What Happens When "The Help" Gets Help

When I told my mother we were looking for "someone to clean," because nobody I know says "maid" or even "housekeeper," she responded, "Clean what? You're two adults." Which is both the problem and the solution.

Feb 24, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

The very first story I wrote for xoJane was about my very brief stint as "the Help" in an Upper East Side apartment. I "worked" as the personal assistant to a woman without a 9 to 5. My "office" -- an old desk and an even older computer -- moonlit as the maid's room. I didn't last long. 

It was 2004 and I was spending 10-hour days in a converted maid's quarters as the “personal assistant” to an independently wealthy Upper East Sider with “servants.” Completely enthralled by the fact that I’d graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English two years earlier, Mrs. ____ considered me another exotic addition to her glass menagerie of gophers.

There was the personal chef from South Asia, the Polish housekeeper, two nannies from the Philippines, one from Puerto Rico and a window-washer from Queens. We were the people who entered through the kitchen.

What I learned after trying to earn a living in the same space someone actually lives is that I'm no good at such things. I didn't like having to take an AIDS test before I was hired. I didn't like having to rub every surface I touched with a sanitizing wipe when I came to work with the sniffles one day. I especially didn't like the feeling of my reality being splintered into two--there was the quiet me who was trapped within the many walls of a high society show place and the me that was free to yell, "Fuck this bullshit!" on the sidewalk outside, although I never did. 

So, of course, I started screwing things up as a silent protest against the very class system I was taking full advantage of. Where else does one get paid $250 a day to follow someone around their house in a sad game of cat and mouse? The cat being Mrs. ____'s non existent career and the mouse being the mundane shit she did to fill her days--massages, shopping, personal training, lunching, etc. So I mis-remembered a few dates and left mail unopened for days, because despite needing the easy money, it was hard to wrap my head around the unchanging caste system I was cast in. 

I was also only 23 at the time. Fresh out of college and shiny like a new penny with none of the green patina that grows around the edges of having lived a little or at all. My family isn't monied or even middle class.

My grandparents didn't finish high school, my mother never finished college, but I was on my way to a graduate degree. Still, those hard earned rungs only got me so far in Mrs. ____'s view. I was a mule in roller blades, according to her, mobile but not upwardly so. Like the time I told her I wrote my the essay that got me into Columbia on being the daughter of a lesbian and she nodded to herself, "Oh, so that's why." I hated being in such close proximity to priveleged ignorance. But I had to get my expensive diploma out of "you still owe us tuition" jail so I sucked it up until my work rage threatened to explode out the business end. I quit, moved to get a master's degree, started a career and careened towards moderate success, never looking back (save for articles like this). 

Almost a decade later and I still fill weird about the dichotomy of the have nots becoming the sorta haves. Take this recent scenario for instance: My boyfriend and I need someone to clean our two bedroom, two bathroom apartment.

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When I told my mother we were looking for "someone to clean," because nobody I know says "maid" or even "housekeeper," she responded, "Clean what? You're two adults." Which is both the problem and the solution.

Less than an hour after we'd decided to stop feeling "weird" about it, there came a knock at my door around 9 in the morning. My main squeeze had just left for work minutes before so I figured he'd forgotten something. I opened the door to find him standing tall and proud next to a small Latina woman in ironed black jeans.

"She works on the fourth floor!" he said excitedly, as if he'd discovered some secret treasure on his way from the elevator to the parking lot out back. 

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She smiled and I copied her, wondering if she felt like a prize or if she was just happy for the extra cash. After a tour of our apartment, Mrs. B told us she'd come the very next morning. I planned to let her in and then make myself scarce at a local coffee shop. I have a friend whose parents, who both clawed their way from poverty to solid upper upper middle class, regularly hide out in her apartment when the "lady who cleans" comes over. Why? Because if you're only one generation removed from the projects your damn self, doing stuff like spending money on clean floors seems more than silly, it's almost selfish, traitor-ish even.

Anyway, through a  series of unfortunate circumstances, including but not limited to food poisioning, my house was totally full when Mrs. B came to clean the next morning. When I opened the door to let her in I immediately started apologizing, "I'm so sorry we're here." Because I felt like Mrs. ____, hovering over a grown ass woman just there to do her job. Some people reading this might think #whitegirlproblem (I'm black) or #highclassproblem or whatever. But this was much more than that.

This wasn't just cleaning up before the maid comes, which plenty of newly not-totally-broke-people do. This was me confronting a past that has continued to taint my 20s experience of Manhattan, a place I'd previously idealized as Sinatra and Jay Z-esque sans the discordant hook of Mrs. ____'s constant disapproval. 

Mrs. B, of course, was something different. I told her I didn't want to get in her way and she answered by asking if we had a baby. I laughed and pointed to Miles, my pug, "That's our baby." She laughed too and we left it at that. Chatting her up while she cleaned inside the stove I repeatedly apologized for felt wrong.  While she worked, I worked. Not ignoring her, but giving her space.  

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In end, Mrs. B changed our lives that day. After she left, we ran around the house ohhing and ahhing. "Look at the refrigerator!," "Oh my god, the shower door," and "Wait, till you see the inside of the microwave." Hours later we sat on the couch starring wide eyed at the pristine place we'd earned, shocked by how easy it was. Like two court jesters doing cartwheels while the fat cats who really owned the place were away. It was as if we'd gotten away with something. 

The weirdness, the aprehension, the guilt, the betrayal of our not-so--former selves, washed away with gratitude. We all but begged Mrs. B to come back again and she said she'd check her schedule. And therein lies the difference between "the help" (which has rightfully taken on an odious connotation) and "the helped". Gratitude. Pure, transparent, unpretentious gratitude.