Friday, October 20, 2006
Of all the cleaning tasks I hate. . .
So I threw myself into cleaning this morning. Yes, I do my own cleaning, but oh how I hate cleaning. Admittedly once the task is done, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Besides I can look at my work and have proof of having done something.
There was a time when I was working full time that we had one of the franchised companies come in and do cleaning. You could always tell they had been here, since the sinks were wiped off and you could see the fan pattern on the carpet indicating they had vacuumed. When I no longer worked full time, it seemed like such a waste of money. Then I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America. As part of her experiment with working in jobs that did not require an education to perform, she cleaned for just one of those franchised companies that we had used. Maybe even the same one. Her experiences were a revelation to me.
Among other things she revealed, she indicated that these companies do not use real cleaning agents. They “scrub” sinks but use not much more than water that they spray. The wonderful fan pattern on the carpet is a signature way the employees are taught to do as the last thing, so that no footprints mark the carpet and the customer has visible proof of cleaning. But, as far as actually cleaning goes, she points out they do little.
Perhaps far more disturbing was the way that these workers are treated. They receive something akin to day wages. So if they are sick and unable to work, they do not get paid. Ehrenreich recounted one sad occurrence when a co-worker of hers twisted her ankle. It was obviously badly sprained, but the woman persisted in her work. She pleaded with Ehrenreich, her working partner, not to tell anyone so she could keep working. Particularly she begged that her boyfriend not be told because he would be angry at her for being clumsy. When it was apparent that the injury was very serious, Ehrenreich took the woman to the doctor and paid for the care herself. Obviously, not only were these employees the equivalent of day laborers but they also had no health insurance.
Of all the cleaning tasks, the one I loathe the most is cleaning toilets. The only factor that redeems this task for me is a story about Gandhi. Among the goals that Gandhi had in his amazing life was to rid India of the odious caste system. At the bottom of the caste system was the so-called untouchable. The jobs that fell to the untouchables were those tasks that others found so distasteful because it defiled their ritual purity, such as handling dead bodies, animal or human, tanning leather, collecting garbage and cleaning up animal and human waste.
At Gandhi’s ashram, he had decreed that there would be no private toilets, and that all the residents had to share public toilets. Further, he decreed that everyone had to empty the toilet buckets. He was using the issue of cleaning public toilets as a kind of object lesson, since in part the status of the untouchables as outcaste at the bottom of the system was reinforced by their obligation to clean public toilets. Gandhi set the model. Not only did he take the lead in carrying the buckets to the fields for emptying, but he insisted that everyone share in the task. When one resident at the ashram, who was from the Brahmin class, protested, the following exchange occurred:
Then he (the Brahmin) sought an excuse. "I hold a doctorate from the London School of Economics," he argued. "I am capable of doing great things. Why do you waste my time and talents on cleaning toilets?"
Gandhi replied: "I know of your capacity to do great things but I have yet to discover your capacity to do little things. So, if you wish to seek my guidance and blessings you will have to observe all the rules of the ashram."
from the recollections of Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson.
Well, I don’t plan on moving to any ashram, and I am not certain I have learned the lesson of humility that such an exchange must have brought about in the Brahmin. But, I remind myself as I clean, bathrooms and all, that first I am not a day laborer bereft of health insurance, nor am I so proud that I would put myself above Gandhi.
Oh, yes, and the house sparkles!