A Season of Housekeeping in Ohio

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 also learned you shouldn’t steal off those carts in the hallways. I see this happen in movies sometimes and it still bugs me.

I didn’t go back to housekeeping again until 2007, the summer before my final semester of college. By then 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 a few bright spots in my life. The second hotel I worked at was a tier above the first, so I made better tips. They also served a better hot, continental breakfast that we got to eat for free, after the guests had their fill. But the best part was that I got to spend the summer working with my best friend.

Brittany and I have been friends since we were six, when we met in the first grade. She knows all of my secrets but never lords them over me. That summer we were 20 and both going to school. On my recommendation, she got hired 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 10 rooms to clean. Together, Brittany and I would tag team 16–20. We’d usually alternate room by room, taking turns doing bedrooms and bathrooms. Stripping beds where strangers slept is almost as gross as scrubbing a toilet, so no one wants to get stuck doing either one for long. We split the tips in each room — which were usually between $1 and $5, if anything was left at all. Only about half of the guests tipped, and I’ve since realized a lot of people are unaware housekeepers get tips.

The other housekeepers we worked with were baffled by the fact we wanted to work together, but we knew we had a sweet deal.

“Don’t you ever wonder if she’s picking up tips you’re not seeing?” they asked us, sometimes.

We never were. You don’t go through high school with one of you cleaning up the other’s puke at a party where you weren’t supposed to be without bonding for life.

Britt kept me from thinking too much about my mom.

At age 53, my mother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The diagnosis was 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 we 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 out to Brittany, in a blind panic, “I think I have back cancer.” She didn’t laugh, but she did calmly tell me she was pretty sure that 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 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. I never knew a housekeeper who stole, nor was I ever tempted. But then again, I was a privileged white kid working there between years at college.

Second, take pride in your work. I was once told that everyone wants to stay at a hotel and feel as if they are the first person to ever 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 other people’s crap and we didn’t need any more of it piled on.

The questions I’d get 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 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 imagine he looked like Santa Claus.

We took turns driving to the hotel, making that job the only one for which I 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 days to make it worth saving gas. It was a 35-mile commute round trip, which was normal for most people who lived in our town. There weren’t a lot of job opportunities 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 the sentence, “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.

“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-sized snow-white comforter.

“I don’t know,” I said, thinking for a second. It was hard to imagine new life in my family in 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 actively started 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 don’t smoke!” while I stood next to them, smoking. In return, Brittany and I listened to women a decade or more older than us talked 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 them.

You could leave early if you finished your rooms in enough time, but it also meant you didn’t get paid for that time lost. 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 30 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 college started again — it was my last semester — but my boss convinced me to stay on for weekends. Since all the housekeepers were on duty for weekends unless they requested them off, I knew I’d get to work with Britt. 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 for 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 watching 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. I don’t know to this day if she was feeling severely understaffed or if she liked me that much. It doesn’t really matter, but at the time it felt like 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 is done putting herself through two associates degrees, a bachelor’s, and a CPA. She works at a bank and has been married to her husband since 2006. They 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 have found ourselves in very different places as we enter our respective 30th years (and our joint 24th 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.

Meryl Williams is a Chicago journalist who recently moved to Portland. She loves roller derby, upbeat music with depressing lyrics, and shamelessly ordering the Kids Pack-size popcorn at the movies. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter.

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