In February 2006, finding myself short of money, a girlfriend, a job, or any prospects whatsoever, I made the only logical decision – I went travelling. (Three years later, I did so in rather more exalted circumstances, a wife on one arm, and…well the other arm just kind of dangling by my side really.)
After a strange, convoluted and quite whimsical chain of events, I eventually found myself at a religious seminary in Jerusalem immersing myself eight hours a day in the Talmud – the near inscrutable, brain-meltingly dialectical, almost endless discourse on Jewish Law – and generally living a life of what some might term piety.
As pious as I was though, I did have needs, and it wasn’t long before I felt a chasm in my heart – a deep, spiritual thirst for something that was sorely lacking. I recognised what it was immediately.
The thirst grew until one day, foaming at the mouth and mad with delirium, I emerged with a clear, horrific realisation. I would need to find a job. And so, pulling a flyer from a neighbourhood lamppost, I landed the coveted position of head staircase cleaner in a squalid block of flats in downtown Jerusalem.
My first day of work dawned, and I approached the apartment building guardedly. It certainly looked filthy enough on the outside. My hesitancy quickly melted away though, as I was suddenly overwhelmed by an ecstatic vision – an angelic being had come to meet me at the entrance, beams of sunlight bouncing off the top of its head, its face bathed in an incandescent white haze. I soon learned that this was the building’s caretaker, and that the angelic glow was simply the result of an inexplicable morning routine which involved him dousing his entire head from the neck up in Vaseline.
He put out a withered, weathered mitt. I studied his face closely, noticing a piece of spinach that had been lodged in my teeth since breakfast. A cockroach scuttled across the tiles and proceeded to make furious love to his wife in a corner of the room.
“You see deees?” the caretaker said, indicating the expanse of the floor space and adjoining staircase with a sweeping gesture. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to append his sentence with, “one day, this will all be yours” and I was right. “Deees should have no spots by 5 o’ clock,” he concluded, and turned to ascend the far-from-heavenly stairway from which he’d appeared.
I got to work, and soon found my philosophy, politics and economics degree proving to be an essential component of my training as a cleaner. While sitting under a tree listening to my iPod, I debated the relative merits of using a mop versus using a hose pipe in light of neo-Kantian deontology in a post-modern context for two, full-pay hours (philosophy); instead of sweeping the top floor, I saved a lot of trouble by dumping the dirt straight onto those on the bottom floor (politics); and when I ran out of tile-cleaning fluid, I simply assumed a bottle of Mr. Clean 2 in 1 (economics).
The next day I was fired.
Despite this setback, I quickly learnt that the cleaning industry is wide open and as upwardly mobile as any (demotion is an impossibility), and notwithstanding my dicey sweeping technique and penchant for power naps, I caught the eye of a lonely – and obviously desperate – housewife, and got the promotion most people in this business can only dream about: I became a domestic worker, or, in common South African parlance, a “maid”.
I say “dream about” for let us be honest now, who in their right mind has not fantasised about scrubbing skid marks off a stranger’s toilet bowl? This was of course precisely what Shakespeare was talking about when he said, “…’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Or am I taking the Bard out of context? For if not, I know a 100,000 South African women who’d beg to differ. Indeed, as I was about to discover, domestic work (a euphemism if ever there was one) is a humiliating, degrading, wholly unpleasant experience.
I arrived at the door, my head hung low in shame. A woman in her late thirties with a faraway look in her eyes and vicious demons on her breath beckoned me inside. Already I could tell that the desperate housewife was more Valkenburg Psychiatric Hospital than Wisteria Lane.
I smelled something fishy as soon as I walked in. It turned out she was having kippers for breakfast, but my sixth sense was vindicated moments later when I looked around the apartment and noted something conspicuous by its absence. Dirt.
There wasn’t a crumb, particle, smudge or stain in sight. Spic-and-span and then some, even the kippers in the pan seemed to radiate an unnatural gleam of cleanliness. Never mind eating my lunch off the floor, I would have licked peanut butter off the toilet seat without thinking twice.
Yet this was to be no peanut-butter-licking feast of inactivity, but instead was to be the toughest day of work I would ever do. Here’s the thing – when you are cleaning things that are already clean, you are never really finished your job. Maybe that’s because you never really start. It got to the point where I started believing in the Aristotelian conception of an eternal universe, if only for the reason that an eternity seemed roughly the amount of time I had been polishing a silver tray which from the beginning had reflected light more brilliantly that the sun.
While I removed phantom dirt marks, she stood over me, studying every swipe of the cloth, and trying to encourage me in this exercise in futility by throwing around essential life lessons (in an infuriating American whine). “Fortune favours the brave!” she said helpfully, or, “You gatta be more alert.”
There were also some bizarre inquiries made from time to time: “Simon – what style do you use when you clean mirrors?”
Eh? Come again?
But the one that took first prize: “Tell me, Simon, what cleaning qualifications do you have?”
What qualifications, you ask? Mmmm let me see, where do I begin…well, I started off on a four-year undergrad at Johns Hopkins University where I did a BSc in microbiology studying the mating habits of household bacteria. I then went on to do a doctoral thesis, which included an in-depth case study of Domestos and its revolutionary “Toilet Duck”, and followed this up with a well-received research paper entitled, Vacuum cleaners through the ages. Last year, I published the best-selling paperback, 174 Different Ways to Hold a Broomstick without Damaging Your Back – an Illustrated Guide, which was recommended by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club.
There was one particularly horrifying moment which occurred while I was making her bed. As ever, she stood virtually on top of me while I went about my work, and it was while I was shaking out the sheets that my left hand happened to make full, unambiguous contact with the side of her right breast.
I needn’t have panicked. If she had noticed, she didn’t register it. She moved not an inch, and following me from the bedroom after I was done, she gave me the first and only compliment of that day: “Excellent work, Simon.”
I said the place was spotlessly clean, but that wasn’t quite accurate. If there was one place most certainly in need of a good scouring it was the fish tank –which looked more like a septic tank. I don’t know how long the goldfish had been swimming in this cesspool for, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the little blighters.
So, finally given something constructive to do, I got to work on the tank with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm…and by the time I had scraped off of the side the countless layers of fish pooh and fish pee and fish snot and fish sperm and whatever other fish emissions that had collected, it was too late to do anything about it – the water had become irreversibly clogged up. You know you are in trouble when fish are swimming frantically to the surface and sticking their little noses out of the water for air.
Yet the trauma did not end there.
An hour or so later, there I was on all fours with my head in the toilet bowl – if anything, thankful for the refuge it afforded me from the psycho – when a faint breeze blew down a mop that was standing against the wall. This seemed to me a pretty uneventful occurrence, and not wishing to take the plunge again, I kept my head in the bowl.
Thirty seconds later I felt a ghastly presence in my midst. I swivelled my head and noticed the woman was standing right over me peering into the depths of her loo. I got such a shock that I bumped my head on the rim. As she continued to stare at me for what seemed like another ten minutes, I started becoming desperately uneasy, and then finally, out of her mouth came the most bizarre collection of words I’d ever heard: “Yah know Simon, when mops fall ya gatta pick ’em up. How’s the family?”
No, I didn’t understand that one either.
Believe me, the envisioned paycheck was no consolation – I just wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as I could. And I didn’t even kick up a fuss when she paid me in Pesos. Although what an American living in Jerusalem was doing with fistfuls of Mexican currency was another of the many great mysteries of that day.
Needless to say, that was my first and last day as a domestic. The following week, I found a new position cleaning an apartment block, resolving to leave my higher education behind me this time. I never imagined the sight of a filthy staircase could be so welcoming.
It took me weeks to recover my composure, but when I did, the whole, unsavoury episode got me thinking with new respect about domestic workers in my own country. South African “madams” are surely at least as pedantic, peculiar and dictatorial as their counterparts in other countries; not to mention the added indignity of local domestic workers being paid next to nothing. There are precious few (and few Precious’s) who stoop to the kinds of lows I encountered that day by choice. In more balanced societies than ours, they are remunerated fittingly for what is understood to be a valuable skill.
In South Africa, however, women spend their entire lives doing what I could hardly bear for a day. And they get paid a pittance for it.
Their confessions, if they are made at all, fall on deaf ears. DM
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When sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings half your brain remains alert.