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Cicely Tyson scares the shit out of me.
Not in a “Don’t say ‘Bloody Mary’ three times in the mirror” way but in an if-I-see-her-looking-like-Miss-Jane-Pittman-in-one-more-movie-I’ll-scream way. Because the pathetic reel of the impossibly regal 78-year-old Oscar nominee playing yet another mammy role in Kathryn Stockett’s fiction-cum-feel good summer hit, “The Help,” hits a little too close to home. See, I’ve actually been “the help.”
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.
For two years, I’d been bouncing around midtown as a temp at a stack of different glossy magazines, waiting for real life to finally start. Eventually I got the memo that real life was waiting on me and applied to j school, which made working for $5.15 an hour either that much sweeter or sour depending on how many time my mother called that week. Still, there was a light at the end of the beauty closet. Soon I’d be a master of something, but for now I needed to eat.
A friend who’d worked with me at another “assistant to” job put me up for the gig with Mrs. ____ , an independently wealthy white woman with four kids. She needed help organizing her social life. “It’s 250 dollars a day,” was all she had to say. I was in because I knew I had a way out.
In my just-graduated optimism I thought life on the other side of that posh apartment door wouldn’t be so bad. It was 2004, after all. Not like “slavery times,” a term I used with my grandmother whenever she warned me about the white people in New York. My job was to keep her social life in order, not her stockings. I told myself we’d be more like buds than the boss and the belittled.
But Mrs. ____ soon disavowed me of my misguided kumbaya vision. She came from money and had no clue that “staff” had replaced “servants” as the new PC term. Once I overheard her telling friends that I went to Columbia. For a brief moment I felt proud, then she went into a long diatribe on the prevalence of favoritism (i.e., Affirmative Action) in liberal academia. When I told her my mother was a lesbian and I’d written about that in my college admissions’ essays, her response was quick, “Ohhhh, so that’s why.”
With Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help” leaping from best sellers list to the big screen August 10, all manner of women — white, black, privileged and non — have begun a conversation about the dividing line between domestics and their doyennes. That racially and socio-economically painted line that instead of growing more faint has only been underlined in recent years.
In June, attorney and blogger Piper Hoffman wrote about an awkward discovery she made concerning the maid; “…the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet,” wrote Hoffman on Blogher.com, a website for female bloggers.
“I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa,” wrote Hoffman, who is white, in a post entitled, “The Black Woman in My Closet.”
Working in someone’s home is not the same as working in someone’s office building. Personal space is sacred, at times almost eerily quiet. There’s no break room. The “office culture” in an American colonial is what the lady of the house makes it. Let them eat cake — or whatever — on the couch or the kitchen counter and most likely they will.
But what Hoffman, her critics and all the other 21st Century ladies who brunch, are missing is bottom up point of view. That’s where “The Help” steps in -- allegedly. At the core of the novel and movie is main character Skeeter’s secret desire to put 1960s Jackson, Mississippi in her rearview. She also wants to be a writer. Skeeter kills both birds with one stone by “writing” (essentially transcribing) a book from the point of view of the black maids who raise white children only to see them grow up to be just as bitchy as their pinch faced mothers.
In the end, both Stockett and her fictional heroine Skeeter successfully get their stories told and move on to presumably greener pastures. Skeeter to New York. Stockett to the New York Times Best Sellers List. The maids are still maids.
Same thing goes for the women I met in Mrs. _____ kitchen. I was one of them then. Riding up the service elevator, putting my coat in “our” closet and using a different bathroom. Like “the black woman who cleans” Piper Hoffman’s apartment, I preferred to hide. Gluing myself to the computer in the maid’s quarters/assistant’s office instead of roaming the apartment looking for the piece of paper Mrs. ____ had in her hands yesterday or following “Gus” the window washer from room to room just in case he got handsy after working in that house for two decades.
Ducking Mrs. ____ gaze was more of a coping mechanism than a mandate. I was hiding from the reflection of me in her eyes. I'd rather pretend I didn't exist because to me the Helena that showed up at 8 a.m. every day wasn’t real.
My mind’s eye saw me as a 24-year-old with an ivy league degree headed to the most prestigious journalism school in the country. I had a cute boyfriend and one-third of a cute apartment in Harlem. I was making it. But when I came through that kitchen and heard Mrs. ___’s morning greeting, “Helena Helena Helena,” over the intercom, I always shrunk six inches putting on an invisible and ill-fitting maid’s uniform.
“Helena Helena Helena” was a three-headed ghost. The girl that called another adult who wasn’t a friend of my grandmother’s “Mrs.” didn’t exist in the world outside of that pre-war building. The girl who had to get an STD test before starting work was just temporary. The girl who was told she’d be fired unless she fixed the cable was just temporary.
In a fit of temporary sweetness, Mrs. ____ asked me nicely to ride with her and the kids and some of her Page Six friends upstate for Thanksgiving. I said yes immediately because I needed $1,000 to spring my transcripts from Columbia and I figured it’d be fun — a free meal and sleeping in a mansion.
Eventually it was the actual “maid” who convinced me to get a damn grip. She warned me not to go. The advice was almost impossible to hear over the vrooming of Anka's vacuum. She underlined her intense Polish accent with each thrust of the Dyson. “Go with her (vroom) and you’ll be working (vrooom) the whole time (vroooom). No breaks. No fun for you. Don’t do it.”Anka, Nancy and the host of help gathered at my desk in the maid’s quarters at various points throughout the day to convince me that staying in Harlem and eating novice turkey with my roommates was better than spending Thanksgiving “with those people.”
It was then that I saw what Anka saw. She viewed Mrs. ____ through a veil of suspicion just as thick as the one through which Mrs. ___ viewed her. It didn’t matter who drew the line in the sand. Everyone was playing by the rules and staying on their own side.
That year I spent Thanksgiving in the Bronx with one of my best friends. I told Mrs. ____ at the last minute because I didn’t want to disappoint her or piss her off to the point of me not getting paid that week. I asked if I could show up early that morning to pick up my check (the check she owed me) before she left.
“You want me to do you a favor when you won’t do one for me?” She sounded genuinely appalled over the phone. I put on my “white people” voice — devoid of bass or sass — and asked again. “No,” was the short answer.
A week later, I got my check and never looked back. I never again had to see myself as “Helena Helena Helena,” which is why Cicely Tyson’s hunched shoulders in “The Help” freak me the hell out. She a reminder of the girl I’d rather stay invisible.