The next time you hear someone say they think poor people are lazy, hand them a copy of “Maid.” Stephanie Land can tell them otherwise and, unlike most authors who write about poverty, speaks from personal — and recent — experience.
“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” Land announces in the first sentence. That grim tone pervades a memoir in which her circumstances improve, but only slightly, over most of its five-year span.
Land finds a minimum-wage job as a house cleaner, work that fills her time but not her bank account. Living in Skagit Valley, Wash., she and her daughter move into a mold-infested one-room apartment that’s sweltering in summer and frosty in winter. She receives public assistance for rent, groceries and day care. It keeps starvation at bay, but she always teeters one car breakdown away from disaster. She’s so used to scrimping, even on basics, that an unexpected tax refund lets her splurge on an oil change, allergy medicine, shampoo and conditioner, and avocados.
Cleaning houses, Land unsurprisingly reveals, is grueling work — physically painful, often disgusting, frequently underappreciated. She spends her days polishing, wiping, dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing. Face ashen, eyes dark-circled, clothes shabby, various body parts aching, she works even when she’s sick.
“My job offered no sick pay, no vacation days, no foreseeable increase in wage, yet through it all, still I begged to work more,” she writes. “Wages lost from missed work hours could rarely be made up, and if I missed too many I risked being fired.”
Meanwhile, she feels constant shame about her situation, her dependence on government assistance, her failure to be as perfect a mother as she’d like to be.
At times she might seem more self-conscious than warranted, but when she endures overt insults — such as some guy shouting “You’re welcome!” when she buys groceries with food stamps — it’s clear that poor people get used to being looked down upon and treated rudely.
She describes homes she refers to as the Cigarette Lady’s House, the Sad House, the Cat Lady’s House, the Porn House and so on, recounting the pretty parts, the gross parts (trigger warning if you’re squeamish) and the quirks of each. She envies her clients’ nice furnishings and financial comforts.
But as she pokes around and imagines their lives — watching medications accumulate, discovering hidden cigarette butts, noticing mundane items kept as treasured mementos of a deceased spouse — she realizes that wealthier people have problems of their own.
The book brightens when Land writes about her much loved daughter and the time they share when Land has days off and energy to play. She stays optimistic about their future, taking online classes, maintaining a blog and dreaming of becoming a writer.
“This life of working as a maid, of constant subservience, was temporary,” she writes. “I cried myself to sleep some nights, my only comfort knowing that this was not how my story will end.”
And sure enough, that’s not how it does. The book ends with Land winning a scholarship and moving, with her daughter, off to college in Missoula, Mont., where she has always wanted to live. You’re glad for her but can’t help but think of the billions of poor people, now and throughout history, who worked just as hard but would never have let themselves hope for as happy an ending.
Katy Read is a Star Tribune reporter. • 612-673-4583
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive
By: Stephanie Land.
Publisher: Hachette, 270 pages, $27.
Coming Sunday: A review of “Collected Poems,” by Robert Bly.