video had been in slow motion—the team races to the car and from the car to the house. Her first team leader explains that only a certain number of minutes are allotted per house. After an hour, even dusting becomes like an aerobic exercise, but as soon as she’s done she must report to the team leader to help someone else.
Barbara’s team puts The Maids’ emphasis on efficiency into practice. All the employees nevertheless seem intent on doing the job the best they can, even as this job, more than the others where Barbara’s worked, seems especially physically grueling.
The promised thirty-minute lunch break turns out to be a five-minute pit stop at a convenience store. The older women eat sandwiches and fruit, while the younger ones tend to eat pizza or a small bag of chips. Barbara recalls a poster showing the number of calories burned per minute for each task—on average, in a seven-hour day, she notes, 2,100 extra calories are needed. Barbara admonishes Rosalie, a recent high school grad, for her lunch of a half bag of Doritos, but Rosalie responds that she had nothing else in her house and she doesn’t have money with her. She admits that she gets dizzy sometimes.
Barbara’s off-time experiences with her coworkers give her the opportunity to try to understand how people manage to live on such a small income. Here, it turns out, they don’t really manage at all—even a basic mark of economic stability and survival like having enough to eat seems to elude some of these women. The younger ones, especially, seem to struggle more with figuring out how to fuel themselves on a small income.
Barbara doesn’t want to ask straight out about her coworkers’ economic situations, so she listens. Eventually she learns that everyone seems to live among extended families or house-mates—the oldest, Pauline, owns a home, but she sleeps on the sofa while her children and grandchildren sleep in the bedrooms. There are signs, though, of real difficulty: they argue about who will come up with the 50 cents for the toll and if they’ll be quickly reimbursed by Ted; someone has a painfully impacted wisdom tooth and is frantically calling to try to find free dental care.
As Barbara has observed in her own lodgings at the Blue Haven Motel, housing only seems to work if people surrender the possibility of privacy and rely on, or extend help to, others in similar situations. Each dollar counts for the women working at The Maids, and the woman seeking healthcare further underlines how one thing that goes wrong can easily become an emergency.
On Barbara’s first Friday, it’s 95 degrees, and she’s teamed with Rosalie and their leader, Maddy, who’s sullen and brooding about her childcare issues: her boyfriend’s sister watches her 18-month-old for $50 a week, already a stretch even though a real daycare could be $90. The first house to be cleaned is a 5-bathroom spread, a massive place that Barbara compares to a beached ocean liner. Maddy hopes that “Mrs. W.” will give them lunch, but Mrs. W seems exasperated when the nanny, one of several other caretakers, brings them to her.
Barbara has already learned how much of the talk among employees at low-wage workplaces is about simply how to survive on such wages, especially when compounded by other needs like child care. These difficulties create an uncomfortable contrast with the sprawling wealth of the “Mrs. W.” estate, and with the owner’s lack of interest in them.
In this case, Barbara is grateful for The Maids’ special system, since it means she only needs to move from left to right, room to room. She dusts around a whole shelf of books on pregnancy, breastfeeding, and raising children. As she Windexes and wipes the endless glass doors, she watches the construction guys outside drinking Gatorade—maids cannot drink while inside a house. She sweats constantly, unable to replenish fluids like in her regular, yuppie life. In the living room, she wonders if Mrs. W. will ever realize that all her amassed objects and expressions of individualism are, in another sense, just an obstacle between a thirsty person and a glass of water.
Mrs. W.’s worries about childcare have little to do with Maddy’s. It’s a 95-degree day, and Barbara finds that even the construction workers seem to have it better than she does, since they can drink whenever they’d like. Once again, Barbara contrasts the conspicuous consumption and materialism of Mrs. W.’s home not only with the financial situation of her cleaners but also with the demanding physical labor required to clean her home.
Next, Maddy assigns Barbara to clean the kitchen floor, following The Maids’ corporate “hands-and-knees” approach. It’s a selling point, even though the advantage is undermined by the fact that the maids are instructed to use barely any water. But the posture of submission seems to gratify the customers. She realizes at one point that Mrs. W. is staring at her—she wonders if she’s about to be offered a glass of water, but Mrs. W. just wants to make sure that nothing is missed.
For Barbara, the method promoted by The Maids has far more to do with marketing rhetoric and selling points than with actually cleaning a home. This is exacerbated by the shame she is made to feel by having to kneel in a position of submission, watched over carefully by the homeowner who is both economically and literally “above” her.
At the end of the day, Barbara rushes home and congratulates herself on her first successful week, accomplished without a breakdown. Still, it turns out she often doesn’t end work until 4:30 or 5:00, and, sweaty and soaked, there’s no way she can go to other job interviews after work. Instead, she goes for a walk on the beach, and stops to listen to a group of Peruvian musicians, transfixed. She gives them a dollar after their song—that dollar is worth about 10 minutes of sweat.
Barbara had been overly optimistic about her ability to use her two existing jobs as a jumping-off point from which to seek better options: it turns out that much low-wage work is not at all conducive to long-term planning, merely because of the physical toil that goes into it, leaving her with little energy left to pursue other options.
Soon, though, Barbara starts to suffer from a skin disease. At first she thinks it’s poison ivy from hunting around for a way in when customers forget to leave the door unlocked (which Ted blames on the maids, saying it “means something”), or it may be the cleaning fluids. She knows she probably shouldn’t work since she looks like a leper, but Ted has no sympathy for illness or injury. He says it must be a latex allergy and sends her off. She breaks down and calls her real-life Key West dermatologist, who prescribes various creams, which set her back $30.
Barbara’s rash gives her the chance to detail further examples of Ted’s single-minded focus on the bottom line, even to the extent that he’ll blame locked homes on the cleaners or make Barbara go out even while looking like a “leper.” Here, she does resort to the advantages of her “real life,” suggesting that the situation would have been far worse if she hadn’t been able to do so.
Barbara, Rosalie, and Maddy fantasize one day in the car about full water immersion after cleaning a house with a pool and gazebo. They aren’t even allowed to wash their hands in the houses after drying and buffing the sinks.
The total lack of water—both in The Maids cleaning process and throughout the real maids’ days—suggests an environment of deprivation, especially offensive when contrasted with the decadent pool and gazebo.
Barbara has been proud of how she’s kept up with women twenty or thirty years younger. Any bond they have is physical: everyone shares their medication and complains about their back pains and cramps. Lori and Pauline can’t vacuum because of their backs, while Helen has a bum foot and Marge’s arthritis makes scrubbing painful. It’s a world of pain manage by Excedrin, Advil, and cigarettes, with alcohol on the weekend. Barbara wonders if the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into making their homes perfect, and if they’d care if they did. One owner, who actually offers her water, works part-time as a trainer and says she tells her clients to fire their cleaning lady if they really want to be fit. Barbara refrains from saying that this exercise is brutally repetitive and more likely to cause injury than strengthen muscles.
The physical pain suffered by the employees of The Maids testifies to the arduous nature of their labor. They do manage to forge bonds among each other thanks to this common affliction, but it’s solidarity that certainly comes at a price—one only made more difficult by the fact that few of them can afford to take a day off or see a doctor for prescribed medications. Barbara’s conversation with one owner makes clear the extent to which they live in two separate universes, in which “exercise” is either a luxury or a constant battle against pain.
The owner of another sprawling condo points out the marble walls of the shower stall, which she says have been “bleeding” onto the brass fixtures. Barbara wants to say that it’s not her marble bleeding but rather the working class, which has enabled her comfortable life, that’s bleeding. Of course, Barbara admits to herself that she is not a member of that class—she can work hour after hour because she has gotten decades of good medical care, a high-protein diet, and workouts in expensive gym. She has, however, never employed a cleaning service, finding the idea of such an asymmetrical relationship repugnant.
At some points, Barbara’s continuous humor turns melodramatic, revealing her more militant social activist side. Of course, her experiment makes her experience particularly dramatic, since she is constantly able to contrast her former life with her current one, and realizes how financial comfort can build up over decades to give her enormous advantages. This perhaps makes her even more deeply conscious of the enormous gulf created between a cleaner and homeowner (a gulf that someone who has always been a low-wage worker may in some ways not notice as acutely because they’ve always been made to feel this way).
For instance, Barbara is shocked the first time she encounters a shit-stained toilet. There are several kinds of these stains, she explains, and while she wouldn’t have wanted to know this, she is forced to figure out how to clean each kind. Pubic hair is another unsavory aspect of cleaning the homes of the elite. Owners can also spy, leaving tape recorders or video cameras: Ted encourages them to imagine that they’re under constant surveillance. Owners also arrange to be home so that they can check up on them while they work.
These vivid and even repulsive details are given on purpose, so that the reader can understand just how much indignity goes into the job of a housecleaner. In addition to distasteful aspects of the job, cleaners are also subjected to an atmosphere of surveillance that is directly tied to mistrust and suspicion, which can easily make them feel like lower-class citizens.
Barbara isn’t interested in decorating and lacks the vocabulary to describe in detail all the intricate furnishings of these houses. The books are mainly for show: real life seems to go on in the large-screen TV room. She is mainly offended by all the antique books bought in bulk and placed on end tables, not to read but for quaintness and “authenticity.”
Countering the shame she’s made to feel through her job, Barbara turns the cards and “spies” on the houses she cleans, painting a pretty damning portrait of the materialism and anti-intellectualism of the upper classes.
Around a quarter to a third of the houses seem middle-class rather than rich. However, once Barbara asks her team leader, Holly, if the next house is “wealthy,” and Holly responds says that if they’re paying to have their house cleaned, they’re wealthy.
Wealth is relative: from Barbara’s former-life perspective, there’s a wide range in these houses, but there’s also a thick line drawn between houses that can be cleaned and those that aren’t.
In late September, Barbara starts being assigned to Holly’s team day after day. This is a serious team, and conversation is restricted to the houses about to be cleaned. Holly is visibly ill. She is twenty-three and manages to feed herself, her husband, and an elderly relative on her salary, minus rent, or $30-50 per week (only a little more than what Barbara spends on herself). She weighs very little and only ever eats than tiny cracker sandwiches. Every afternoon in the car she starts food-fantasy conversations, asking others what they’ve eaten recently.
Barbara has seen first-hand the difficulties faced by her coworkers in trying to survive on their salary, but Holly’s situation seems more dire than most. In fact, as we’ve learned, since there are no “secret economies” for the poor, no secret tricks that make it easier for the poor to get buy on their meager wages, something has to give, and in this case it’s Holly’s ability to eat, which she gives up so that the rest of her family can survive.
One day Holly admits that she’s a little nauseous, but refuses to say any more. Barbara suggests Holly refrain from vacuuming, but Holly refuses. When Barbara finishes her task, she rushes into the kitchen to find Holly slumped over the counter. Holly admits she’s probably pregnant, but she wants it to be a secret until she can inform Ted. Barbara can only talk Holly into eating one of her sports bars. Barbara also takes over the driving for the rest of the day. For the first time, Barbara feels she has a higher purpose than just meeting New England bourgeois standards. The next house has a Martha Stewart-like owner who insists that every decorative pot and pan hanging in the kitchen near the ceiling needs to be polished, which can only be done by kneeling on the kitchen counter and reaching up. As Barbara does so, a pan slips and comes crashing down into a fishbowl: fish fly and water soaks everything. Barbara’s only punishment is seeing Holly’s terrified face.
Barbara, as we’ve seen, has a bit of a savior complex, and this kicks in when Holly collapses at one of the houses. Barbara has become pretty disgusted with the job, or at least has very little respect for the people whose houses she cleans, and Holly’s crisis gives her an opportunity to feel like her work has a larger meaning. Unfortunately, the exacting demands and standards of the homes they have to clean ends up complicating Barbara’s mission. The book is full of minor climaxes like this one, in which tensions ratchet up to a finale that’s somewhere between funny and horrifying. Here, the disastrous aspect is magnified by how deeply Holly takes to heart her work.
They take a cigarette break, and Barbara muses that she has to get over her “savior complex,” her desire to save the people she is working with. She wonders if she wants to do this because she is sick of her insignificance. Barbara asks why so many owners seem hostile or contemptuous, and Holly says that the owners think the cleaners are stupid, that they mean nothing to them. At convenience stores, a maid’s uniform seems to make even other employees look down on them. Barbara gets stares at supermarkets. She wonders if she’s getting a small glimpse of what it would be like to be black.
This is the first time that Barbara explicitly acknowledges this savior complex of hers and tries to work out where it might come from. Earlier, Barbara has talked about the inability for customers to consider or care about low-wage workers serving them: here, she goes a step further, suggesting that there is an element of shame placed upon these workers not just by individuals but by society at large.
At the next house, the liquid around Barbara’s toilet brush spills out on her foot. In normal life, she would take off the shoe and sock and throw them away, but here she can do nothing but work through it.
This detail is a microcosm of Barbara’s livelihood in general—she must work through with only the resources she has.
Barbara also has problems of her own: money issues. She didn’t get a check her first week, and learns that the first paycheck is withheld until she eventually leaves or quits, so that she doesn’t fail to show up a second week. The rent for her first week at the Blue Haven was more expensive at first because the tourist season wasn’t deemed completely over, and she had to spend extra money on kitchen supplies at Wal-Mart. Until the other checks arrive, she’ll have to live even more leanly.
Barbara has calculated her income and expenses down to the last dollar—which can work, if barely, only if nothing goes wrong. Of course, a tiny margin of error means she’s always on the verge of disaster. This precariousness is only aggravated by the withheld paycheck, another example of suspicious management.
Though help for the working poor exists, it takes determination and, ironically, resources to find it. Barbara calls the Prebles Street Resource Center one evening after work and learns that it closes at 3 p.m. (not practical for the working poor). She waits on hold for the help number listed and tells the operator that she is employed but needs some immediate food aid or cash assistance. The man asks her accusingly why she needs help if she’s employed, and why she didn’t check out the rents before moving, but finally gives her another number. After several more calls she reaches Gloria, who tells her to go to the food pantry in Biddeford the next day between nine and five—times that are also no good for a working person.
Here, Barbara attempts to navigate the resources available to the working poor—resources which she knows, intellectually, exist, but which she realizes function in a far more complicated and bureaucratic fashion. Within just a few minutes, she’s made to feel ashamed for not looking for better rents, and comes to realize that these kinds of resources, while supposedly directed towards low-wage workers, in fact fail to take into account the schedule of these very workers.
So Gloria connects Barbara to Karen, who finally tells her she can pick up a food voucher at a Portland Shop-n-Save, and asks what she’d like for dinner. She can’t have cash, and is limited to any two of a list including spaghetti noodles, baked beans, and hamburger—no fresh fruit or vegetables.
Again, the poor are looked at suspiciously—they aren’t even trusted to buy food if they’re just given cash. Barbara draws a connection between poverty and the inability to eat healthfully, despite society’s disapproval of the obese poor. Nearly everywhere they turn the poor are faced with impossible Catch-22s.
After picking up the food, Barbara calculates that she’s acquired $7.02 worth of food in 70 minutes of calling and driving, minus $2.80 for phone calls.
Less than five dollars (net) is hardly worth all the trouble, unless someone is truly desperate.
At the Woodcrest on weekends, Barbara tries to forget, like the residents, about the functioning people they used to be, and treat them as toddlers at a tea party. She makes friends with other cooks, nurses, and dietary maids, and enjoys the lack of supervisors and the greater autonomy.
Unlike her job at The Maids, this one lacks an overarching corporate philosophy and the suspicion and distrust that tends to accompany it; instead, Barbara can actually do her job as best she is able to.
One Saturday, though, Barbara arrives to find that the other dietary aide has failed to show up and she’ll be the only one. A dishwasher is broken, and a set of keys she needs is missing. Barbara only remembers the day as a panicky blur, remembering the lesson learned at Jerry’s about how to refrain from stopping and thinking.
Nevertheless, crises are never far from Barbara’s line of vision, meaning that her experience at each shift can vary wildly depending on circumstances outside her control—she has to employ all her mental and physical energy just to get through the day.
After work Barbara visits the state park, and wonders what a few months with zero days off would do to a person without the kind of accolades and praise that come from writing, for instance. She already has tunnel vision: slights loom large, and mistakes aren’t easily forgotten. She wakes up at night after the Woodcrest solo day convinced that Pete deliberately was trying to trip her up, until the next weekend he brings her breakfast as a treat and she realizes her theory was groundless.
Even though she’s working seven days a week, Barbara’s life is still precarious—and she finds that even her personality shifts due to constant labor without rest. The example of her paranoia about Pete is a comical one, but it reveals a broader truth about the harmful effects of constant work on someone’s psyche.
Barbara starts her third week at The Maids committed to staying detached, like the others seem to do. One of the only forms of rebellion she’s seen, in fact, is theft—at one meeting Ted says that there’s been an “incident,” and the perpetrator, whom the nearly 100-percent-reliable Accutrac test somehow failed to weed out, is no longer there.
Barbara’s coworkers are perhaps more resigned to the daily grind and small, constant slights of the job, which are new to her. For Barbara, theft can be understood as a reaction to the struggle of the job.
As Barbara scrubs and Windexes, she tries to cobble together a philosophy of nonattachment, melding a socialist Jesus with a tale her friend had told of rich people paying to do menial chores at a Buddhist monastery in California. In this new fantasy, she is part of a mystic order performing hated tasks cheerfully rather than working for a maid service. She’s realized, for instance, that the pay clock only starts at 8 a.m., even though they have to arrive at the office at 7:30, but this time she doesn’t complain.
We already know Barbara is not religious, and here her “philosophy” is more intellectual than spiritual—really anything she can use to get through the day. Minor examples of unfairness are everywhere, including the extra, unpaid half hour, but here Barbara follows her coworker and chooses to resign herself rather than fight back.
Only a day later, Barbara’s mood of detachment is shattered when Barbara cleans the home of an actual Buddhist, with a Buddha statue in the living room. As they leave in the usual rush, Holly trips and falls down and screams. She says something snapped, but she’ll only consent to calling Ted from the next house, while Barbara begs her to go to the emergency room. At the next house Barbara tells Holly not to work, and as she listens to Holly talk to Ted, she feels the Zen detachment fade away. She grabs the phone and begins a diatribe to Ted about putting money above his employees’ health, before hanging up on him. She tells Holly that she won’t work if Holly won’t sit down—she’ll go on strike. But Holly ultimately wins out, continuing to work.
Barbara’s nonattachment philosophy takes a comical turn as Buddhist spiritualism jars with the banal toil of housecleaning. Once again, crisis strikes, and it becomes increasingly clear that Holly is in no state to be cleaning houses—though she obviously relies on this work, which is evident because of how frantic she becomes at the possibility she won’t be able to continue. Barbara’s activist side kicks in here, as she yells at Ted everything she’s thought about, and has put into this book, about the questionable morality of management.
On the ride back, Barbara imagines the rousing argument against human indignity she’ll give when Ted fires her for insubordination. Marge, another cleaning lady in the car, says that she looks tired. Barbara won’t be fired, Marge says brightly, but the rest of them need her—and she can’t just leave Ted in the lurch. Barbara asks why they’re all worrying about Ted—he can hire anyone to do the job. When Holly mentions the Accutrac test that they have to pass, Barbara says that that’s bullshit—anyone can pass it. She knows this is insulting to Holly and her sense of professionalism, and she’s gone against the no-cursing rule. Even now, however, Barbara isn’t sure how she should have handled the situation.
Of course, Barbara can afford to mount a social protest against unfair management—unlike her coworkers, this isn’t her real life. This scene in the car also helps to explain while the other women don’t rebel or even complain about their difficult working conditions. Ted has managed to create almost a cult of loyalty around him; this is useful to him, since he can treat his employees less well, but it also has the effect of making them feel necessary and wanted.
Ted doesn’t fire Barbara—he says he’s sent Holly home, but that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. A few days later Barbara is out with Holly, who hasn’t forgiven her, and Ted calls to say that Barbara is to be sent back to the office to join another team. Ted picks her up to bring to her to the other team. As he drives her he tells her he’s giving her a raise, and then says that he’s not a bad guy and cares about his girls. He just wishes a few “malcontents” would stop complaining. Barbara knows she’s supposed to name names. Instead she asks him if Holly will be paid for the day he sent her home. He says of course, chuckling in a forced way.
Here, Barbara gets a sense of Ted’s tactics, in which he tries to win each employee over to his side, so that he can then keep tabs on the others. Barbara, of course, is not falling for these tactics. She takes quite a skeptical attitude to his professions of kindness and generosity, given that she knows he cares only about squeezing the highest profits as possible out of his “girls.” At the same time, that Holly doesn’t “want” to be helped only underlines how desperately she clings to any job.
Barbara wonders why anyone puts up with this job when there are so many others. But changing jobs means at least a week without a paycheck. There’s also the appeal of Ted’s approval and praise, which keeps many of the workers going. On Pauline’s last day—she’s sixty-seven and has been on the job longer than anyone—Ted makes no mention of her departure and doesn’t wish her well privately. Barbara offers her a ride home that day, and Pauline talks mostly about how hurt she feels, and how Ted hasn’t liked her since she stopped being able to vacuum.
Here Barbara plunges into the broader economic lessons of her time with The Maids—without first-hand experience, one could easily assume that a low-wage worker could simply quit and look for a more appealing job, which she now realizes is not very viable. In addition, management can keep an iron grip on the emotions of employees, who have often bought into the corporate rhetoric.
Barbara wonders if Ted’s approval means so much because of the chronic deprivation and lack of approval for a job well done. No one will congratulate or support these women—they do an outcast’s invisible work. Ted may be greedy, but he represents a better world, in which people wear civilian clothes to work and live in nice houses. Sometimes he’ll even send a team to his own house to clean.
The invisibility of low-wage workers will gradually become a major theme for Barbara, who sees first-hand not only how such workers are looked down on, but also how they’re often simply forgotten or ignored. In such cases it makes sense that Ted’s approval assumes vast importance.
Low-wage work may have the general effect of making one feel like an outcast, Barbara thinks. On TV, nearly everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and all the shows are about middle-class professionals. It seems like nurses’ aides and fast-food workers are anomalies. The poor are not a part of visible culture, even of religion, if the tent revival she attended in Key West was any indication.
The invisibility of the low-wage workforce is not just an issue of individual thoughtlessness or lack of empathy, Barbara shows. Even such a general cultural medium as television portrays a world in which the working poor simply don’t take part, which can only alienate them even more.
On Barbara’s last afternoon on the job, she tries to explain what she’s been doing to the other workers. At first, no one listens, but then Lori latches onto the idea that Barbara has been “investigating,” which Lori finds hilarious. Barbara asks how they feel about the owners, whose situations are so different from their own. Lori says she feels motivated—she’d like to get to where they are. Colleen, a single mother of two, says she doesn’t want what they have, since she’s a simple person. But she’d like to take a day off once in awhile and still be able to feed herself the next day.
Barbara had mentioned in the introduction how surprised she initially was at her coworkers’ lack of surprise—after all, she hasn’t been in hiding but rather has been accomplishing the same tasks that they have. Lori’s and Colleen’s responses portray the possible range of reactions to stark economic inequality, from envy and motivation to resignation at such a blatant contrast.