I pity the folks who will take care of me when I grow too old to help myself. Like my mother, I don’t accept assistance easily. Already, I’m having a tug of wills with the women who clean my apartment at the retirement center. I can’t stop them from scrubbing my toilet, but I can dump the trash before they do. Having someone bundle my used tissues and banana peels, while I can do it for myself, strikes me as demeaning to the help and me. I probably feel this way because my mother used to be “the help.” She worked hard and sometimes was unappreciated.
To be honest, coaching others to “do for me” takes a certain élan that I, a card-carrying member of the Labor Movement, never developed. I have no class. While the lines between rich and poor are becoming more distinct in this country, the lines of social class are being blurred. That wasn’t always been the case. We know, thanks to Downton Abbey, that prior to World War I, people knew their place. A person either served or was served and the communication was reduced to protocol.
Today, there is less demand for professional butlers and housekeepers, but where the need exists, people who know how to serve receive far better wages than those who served in days of old. According to writer Marisa Meltzer, “…butlers are making probably $1 million a year with zero overhead.” (“Revenge Of The Maids,” by Marisa Meltzer, Town&Country, Dec 2017-Jan 2018, pg. 126.)
I suspect providing service to people with both money and pretension is an art and an income well-earned. Protecting someone’s illusions of grandeur can be tricky, as personal service involves a degree of intimacy. Does, Madame need her wig washed? Does Sir have an adequate supply of incontinence diapers? Only the butler knows. Which is why he’s well-paid. Then there are the strange peccadilloes of the rich. Meltzer recounts how one wealthy man refused to hire anyone taller than he was. Another never met or spoke to the person who ruled his kitchen for 8 years. One grand dame sent her employee home because the worker had a cold sore. (Ibid pg. 233.)
A retirement center which serves the middle class, as mine does, puts a different strain on those who serve. Clients with peccadilloes about garbage are few. But, too many people, clustered under one roof and making diverse demands, causes stress. Over the past three years, I’ve watched one employee’s grow increasingly discontent. If her chin dropped any lower, I feared, it would suffer carpet burns.
This week, she resigned. When I asked where she’d found a new job, she replied, “A mortuary.”
“Less back chat from clients,” I later quipped to someone who’d yet to hear the news. A second resident, no fan of the employee, looked up with a twinkle in her eye. She thought the move inspired. “You couldn’t make up a thing like that.”