This Is My House
I returned home for lunch one day. The front door was unlocked, and I hesitated upon opening it, because women I did not know sat eating their lunches at the dining room table. We were all momentarily startled, perhaps me more so than the housekeepers, because it was apparent that I didn’t belong in the house at that moment. I was in the way.
The women were housekeepers, and they occupied the house. There were lights on. The dishwasher was running. They were halfway through cleaning the upstairs bathrooms. Clear trash bags sagged across hallways, and mops leaned in buckets against the wall. The cord for the vacuum snaked through the living room. Entering, I stepped over the cord, past the women and into the kitchen, where I checked the refrigerator for nothing really before turning around and leaving the house. I went to the shop down the street for a sandwich, and ate my lunch there.
I live in the Garden District of New Orleans, a neighborhood known for its mansions, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the Commander’s Palace restaurant, and glorious vegetation. When I have the opportunity to wander the streets around my house on a weekday, I am astounded by how busy the neighborhood is. In addition to the usual activities that one might expect–trash and recycling pick-up twice a week, postal workers making their rounds, camera-laden tourists consulting maps and guides, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage–there are housekeepers, arborists trimming branches growing into power lines, carpenters rebuilding porches and fences, painters working on shutters, and gardeners and landscaping crews cutting grass and taming Confederate jasmine.
The landscaping crews are particularly obtrusive. Small crews of men clad in drab uniforms and wielding high-powered instruments move rapidly through the neighborhood, clouds of dust and leaves billowing forth before them. The clamor of leaf blowers and mowers permeates the air, quieting only with the return of residents at the end of the day.
The weekday Garden District is one of toil and sweat. Scraping paint and pulling weeds. Drop cloths and bleach. Tall ladders and cleaning gutters. Pickup trucks and windowless vans. Job radios. It is also gender-segregated, men working exteriors and grounds, women washing dishes and making beds inside. The weekend Garden District is a place of rest in comparison, defined by the barking of dogs and patter of flip-flops rather than the roar of vacuums and blowers. The grass is cut, the tools put away–residents read on their porches or walk their dogs in the streets, pausing to give the dogs time to nose around.
As a cemetery is for the living, even if it is called the city of the dead, the Garden District is for the workers, and not for those that inhabit it at night or on weekends. The Garden District is a full time job, a nine-to-five and forty-hour week of vigilance and hard work, and it doesn’t matter who lives here.
Housekeeping and yard work can be intimate. You leave in the morning for work, and hand your household over for others to clean, to see, to judge. Maids and carpenters and gardeners hold keys to the houses they service. They see the traces of last night’s revelry, and that you like to floss. They pick up toys, dust your books, and make sure your portraits hang straight. They are integral to the inner workings of many a household, and privy to much that wouldn’t be shared outside the home. None of that matters really, because you don’t care what the maids think about your magazines or habit of leaving pretzels between the sofa cushions. But you also have a sense of decorum and messes that you clean up yourself. Some things could tell too much.
Knowing that your maid comes once a week patterns your behavior. You slide into slovenliness–leave the residue to harden on dishes in the sink or a sticky floor un-mopped–if you know someone is coming the next day to clean. Your standards for what is acceptable shift if today is Sunday and tomorrow is Monday, the day you’ve arranged for the housekeepers to come by. From institutional cleanliness to casual disorder, your home slides along from day to day, resetting each week with the arrival of the maids.
The relationship between served and servant is one of simultaneous dependency and exclusion. Each counts on the other to occupy the same space, but can really only do so when the other is absent. A successful relationship is one in which you do not have to talk to each other. The workers restore order to your belongings, but they leave nothing behind of themselves, or at least you hope and expect that they do not. An invoice left on the dining room table sums up the services rendered, and is the established means of communication between parties. You write a check to the cleaning service or the gardener, and you don’t have to say thank you. A homeowner and the person that keeps his house could pass each other on a street without any flash of recognition.
In New Orleans, many young adults now inhabit the slave quarters of antebellum homes. Tucked behind the main house, these rentals can be picturesque in their garden seclusion and with their low ceilings in a town where even humble shotgun houses stretch fifteen feet high. These diminutive dependencies are temporary residences at the right price point, and not so much manifestations of a hard social order any longer. Modern equipment and cheap transportation provide greater efficiency for those that service the homes of the wealthy, so that living close to the houses one cleans is no longer necessary. You are not beholden to a family, providing instead services to a list of customers, and hiring you for the hour is cheaper than having to house and feed you anyway.
The habitation of certain homes will always be shared, because the relationship between homeowner and servant revolves around a set of spaces and things. That said, the modern-day alignment of work schedules and school days allows families and servants to syncopate their presence so that space can be shared without friction, without exchange. Perhaps some squeamishness about acknowledging class underlies this neat choreography, which is mirrored across the home/work divide when cleaners course through the city’s offices in the evenings and on weekends to pick up and clean. Or does the philosophical discomfort arise when you no longer have to see the person that vacuums your floor?