It was the summer of Watergate, my second year in college, when the nation was haunted by the constant specter of Richard Nixon. I had moved to Baltimore, considered the city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency, a city divided by race and class in ways obvious to me now, not so obvious then. It was the spiritual home of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, whose work on the brutalities of race in the American South marks its 50th anniversary.
I loved the city. My new neighborhoods, Fells’ Point and Sparrow Point, were magic. Tiny, still not urban, places where restaurants were down by the waterfront, dark and damp, not yet chic or ramped up. They served a lot of cheap beer, National Bohemian, or Natty Bo as the locals called it. You ate gigantic crabs and lobsters still frantically waving their claws and streaming tendrils. And you could get away from the blistering summer heat by sneaking into one of the little dank movie palaces around the back for free, and watch horror films for hours or sit out on the piers at night, watching the stars.
It was also sort of cultural musical vest pocket heaven. Great country music on the jukebox. Live music with mandolins and guitar. Our fellow barflies were fishermen, laborers, folks who worked on the water, mountain men down from the mountains, and musicians, with gigantic beards. We could hang with the musicians and even some trust fund characters living on yachts in the harbor.
I took a job as the sole white maid in Baltimore’s Beltway Holiday Inn. As I performed hard labor cleaning rooms along with my fellow maids, I had struggled to blend in. The maids were Southern, African American, or Hispanic. Some single, others with kids, no education, beyond high school. They were mired in the job, some bitter, never to get free and, understandably, not very kindly disposed towards me.
I learned that cleanliness really was next to godliness. That these cleaning ladies were a proud, tight group who lived by their work. I was a foolish little white girl who would never likely gain their good will. Their reaction was not positive if I tried to either socialize or keep to myself. Occasionally somebody would open up and talk but she would be made to feel very miserable later because she had broken ranks with her coworkers. No presumptions of friendship from me would make the whole thing easier or more pleasant.
The manager, a much savvier woman than her hires, knew better. She told me flatly that she knew I was a flighty young single girl and that I wouldn’t stay. She ought to give the job to someone who really needed and deserved it. Someone with a mouth or more to feed. Yes, she would give me a chance. But she would be watching me. In short, I was forced to realize that for me, an entitled little Northern white college girl to be taking the place of a Southern single Mother was unjust. No matter how exciting it was for me to be earning my first paycheck, I ought to have seen what the realities were and quit to work in a head shop in downtown Baltimore. But stubbornly obtuse, I didn’t get it until my fellow maids pushed me out.
I was so dumbly happy to be there this being my first real job. My summer with my college friends from Antioch, living in a tiny green wooden house in the middle of the downtown urban sprawl in the midst of Southern, countrified, Fells Point, which was not yet part of the gentrified Rouse theme park. Fells Point was a backwater a world away from the tiny, cramped, hostile urban environs on the Beltway where the only relief was the occasional comic turn when one of the more outrageous maids shared that she’d been dissed. Someone, probably a travelling salesman, had told her that her breasts sagged. And she was outraged!
My boss decided, foolishly, to nominate me to be the Maid of the Month. She said she was thrilled as was I. Things had gone much better than expected. I had done a great job. I appeared to be sticking to the job. I had even managed to get along with my coworkers. However, the nomination was bad news. I had won this award over my coworkers. How dare I claim this prize? They were outraged. Clearly something had to give and it was likely to be me.
The maids were bold. They demonstrated their fury by ignoring me. At last I got it and I resigned. I told my boss that I was ill and had to move home. She was furious. “Give me back that Maid of the Month award! I’ll give it to someone who’s really earned it.”
“Claire you won’t get any back pay and your last paycheck will be docked.”
I knew when I was beaten but I wouldn’t back down. I kept the award until the very last minute. When I stripped off my apron and cap and resigned my maids’ cart to the maids’ room I said goodbye to my coworkers.
I went “home” to Fells’ Point to drink my Natty Bo and eat some vegetarian chili and swap lies like Huck Finn with my friends, about this almost comic defeat. I would have to make tracks for upstate New York since I couldn’t pay the rent, but we could have a few nice evenings in Fells Point before I left. Time to play the jukebox and sit on the piers and lay back and watch the stars come out over the cool piers at midnight.