When I announced I was going to be a maid, my housekeeper laughed her head off. After all, I've never lifted a finger. I hadn't cleaned a toilet in, hmm, 20 years. Recently, I had to phone her to ask where we keep the iron, because the man renovating our basement needed it to put finishing touches on some shelving.
Mercedita Iboro has worked for my family ever since we returned from The Globe and Mail's Beijing bureau 12 years ago. There, a cook, maid, driver and nanny had spoiled us for six years. (Our former housekeeper in China also laughed her head off when she heard what I was doing.)
During my month as a maid, I'd drop by my real home, and notice Cedes was keeping it shipshape. Looking at it through maid's eyes, I saw it was the kind of home I now dreaded: four bedrooms and three bathrooms filled with clutter, a foyer with sliding mirrored doors and pale limestone tiles, easily stained white kitchen counters, a living room with an annoying vacuum combo of hardwood and carpets, not to mention never-ending dust from the basement renovation. Sorry, Cedes.
But at least my house wasn't clean. For our fourth home of the day, during one of my last shifts with Maid-It-Up Maids, Maggie and I are assigned a bungalow in Scarborough. We realize we're in an asylum for the hygienically insane.
The house is immaculate. You could eat off the bathroom floor. The owner is such a cleanaholic that she has set up a separate play area for her grandchildren - in the furnace room.
Normal people would watch TV, then sneak out after two hours. But who knows if the owner has booby-trapped the place with hidden coins and cracker crumbs?
"I hate cleaning clean," says Maggie, sounding desperate. I agree. Useless cleaning is soul-destroying. Forty minutes later, I find her kneeling by the basement shower. She has homed in on the only dirt in the house. "I spent the whole time on this," she says, pointing to the rubber seal on the door.
When we stagger out at 7:15 p.m., my eyes are puffy, my right hand is buzzing and I'm wheezing from Windex. It's Friday, but it isn't TGIF. We work six days a week. When I drop her off, I tell her I'll see her tomorrow.
"I don't know," she says, lighting a cigarette. The next morning, for the first time since I've known her, Maggie doesn't come to work. Maggie doesn't show up for several days. Meanwhile, I book the day off to check my hand. At a clinic in Hamilton, Sharon Wilson, an electromyography technologist, hooks me up to electrodes to measure electrical impulses in my nerves. A slow transmission indicates damage. Only 2 per cent of the computer users she tests are actually injured. And cleaners? "About 80 per cent of cleaners would have carpal tunnel syndrome," Ms. Wilson says.
Dr. John Chong studies the results and does more tests. The clinic focuses on musicians' occupational health, but he accepts me for an emergency consultation because he's, well, my cousin. He knows I type for a living, and that I mouse with my left hand.
"Your left hand is clean," he says. "You have quite significant carpal tunnel syndrome on the right side."
By a process of elimination, he says, the injury is attributable to my work as a cleaner. "You're lifting heavy pails out of car trunks. And scrubbing is high-repetitive, low-force work."
Dr. Chong prescribes medication, physiotherapy, exercise and the arm brace I've already bought. Any more damage, "then we'll talk surgery." A 60-day supply of pills costs $122.75. Physiotherapy costs $75 to $100 a session; the brace, a day's pay. The exercise book he recommends will cost another day's pay. And I've just lost a day's pay to get diagnosed.
Unlike the other maids, I have benefits that cover drugs and physiotherapy. I can also say, Take this job and shove it. They can't. Tomorrow is my last day anyway. Now I can truthfully inform the owner I can't work for him any more. At Coffee Time, where we gather for the day's assignments, Maggie is back. Someone asks why she hasn't been at work. "Family things," she says vaguely. We all know better than to probe.
I tell the other maids I'm quitting. They look startled, but then each starts listing her injuries. Two, including Maggie, have rheumatoid arthritis in their hands. Holly (all names changed), who is now a driver, had operations on both wrists for carpal tunnel syndrome. Marge also has carpal tunnel syndrome.
So does Charmaine, who has been on the job only two weeks longer than I have. Pat, a pregnant maid, has such a severe problem that she whimpers when she folds laundry. Lucy, 23, says she has no problem. But when I describe the buzzing, she says softly, "Oh shit! That is what it is? So I've got it."
Maggie says she had carpal tunnel syndrome. "One hand was bad, the other was worse." Her doctor advised surgery, but she did nothing, and now the buzzing has stopped. (Ms. Wilson, the technologist, says symptoms aren't necessarily commensurate with damage.) Tina listens to these revelations. "My fingers go numb," she says. "I have a pain from my elbow to my fingers, girls. I'm worried." Maggie puts down her cup of coffee, walks over and starts massaging Tina's shoulders. "Not too much," Tina says, sighing. "I'll fall in love."
"I wish I could quit," one maid says enviously, "but I don't have time to look for another job." Only Maggie is concerned about me. "What will you do?" she whispers. I shrug. Otherwise, my departure causes barely a ripple. The talk soon turns to the cleans. I'm with Maggie and Charmaine. We get three homes, one in Thornhill, two downtown. I'd tell you what I pay Cedes, but she'd kill me. Suffice it to say that during my month as a maid, I was envious. She came here 25 years ago from the Philippines. She worked for others, including a stint as chief housekeeper at a Sheraton hotel, then joined us when Ben was 4 and Sam was 1.
Until a year ago, Cedes worked for us full-time. We have a role reversal. She gives me her hand-me-downs. She even gives me pass-alongs from Rosedale matrons. Her friends who work for them get castoffs, all the housekeepers try them on, and I get what's left. They're pretty good dregs. Last year, I got a floor-length black suede coat.
But I guess I was the client from hell. Besides cleaning the house, Cedes built Lego castles with Ben, changed Sam's diapers, took them to karate, organized our junk, dismantled our Christmas tree. She made fresh pesto, osso buco, chocolate chip cookies and the best roast chicken and mashed potatoes. She washed lettuce, spinach and bok choy, so I could waltz into the kitchen and pretend I was doing a cooking show.
Thank you, Cedes, for putting up with us for so long. On the morning of my last day, I phone Nariman, the immigrant owner of Maid-It-Up Maids. I explain my wrist is injured and I must quit. "Can you drive?" he says, sounding panicky. He wants me to stay on two more weeks.
I feel terrible. I assumed maids were as dispensable as Kleenex. But it turns out I'm a valued employee. I show up, I'm punctual and I can read and write. I can calculate the GST. I can drive and read a map. "We have been forming the teams around you," Nariman says. "You can't quit."
With a sinking heart, I go back to cleaning. At lunchtime, I invite Maggie and Charmaine to a blowout lunch. I'm sick of bologna sandwiches. And I want to thank them for teaching me how to clean. Charmaine accepts, but Maggie wants to split the bill. Charmaine agrees to hold her down at the end while I pay.
At a restaurant on Highway 7, we feast on lobster in black bean sauce, prawn fried rice, stir-fried grouper with Chinese broccoli, spring rolls and har gow (shrimp dumplings). Maggie is from Newfoundland, Charmaine from Dominica, so they're expert at eating lobster. While we gorge, I ask a nagging question. Why don't they cut out the middleman?
Neither drives. Neither wants to hassle with schedules or money. And what would they do when someone cancels at the last minute or disappears for a long vacation?
On the drive downtown, Charmaine starts snoring. I'm so sleepy my eyes droop. At red lights, I almost nod off. We wake up for our second clean, a move-out, so the tenant can get back his security deposit. He tips us a dime each.
At my last clean, I run out of Windex. I borrow some from Charmaine, who has been scrubbing a tub with Vim Oxy-Gel All Purpose Cleaner with Active Oxygen. (It contains ethoxylated C12-13 alcohols, which the Pesticide Action Network says are carcinogens and cause reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity and acute toxicity.) The fumes are overpowering. I tell her to get some air. She wanders into the kitchen. Maggie, our team leader, who is obsessing about a stain in the sink, looks up. She asks what Charmaine is doing.
"Breathing," she snaps.
That evening, I call Nariman, who still hasn't accepted my resignation. He thinks I'm behaving irresponsibly. "You're an adult. You're not a child," he scolds. I'm taken aback. No one in my real life condescends to me. I explain that if I don't return the car, the other maids won't have their vacuums and buckets for the next day. Grudgingly, he agrees to meet me at Coffee Time.
Nariman is a good man in a tough business. Competition is fierce, even though the industry is booming. The other maids assume Nariman is raking it in, but I've done the math. I suspect not. We typically bill $80 to $100 a clean. Half goes to maid salaries, the rest to drivers, administration, cellphones, insurance, cars, gas, parking tickets and supplies.
Nariman arrives at Coffee Time, carrying a plastic bag with his paperwork. He's tired, but he listens to my explanation, and says graciously, "Well, if it's medical, you don't have any choice." To my amazement, he offers me an office job. Weakly, I tell him I'll think about it.
As he drives me back to The Hovel, he says, "I knew when you started that you would not want to continue. You have a university degree. Cleaning is hard." And then he says, "What is this carpal tunnel syndrome? I've never heard of it before."
In a perfect world, the terrible clients I've written about would recognize themselves and repent. They would say: I'm going to hang up the maid's coat, introduce myself, offer a glass of water. But - stop the presses - some people are jerks. One woman thought she spotted herself as the Iron T-shirt Lady and retaliated, but not at me. She fired the company.
Yet I also know readers have spontaneously given out raises, offered tips and thoughtfully cleared their counters of clutter. They've started saying thank you. Some readers want to hire Maid-It-Up. I know I do. I can't disclose the company name, but I will pass on requests to an intermediary, and that person can contact you.
When I finally staggered home after a month, Cedes, who now comes in once a week, looked me over and grinned. "How was it?" she asked. "Tiring, huh?"
Tiring, yes, and life changing too. Benderella now dusts his room. I swab cobwebs and wipe fingerprints. Last Sunday, Cinder Sam vacuumed the basement and cleaned two bathrooms (I had to explain he can't spray Fantastik on mirrors). My husband is attacking grout and mopping the limestone tiles. We all do laundry. And I've cleared away the excess bottles at the edge of my bathtub. I still make lists for Cedes, but they're shorter now.
After cleaning the homes of so many young professionals who can't cook, I've also laid down a new rule: Each week, the boys make a meal from scratch. On Tuesday, Ben made salmon and sautéed spinach. On Wednesday, Sam made beef stroganoff with homemade crème fraîche.
Last Saturday, I attended a black-tie fundraiser. Gerry Phillips, Ontario's Minister of Government Services, stopped by to congratulate me on the maid series. I was supposed to say thank you. Instead, I asked why his government doesn't raise the minimum wage. (It wouldn't be a complete remedy - I wasn't on a minimum-wage pay scale - but it might have a trickle-down effect.) At a loss for words, Mr. Phillips opened and shut his mouth. The government could hold a referendum, I continued. In Florida, Baltimore, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., voters overwhelmingly voted to raise the minimum wage.
"It's been going up," he said, uncomfortably. It did: from $7.45 to $7.75 on Feb. 1. But in real terms, it's lower than it was 30 years ago. The minister smiled, and edged away.
When I got home that night, Ben was away at a friend's country spread, with its own barn and a covered riding arena. Sam was almost asleep in his new Euro-top bed. As I took off my pearls, I thought about the other maids. I know they're still getting up at 5:30 a.m., and slaving away for less than a living wage. I hope Nariman has found another driver-maid and new clients. I hope Maggie is okay. And then I noticed my bathroom mirror was smudged. I got out the Windex and started cleaning.