By Ann Robinson
In the late 1970s, I started cleaning houses to support my writing habit. Some of my friends had turned to housekeeping because it paid well–in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, there are a lot of wealthy families.
I had no idea where to begin, but my clients would tell me what to do and how to do it. I would dust and dust and dust and was fascinated by shiny glass objects. Next, I became obsessed with furniture polish. Most of these houses had antiques and some were quite beautiful.
The places I worked were elegant, but I never felt envy — not even when I house sat for these people who had a tennis court and a swimming pool and a huge backyard. There were glass doors overlooking a grove of trees and that gave you a feeling of being in a forest. They had a parrot who would open his cage door and fly around. He’d land on the couch and sit right next to me and talk up a storm. This place was so delightful, I would dance through the main rooms. But when the couple returned from all their travels, I was glad to leave.
In the beginning, the slowness of the work appealed to me and, after a year, I was quite good at cleaning. I didn’t keep up my own apartment. I just projected this fantasy of a pristine, lovely place onto other people’s homes.
At first, I was surprised by how kind my clients were. Then I started cleaning houses for some people who weren’t that rich. Because of their money constraints, they were less generous both in personality and in pocketbook. Their houses were messier; their toilets were dirtier, and they were a lot less happy with life in general.
Some people feel if you clean out their crap you’re somehow below them. That attitude became more and more prevalent with the tech boom and the rising affluence. Folks were less kind, less sensitive to the people that they hired. And it was kind of like saying, “You’re cleaning our dirt, so you’re dirt.”
I ran into some tough situations with clients who expected me to go beyond the call of duty. This family in Sausalito had a wonderful little collie with a long bushy tail that would follow me around. When I was down on my hands and knees cleaning the coffee table, I tipped over a glass vase they’d brought back from Venice. It held their stash of marijuana. The weed scattered all over the floor and the dog started eating it — at just that moment, the owners walked in and their eyes popped.
The dog wasn’t too sure on his paws. He was kind of listing to the side and ran smack into another table, so they rushed him to the vet. The whole thing was an accident but my clients expected me to pay the vet and replace the vase. I contacted the glass factory and bought them a vase that was actually prettier, but the vet bill was beyond my budget, and of course, the dog was fine by the next day.
Once a woman asked me to clean the shelves in her little walk-in closet. Her vibrator popped down, hit the floor and cracked, and, of course, she blamed me for it. Then there was the therapist who left a Tampax in her sheets. When I told her I preferred not to deal with this mess, she fired me.
At another house, I had to get on my hands and knees and use a tooth brush to clean the hard stone floors. My doctor finally said, “Ann, you have housemaid’s knees. You can’t do this work — you’re getting older.” I was in my early thirties.
For ten years, I left my own house in a state of disarray and spent the day making somebody else’s place look beautiful. In the beginning, I found this very satisfying. I thought, “I’ve finally done something good. I’ve made someone happy.”
But when I got home, I would look at my place and say, “Oh Lord!” then just sit in the car or go to a movie. My house was still a wreck and I had no excuse.
When I was growing up, my mother had the maid make up the beds so I didn’t learn to do housework until I was in my 20s. Ironing, however, was the one thing my mother let me do because neither she nor the people she hired wanted to tackle it. Yet she was so critical. Everything I pressed had to be perfect.
As my mother got older and her body fell apart, her house fell apart, too. My dad was a total slob like me.
Today I live in a house that fits my personality. It’s small with a lot of windows and I love to look out at my backyard at the bird feeders and the flowers. I have some of my parents’ furniture to remind me of my childhood. And I’ve got a couch that I like to stretch out on and watch TV. After all these years, I feel like this place suits me. I’ve got my library, and a few volumes of poetry on my desk. I look for images I like then use them as a springboard for my imagination. I’ve only written one poem about a house, and it was very dark. Home is not a place I like exploring in my work.
Sometimes I feel like I’m not a part of my house at all, that I would just like to walk away from it and live in a tent. When I’m birding in the marshes, I see a lot of people living in campers and wonder what it would be like to buy an RV and just tour the whole United States. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately — what it would be like not to be tied down, to have no roots.
For me, this would be a lifestyle choice. Others aren’t so fortunate. Recently The New York Times reported on the housing crisis in California. It’s so expensive to live in here now that many people are camping out in their cars. So many folks who had good 9 to 5 jobs just can’t afford to pay these crazy rents.
I know one woman with two jobs who parks, each night, at the local Catholic Church. They have a guard to keep watch on the cars so that people can go into the church to use the bathrooms, take a shower, and not have to worry about anyone stealing their things. In the same county, we have houses of the very wealthy with their perfect shining windows and not a trace of dust—homes so perfect they look like no one ever lives in them. What does this say about the soul of America today?
Ann Robinson writes poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in Connecticut Review, Poet Lore, Spoon River Review, Interim, and American Literary Review. She lives in Marin County and half the year she helps to run the family farm in Arkansas.