‘What the fuck is that?” Tila and I held Mary-blue cleaning rags over our mouths to stifle the soul-permeating stench—an unholy trinity of rotting papaya, bursting late-summer roadkill, and dear-God-don’t-let-it-be-human. The power was off in the house. No open windows, no cross breeze or air conditioner to moderate the ride-or-die mid-August swelter. Barry, our dispatcher, habitually said yes when he took calls, but didn’t ask what he’d said yes to. If she hadn’t been there, I would’ve gagged and run.
The house was massive, like all the others around it. Purchase, NY, isn’t known for its modestly sized abodes. Epic lawn, six-car garage, cathedral ceilings. Bigger is better when you don’t have to clean it, I guess. A narrow path cut through the trash piled up on both sides of the darkened hallway. It was blanketed with a black fuzzy mold that continued up the 10-foot walls. The old man from the photos who had lived in the place probably couldn’t bend over or take out the trash in his final months or years, so the floor was heaped with it. When you can no longer clean up after yourself, do you ask for help, or keep it to yourself? This man had kept it to himself.
The place was caustic with cat piss. It stung at the eyes and lungs. There were no cats to be seen, but there were overflowing litter boxes, so they’d been around at some point. Maybe he’d kept going for his cats. I would, for my pitbulls. The bedroom door at the end of the hall hung listlessly open. A California king-size bed sat solemn in the silty dimness. A dark amorphous stain marked the old man’s passing. He’d died in that musty, rank room. How they got the body out, you couldn’t tell. Neither the mold nor the trash had been disturbed by a gurney. The whole house needed to be landfilled. Clearing it out required a hazmat crew with respirators, Tyvek suits, and a roll-off dumpster parked at the end of that long bucolic driveway. Merry Maids don’t do biohazard remediation. We were done.
We’d lost most of the morning. Merry Maids are paid by the job, not by the hour. No benefits. No sick pay. If we wanted money for driving our own car with our own gas to Merry Maids job sites, we had to do the work. It was on us to say no when Barry messed up. We said no, lost half the day’s pay, and never got it back.
Tila was Barry’s lead trainer. She trained me when I went to work for Merry Maids out of high school, then kept me. To 5-foot-2 Tila, I was a tall, limber tool at nearly 6 feet, and I got used as such.“I go low, you go high,” she’d say.
And that’s how we worked. I went ahead of her, moving through the houses, clearing and cleaning all surfaces above waist level. She came behind me, vacuuming and mopping. Tila moved fast. Plenty of times she’d ram the vacuum into the back of my heels barking, “Move it, bitch!” as I was dusting my way through a living room loaded with knickknacks and china plates hung as wall decor.
Tila was from south Texas, just north of Galveston. Her Mama named her after the wild Tilia tree flowers that bloom in late spring. She’d gathered the fragrant white blossoms to make tea while pregnant. The strong honey taste helped settle her morning sickness. Tila’s father, an army recruit who drove down for the weekends from Fort Hood, left before she was born. Tila herself had two boys from two different fathers, both from Fort Hood. She called them her “love babies.” She’d loved their daddies, but they didn’t love her. After high school, she moved east with her aunt to Beacon, NY, where they both started cleaning houses. Tila’s boyfriend, Angel, watched her boys while she cleaned office parks at night. He was on a paltry “thank you for your service” disability from the first Gulf War. But service to what? Whether from the toxic burn pits, the depleted uranium shells that were sprayed and vaporized across a rapidly retreating battlefield, or the hellscape oil-well fires lit to obscure the fleeing Iraqi Red Guard, the Marine who hiked 12 miles with a 70-pound rucksack in boot camp now couldn’t make it up a flight of stairs. The VA fought him for every dime. Angel had seen an Iraqi girl burned alive by the side of the highway after being showered by American Rockeye cluster bombs as her parents fled north toward Baghdad. Ever since, he’d seen her burning nightly in his dreams. Angel was violent with Tila but sweet with the boys. She needed a babysitter and his disability check, so she stayed.
Maids exist because poverty exists. No mama coos to her ruddy newborn, “When you grow up, I want you to clean up after the filthy rich.” If they paid us as much as they’d have to pay themselves to pick up their own shit, then there wouldn’t be maids. Tila and I, like all maids, were a cheap luxury, the foundation of the American service economy: poor kids cleaning and feeding rich kids, from cradle to grave.
America is a majority-poor nation. The median income is a poverty-guaranteeing $19 an hour. 54 percent of American kids are on Medicaid. And most of us can’t afford to rent an apartment or buy a reliable car. If you have a degree, you aren’t normal. The income disparity between a bachelor’s degree and a high school diploma is $22,000 a year, the highest on record, with a four-year degree bringing in over $800,000 more in a lifetime. That’s like winning the lottery.
Both raised rural and devout, Tila and I revered the simplicity of black and white striped Navajo chief blankets, roan-striped Pryor Mountain mustangs, and the Ivory-billed woodpecker’s toot toot call. We were art geeks and science geeks, reveling in primary concepts. I’d been good in math and in grade-school spelling bees. I might have become an industrial designer; Tila would have been a no-nonsense graphic designer. She was militant about primary colors. She abhorred all things fluorescent, pastel and taupe, and the God-awful shriek of corporate Broadway. If we had been born to rich mothers or in a country that invests in kids rather than bombs, we might have met up at college. But we were born in America. We talked about what we would be, but with the hateful recognition that we would be none of it. Rather than geeking out over what we loved, we were maids.
Most Americans never go to college, or drop out soon after starting, citing money as the main reason. I did. Working three jobs while taking one English course at Dutchess Community College, I didn’t have time to finish the first essay assignment. The professor told me to quit and go get a “steady” job. Those jobs existed for her generation, but not for mine. I quit and kept hustling whatever zombie-wage gigs I could string together, just to stay housed and fed.
When I got off from Merry Maids around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I’d bolt back to my hole-in-the-wall apartment to shower. I’d then speed over to Danelli’s, where I prepped pie and pasta orders and jumped in the owner’s puddle hopper Hyundai when our dopesick delivery driver was a no-show. I stayed late, set the dough for the next day, cleaned out the back kitchen, and closed up shop. When business was slow, I got “butt patrol,” picking up cigarette entrails from the parking lot with a whisk broom. The restaurant’s owner, a retired engineer from IBM, was the only one in the place allowed to smoke in the parking lot, so it was his butts I was sweeping up. I left around midnight, showered again, slept four hours, then drove back to Merry Maids to grab cleaning supplies and meet back up with Tila.
We didn’t sleep much. We worked. But in service to what?
My daddy wanted to be a commercial artist. His A1 draft notice came in ‘68, the same year MLK and RFK were murdered. A college counselor had miscalculated his class credits. Both King and Kennedy argued that warfare abroad bludgeoned the poor at home and expanded their ranks. Martin and Bobby were shot dead within two months of each other, and the war machine engorged itself on several generations, consuming my family, Tila’s, and maybe yours. Poverty persists because war persists. Its death merchants impoverish us while they kill in our name.
The surfer boy shipped off to Vietnam wasn’t the broken child soldier who came back. The son of a Georgia hog farmer, he never returned to school. Soldiers can’t reciprocate the terror wrought onto body and soul by the generals who deployed them, so they terrorize themselves and their families instead. Only through a slow-coming recognition can their sons learn to hate the war pigs who sent them off to slaughter a foreign people whose names we’ll never know.
Several times I saw Mama fight back. Her arms were covered in bruises as far back as I can remember, even while she was nursing. Once, in the kitchen after a night of berating, she raised her hand to hit him, and he seized her wrist in mid-flight. I drew a breath and held it. With a look of incredulous rage, he clenched her wrist for what seemed like my entire childhood. She had broken a sacred covenant: Never strike the hand that hits you and feeds you. Daddy’s grip left four purple welts. I waited for him to hit her, then he threw her against the wall.I saw similar bruises on Tila. She didn’t hide them with long sleeves till they dissipated, like Mama did. She wasn’t embarrassed by her circumstances. Our work made us sweat. We wore short sleeve shirts. She saw her bruises, and I saw her bruises.
With only a high school diploma and nowhere to run, Tila couldn’t afford to leave Angel. She had babies to care for. So did my mama. For 24 years, she didn’t run—not until the night Daddy threatened to kill us all with a .270 rifle. On a credit card and a half-empty tank, she piled us kids into the jeep, and we fled. We slept that night at a rest stop off I-84 and were homeless for a few months. We found refuge at a battered women’s shelter for other domestic refugees in downtown Poughkeepsie. None of the women or their babies looked like us, but like my Mama, none of the women had a college degree.
When Tila quit, I quit. Barry paged me around 4 in the morning to tell me I’d be running the Wednesday route alone. Same workload as if it were Tila and me. He wanted two days of work out of one of me. I paged back, “I quit.” I had Tila’s number, but I didn’t call her or page her. All I felt was dread. No news is never good news—not for poor kids, at least. Coming from shitshow upbringings, we learned early on that for survival's sake, you don’t take your business to the street.
I drove by her apartment a few times after getting out of Danelli’s. Her car was never there, and the lights were never on. Like me, she read science fiction late at night to fall asleep. Several weeks later, a for-rent sign was taped to the duplex window. Tila quit something bigger than Merry Maids in those early morning hours. Growing up as we did, wearing thrift-store clothes, getting picked on by rich kids, we both developed a punk instinct to fight ’em till they kill you. But sometimes the only sane thing to do is run. I think she ran that night.
Tila was a giant to me, but she wasn’t singular. She was part of the deluge of discarded humanity that has flowed around me at every wage-slave job I’ve ever had.
My mother last texted me this past Fourth of July from her little HUD apartment in little Mohave, Ariz., after we got into a back-and-forth on America’s latest war of choice, in Ukraine. She wanted me to know that she’s grateful for what little she’s got. She subsists on a monthly food budget of less than $200. That’s pocket change of more than six bucks a day. She qualifies for a pissant $25 in food stamps, but quit trying to get them after a month of emails and phone calls to the state welfare office were never returned. She accepts what I refuse to accept. Subsistence isn’t existence. I tapped a heart on her text but didn’t write back.