"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cleaning Ladies, Feminism, And Opportunity Cost–Why Housework Is Such A Signifier

Rozicki Day was cleaning day at the Benoit house.  Mrs. Rozycki was a Polish immigrant who lived in the farmland outside of New Brighton and who did housework to supplement her husband’s factory salary.  She was a big, rawboned woman, strong and willful.  She frightened little Sylvie who didn’t know where to hide when she was at work. Mrs. Rozicki  ran the vacuum cleaner like a snowplow. Instead of picking up a stray toy or book, she would ram it, push it aside, jam it against the wall, and ride roughshod over the carpet like the mop-up brigade after a firefight.  By the time she was finished, the baseboards had nicks, the table legs were wobbly, and the wallpaper smudged and dented from the banging of the leather armchair; and Sylvie was huddled in the corner of her room crying.

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“My mother is just as afraid of her as Sylvie”, said Nicky Benoit, my classmate. “She cleans the house before Mrs. Rozicki comes. She doesn’t want to upset her.”

I knew what Nicky meant.  I was at his house for lunch one cleaning day. Mrs. Rozicki had just bulldozed the den and was headed plow first across the foyer carpet and into the living room when she stopped, powered down, and stood like an angry sentinel looking at a dried, faded flower that Mrs. Benoit had inadvertently dropped on her way to the trash. She shook her head, turned the vacuum cleaner back on and angrily rolled over the flower, back and forth until it came apart and bits of petals, leaves and stem were sucked up and gone. Sylvie was whimpering up in her room, and Nicky’s mother kept her head down over the kitchen sink as she peeled potatoes, pretending to ignore Mrs. Rozicki’s snorting, huffing, and banging.

Mr. Benoit had made it a point to leave the house before she arrived and well after she left once he had experienced her Anschluss. “That woman’s crazy”, he said to no one in particular. “But I have to give it to her. She sure gets the place clean.” She took dirt personally.  She rammed her broom under the sofa, pulled out the floor grate under the refrigerator, and speared her vacuum wand deep below and behind the sofa cushions.

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She dented, dinged, and broke things because she was so eager – or crazy as Nicky’s father had suggested.  She could have given the living room and den a quick swish, saving energy for the other two houses she did on Thursday.  No one would have noticed thanks to Mrs. Benoit’s pre-cleaning; but no matter how clean the house, she attacked it as though it were the Augean stables. 

Like everything else, house cleaning has a range.  The Matters, for example, never seemed to clean.  The living room was always littered with old newspapers and magazines, the kitchen sink piled with dirty dishes, the bathroom scuzzy with mold and bathtub rings, and the beds never made.  Yet Mr. and Mrs. Matter were the nicest people. He always helped out on Boy Scout outings; and she was a frequent volunteer at the elementary school. Whenever Mrs. Matter saw us playing in the back yard, she always asked us in for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I could never eat it because their cat had had first dibs and although Mrs. Matter did her best to pick the cat hairs out of the peanut butter before she served us, she always missed a few.  It was disgusting.

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The Onkers’ house was just the opposite.  Freud would have had a field day with Doris Onker whose fingers were red and raw from the ammonia, Clorox, and astringents she used to clean.  Not only did her kitchen gleam and her toilets shine, but there was not one speck of dirt, not one stray apple seed, nor a smudge, smear, or streak anywhere.

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Mrs. Onker was a scary sight, sitting in the fading light of winter afternoons, finally finished with her day’s housework and resting for a few minutes before starting dinner. She sat upright and looked straight ahead.  We all thought that maybe she slept sitting up, but her eyes were wide open and staring at the crucifix over the mantel. We got in and out as quickly as possible.  It was very creepy in there.

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Most of the other parents in the neighborhood did the needful and not much more. Clutter, shoes by the door, newspapers falling out of the rack, a ruffled bed in one of the bedrooms; but all in all no groat, or disgusting animal hairs.  Cleaning house was an unwelcome chore but one which had to be done; so as little time as possible was spent on it.  “Opportunity cost”, said Binky Phillips’ mom who was the only lawyer in town. We had no idea what she meant, but she was a lot cooler – and sexier - than Doris Onker or Emma Benoit by a long shot.

Cleaning ladies like Mrs. Rozicki were rare.  Only the doctors and dentists could afford them, and most of my friends’ mothers were housewives who did it all.  Mrs. Rozicki not only had her three houses on Thursday but a number of others as well on other days. God only knew what collateral damage she did there. The more interesting question was how did anyone other than Mrs. Benoit put up with her? Was she really that intimidating a person? Or was the value of an absolutely clean house worth the chips, slices, and nicks she left behind?  She was just ‘a dumb Polack’ as my father called her and all the  other Silesians who lived on Broad Street. What was the big deal?

Two years ago during an extended stay at a B&B in Eutaw, Alabama – a meticulously restored antebellum mansion that had been owned by wealthy cotton merchants – I realized that the owner was just as intimidated by her cleaning lady as Mrs. Benoit was by Mrs. Rozicki.  Earline was a big black lady, over six feet, and just as strong, determined, and eager as Mrs. Rozicki.  She could speak English, however, and gave Helen Graves, the proprietor, lip. “Why you done left me a pile o’ dishes?”, she said when she saw the one stray plate that had been inadvertently left in the sink. “You think I got nothin’ to do but to clean up after you?”  Mrs. Graves had, like Emma Benoit gone around the house picking up, emptying trash, straightening magazines and fluffing the throw pillows before Earline came.

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What I noticed most was that both Mrs. Graves and Emma Benoit were nervous for a day before their cleaning ladies came.  I was reminded at least three times to please leave my door unlocked and to be out of the house between 10-12 on Thursday – oddly, the same day that Mrs. Rozicki charged through the Benoit house like a rough rider.  Maybe it had something to do with women of a certain age who were brought up in an era when a woman’s home was her showpiece.  That would explain Mrs. Benoit, but Helen Graves was my age.  Maybe it was something about women, then; for I could never imagine a man getting flustered over a cleaning lady.

I keep up with Nicky Benoit and told him about Earline and Mrs. Graves.  He wasn’t surprised and agreed that it must have something to do with women. “The cleaning ladies are taking their place”, he said.  “They resent them and their intrusion. They want them dead.”

I didn’t buy his pseudo-Freudian take.  We were in a post-Feminist era where all women understood opportunity cost, and were quite happy to pay someone to do the scullery work.

“Except for Janie Miller”, Nicky said. “She makes her husband do the housework just to show him who’s boss.  He puts up with it as a cover for his tomcatting. ‘A little male housework’, he said, ‘does wonders to hide the truth’”.

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