Scrubbing in Maine

Barbara decides to continue her experiment in Maine because of its “whiteness.” She arrives on the bus in Portland with $1000 and some small bills stuffed in her pockets. While she is looking for housing, she decides to stay at the Motel 6 where she will have to rely on teenagers to field phone calls from prospective employers. In Maine, there is such a high demand for low wageworkers that there are job fairs where the job seeker can virtually pick and choose from any of several companies.


Needless to say, Barbara is a little anxious about her situation. She has no permanent residence, which she needs if she wants to get a job, but she also needs a job to get a permanent residence. The economics of the situation become very clear. Wages, although the demand for workers is high, are simply not going to go up, so the market place works in reverse and puts the onus on job seeker to take as may jobs as he or she can handle. To pay her rent at the Blue Haven of $120 per week, the author realizes she will need at least two jobs.

Barbara accepts the first two jobs she is offered. She accepts a job as a dietary aide in a nursing home for $7 per hour, and she is hired as a cleaner for an organization called The Maids for $200 to $250 per week. In the interview at The Maids, Tammy, the office manager, discourages Barbara from calculating the dollar per hour figure because she says, “We don’t calculate that way.” Low wageworkers are discouraged from doing mathematics so “the wool” can be more firmly pulled over their eyes.

As low paying jobs go, the work at the nursing home is tolerable. Barbara’s training at Jerry’s makes the slower pace a snap. At the nursing home, she takes excellent care of the residents because her father was an Alzheimer’s patient and she remembers how poor his treatment was at the end of his life. Barbara takes the job in stride, from doing the dishes at the end of each meal to digging out crushed muffins from the carpet with her fingernails. One of the residents even throws milk at her.

At the nursing home, there is only one bad day where everything went wrong. The only other dietary aide is out sick, none of the cooks are anywhere to be found, the dishwasher in the upstairs dining room is broken, and the key is missing for the Alzheimer’s dining room. Between setting up all the trays, which is the cook’s job, and running dishes downstairs, Barbara is a hair’s breadth from being completely overwhelmed. Her day is so bad that she thinks Pete, the cook, set her up because she stopped having cigarette breaks with him.

Barbara’s second job with The Maids starts out quietly, but the combination of the servility of the job, the privileges of those she cleans for, and a “pimp-like” male boss bring out frustrations in the author we have not seen before. There is also the objectionable nature of the cosmetic focus of the cleaning work the company imposes. Soap and hot water are not important when cleaning the kitchen; what is important is that the sink is polished with baby-oil. Never mind that the bathroom floor is merely wiped clean so long as the carpet has a fern-like pattern after vacuuming. Barbara describes the message in the training videos at the maids:

But germs are never mentioned in the videos provided by The Maids. Our antagonists live entirely in the visible world---soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains, and smears---and are to be attacked by a damp rag or, in hard core cases, by a Dobie (the brand of plastic scouring pad we use). We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe (75).

At The Maids, the day begins at 7:30 a.m., but the workers don’t start getting paid until 8:00 a.m. To make up for the lost wages for the first half-hour, there is a free breakfast of coffee, doughnuts, and bagels. All the employees are given green and yellow outfits and are driven to work in green and yellow cars. There is a specified time to complete to complete each job so the cleaning crew runs to and from their cars.

There are two bad jobs for a cleaner: one is cleaning the kitchen floor, which must be scrubbed on hands and knees, and the other is vacuuming, which is done with a vacuum strapped to one’s back. Two of the women on the cleaning teams are exempt from vacuuming because of back problems, so no one wants to get assigned to their teams. Ted, the boss of the firm, looks down on those with infirmities that prevent them from doing certain jobs and he will deny them any appreciation for the hard work they do. Ted has a certain emotional power over the women who work for him. He can hurt their feelings, or he can make them feel special.

As Barbara’s experience at The Maids continues, she starts to look closely at the contents of the homes she cleans. This is the social class, at least monetarily, where she comes from, and she judges these families harshly on the literary level of the books they keep. She is particularly horrified when she notices antique books that are bought in bulk for decoration. Barbara thinks that anyone who buys a book without any intention of reading it is terribly shallow. In many ways, the author, although part of this class, does not want to be identified with it. The author comes from a world of people who feel a tremendous amount of shame and guilt for hiring someone to clean their house, and the author is proud that she cleans her own house.

A subtle combination of events begins to make the author unravel. She is nose to nose with her own class---she scrubs their floors. She works among a group of women who could be she if her father was not socially mobile, and she works for a man who can twist the emotions of “his girls.” Ted, the boss, is very effective at making all his employees feel personally responsible when the company loses a client. As he always reminds the crew at the morning meetings, "It means something" when someone doesn’t ask them back.

It is a combination of male domination, the effrontery of the shallowness of the people whose homes she cleans, and the suffering of women who she is only a generation removed from that taps into an anger that we have not previously seen in the author. The trigger is Holly on two counts. Holly is the team leader Barbara begins to work with steadily. She is very slight, pale, and undernourished looking. On one occasion she has morning sickness and the author and the other members of the team try to talk her out of vacuuming, but Holly will have none of it. Barbara really gets angry on Holly’s account when she can’t walk because she has twisted her ankle leaving a job. A sprain can be worse than a break, but Ted won’t let Barbara take her to an emergency room. The worst of it is how complete Holly’s brainwashing is because she continues to work and follows Ted’s cure for all human pain: ``To work through it.”