Maid in America

May 26, 2011

The incident with Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the housekeeper at the Sofitel in New York City has the media suddenly focused on the risk involved in cleaning hotel rooms. Some pundits have expressed skepticism that such incidents are common.

I worked as a maid (that’s what they called us then) in a motel near two major highways in a suburb of Cleveland during the summer before I went to college. I got the job because a classmate was working as the day-shift desk clerk and recommended me. It beat eight-hour days babysitting for twin boys, which was my planned summer job. Two days of that and I was ready to clean motel rooms!

There was nothing upscale about the old, family-owned motel. It was on two levels built around the parking lot, and the décor was worn out Jetsons.  Contracts with trucking companies for driver layovers were our bread and butter. Other guests tended to be those seeking a convenient, inexpensive place for long stays, temporary residence, trysts, honeymoons, family trips, etc.
 
There is nothing sexy about being a maid. The work is physically demanding. Cleaning more than a dozen dirty bathrooms, making at least that many beds, schlepping dirty towels and sheets to the laundry room, pushing around  a bulky vacuum cleaner and trying to maneuver a heavy cleaning cart does make you want to fall into bed, I’ll admit — but from exhaustion! Being in a hotel or motel for this purpose is not an aphrodisiac.
 
Like the Sofitel housekeeper, I unwittingly walked in on a man who burst from the bathroom in a state of undress. He was a young businessman on an extended stay while taking a course of some kind, and we had chatted now and then. I could not have looked terribly attractive, wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and T-shirt with my hair up in a scarf. That did not seem to dampen his ardor. I backed toward the open — always open — door while making small talk and used my bucket of water strategically as I dashed outside. After that, my boyfriend rode shotgun on my cart whenever he could. When alone, I would not go into a room unless I was sure it was empty. My friend on the desk helped me with that. There was no way I was going to tell the boss, much less the police. It was my word vs. that of a long-term paying guest. I would have been fired. Had I told my parents, they would have made me quit even though I needed the money for college.
 
I cleaned the room of some other long-term guests who turned out to be criminals. The woman was quite chatty and would help me make the bed while we talked about local places where she could shop or pass the time. They bolted without paying their bill — something I predicted based on the woman’s behavior when I cleaned the room that day — and were killed in the commission of a robbery. I'd been the last person to talk with them and got a call from the authorities. It was decades ago, but if I recall correctly they tried to rob a post office and it was the FBI that called.

The biggest threat at our motel did not come from guests, however. It came from the night desk clerk, who drank on the job. He'd prop open the curtains on certain ground-floor rooms (e.g., the waterbed room) so he could spy on guests. And he began to sexually harass one of the maids — an attractive young Asian woman. One of the truck drivers who were regular guests saw what was going on and began riding shotgun on her cart instead of sleeping. 
 
After my freshman year in college, I was promoted to day-shift desk clerk. One Sunday morning, a maid — a middle-aged widow — came screaming out of a room she had gone in to clean. She called me and I walked over to the room to discover that someone had performed an abortion in the bathroom. I'd sold that room the afternoon before to a very young man who paid the entire bill with Indian-head dimes and buffalo nickels. The boss could not have cared less. Our orders were to clean the room and forget about it. No-tell motel indeed! I hope the girl didn’t bleed to death.
 
There were plenty more stories: The mistress who, between visits from her lover, would drink too much, walk around the grounds in a robe and pass out in the parking lot. The young man who brought a different older woman there most Saturdays and trashed the room each time. The time one of my neighbors checked in with a woman who wasn't his wife. There were positive experiences, too: Getting to know the truck drivers and hearing their stories about life on the road. The driver who always brought me ice cream and my favorite sandwich after playing a round of golf with the night desk clerk. 
 
My summers at the motel gave me plenty of material for my creative writing classes in college — and a healthy respect for what it means to be a maid/housekeeper. To this day, I am a generous tipper when I stay in a hotel. Reading about the Sofitel incident took me back to my own bad moment, and my heart instantly went out to that poor woman. I had been fortunate and made a clean escape. Consensual? Yeah, sure! The paying guest isn’t always right.
 

Posted by: 
Catherine L. Carlozzi
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Comments

Submitted by Leila Zogby (not verified) on

This powerful posting reminds us that despite the many advances women have made in the past 40 years, sexism is not eradicated. Each woman must assume responsibility for raising awareness of the issue. Those of us in the communications field, particularly those in decision-making positions, need to constantly question whether we are promoting female stereotypes and do our very best to educate people about how to improve the treatment of women in the workplace and in society. We've work to do, ladies.

Submitted by deirdre (not verified) on

 This great piece creates a whole context for the DSK story. We can imagine the woman's working life, even though the environment is more posh. Another good piece about the DSK story points out that she was one of the rare maids who is unionized, and that gave her the ability to complain to her bosses and the police, unlike Catherine. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/may/24/dominique...)
 
Thanks for writing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Thank you for supporting what we know is the "truth" about how people are "mistreated" in these types of jobs. Very sad to know that just trying to eek out a living (legally, in a business establishment) could put your life at risk.
Debbie Kunen

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