What really goes on in Manhattan's glass apartments? To welcome back Lifetime's primetime drama Devious Maids, Studio@Gawker sent out a reporter to ask three real-life New York City housecleaners about their jobs, their lives, and their clients. Here's the dirt she dug up. [Note: All names have been changed with the exception of Paul.]
Odette lived in a large Manhattan space with extra bedrooms, but moved into a small luxury apartment with her 22-year-old daughter soon after hiring Marian. Odette was recently divorced from a rich man, had already drained a trust fund, and was open about the fact that her money was running out. Still, cash issues didn't stop her from hiring Marian to clean every day.
Marian would arrive each morning to pick up messes, do small loads of laundry, and clean the same areas of the apartment she'd just cleaned the day before. Odette spent the better half of the day in her bedroom, the sound of a television or a phone conversation drifting from behind her closed door.
Eventually, Odette would emerge and greet Marian: "Come with me, we're going shopping."
The two would go to boutiques and if Odette saw Marian admiring something — say, a bag — she would ask, "Do you like it?"
"I would say 'yes,'" Marian explains, her tone hesitant. "But I don't have any money."
Despite Marian's protests, Odette would buy her the item. Odette gave Marian bags, dresses, shoes — most of which Marian sent back to her teenage daughters in South Asia. "I haven't seen my daughters in eight years," sighs Marian. "It's so hard. I talk to them on the phone every day. I hope they can join me here one day... but I also want to send them to university back home, where it's better financially."
Marian's schedule at Odette's was 10 to 4, but most days she stayed much later, drawn into conversations about her employer's problems: the ex-husband, the ex-ex-husband, her brother who was draining the family money, her daughter who was on drugs. Odette would offer to pay Marian extra for the time she spent listening and offering advice, but she often refused, explaining she couldn't take more after the shopping and everything else Odette had given her.
Marian truly cared about Odette's well being, and it felt as though she was becoming a second daughter to Odette, who began to tell her not to worry about cleaning, to instead lie down and take a nap. Once Odette even offered to buy Marian a car.
"When I would get home [at night], I would worry about Odette," Marian explains. "I knew she always felt so alone in the apartment, so I would text her, 'How are you feeling? Did you get something to eat?' and we would chat back and forth."
Flipping through her iPhone, Marian showed me photos of the two of them together: Odette Botox-ed and smiling, towering over Marian with an arm draped around her. Despite the apparent warmth, Marian's daughter-like role loomed over her ominously; she could tell Odette's actual daughter sensed it, too.
"Why are you with Marian all of the time?" Odette's daughter would explode. The mother-daughter pair had never gotten along, but now their fighting reached new heights. Nearly every day, the daughter would lose her temper at Odette's prodding and scream things like, "Why did you bring me into this world?" Afterward, Odette would cry and Marian would sit with her, offering comfort. Sometimes Marian would confront the daughter afterward on behalf of her employee to explain that her mother meant well.
"I knew I had to quit," says Marian. The relationship wasn't improving and both women of the house were out of work. They were going into debt and Marian wondered how much longer they'd be able to afford her. Feeling bad, Marian made up a lie. She told Odette she would be getting married again and had to move away. But before she left, Odette had a gift for her: a wedding dress.
"I had to take it, of course," Marian says, "but I felt a little guilty."
Today, most of Paul's clients find him through Yelp. But in 1985, the majority of his housecleaning jobs came from listings in gay magazines. Back then, Paul worked for a gay-owned and operated cleaning agency in Chelsea. One of his clients explained the lure: "Finally, I can leave all of my stuff out." And out it came: adult toys with magazines to match; costumes of a leather persuasion; mysterious white powder on the coffee table that Paul would dispose of at first, not knowing what it was.
He recalls one particular client who decided to suit up when Paul arrived for his shift. As Paul struggled to unclog the man's ancient vacuum cleaner, he looked up to find his client standing there, twisting a nipple ring, wearing his leathers and not much else. "Oh honey…I've been hit on, and it's never by the people you want," laughs Paul.
As time went on, Paul realized that as exciting as agency life was, he could make more money by going solo. He kept some clients and accrued more through word of mouth. In his time as a one-man cleaning business, he learned that the keys to success were twofold: you should actually like to clean, and you should never be afraid to fire a client. And with enough experience, recognizing the warning signs becomes easy. Take this voicemail Paul received:
"Paul, it's Darius from the East Village. Matt and I wanted to thank you for being such a good sport! We were watching the nanny cam footage and noticed you weren't upset by our little hairless wonders. I have to say, it was funny how the cats would leap on your back and have a little fight while you were vacuuming. We kept rewinding and watching it over and over while we smoked a joint. Really made us crack up, the look on your face. We're thinking of posting it to YouTube — would you mind?"
Another thing Paul has learned from his decades of cleaning: if you have the choice between a dirty client and a fussy one, choose the slob. "Slobs are grateful," he tells me. "Take my client, Erik. He would call me to detail things like, 'I noticed you didn't do the inside of the shower rings. No worries, I'm sure you'll do them next time.'" Erik would go on to review an emailed diagram he'd sent Paul that specified the placement and pattern arrangement of his pillows.
The value of slobs, however, goes beyond the fact that they refrain from making outrageous demands. "There's something satisfying about the transformation," Paul says, and he has seen the worst of it: shelves holding exploded cans that rain down mouse droppings as you clear them out, dead plants stuffed into dresser drawers next to the underwear, a fridge that contained 67 jars of pizza sauce gone orange. "I remember because I counted," says Paul.
One apartment he worked on was totally tidy and nice but for a horrid smell emanating from the kitchen. Paul checked the usual suspects: garbage, fridge, sink, behind the stove — nothing. As he cleaned, the scent continued to sting his nostrils.
Finally, Paul opened the stove. There was the culprit: someone had left a "gift" sitting on the rack — one typically reserved for toilets. "I stood there in awe, wondering how the person had done it, how they'd maneuvered themselves...it was pristine." Thinking this was not a situation in which to leave a note, Paul called his client to relay his discovery. The client thanked him and hung up, while Paul's mind raced with possible explanations. A week later, the client called to thank Paul and let him know he was moving. He figured it was his super who did it.
Paul's customers are loyal; he's kept a lot of them for ten, fifteen years. It's allowed him to really get to know his clients. When one pair — a couple — died (first Max, then John) Paul went to their funerals, sat in the back row, and cried. "It's a little strange. You aren't family, you aren't a friend. The cleaning person can even be invisible at times, but there is an intimacy there," Paul explains.
"I come into their homes and see them as they are; I see how they live. Really, this job is about the inherent trust that comes with that, it's about never judging — and making sure the dirt doesn't win."
At 8 AM the housecleaners — about thirty women — arrive at Elaine's Housecleaning, a maid service in the suburbs of New York City. They talk to one another in Spanish and grab the supplies they need before heading out to clean in groups of five to ten. The office crew stays to field calls, manage the schedule, and crunch payroll.
After thirty years in the business, the cleaning service's namesake has garnered a sixth sense for messiness. Elaine has an intuition when it comes to people and their cleaning habits.
"Well, professions are a dead giveaway," she admits. "Always, doctors are the dirtiest. College professors are just as slovenly but it's more of books, papers, water glasses. With doctors...it's just grime."
This observation aligns with the two archetypes Elaine has noted: people who pick up after themselves but leave their homes dirty, and people who are cluttered but clean. Elaine admits she falls under the latter category — the office is clean and cozy but a little disorganized; rows of vacuums and bottles of Windex are strewn about haphazardly.
"Okay, so psychologists are the weirdest about their space. Remember the one who kept calling to say that the girls were throwing off the vibrational energy of his crystals?"
"What about lawyers?" counters Marissa, a maid-turned-admin who has worked with Elaine since the 90s.
"There was the one who kept food in the nightstand and left containers of Chinese food knocked over on the dining room table for days. We had to vacuum the bed!"
The women begin to list their weirdest clients: "Plastic surgery guy," "Speedo guy," the client who left tampon applicators in various places around the house.
"You discover things about people," says Elaine. "But we're very discreet. We may talk amongst ourselves, but nothing gets out."
Elaine's Housecleaning started as a one-woman business. Both Elaine and Marissa began as maids, but they've since retired to the office as the staff has grown. Among the women cleaning for Elaine, many have been with the company for years on end. Of course, some don't work out.
There was the woman who would steal things — not large, expensive items, but small ones. Several clients called to say she stole their phone chargers. "And then she would move people's stuff around. She moved DVD collections around, hiding the discs in sofa cushions," Elaine tells me.
There was the woman who convinced a nanny to break a vase and make it look like the other cleaners had done it, the woman who left a "large pair of underpants" in someone's house, and another woman who openly bragged about her affair with a client.
"Talk about devious maids," says Marissa.
"There are days I miss it," says Elaine. "Sometimes I want to just say, 'Okay, I'm coming out with you guys today.'"
"Cleaning really is the healthiest job," Marissa agrees.
"The entire time I cleaned, I was a size two!" says Elaine (who couldn't be more than a size six). "I think cleaning is a great job — I wish it had a higher status."
The phone rings, and the women turn back to their work for a while. They double-check the women's hours for payroll, but the conversation inevitably begins again.
"What else…oh, there was the time we went to the wrong house and cleaned it," Elaine laughs.
"There was the time we caught a break-in," adds Marissa. "The girls showed up and wondered why it was so messy, then realized someone had just left through the back window."
At around 3 PM, the maids trickle back into the office to return mops and vacuums. "What are you doing tonight?" someone asks Lucia, one of the cleaners. It's a Friday and Lucia says she'll go to the mall, and probably out to dinner. Then she'll sleep in. "Then, I will clean my house!" she adds, determined.
In the office sits a stack of "yearbooks" from the past 10 years: scrapbooks full of employees' snapshots, school pictures of everyone's kids, posed shots of everyone dressed up for holiday parties. It's clear the women are close.
"I've never hired a male housecleaner, which I could probably get in trouble for," says Elaine. "I'm all for equality of the sexes but well, I mean...if one gender is superior, clearly it's women."
That housecleaning is often relegated to the female sphere comes up, and Elaine nods in acknowledgement. "But we own it, we own what we do for a living."
Check out Devious Maids Season 2 when it premieres on Sunday, April 20 at 10/9c on Lifetime.
Rachel White is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Playboy, The New York Observer, Cosmopolitan, NYMag.com and more.