Poet Lisa Alvarado works through the experience of being a Gold Coast maid.
By Ben Joravsky
For the better part of six months, Lisa Alvarado joined the brigade of maids, nannies, and cooks who slip in to the Gold Coast each day to service the needs of the rich. But unlike other domestics, Alvarado came equipped with a pen.
The result is The Housekeeper's Diary, a self-published collection of biting, ironic poems about "one working-class girl's experiences" cleaning up after the rich. "I didn't take the job to write a book of poems--I took it 'cause I needed the money," says Alvarado. "But the things I experienced went too deep for me to ignore."
Until she got the cleaning gig, Alvarado says, she rarely ventured into the Gold Coast. She is, she says, the quintessential "starving artist," paying her bills with one or another low-wage factory or hospital job.
Back in the winter of 1998 she was broke, having blown most of her savings on a trip to Mexico. "I saw an ad in the Tribune--they were looking for a housekeeper," she recalls. "I figured, why not? There I was, a 41-year-old working-class Chicano with a high school education. It's not such a stretch to be a maid."
She answered the ad and found herself talking to a headhunter who, as Alvarado puts it, "does nothing but place domestic staff in the homes of wealthy people." After an interview with the headhunter, she was called downtown to meet the clients. "It was a husband and wife--he was an investor, she had her own career," says Alvarado, who pledges never to reveal the identity of her employers. "They asked me a lot of questions about honesty and punctuality. They wanted to know if I could care for nice art. How would I dust an oil painting? How would I polish lacquered furniture? I told them because I'm a perfectionist I would derive a certain amount of satisfaction from doing anything to the best of my ability. It's sort of a working-class zen thing--be in the moment of doing dishes. Afterwards the headhunter told me that I had done well but their first choice was a gay man. I guess if you have a certain amount of money and you want to be hip and chic you can bring a gay sensibility into your home."
A few days later the headhunter called to say the job was hers. "They probably couldn't find a gay man maid," says Alvarado. "So if you can't have a gay man you want a Chicano chick. Hey, I'm not complaining. The pay was good--about $30,000 a year--and I really needed the job.
"On my first day I met with the woman at their apartment. It was enormous, about 4,000 square feet. I tried not to gawk but I'd never seen anything like it. There were two dens--a big one and a little one--and a formal living room and a European-style kitchen with a state-of-the-art stove and refrigerator and a master bedroom with huge walk-in closets--he had his, she had hers.
"The wife and I sat at the breakfast table overlooking Lake Michigan and we had a little talk and I realized that she assumed I was going to start cleaning immediately. I wasn't really ready for it. I was wearing a cute little outfit (matching smock and leggings) and my best jewelry, such as it is. I thought this was just going to be sort of an introduction. But within 20 minutes I was making her bed and cleaning out her toilet and tub."
The work, she says, turned out to be hard and ceaseless--polishing, dusting, and vacuuming as well as washing, sorting, and folding. They gave her a credit card and told her to stock the place with groceries. Once a week she drove to the family's "country home" in a northern suburb and cleaned it too.
"The wife was particularly demanding," says Alvarado. "Clothes and towels had to be folded just right. The clothes in her walk-in closet had to be organized in a special way--black panties here, white ones there. Jeans and business suits and formal attire were kept in their separate sections."
Her hardest adjustment had to do with identity. "There's a whole protocol about these things, if you're the domestic help. I could talk to them, but only if they talked to me first. It wasn't my place to initiate a conversation. In other words, you're sort of invisible. You're there, but you're not there. It's odd, because in some ways you're as much of a nonentity as, say, the chair in the corner. Only you're not a chair. You can see and hear and think. And you have this quasi-intimacy with them. Because you are invisible they don't see you, even though you see them in the most bare sense."
In time she learned their politics ("liberal--they like Clinton"), passions ("art--their walls were lined with original 20th-century modern paintings"), and reading pleasures ("anything recommended by Oprah"). They had two children--a grown daughter who lived elsewhere and a college-age son.
She says the son was an amiable lug who "worshiped Michael Jordan, hip-hop, and Bob Marley," partied all night, slept past noon, and took lots of showers. "He was a nice enough guy but he was such a slob. He'd come home at break time with his friends and it was your worst teenage frat party nightmare with loads and loads and loads of laundry. I never saw a guy go through so many T-shirts. He put one on and then an hour or so later took it off and put on another. He never put his clothes away. He just discarded them and I would pick them up. His friends did the same thing. And showers? You never saw people take so many showers. They were the world's cleanest people. I laugh now, but at the time it was a major source of anxiety for me. I knew the mother would be upset if his room wasn't clean, so I had to time things just right. As soon as he woke up I'd slip into his room, scoop his clothes off the floor, make his bed, and get rid of all the beer bottles and the pot. Yeah, he smoked pot. He kept it in his desk drawer. I knew where it went. Putting away his pot was just part of my job."
She left the job in the summer of 1998, after a minor dispute. "It was a problem in communication," she says. "I had the only key to their country house and I accidentally locked out the husband. He was just livid. I tried to explain and he got into my face and said, 'You need to be quiet.' I knew it was over. I realized I had to get going. It wasn't just him yelling at me, it was a lot of things. I guess I wasn't great at being a maid. It's a hard job and I had ongoing gaffes. She found smudges. I could never get the borders of the towels lined up exactly the way she wanted. I let the wife know I wanted a new job. And about a week later she told me that would be my last day. I was cleaning out the kitchen cabinets when she broke the news. And you know something? I actually finished cleaning the cabinets before I left. I guess I was cowed by the experience of being there."
Eventually Alvarado found a job as an intake clerk at a hospital. She might not have given her housecleaning gig another thought, except it gnawed at her. "I was feeling a little depressed and I just thought about where I had been and what I had seen and I started writing."
The results are seven poems that deal with folding, washing, cooking, cleaning, and, more significantly, confronting the barriers between the servers and the served. "Hand Laundry," for instance, describes the awkwardness of a maid knowing the most intimate details of her boss's life. "She wears purple flowers / near her vulva," it begins. "She wears panties / as thin as a lie; / mesh / thong / crotchless. / I shouldn't know these things. / But I do. / I know when / someone made her wet. / I know her smell. / I know when blood comes; / staining like an inkblot, / or a trail marker..."
There's a poem about the son called, "Sons of the Very Rich."
"I see someone who is 19, white, Jewish, / who hangs posters of Wu-Tang Clan and Bob Marley. / This irritates me, / like the callouses I have on my hands / from scrubbing his toilet. / I want to ask him who he thinks will be overthrown / when the revolution comes." "One day," the poem concludes, "he'll be a good catch / for a daughter of the very rich / who will hire someone like me / to pick up after them both."
Alvarado says, "I'm sure my employers think they were very generous with me, paying me more than most people get for domestic work. They probably don't think they did anything wrong. And they really didn't. I mean, I was a cleaning lady. I did what all cleaning ladies do! I'm not ungrateful for that chance to support myself.
"But having said all that, there's an aspect of the work that's demeaning. It sort of sinks into your bones and you can't escape it. I think of all the other women of color, particularly all those African-American women who have been doing this for years. They raised and fed and clothed their kids with the money they earned cleaning up after the rich. They're all invisible. I like to think that this book's for them too."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.