Friday, February 24, 2012

The End of the Cleaning Lady

Last Friday night, I anticipated coming home to a nice clean apartment. It was my birthday month (I’ve gone from celebrating my actual date of birth to my birthday weekend to my birthday week and now my birthday season), and in a fit of self-indulgence I had called the cleaning lady. I thought the extravagance was justified because I had a cold and was expecting guests. That morning, I had scurried around, cleaning for the cleaning lady: I folded clothes, squared away shoes, weeded the dead roses out of my magnificent birthday bouquet. I cleaned the cat box and washed the breakfast dishes. I stopped short of folding the bath towels, tossing them onto a bathroom shelf and, perversely, leaving one in a heap on a bureau in the hall. I left the bathroom sink smudged (the super had fixed the cold-water tap the day before) and did not bother to sweep up the rose petals on the kitchen floor. The cleaning lady had to have something to do.

I am no good at having a cleaning lady. For a while it was all right: she came every other week, I left her eighty dollars, and when I got home after work the eighty dollars was gone and everything looked neat and burnished. But then I’d reach for the paring knife, or fumble for the bathtub plug, or grope for the lion notepad next to my desk, and nothing would be where it was supposed to be. The cleaning lady had her own ideas of where things should go. She'd toss flowers that I was not yet ready to part with. She recycled newspapers I was keeping for a friend who burns the Times in her wood stove. She threw away the extra bottle of diluted dishwashing detergent that I keep for washing my eyeglasses. Grrrr ... Whenever something went missing, I blamed the cleaning lady.

Then, she replicated herself: she started turning up with her sister-in-law. Now I had two Peruvian cleaning ladies, so I felt I had to pay them both—not twice as much (I’m not that gullible) but something extra every time. It was impossible to negotiate either the amount or the doppelganger, because of the language barrier. (Her English is highly selective.) My strategy was to get out of the house before the cleaning lady (or ladies) arrived, so that I could in good conscience leave money for only one.

So I open the door when I get home and . . . That’s odd: the rumpled towel is still on the bureau in the hallway. Well, maybe the cleaning lady thought I wanted it there. Also the newspapers are still piled in front of the closet door. But that's O.K., because my friend with the wood stove is visiting from Massachusetts. Then I turn on the light in the living room and see the money on the table and I know for sure: the cleaning lady didn't come. So I scour the bathroom sink and sweep the kitchen floor—it doesn't take very long—alternately counting my blessings (I still have my diluted dish detergent) and cursing the cleaning lady (there's a penny stuck to the kitchen counter that I was counting on her to pry off). The place looks fine, at least by lamplight. The cleaning lady has trained me to do most of the work myself.

My friend from New Hampshire arrived a few hours later and parked in front of my building. We would have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to move the car, which did not sound like a fun way to start a Saturday, so we made a midnight foray to see if we could do better. At the end of the block are two spots in a school zone (the sign says No Parking 7 AM to 4 PM School Days), and the spot nearer the crosswalk was vacant. The doorman came out to congratulate us and make sure we knew that we were good till Monday. We were way ahead of him: Monday was Presidents Day, and school was out, so we were actually good till Tuesday. High five!

I called the cleaning lady on Saturday, to make sure she was O.K. She was fine—she just thought I’d wanted her to come the next Friday, which was now “this” Friday. It was hopeless to say that I had expected her yesterday; I could hear her thinking, How can I come yesterday if it is already today? She persisted in saying she would come "this Friday." I repeated that I would not need her this Friday, because I would have time over the weekend to clean the place myself. She was very sorry.

My friend from Massachusetts arrived on Sunday and found a spot in front of my building that would be good until eight on Monday (for MuniMeters, Presidents Day was just another Monday). The idea was that when New Hampshire left, Massachusetts could pull into her spot. But New Hampshire was not to be pressured (Live Free or Die!). This potential source of tension between the states evaporated when we went out on Sunday afternoon and saw that the car behind New Hampshire was gone, and Massachusetts could move into the school zone. Double high five! The two best parking spots on the block, and we had them. Plus a hundred dollars that I didn’t have to pay the cleaning lady.

I couldn't get a good picture of my friends' cars in their holiday parking spots, so here is a picture of me as Mr. Dick (from "David Copperfield") on Charles Dickens' (and my) birthday. I can't imagine why it never occurred to me before to go to a party in drag.