I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this but I used to clean houses for a living. It was one of the many ways I made money in college besides bartending and waitressing. And I had interesting experiences and some lovely couples I had the pleasure of cleaning for.
While I was doing an internship at a local TV station (television and film major), I met a nice Producer named Peter. He was the one who told me the money to be made in the TV industry is in front of the camera. Right. And that, yes, they did need a cleaning person and luck had it, they lived directly up the street from my Mom’s house where I grew up.
In my Mom’s neighborhood, there are nearly 100-year-old town-home/row houses. And then there are larger older homes with lush plantings in varying bedroom numbers, all beautiful and a little pricey right to the North. Peter and his wife had a modest one of these. And when I entered the house for the walk through to set up expectations and price, it became immediately clear to me that she was American royalty.
Everywhere you looked, there were silver frames with Kennedy family pictures in them. Here she was with her grandmother Rose Kennedy and here, with all her cousins and her uncle President John F. Kennedy. It was kind of shocking in a way. And slightly so would be the way that “the help’ is treated when you have been raised with privilege.
I was the gal who cleaned your house every other Thursday. I brought my vacuum, I cleaned your toilet, and maybe changed your sheets if you asked. I had keys and would let myself in and tidied and took care of you. Money was left on the kitchen counter. And I was always treated generously at the Holidays.
At this house, I was asked to mop the wooden floors because the baby was crawling. She called him her little monster. That was not part of the price I quoted. And I wasn’t to make it too damp as it would ruin the floors. Ok. But in the kitchen, it was clear that one of my other expected duties was to hand wash the dishes. Including the assortment of baby feeding apparatus. Maybe it was never stated but I was never was expected to do the dishes anywhere mostly ever.
There was a definite line between us. An Us and Them thing going on. I had attended an expensive private school. My Dad still made pretty great money but here, I was the Help. And there are class distinctions as well as gender expectations too. I was extremely disappointed when they had a cocktail party, there was no way I was even considered for the bartender position. That was a gentleman’s job.
Because of my housecleaning experiences, I could relate to the movie The Help. Or relate as much as a white girl of a moment’s privilege can. It’s not what’s said, but how I got let go. One women knew for certain that I was supposed to move the furniture and clean it. Another old lady wanted the shelves cleaned with ivory soap flakes. Soapy. I got called back for unhappy customers and that is necessary customer relations. You are on your way out at that point. Because you just proved why this was an unaffordable luxury.
I never made enough money for what I did. But it was a job I could work into my class schedule. I learned a lot about responsibility and owning your oopsies. And I ended up being a more fastidious person in my life. But I’ll never forget that feeling like I was always going to disappoint for the things I wasn’t told to do. And that very specific feeling cleaning for the Kennedys in that house when I wasn’t part of the upper class. There is a distinction, you just may not ever have an opportunity to feel it.
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