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Maggie and me

Globe and Mail Update

Maggie is driving me crazy. We have three hours to clean a monster house north of Toronto. We spend 2½ hours on the kitchen because the client has requested a “deep clean.” So Maggie is scrubbing each greasy slat of an entire wall of California shutters — and wants me to clean everything else.

With 30 minutes left, the client returns. “It's okay to go over a little,” she says grudgingly. We speed-vacuum 4,000 square feet of hardwood and whip through the rest of the house. Thanks to Maggie, Maid-It-Up Maid's best cleaner, we do a spectacular job. (All names have been changed.)

But I feel lousy because I'm dehydrated. Maggie feels lousy because we've taken so long. She undercharges the client by 80 maid minutes.

“Keep the change,” the woman says. It amounts to a 10-cent tip each.

The client then leads us to an elderly relative's nearby condo. We're starving, so I insist on a five-minute lunch break. I split my ham sandwich with Maggie, who didn't have time to pack a lunch. We dine in the snow and haul our gear up to the condo.

We clean for nearly three hours, but Maggie charges for two. In a fair world, the client and her relative would say: Wait, we owe you more. But neither says a word. Instead, the elderly relative makes us mop her laminate floors all over again, this time with the grain so the streaks don't show.

As I drive us home to Scarborough, I'm mad. Maggie is silent. I tell her people are taking advantage of us. But I have a plan. Next week, she can remain in charge of quality control. I'll be in charge of time. Little do I know my perfect plan will undo us both.In the new movie Friends with Money, Jennifer Aniston plays a teacher who becomes a maid. It's laughably unrealistic. She borrows a client's battery-operated vibrator, steals a $75 jar of face cream and doesn't lock up when she leaves. The only toilet she scrubs is already clean. The real howler is she never looks tired.

But one angle is dead-on: her low self-esteem. She lets a client knock down her fee. When her date hits on someone else, she picks up the cheque. She later lets the jerk tag along on a clean and, when he asks for a cut, gives it to him.

I heard the audience groan in disbelief, but my fellow maids really are like that. Like Ms. Aniston's character, their self-esteem is in, well, the toilet. Perhaps because we deal with dirt, we're treated like dirt. Our 10-cent tip wasn't the lowest. That same woman once gave us a six-cent tip. A few give us $5, but three out of four don't give us a penny.

For this, we endure psychological warfare. Some clients get hysterical if they find a hair — their own hair, of course — in the sink. (Trust me, we cleaned it; the hairs materialize from nowhere.) One client left booby traps for us, hiding coins or fluff balls under the bed or sofa.

Like serfs, our time is presumed to cost zero. One maid told me that a client kept her waiting — unpaid — for half an hour outside a downtown townhouse. “We're all sleeping,” the woman snapped.

Some clients are nice. At the end of one horrific clean, the client brings us take-out chai lattes and cookies. A teacher on maternity leave makes us a tea. A few introduce themselves when we tell them our names. But in my month as a maid, only two clients protest when we drop our coats on their unswept floors.

“You don't have to put it there,” says one young man, opening the closet. While his wife makes dinner, he snuggles his infant daughter. “I'm making coffee,” he says. “Would you guys like some?”

Maggie automatically shakes her head. But it's 5 p.m. and our third clean of the day. “We would love some coffee,” I say firmly. I love this man. I love him because he loves his baby. I love him because he took our coats. I love him because he's giving us coffee.

I sit on the bottom stair, Maggie crouches on the ground. We gulp the coffee — Starbucks! — then we resume work on his North York townhouse. We really want to earn that java. Pumped on caffeine and love, we outdo ourselves. Maggie hums the Jolly Green Giant as she dusts the baseboards. In the living room, I pull books off the shelves, and dust behind. I lift sofa cushions and pick out orange seeds and cracker crumbs. His wife asks if I would mind ironing three of his shirts. Mind? Heck, I'd polish his shoes.A client once sniffed cigarette smoke on Maggie. She sent her away. Now, Maggie always spritzes herself with Febreze. Of all the maids at Maid-It-Up, she may be the most fragile. “Every week she comes to me crying and says she's not good enough,” Nariman, the owner, tells me.

Maggie does things I'd never do. When she washes her hands in a client's powder room, she dries her hands on her clothes. When she mops herself out the front door, she takes the dirty water with her, and pours it down the sewer.

The other maids tell me that they hate working with Maggie because she is incapable of leaving a house until it is perfect. Besides the extra-long workdays, they resent her mood swings. Some days, Maggie is sunny; other days, she's morose.

But I like working with Maggie — when I'm not trying to wring her neck. She's smart, selfless and considerate. She reminds me of the socialist labour heroines I once knew in Maoist China. She grabs the worst jobs for herself. She sings while she works. When I tell her my wrist is bothering me, she actually tries to carry everything — the mops, pails, rags, vacuum and cleansers. (As a former Maoist myself, I won't let her.)

When I'm still new on the job and break something, she phones the boss and assumes collective blame. When we celebrate a big tip by going out for a rare restaurant lunch, Maggie in turn tips the Chinese waitress 40 per cent. “She works hard,” she says.

Like most of the maids, Maggie is white. She grew up on a farm in Newfoundland, one of 13 children, finished high school and considered joining the army. Instead, she came to Toronto. Now 54, with three adult children, she has worked as a cleaner all her life. Her dream was to be a nurse. She would have made a fabulous one. She took a nurse's aide course, but her first husband wouldn't let her work. “It paid $20 an hour even then,” she tells me wistfully.

Maggie looks worn-out, but you can tell she was once a beauty, voluptuous, with auburn hair and long eyelashes. While she's having a cigarette, I tell her she walks with a bounce in her step. She confesses that her husband always criticizes her. “He doesn't like the way I walk, the way I look, the way I dress.” She exhales a cloud of smoke, and adds lightly, “I say I'm perfect at doing things perfectly, and I'm perfect at doing things wrong, so I'm absolutely perfect.”

She's talking about her current partner. Her first husband is dead. When she ran away, he put out a missing-persons alert. “I need to go to his gravestone to talk to him,” she says. To give it a few kicks? “No, just talk to him,” she says. “I won't talk about it any more because it ruins my day.”

I begin to sense why Maggie is afraid to leave a house less than perfect, to ask clients to pay for extra time. It's no coincidence that only women work for companies with the word “maid” in their names. These same companies promise clients the moon, and people like Maggie destroy themselves trying to meet expectations.Without understanding any of this, I become the Clock Nazi. I give Maggie a 30-minute heads-up. Then I hustle her out the door. We stop being late for every clean. When one client asks if I'm Maggie's “boss,” I laugh.

In the rush, she forgets her scrub brush, rug attachment, company-issued cellphone. She hates that. She especially hates it when I talk bluntly to clients about time, money and exactly which of the 795 items on their wish list is a priority. “Stop, stop,” she scolds me. As team leader, she's in charge of the money.

But clients can't have the moon. One left this list for two maids for a two-hour bimonthly clean: fold, wash and dry two loads of laundry, including all bedding, towels, floor mat and kitchen linens; vacuum and scrub upstairs and main floors, including rear and front stairwell; wash both bathrooms; wash kitchen counters, cupboard doors, beneath stove and fridge; dust entire house, including outside fish tank, inside TV unit, light fixtures; wash sliding doors; sweep dusty corners in baby's room, behind dressers and under bed storage. “Every other visit: dust all baseboards, or clean the basement. Extra time? Clean window sills, clean blinds, wash top of kitchen cupboards, clean inside the fridge. THANKS!!!!”

Nariman approves of my time management because if we don't charge, then the company doesn't get paid. When we work extra time for nothing, it's really Maid-It-Up who suffers. We are on salary. Even so, it still feels unspeakably demeaning to know your labour is valued at zilch.

He has figured out I'm Don't-Push-Me-Around Wong. “That's one of the reasons I'm putting you with her,” he says. “Maggie is easily our most valuable cleaner, but she doesn't know when to stop. She has no confidence. The client always asks her to stay another half-hour. And she does. She's hesitant to ask the client for money.”

He also tells me that Maggie cares about status. She resented it when the client asked if I was her boss. She cares whose name is listed first on the work order. After that, I make a point of telling clients that Maggie is the team leader. I mention that she's the company's best maid. She blushes, but starts to sing again. The good feelings don't last. Maggie fires me. Well, not exactly. She suggests that I tell Nariman I don't want to work with her any more. I understand, and our boss does too. Maggie needs a break from the Clock Nazi. So for a few days, I work with other maids, the boss's daughter who has a university degree and is learning the business, a young woman who wanted to be a cop but now dreams of her own interior-decorating firm.

But one day, several maids fail to show up, and I'm thrown back with Maggie. We head to a suburban townhouse where the absentee owner has asked us to wash the sheets, but has left the machine full of dirty clothes. Meanwhile, Maggie obsesses over tiles in the master bath. Our schedule is disintegrating.

Then, disaster strikes. The Dirt Devil shorts out, leaving a black smear over the outlet. When we report the problem, the office manager asks, “Do you have a credit card?” I do, and I'm happy to shop for a vacuum.

Maggie wants me to fold the laundry first. I tell her that we're out of time, and stomp off to the car. She stays behind to fold it alone. I pore over my map book, trying to find the nearest Wal-Mart. By the time she gets in the car, we're due at our next clean, a nearby condo. We get lost, and end up at the Ford auto plant in Oakville.

The good news is the job is a move-in, which means we can probably eat indoors. The bad news is the job is a move-in, which means there's no toilet paper in the bathroom. The client, who is moving in later that week, wants the kitchen and bathroom cleaned. Before she leaves, she rattles off her entire wish list: walls, windows, Venetian blinds, baseboards, light fixtures.

I take the filthy kitchen. Maggie takes the equally filthy bathroom, but gets distracted by the windows and Venetian blinds. I mutter that the client will be very unhappy if the bathroom isn't done. Maggie retorts that she finishes what she starts.

I spray the cupboards with Fantastik with Bleach. I scrub until my wrist tingles and my neck aches. I'm sweating, even though it's -15 out and we've opened the windows. I count how many times I scrub one small orange spot: 53. I gouge out the dirt in the moulding with a broken screwdriver. At one point, I lean on the counter, dizzy, afraid I'm going to pass out. Maggie is having a terrible time in the bathroom too.

Were this my real life, I couldn't stand it. This is Maggie's real life, and she can't stand it. “I quit,” she says suddenly. “I mean it. I quit right now.” She is near tears. I can't think straight. Should I hug her? Drive her back to Scarborough? Or finish gouging dirt?

She pulls on her puffy jacket, yanks open the sliding glass doors and walks out onto the balcony. Breaking a major maid rule, she has a smoke. When she comes back in, she's no longer speaking to me. In silence, she takes the stove apart. She soaks the burners. She washes the fridge. I keep gouging dirt.

After three hours, the client comes back to check on us. In a dead voice, Maggie asks, “Do we get a break?” Of course, the woman says cheerily. We keep working. The client wants the kitchen finished. I figure we need another hour comfortably, but if we kill ourselves, at least another half-hour. The client agrees to pay for 15 extra minutes.

Of course, we work until it's done. Now I'm near tears. On the drive home, I tell Maggie through clenched teeth that she just gave away another maid hour for free. She looks stunned.

I realize I can't blame her. She has more grit, integrity and professionalism than the people she cleans for. She doesn't belong in a system where a person's worth is measured by minimum wage. I'm not sure she's actually quitting, but I don't ask. I only know that we are both defeated.

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