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Yes, Doctor
I'm Sorry, Yolanda Floors Aren't Easy Britt


WHEN WE HAVE HAD people here cleaning I’ve always stayed in the apartment while they worked. I will sit and watch the doors and keep track of where the cats are so they don’t escape. Cierre la puerta, por favor. Close the door, please. I also need to make sure that no cat comes in contact with a cleaning liquid; I watch for that too. Peligro por los gatos, I’ll say. Danger for cats. I’ll accompany all my attempts at Spanish with little mime dances. I know that people who have worked here think I’m crazy.

There are also areas that tend to be missed in our cluttered apartment and need to be identified: on the floor near Cathy’s desk where dust collects around the electric cables and surge protectors, and the counter behind my espresso machine with its spilled coffee grounds. I’ll just point—Aqui, por favor. Here, please.


What’s this man doing here during the day? Where is his wife?

And I’m thinking about the brown and white of it. I’m not comfortable, makes me think of my childhood in Alabama and black servants.


We have throw rugs that cover the stains on our living room carpet, and I don’t want those rugs draped over the furniture while the underlying carpet is vacuumed. That seems obvious, but one person who cleaned for us—I’ll call her Yolanda—would do just that, throw the rugs on our chairs, or on a table. Yolanda and I had a good relationship for a long time, and when she did something stupid I would just look at her, and she would laugh and correct the problem.

But after a while she was laughing too much and had become careless with her work. One day I was in my office writing and she came in to clean. No es necessario hoy, por favor. Not necessary today, please, I said. I didn’t want her cleaning my office while I was trying to work. After she item6left the room I went back to the page and continued trying to untangle some sentences when I heard this loud noise behind my head. Like a shot. Bang! Right behind my head. Scared the hell out of me; I think I screamed. Yolanda had come into my office anyway, to empty my trash can, and had opened a plastic garbage bag by snapping it, hard. Right behind my head.

“God damn it, Yolanda! What the hell do you think…” And on for a bit, more than a bit. “What the hell? Do you make that kind of noise in houses you clean? Or is it just apartments? My apartment?” Yes, I said that; and she understood what I said and quit, right then. “Give me my money,” she said, had the English for that. I called her later and did my best to make her understand that I was sorry that I had lost my temper, but I didn’t ask her to work for us again.



What’s this man doing here during the day? Where is his wife?

And I’m thinking about the brown and white of it. I’m not comfortable, makes me think of my childhood in Alabama and black servants.


Before Yolanda, another woman worked here at the request of her primary employers who were our friends and lived in a big house on a hill behind our apartment building. Sylvia was not pleasant. Sylvia didn’t enjoy cleaning our little apartment; she preferred the big house on the hill. I’m sure of it. She would disappear during the workday, twenty minutes, half an hour—when her work here only required a couple hours. One day I went looking for her. I found her in the laundry room talking on her cell phone. When she saw me she made a go-away motion with her hand. When she returned to the apartment I wrote her check and made a go-away motion with my hand.


What’s this man doing here during the day? Where is his wife?

And I’m thinking about the brown and white of it. I’m not comfortable, makes me think of my childhood in Alabama and black servants.


After Yolanda quit—Yolanda of the explosive garbage bag behind my head—the place went dirty for a while. I really don’t care about clutter, but Cathy does. She comes home from work and wants a clean place where she can rest, have a glass of wine, watch a film. I understand that. And after a few weeks of no Yolanda, the cat hair had begun to accumulate, and we began to sneeze. I’m not good about taking out newspapers, and our recycling stack began to overflow.

So after a few weeks of dust and dirt and cat hair, we hired Merry Maids, a professional cleaning service. I guess I should say that I hired Merry Maids, because Cathy said that they were too expensive. But I said, Look there are two of them on a crew and they get the hell in and out, an hour and a half, wear neat little uniforms; and I don’t have to sit around all morning supervising the cats and worrying; and the place will get really clean. They bring a bunch of cleaning supplies and a great vacuum cleaner, and our vacuum is lousy. There won't be any of this stuff that we had with Yolanda and Sylvia. Let’s try it.

We paid $120 per visit,(that’s one-hundred and twenty dollars) but the place was clean when they left. They came twice a month, and I was happy and Cathy was happy for several months. One of the Maids was really conscientious about her work and cleaned items in our apartment that had never been cleaned by any person who had worked here before and certainly not by us—the glass on a case where I keep a collection of fountain pens, and under the refrigerator, behind the TV. And after the bathrooms were cleaned, the toilet paper was always folded into a neat little pointy thing. And, yes, they used sweet-smelling cleaning stuff and were careful with the cats. One-hundred and twenty dollars per visit. One bedroom, two baths, living room, kitchen; they didn’t have to clean my office.

But after a few months we began to realize that $240 per month was more than we could afford, and something else: each time they were here one of them would ask, “Where is your wife?” or “How is your wife” or “Does your wife work?”


What’s this man doing here during the day? Where is his wife?

And I’m thinking about the brown and white of it. I’m not comfortable, makes me think of my childhood in Alabama and black servants.


On their final visit I had given them their check for $120, and they had taken the garbage out of the apartment. A few minutes after they walked out, I followed them to open the door to the garage, where the dumpster is kept. And when I reached the front of the building, I saw spilled garbage on the sidewalk—our garbage, easily identified. Remnants of a spoiled protein drink, the red cap from that drink, and wrapping from a jelly we use and a trail of moisture leading to one of the Maids holding a garbage bag. “What happened?” I said. I pointed to the sidewalk and gestured. “I don’t know,” one of the Maids said. I asked her again, still pointing. Same answer.

So the expensive Merry Maids spilled garbage and didn’t admit it, and I had to clean up the spoiled protein drink from the sidewalk, and they charged $120 per visit; and, besides, we couldn’t afford them. So we said goodbye to the Merry Maids.



I’m not good at any of it. Yolanda, Sylvia, the Maids. I don’t like to supervise, and I worry about the brown class of citizens. And, no, I’m not comforted by providing a job and paying well for menial work. I see myself sitting there, old whitey in his La-Z Boy, saying this and ordering that. Cierre la puerta. Peligro por los gatos. Tote that barge, lift that bail.

So I’m not doing it anymore with hired help, too much guilt; I’ve decided to do it myself. That's right; I'm doing it myself. We bought a new vacuum. Checked Consumer Reports and got this powerful thing from Sears, and we’ve laid in cleaning supplies. I’m going to clean each Monday, and have already started. I did well last Monday, my first day of work. I scoured the kitchen and my bath; I vacuumed and I dusted. I didn’t put the throw rugs on the furniture, and I was careful with the cats. I put my sixty-eight-year-old knees on the floor and used whatever it took to get it clean—sponge, paper towels, a brush.

But one Monday does not a good cleaning person make, and I worry about sticking with it and making our apartment nice for Cathy. So I’ve come up with this proposal, a plan for a reminder service if you will. Better yet, an enforcement service; it might even work as a franchise. I propose to call it Surly Maids, and Surly Maids would not do any cleaning work themselves but would come to your home on a day of your choosing and would see to it that you clean. I’m thinking that authoritarian-type shrinks would be good candidates as Surly Maids, the kind that don’t wait for you to come up with your own solution to your issues but just tell you what the hell to do. I'm sure that there are shrinks out there with free time, even in southern California; let them make some extra cash as Surly Maids.


“Okay, Britt. Look at this place. Needs a lot of work and I’m not sure you can do it. You think you can do it? I don’t think so. Get the vacuum. Get all your cleaning supplies. Put them all in the middle of the floor and give me an inventory. Then you’ll get to work.”

“Yes, Doctor.”


Good. All that’s very good, very promising. And then I thought, maybe while I’m cleaning they could help me work through some things with that brown-white guilt I have, that liberal race- guilt. And, god, we had black servants when I was a child. Maybe they could help there, too.


“Britt, you've told me that you’ve been unfair to brown people who have worked here. You’ve been temperamental, haven’t you?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“You think that kitchen floor’s clean? That floor isn’t clean! I want you to clean that floor again and while you’re doing it—and do it right, this time—I want you to say, ‘I’m sorry, Yolanda.’ Go ahead, say it. The Spanish is ‘Lo siento.’”

“I’m sorry, Yolanda.”

“No! Damn you! In Spanish. And scrub harder.”

"I'm sorry, Doctor. Lo siento, Yolanda.”

“That’s better. And Sylvia. Tell Sylvia you’re sorry too.”

Lo siento, Sylvia."

“Faster, faster. And the Merry Maids, tell them you’re sorry, too. You didn’t actually see them spill that garbage, now, did you?”

“No, Doctor.”

“That’s right. Tell them you’re sorry.”

Lo siento, Merry Maids.”

“Okay, get up. It’s time to do your bathroom floor. And today, you’ll use a tooth brush to clean it and you’ll be dealing with your childhood in the south and that mammy you had. God damn you, Britt! You had a mammy! Did you really have a mammy?”

“Yes, Doctor, I did.”

“Damn you, Britt! Shame on you! What a despicable person you are. On your knees. Get to work on that floor.”


On and on. What a great idea. I feel better already, cleaner. ###


22 December 2006

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