Housekeeping

In the face of loss, cleaning hotel rooms and a lifelong friend offer solace.

Sarah Hayes

The summer after my freshman year of college, I got a job as a hotel maid in a neighboring town in southeastern Ohio. I learned early on that the preferred industry term is “housekeeper,” and I also learned that while housekeepers make minimum wage, they sometimes get tips. I saved up all of my tips that summer and used them to buy an iPod. It was 2005, and I was tired of listening to library books on cassette tape while I cleaned rooms.
     After that summer, I told everyone who would listen that they should always tip their housekeeper, because cleaning is backbreaking work. I didn't go back to housekeeping again until 2007, the summer before my final semester of college. It was only two years later, but almost everything was different. Instead of starting my college career, I was nearing the end of it. I was about to graduate without a plan, and my mom was dying.
     There were some silver linings: the second hotel I worked at was a tier above the first, so I made better tips. It also served a better hot continental breakfast that we got to eat for free, after the guests had had their fill. But by far, the best part was that I got to spend the summer working with my best friend.

Brittany and I had been friends since we were six, when we met in the first grade. She knew all of my secrets but never lorded them over me. The summer we worked together, we were both twenty and going to school. On my recommendation, she got hired as a housekeeper shortly after I did. Our manager liked us and even let us team up.
     On a slow day, each housekeeper would be given eight to ten rooms to clean; together, Brittany and I would clean sixteen to twenty. We usually took turns doing bedrooms and bathrooms, alternating room by room. Stripping beds where strangers have slept is almost as gross as scrubbing a toilet, so no one wants to get stuck doing either for long. We split the tips in each room, which were usually between $1 and $5, if anything at all. Only about half of the guests tipped, and I've since realized a lot of people are unaware that housekeepers get tips.
     The other housekeepers were baffled by the fact that we wanted to work together. “Don't you ever wonder if she's picking up tips you're not seeing?” they sometimes asked one or the other of us.
     We never did wonder. You don't go through high school cleaning up each other's puke at parties you weren't supposed to be at without bonding for life.

Britt kept me from thinking too much about my mom.
     At fifty-three, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The diagnosis came in February. When I started at the hotel that summer, we still thought it was possible that she might get better. By the time I quit, she was almost gone.
     Brittany got me through the summer, and, in some ways, so did that job. It was the first work environment I genuinely enjoyed. I liked our boss and I got along with everyone I worked with.
     I had a swollen shoulder at some point, probably from all the heavy lifting we did. I spent weeks inside my own head, convincing myself it was cancer. I finally blurted it out to Brittany in a blind panic. “I think I have back cancer,” I said. She didn't laugh, but she did calmly tell me she was pretty sure back cancer wasn't a real thing.

We liked housekeeping. It usually wasn't hard work, and we got to talk to each other all day. To me it was an odd relief to be able to share such a specific, small work experience or complaint with her and know that she would know exactly what I was talking about.
     The principles of being a good housekeeper are simple. First off, don't steal. Whatever you covet will never be worth it.
     Second, take pride in your work. I was once told that everyone wants to stay at a hotel and feel as if they were the first person ever to stay in that room. Nobody wants to think about previous guests, just like nobody wants to think about their significant other's exes.
     Third, be kind to each other. We were all cleaning up other people's crap, and we didn't need any more of it piled on.
     The questions I got about this job were always the same: Do the blankets really get washed every day? Yes. Do you get to keep what you find in the rooms after people check out? It depends. At our hotel, we brought stuff to lost and found. If it went unclaimed after a certain amount of time, sometimes we had the opportunity to keep it. Were the guests assholes? We rarely interacted with them, to everyone's relief. Cleaning up after someone is a lot easier when you never see them. There were few things worse than cleaning a particularly nasty shower drain and then seeing the culprit walk in, having forgotten his wallet.
     We got to know a few of the regular guests—or, at least, their rooms. We liked the doctor. He was a visiting physician who stayed Monday through Friday in the hotel's rural town. We never saw him, so we didn't mind cleaning his shower, and he left big tips every Friday. I imagined he looked like Santa Claus.

We took turns driving to the hotel, making that job the only one for which I've ever had a regular carpool schedule. Brittany and I didn't always work the same five days each week, but all the housekeepers had to work weekends. We worked together enough of the time to make it worth saving gas. The commute was thirty-five miles round trip, which was normal for most people who lived in our town. There weren't a lot of job opportunities in the town where we lived, but two similarly sized cities north and south of us gave those with reliable cars an edge.
     One afternoon that summer a group of us were in the break room talking about car troubles. At some point I said out loud, “I've never locked my keys in my car.” When Brittany and I left to leave after our shift was over, we were locked out of my family's station wagon.
     She just laughed and laughed, while I called my brother to see if he was in the area with the spare set of keys.

 

It was hard to imagine a new life in my family at a time when we were all so acutely focused on the life we were about to lose.

“Do you think your brother and sister-in-law will have a baby?” Brittany asked me one day as we piled a fresh duvet cover onto a king-size snow-white comforter.
     “I don't know,” I said, thinking for a second. It was hard to imagine a new life in my family at a time when we were all so acutely focused on the life we were about to lose.
     Brittany looked at me in a way that let me know she knew exactly what I was thinking.
     “Let's take a coffee break,” she said, just as content to change the subject as she was to let me talk.

 

I did not save my tips that summer. Instead, I spent more than I made. I had a credit card for the first time, and found that what I cheerfully called “retail therapy” made me feel temporarily less bleak. I'd like to say I learned the error of my ways that summer, but it took a couple more years and a couple grand in senseless debt before I started actively paying attention to my finances. In fact, it was Brittany who taught me how to balance a checkbook that summer.
     We spent money on cigarettes. We all did; almost every housekeeper smoked. We took smoke breaks when we got tired of cleaning after a few hours. We took smoke breaks when the hotel was slow but we needed to wait out the clock. We took smoke breaks because we liked taking a few minutes to talk to someone else for a while. Not everyone had a Brittany.
     The other housekeepers were happy to let us join them on breaks, teasing me for claiming I didn't smoke while I stood next to them smoking. In return, Brittany and I listened to women a decade older than us or more talk about deadbeat dads and delinquent child support. We cheered on new boyfriends and cursed their names if things went south. We wanted good things for each other.
     We could leave early if we finished our rooms, but that meant we didn't get paid for that time. On Saturdays in the summer we were all in a rush to get out to be with friends and family, but those were also our busiest days.
     Our time was measured, documented. We clocked in, we clocked out. We took thirty minutes for lunch, sitting in a break room with a microwave and a TV showing country music videos.
     Taylor Swift was still country then.

I was planning to quit the job when my last semester of college started, but my boss convinced me to stay and work weekends. Since all the housekeepers were on duty for weekends unless they requested them off, I knew I'd get to work with Britt. So I agreed, to my parents' dismay. They wanted me to focus on school, but also on not being unreasonably stressed out, considering what was going on with our family. I still saw the hotel as a big distraction from what was going on at home. But I couldn't ignore it forever.
     One Saturday that fall, my dad was called away on business. My brother was working, our hospice care worker wasn't scheduled for another few hours, and no one was around to stay with my mom. My dad never explicitly asked me to call in sick, but he was in a bind. He stood and watched me as I called the hotel. With my throat closing, I unexpectedly heard myself quit—something I'd never done before, on the spot or over the phone. I was sick to my stomach, leaving a job without giving notice, but everyone could see my mom was getting worse. I knew this was not the last time my family was going to need me.
     My dad looked at me with such gratitude, and I saw in that moment how much had been taken out of him in the last several months.

A few days later, my boss called. She said she knew about my mom and knew why I'd quit, and she asked if we could forget it had happened. I knew I couldn't. I agreed to work a handful more days, but gave her a set quit date. To this day, I don't know if the hotel was severely understaffed or if she liked me that much. It doesn't really matter, but at the time it felt like a kindness.
     She and the rest of the girls signed a card for me when my mom died, three weeks before I graduated that December.

Now, eight years later, Brittany has earned two associate's degrees, a bachelor's, and a CPA license. She works at a bank and has been married since 2006. She and her husband have a daughter who attends the grade school we both attended. I remain in awe of her ability to tackle full-time school, work, marriage, and motherhood simultaneously.
     I took a different path. After I got my journalism degree, I moved to Columbus to work at a newspaper. A few years later I moved to Chicago to write, and I recently moved to Portland, where I work in marketing. We've found ourselves in very different places as we enter our respective thirtieth years (and our twenty-fourth year of friendship), but I think about our summer working together a lot. I love what I do, but no job will ever be like that.
     I won't likely clean up after travelers again, but I also won't know the thrill of walking into a room and scanning it, looking for and finding a crisp bill. I won't get to take a few minutes to sit and notice how toned my arms have gotten from heavy lifting. And I won't get to hang out with my best friend on a slow Tuesday afternoon, catching up on each other's week over the smell of clean laundry.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Thank you for this. Part of what I liked about this article was the positive tone. I had many, many low-paid, hard-working jobs in my younger years. I began teaching in a private design college when I was 50–what a relief. Faculty there often told students (who were often the first in their families to try for a college degree) that they could get through the requirements with the help of one trusted friend. I think this article asserts a similar sense of it–trusted companionship helps in innumerable ways.

Terry McClain | September 2017 | Oregon

I really enjoyed this on so many levels. I liked the friendship and how the women shared their tasks. I liked the smoking denial. I liked how the boss wanted her back. Although I like to think I have empathy for workers, and certainly I've put in my time cleaning and caring for others in various jobs, it was good to be reminded to leave a tip for housekeepers in hotels. I'd lost track of that somehow.

K.C. Pedersen | May 2016 | Washington State

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