For many years everything I needed to know about household help I learned on TV. The
Brady Bunch taught me that maids wore powder blue frocks, gave you something fresh-baked when you were down in the dumps, and lived in some mystery room located in a vague part of the house (Alice rocked!).
Hazel, along with Rosario from Will & Grace, taught me that maids had smart mouths. Mr. French from Family Affair and Geoffrey from Fresh Prince of Belair taught me that butlers had facial hair and vague English accents. Charles in Charge taught me that teen idols looked great as a
nanny but probably weren’t the best choice in terms of teen girl supervision. Rosie from the Jetsons taught me that robots can totally pull off a French maid’s uniform. And really, what else does one need to know besides that?
Well, maybe a little more. My first real life exposure to a domestic happened when I was a 16-year-old exchange student in Peru. I lived with a middle class family—two teachers and their four kids—and a maid who would just sort of materialize at times. She was young, probably about my age, and unlike Hazel or Rosario, she hardly ever uttered a peep to her employers (least of all some witty, Rosario-like retort such as, “I’d ring your neck, but I don’t want to be standing in a puddle of gin!”).
Nope, this gal kept her head down, no eye contact, and kept occupied doing things like boiling stuff on the stove. Now the first time I lifted the lid off one of her boiling pots it contained everyone’s white underclothes, and the second time it was fish heads, so suffice to say I didn’t do a lot of lid-lifting after that. She also went to the market every day to buy the foodstuff we would eat at lunch and supper. I went with her once, and credit her with making me understand that guinea pigs can be pets or entrees.
One day I asked my host brother Paco where this maid lived. “On the roof,” he answered matter-of-factly. I immediately envisioned her curled up in an abandoned pigeon coop or sleeping under a lean-to propped against the chimney. Then I made my way up there one day and saw that there was, in fact, a little structure that I supposed was a maid’s room and while small, was really private with a great view of the neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that Alice on the Brady Bunch would have been pleased with this scenario as she could have easily smuggled Sam the Butcher up here without anyone knowing a thing.
I later found out that maids here came from poor families and only made a few dollars each week, which is why most middle class families could afford to have one. They certainly weren’t as beloved as Hazel or even Rosie the Robot Maid, and I sometimes winced at the way the family spoke to ours. I was even told by the family one time that I shouldn’t speak with ours unless I needed her to do something. Small talk be damned!
Years passed and I moved to steamy South Florida where once again the world of household help would come alive before my very eyes. I lived just across the Intracoastal Waterway from glamorous Palm Beach, an otherworldly island of warped fantasy where the uber-wealthy had mansions on the ocean full of maids, butlers, cooks, assistants, house managers, drivers, social secretaries, dog handlers, food tasters, and tiara polishers. Here were some of the highlights of my household help encounters in Palm Beach:
Human Video Game
In my previous career as a landscape architect, I designed the front lawn area for a media mogul whose mansion sat on the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach. At the firm where I worked we rarely did residential work and now I understand why. I was given the task of creating a preliminary design, and then a few of us paid a visit to the home. We, of course, had to park in the service area and were ushered into the back door by a gaggle of housemaids wearing crisp, black and white shifts. They led us to an area inside the door where we sat on a bench, and in hushed voices they told us to cover our shoes with velvety cloth covers, not to touch the walls as we walked up the stairs, and various other instructions that would ensure no trace of mere mortals would remain once we departed.
They led us up a sweeping grand staircase, and I couldn’t help thinking how much our velvety foot covers were polishing each marble step, or how easily we could have slipped right off and plunged to our deaths where, I was sure, no trace of our blood would be left behind. At the top they led us down a darkened hallway where every door was closed. We stopped in front of a set of double doors where one maid tapped so slightly I wasn’t sure it even made a sound. The door opened and there stood the mogul and his wife, bathed in glowing light, like some Renaissance Medici portrait. They glanced at our shoes (feet covered, check) and pointed us inside the master bedroom while the maids disappeared back into the dark hallway.
Our project director made quick introductions, but there were no handshakes, probably because we didn’t have velvety hand covers. Then she quickly explained that I had roughed out an idea for the lawn that included fountains, plantings, paving crafted from baby unicorn horns, and such. I unfurled my drawing and the mogul and his wife nodded as I explained each part. Then they explained why we were in their bedroom, thank goodness, as I was beginning to think this was going to turn in to one of those “Eyes Wide Shut” party scenarios. Mr. and Mrs. Mogul felt that from the balcony off the bedroom they would have a bird’s eye view of the front lawn, and could better imagine my design in place.
There were indeed fabulous sets of glass doors across the front of the bedroom, offering sweeping views not only of the money-green front lawn, but of the sapphire blue Atlantic Ocean. For a few minutes I tried to explain where each part of my design would happen (“Now, over there by the Central American gentleman trimming your grass with sterling silver scissors will be the first statue, and over where your Labradoodle and Chihuaweiler are enjoying their pâté and finger sandwiches will be the fountain, etc., etc.”).
Then because Mr. Mogul was having difficulty imagining the new design, he asked if I might go to the lawn and indicate the exact layout of each feature. We did have marking paint in the car, sort of a powdery, neon orange spray paint we used to “draw” on the ground, so I grabbed a can and a measuring tape and headed to the front lawn.
For the next hour I was like a petite video game character controlled by the Moguls up on high. I’d spray a line and they’d shout from above, “No, no, further to the left.” And I’d kick the old line away with my foot and respray. Then, “No, too small!” and I’d scuff away the paint and spray a larger diameter circle to represent the Dom Pérignon-filled fountain. To think I had pitied the housemaids who seemed so controlled over, and now I was the one with a joystick up my rear! But in the end (haha) the design turned out great, which just goes to prove that video game characters are people too.
The Greyson Bed
I once accompanied a photographer friend on a shoot at another waterfront mansion. We had the run of the place since it was off season and this hotel-sized abode was merely a vacation house. As we were snooping, I mean, looking around for new angles to photograph, we found ourselves in the laundry complex. It was easily as large as apartments where I had lived, and included industrial sized washers, dryers, steamers, padded tables for clothes folding, an array of shiny silver irons, and some sort of medieval-looking contraption that I was sure was a torture device for maids who had disobeyed (or maybe it was a clothes presser, whatever). Of course this showroom of laundry appliances served a whopping two people (who apparently changed their clothes every 12 seconds).
Then, tucked on a shelf crowded with exotic detergents from Europe, we found the mother lode….a series of little wooden models of beds, complete with headboards, tiny cloth blankets, and little silk pillows. On the base of each model was a label that said “How to Make the Greyson Bed” (name changed to protect the innocent). Yep, the household staff was immune to bed-making blunders because they had a precise model to follow! We did look around for other models (e.g. “How to Wipe the Greyson Butts”) but came up empty-handed.
Both Jamey and I sometimes earned extra money by helping a couple of local companies decorate Christmas trees in Palm Beach for the holidays. We would arrive at a mansion with a massive evergreen imported from Lapland or wherever, then wrap the interior trunk and every branch with a gazillion white lights that could easily illuminate Carlsbad Caverns from top to bottom.
Next we’d open box after box of fancy ornaments from the Nuremberg Christmas Market
—supplemented by box after box of even fancier ornaments we bought at overpriced local boutiques or antique shoppes—to hang on each bough, often along with fresh pears, apples, and pomegranates, as well as fresh roses and hydrangea with their stems in tiny tubes of water, as well as tiny baby reindeer that would wiggle and coo (okay, not really reindeer, but they would have if they could have).
And where were the families as all of these decorating festivities were occurring? Why, sitting on the couch watching, naturally! Apparently it’s an annual holiday tradition…the “watching of the help doing the Christmas decorating.” Which made it even a little weirder that many of these families were Jewish.
So that was my extensive background knowledge regarding household help. Mostly these were worlds I would really never be a part of, something I was reminded of each time I was scrubbing my own toilet bowl or scraping off some random, dried, really sticky substance from the refrigerator shelf. I was my own household help, without the powder blue uniform and crisp white apron Alice wore so well (although I was pretty good with Hazel/Rosario-style one liners).
So imagine my surprise when Jamey and I found ourselves in our own Downtown Abbey-like arrangement here in sub-Saharan Africa. After we had signed our contract to teach at the American International School of Bamako, we received an email explaining that we would have a guard posted at our home 24 hours/day, paid for by the school. Since we had pretty much sold everything we owned before arriving, these guards would be protecting such valuable commodities as our collection of Old Navy boxers and our rare assortment of toiletries purchased from Target (that’s tar-JAY, by the way…very French).
Then we were asked if we wanted to keep the maid, Fati, and gardener, Oumar, that were currently working at the house. The maid’s salary at the time was $150/month, and she worked 5 days a week, 8 hours/day cooking, cleaning, shopping, and doing the laundry. The gardener came twice a week for 4 hours at a time and was paid $50/month for cutting the lawn, planting and caring for the flowers, trimming hedges, watering, and sweeping paved areas. It took us 1.5 seconds to decide “yes.” Lady Grantham, eat your heart out!
Having household help was an interesting adjustment for us. Fati, our maid extraordinaire, certainly has made me feel like Lord Grantham. I remember that feeling I’d get back in Florida when I’d spend all day Saturday cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and taking care of the yard. I would be wiped out by evening, but everything looked so damn sparkly good that I didn’t care. I’d marvel at how shiny the fixtures looked, how the wood floors gleamed, how the yard looked so manicured. Now, that’s the feeling I get EVERY day when we return from school, except we don’t have to lift a finger and can just lounge on the sofa and eat bonbons and throw the wrappers on the floor (full disclosure: Not only do I NOT throw bonbon wrappers on the floor, I do a before-the-maid-gets-here cleaning so she doesn’t think we are cavemen).
One of the many downsides I’d discover about to doing your own housework is that two days after cleaning, everything is a mess again (I’m not blaming this on Jamey per se, but let’s just say that our ideas about cleanliness differ somewhat). Then you just start to dread the weekend when you have to do all of that housework yet again.
Now the dread has vanished. We come home from school each day to a sparkling clean house with tile floors so shiny we could skate on them, or at least do one of those Tom Cruise slides from Risky Business (except wearing pants because I don’t think maids should see our Old Navy boxers). The bed looks hotel-ready with plumped up pillows stacked squarely on top of each other, crisply folded edges, and the sheet turned down just so. The sinks, toilets, and showers glisten without a water spot in sight. Often there are fresh flowers on the table in a glass vase (which we now pronounce “vahz” because we are just like the Crawleys or the Moguls at this point).
Then comes the most wonderful, enticing fragrance of all: the smell of dinner that we
didn’t have to cook ourselves. Yep, every afternoon dinner awaits on the stove, a fully cooked meal in a sparkling clean kitchen. It’s almost like that device the Jetsons had in their kitchen, where they would press a button and a turkey dinner or massive plate of spaghetti would appear. Even better, when we finish eating we just leave the dishes in the sink, where, on the following day, we find them miraculously clean and put away in the cupboard.
But wait….there’s more! Next we wander into the bedroom where the dirty clothes from the previous day are clean, ironed, and folded. Fati even irons the socks. It’s the same with the yard. Just as the bougainvillea or the pomegranate tree or the lawn is about to appear unkempt, we come home to find it all trimmed to perfection. Our vegetable garden is planted, composted, watered, de-weeded, and harvested for us, but I still say, “Look at these tomatoes I grew in my garden!” In three years I’ve done dishes twice (emergency situation), and just a month ago I took out the garbage for the first time (I actually did not know where it went, and the guard took it for me).
Speaking of guards, we have two that take turns on 12-hour shifts. They open the garage door when we arrive or leave, carry our packages to and from the car, wash the car every day, water everything that grows, feed our cat when we are away, sweep the dirt road in front of our house, and pre-screen any visitors by ringing the bell and letting us know whose waiting outside the gate; we decide if we’ll will/won’t have an audience with the visitor (It’s all very Pope-like). The school pays their less-than-$200-per-month salaries, but we supplement that and also give them dinner occasionally because, well, we couldn’t sleep at night if we didn’t! It’s disconcerting to go from the near-bottom of the economic pyramid (lowly teachers in the U.S.) to the near top here in Mali. Our modest teaching salary, nearly 20 times higher than what Fati our maid makes, makes us the Palm Beachers of Bamako.
So before we ever make any requests, we always decide first if it is Mali-normal or Palm Beach-weird because we definitely don’t want to be one of THOSE guys. Take, for instance, sock folding. After Fati launders and irons our socks, she folds them, but individually, thenstacks them on the dresser. Now this means that I’m forced to unfold the two individually folded matching socks, put them together, then refold them as a pair before putting them in the sock drawer, which, by the way, I have arranged by colors from primary to secondary (red, yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, brown, black). Asking her to fold them as a pair and put them into the correct colored stack in the drawer? That would be Palm Beach-weird. So I do my own sock refolding, laborious as it is. We all have to make sacrifices, you know.
Unlike the help on Downtown Abbey or Will and Grace, our employees only speak French and Bambara. I’m great in both languages when it comes to greeting them, commenting on general weather conditions, and telling them I’m tired when we get home from school. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. Fati and I write notes in French back and forth nearly every morning, and thank goodness for Google Translate which sometimes is actually accurate. But when it’s not, it’s REALLY not. Like the time I translated a Fati note and told Jamey it said something about a problem with a trench coat, and we wondered why anyone would ever need a trench coat in sub-Saharan Africa, and why would she even bring up wardrobe issues with us anyway. Well, after a colleague did an actual translation, Fati was actually telling us about some medical issues she was going through. So it’s a good thing I didn’t write back something in French like, “Geez, just get rid of that trench coat and get a windbreaker—it’s Mali for God’s sake.”
And also unlike the Crawleys, we do take the time to chat with our household help every day, and get somewhat involved in their personal lives (our guard Niambele’s family picture is on our fridge). Now granted, on Downton Abbey there is no mixing of the help with the aristocrats—well, except for the chauffeur who married one of Lord Grantham’s daughters, but we don’t have a chauffeur, although we could for about what we pay the gardener. We’ve loaned/given them money (for school fees, to build a room onto a house, for driving school). On every trip we take we bring them all back a gift, and we give them a double salary during the Muslim holiday of Tabaski. We even bought a donkey for one of our guards whose previous animal was donkey-napped (it happens).
We don’t take Fati or Oumar or Niambele or Sidibe for granted, and we certainly appreciate the hard work they do to make our lives easier (and much, much lazier). I would hope that Lord Grantham, the Bradys, Karen Walker, the Banks family, and the Jetsons felt the same way.
And I can assure you that I’ll never direct Oumar’s landscaping from my perch on the roof deck, nor create a model for Fati of our preferred bed-making style, or even have them decorate our Christmas Madagascar Dragon Tree while we watch. That’s just Palm Beach-crazy.