Dishing the dirt: Housekeepers

Dishing the dirt: Housekeepers
Secrets are revealed to workers who rarely earn a tidy sum for cleaning others' homes, but still it's a "privilege"
By Sheba R. Wheeler
Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 02/22/2007 12:07:59 PM MST

Mile High Maid Keri Celentano dusts woodwork in this 1890 Victorian home. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)Someone knows more about you than your best friend, clergyman or even your mother.

Housekeepers have the ultimate "insider's look" at private spaces and the people who live there. Little is secret from a person who makes your bed and vacuums your furniture - even the things that should be.

The trust some homeowners place in their housekeeper is a source of empowerment, insight and humor for people in the industry.

"It's a privilege," says Jessica Bullman, a massage therapy student who has worked for Merry Maids since September.

Bullman experienced a voyeuristic thrill on her first day as a housekeeper. "All I wanted to do was be free to walk around and look," she says. "It took all of my

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strength to actually start cleaning."
Decorations. Family photos. Even the artwork is a reflection of the client. One house in Golden, for instance, has a plaque sitting on the floor, waiting to be hung. It reads: "Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never fails."

The home belongs to newlyweds who are celebrating the birth of their first child. Even though that particular saying resonates with Bullman, she's learned to respect privacy.

"No matter what you learn about the clients, good or bad," she says, "you have to keep your judgments to yourself."

Mile High Maids supervisor Keri Celentano's business T-shirt explains that "some people are just not MAID to clean." That concept is sometimes difficult for this self-proclaimed neat-freak to understand.

"It's common sense," she says while unconsciously rolling the right shoulder her doctor says is strained from repetitive motion. "If it's dirty, clean it."

Still, it's common for housekeepers to call their supervisors refusing to go into a house because it looks and smells more like a toxic dump than a home.

"I remember walking into this house once where

Keri Celentano of Mile High Maids cleans a Victorian house in central Denver. Maids have an intimate look into the private lives of homeowners that most other people don't have. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)the homeowner had 106 pizza boxes lined up from floor to ceiling," says Maria Guidry with Mile High Maids. "I probably would have cried if I had been alone, but since my friend was working with me, we just started laughing."
Guidry knows when children live in a home by the toys left strewn across the floor. She also picks up "what people are working on within" by browsing the covers of their self-help books. Everyone seems to want to lose weight or get help with their love life, she says.

Expensive linens but not a single television set suggests a client values sleep. An abode that seems messier than usual is often a clue the client has a new boyfriend or girlfriend. And if the sliding glass door leading to the patio

It's a dirty job for Maria Guidry of Mile High Maids. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)has low, dirty streaks, they can be certain that a dog is in the house.
"It's kind of like a relationship," Guidry says of the unspoken rapport she develops with clients. Still, there are hobbies and pastimes that make even a seasoned maid uncomfortable.

"So many people smoke weed," Guidry says. "I get so tired of running a cloth over a coffee table and picking up green speckles, not to mention the roaches in the ashtrays."

Merry Maid Maria Arriaga's cheeks turn pink when she recalls one over-trusting client.

"My friend ... found a (sex toy) under the comforter when she tried to make the bed," Arriaga says. "She didn't know what to do because we are supposed to make the beds - but you can't touch something like that!"

That housekeeper ended up leaving a note that explained why the bed wasn't made.

Twenty five years ago, professional maid services weren't as common as they are today, says Bill McCarthy, who with his wife opened the first Colorado Merry Maids franchise in 1981. Housekeeping was viewed at that time as something only the wealthy enjoyed. The industry also was a tough sell to fiercely proud housewives.

But demand for housekeepers exploded once more women entered the workforce.

McCarthy remembers one early job in particular:

The wife said her husband told her that if she went back to work, he would help her with the house care. He didn't. McCarthy says her frustration over the uneven division of domestic labor "summed up the feeling of many women across America."

Today, the time-starved are quicker to contract out services. Having someone else mow the lawn or scoop up after the dog means more quality time for many homeowners.

And that's not just the higher-income set.

Mile High Maids gets 90 percent of its business from middle-income earners, company owner Nathan Zeschin says. Whether the maid comes once a week or once a month, people find a way to pay for it.

Acceptance of having a housekeeper may be growing, but maids say they still cope with a stigma associated with cleaning someone else's home. Guidry's best friend won't know until she reads this article what this Mile High Maid does for a living. And conversations about Guidry's work are noticeably absent from family dinners and holidays.

"My dad keeps telling me to get a real job," she says.

No maid is in it for the money. With an average wage of $11 an hour, many of the girls who work for Mile High Maids room together to help make ends meet. Guidry only made $40 one day recently after cleaning just one house.

But an understanding boss and a flexible schedule make the job worthwhile.

"There have been so many family emergencies and times when I would have been fired from any other job," says this single mom. "You can't put a price on things like that."

Homeowner Kathy Brantigan tried for seven years to keep up her historic home without a housekeeper. But two dogs, four children, a husband with a demanding career, and frequent houseguests made the task nearly impossible.

"I was miserable," says Brantigan, a longtime musician who manages the Denver Brass. "I think everybody struggles with what kind of home they want to have and whether they can keep it that way."

Brantigan gave in and became a client of Mile High Maids. Now, she says, the housekeepers' appreciation for her 1890 Victorian is evident.

"It's a tough job, (and) one that I don't want to do," she says. "Anybody who makes me feel happier and better about going home deserves to be respected and paid well."

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