- Jim Campbell illustration
They mailed me a key to a storage locker, where the overhead light flickered like something out of a terrorist interrogation room. I picked up a bucket of cleaning supplies and a solitary razor to clean newly vacated apartments on Washington State University's campus. It was my first and only day on the job, but I can still remember the way the cleaner stung my hands.
Through college, I had professionally cleaned for a family. Paired with a purple boom box on Wednesday nights, I ruddied my knees scrubbing the kitchen floor and scraping remnants of what could only be spaghetti off a child's high chair.
This was different.
The empty apartment looked as if wild animals had squatted and vanished in the night. I started cleaning in the kitchen. The once stark-white cabinets were caked in ash-gray thumbprints and ooze that created tributary-like pathways down to the linoleum. Armed with a cleaning checklist, I was to use a razor to remove film from the glass cabinets and mold from the windowsills.
The task seemed possible until I smelled something vile lingering in the bathroom. I imagined a hairball the size of Texas clogging the shower drain. I pictured bloodied Band-Aids and a toilet seat camouflaged by pubic hair and whatever unspeakable horrors awaited me and my bucket.
But I never made it past the kitchen. I barely finished the cabinets before abandoning my bucket in the middle of the checkered floor. I couldn't return to that depressing storage closet, and yet overwhelming guilt passed over me as I deemed myself too good to clean this place. Too proud to carry on the profession my grandmother did graciously for 25 years as head maid at Benny's Panorama Hotel — a hotel, under a different moniker, that still stands in Colville, Washington.
As those stark cabinets closed in around me, I discovered that dirty work is not itself dehumanizing. It's only when I devalue my worth and my work that I should feel ashamed. That night, I left sweaty and terrified of lurking student loans and the prospects of finding a job as a journalist. Seven years later I'm still terrified, but I'm proud that I left that night. ♦