What It's Like Articles
What It’s Like to Be a Maid Here
Reprinted from The Profile, 1994
I won’t complain about the work. It may not be pleasant, but I chose to do it and I don’t resent the fact that I pick up after people and clean their toilets. Lots of women do that for free at home. No paycheck, no retirement, no union. It’s nice to be around the students; either they’re friendly or they’re not. Easy to get along with either way.
What I don’t like is the way I get treated in the offices. I take pride in my work, and I do a good job. I have a bad day once in a while when I just can’t seem to move. Just like the office ladies. Difference is, when they can’t move, they don’t have to. They can stay at their desks, call their friends, complain about whatever. Go to lunch a little early, stay a little longer.
I’m not jealous, but let someone catch me on a college phone—talking to my son’s teacher at the only time she can talk to me—and the whole department gets in trouble, and it’s meetings and memos. I see the office ladies making Xerox copies of jokes and recipes and church work and cute little poems. It’s nice they can do that. It’s nice to have an honor system for paying for copies, too. I like working in a place where everyone can be trusted, more or less. But let me walk to close to one of those machines and there is an office lady sniffing around. “Do you need some help with that? Can I help you with something?” What they really mean is, “What are you doing? Is that an official college copy? Did you pay for that?” And what they’re thinking is, “Did she take any money out of that box?”
I listen to these same women keep up with each others’ babies and husbands and church friends and people who used to work here. Name any place, and someone in the room will know somebody else’s sister or child who lives there. They remember that kind of thing, but they can’t seem to remember my name even though I’ve been here longer than they have. They know each others’ children’s wives and husbands and their home towns and where they went to college, but they don’t know my name. Don’t know my name, and I’ve been seeing them every day since the disco era. I’ve got a husband too, same old tired one I’ve always had, and I’ve got children, and they have names. We all have names, but I know the excuses: there are so many of them, I can’t keep them straight; I don’t see her enough to talk to—like every day since 1979 is not long enough?
We have more in common than you know. For example, here I am using a computer to write this at home. I own this house; I work in the yard. My children stay out too late, and thy get grounded. I drive my elderly neighbor to the store once a week. I’m on a very important committee at my church. We raise a lot of money, but they don’t want to know about by charities or my preferences except once a year when it’s for the United Way. Then the push is on. Do it for the community. They give it a few weeks, and then they lean on our supervisor because not enough people from our department have “donated.” We asked for a payroll deduction for that new parking fee, and they said it couldn’t be done because of the computers. Not a month after that, they’re trying to talk me into a United Way payroll deduction. One time somebody important even came in front of us and said she didn’t want to work with people who aren’t “generous.” She could fire us all, so what were we supposed to think?
I think they never take a good look at me. They couldn’t pick me out of a lineup of other women my same age and weight. I changed my hair once, and someone whose name I’ve known for three years tried to introduce herself. You can see why Staff Day is such an ordeal. That’s the one day to be nice, to pretend we’re all on the same team. I don’t like being hauled out or sent away like furniture. When there is a convocation with a black speaker, they want us there. Tell us we have to go. If the Board of Trustees is in town, they want us to be invisible. They don’t want to see any blue uniforms around here when there are important people on campus. When there are important black people on campus, they want us around for show. Imagine if your teacher or boss picked out all the convocations you should go to and wouldn’t let you go to any others and would NOT let you go to the ones he had chosen.
I don’ think there’s anybody here who is mean or vicious, at least not where I clean. I think some people are afraid of me, afraid of people who look like me. Afraid that if they got too friendly I might want to live next door to them. But it’s more than that. Everybody is so darn nice here that they don’t want to hurt my feelings by admitting that they don’t know my name. They’re afraid that if they try to talk to me and say the wrong thing I’ll drop my bucket, point at them, and start screaming, “Racist!” Trust me, I won’t do it. I will treat you with respect. I need my job and I wouldn’t do anything that made everybody upset. None of us in the department would. That’s why we present everything’s okay, even though most of them pretend we’re invisible. Until a toilet overflows—then all of the sudden I’m your best friend.
What It’s Like to Be a Custodian Here, Part Two
22 March 2006
As a custodian, I have reread the article from The Profile in 1994, “What It’s Like to Be a Maid Here.” I would like to comment on what has changed and what has stayed the same. Many of us have worked here for several years and want to consider ourselves members of the Agnes Scott community, so I appreciate the opportunity to update my work situation and share my experience with you.
First of all, I am generally satisfied with my job. I like doing a good job and being good at my job. Agnes Scott is a good place to work for the most part. But I would like to offer some Visine to many of you here so that you can see me a little clearer; just a few drops and maybe you would see me better, what I’m going through, and that I am a person struggling and trying my best to make it.
The main issue for low-wage workers on campus remains respect. You do not respect me when you don’t know my name (even though it’s written plainly on my uniform shirt). You don’t respect me when you throw trash around everywhere but the trash can, or when you continue to walk into the bathroom I am mopping saying, “so sorry Miss…” For the most part, I love the students and I like my job, but there are some students who are mean-spirited-- trashing a dorm lounge, stopping up commodes by packing them with tissue, throwing up in the sink, using the shower as a commode and leaving the waste there for me to clean. Think about it. I lose time that I could be using to clean other areas. Plus it really kills my spirit for the rest of the day, because it seems to be done on purpose.
When you lose something, you always come to me first in a sneaky way as if you really want to ask me if I took it. When you find it, you never come back to say, guess what - I found it under my bed, etc.
We need to commit to breaking down the lines between us, and questioning why they existed in the first place. Maybe it would make a difference if we were introduced to all the students in the dorm each year.
I want to focus not on how it was but how it is. There are many students of color who think racism and discrimination is over, that it was their parent’s generation but not theirs. I need them to know that racism exists and is still going on right here at Agnes Scott College. We need to come together across these class lines.
This institution wants “the blues” (as we are negatively called) to be invisible, unless they need us to show up at the M.L. King Convocation so they can show the speaker how much they love us. On these occasions there are so many people smiling and speaking to us as we exit. Pressure. Sometimes these smiles last through the lunch hour. Then we are invisible until the next time.
Some of our people take their breaks in “Mollies.” Would you believe we have actually had students question “why” we are there. Are they lazy and just goofing off from work? You must try not to always think negatively of us. I wish you would take the time to get familiar with the work we do.
A few faculty and staff will actually have a real conversation with me; I can count them on one hand. I want everyone in this community to have an idea of what I actually do in the building, and what I do when I leave this building. As I said in 1994, we have a lot more in common that you know. I want to be seen as a colleague; I want my work to be appreciated and dignified.
Most of my colleagues are the head of their household with children. I need an outside job but I need to be with my kid more—or else I’d have to use my outside job to pay for childcare. I travel an hour to work each morning; that’s two hours each day. The cost of housing in Decatur is too expensive, so I have to live further out. The travel really cuts into my family time.
As custodians (mostly women) our jobs have been labeled “unskilled,” while the painters and carpenters (all men) do “skilled labor.” You tell me why the knowledge of stripping and refinishing a floor is valued less than stripping and painting a wall! So know that my work is skilled, even though I’ve often heard that custodial work here is “unskilled.” I have to know chemicals and combinations and how to do my job the best I can. Our workspaces got smaller in the new buildings. We were never consulted; think of us when you’re designing the buildings.
We are cleaning more buildings with fewer people. There is more and more work and not enough people to do it. Each time there’s a lay off, the buildings and the workload get bigger and bigger. Did you know there is one custodian cleaning McCain Library, with its 13 restrooms? She also cleans first floors of Main and Rebekah and the Public Safety building. Like her, I would like to be able to follow through with my plans for the day, but each day is like starting all over again, even more so if my work “buddy” (the person I replace when they are out by doing their work as well as mine) is out sick. We need more people to do the amount of work, if the College expects us to get the job done in a certain length of time.
With all this extra work the pay scale is way off. After about 10 years I am making nearly the same pay as the new workers; it’s less than 50 cents more. They gave us a 4% increase last July after a three-year drought but it’s not enough. I need to be paid just wages for my work. I’m asking for enough for the basics: for childcare and rent and food and utilities and the rest. Agnes Scott says, “We love our workers.” This sounds to me like the same thing the slave owners said, “We love our slaves.” How can you really respect me if you pay me poverty wages?
Let’s get beyond being nice and really get to know each other. Walk a mile in my shoes. I am somebody too. I am part of the Agnes Scott College community.