The stories I submitted for publication are somewhere in my blog. Figure I’ll repost for those of you who are new readers.
Besides, today is a holiday and I’m working away! I deserve a break!
Master of the Universe Seeks Cute Maid:
A Story of Riches to Rags
As a maid, I spent most of the time in the bathroom, staring at my reflection in the mirror. I looked up then scanned in a zig-zag fashion all the way down. Was it crisp enough? Had I left any streaks? I’d propped myself up onto the caramel-colored marble vanity to clean even the top corners of the wall-sized mirror. Unlike the Windex I used in my own apartment, the Natural Spa glass cleaner here squirted out evenly like two-dimensional purple fireworks. My boss always bought the high-end cleaning supplies with scents of lavender and evergreen that lingered long after I had left.
I started every cleaning session by gathering the dirty dishes, running the dishwasher, sorting the laundry, and running the washing machine. After dusting and vacuuming, I knew my work was done when I saw myself streak-free staring back in the mirror. At that moment, I was a 26-year-old living in a sparkling clean tri-level loft with hot sunshine streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. It was all mine—just me—for an hour a week. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t really my home. It didn’t matter that I was working. The work wasn’t hard. I felt like I was playing. We were all playing.
Now seven years later in a cubicle directly across from the men’s bathroom, I have little time to play at work. I see flashes of red and green on the Bloomberg terminal indicating our stock’s decline or increase from yesterday’s closing price. My phone’s ring tone seems to get louder and louder every day as I make a determination on whose voicemails need to be returned, and which ones I can get by with not calling back. The headlines scream ‘recession, depression, government intervention.’ I closely monitor the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and CNBC as a financial spokesperson for one of the last banks standing. One by one, the highest-ranking executives in the industry have been forced to resign—scapegoats or accomplices to one of the worst housing markets since The Great Depression. I hear pleas from customers asking to delay foreclosure proceedings on their second homes. With the economic issues trickling down from the top brass to minimum wage workers, I recall a time when I myself was soaring high only to stumble when the bubble finally burst.
In 1999, I was 23-years-old living in San Francisco with roommates. My paychecks couldn’t come fast enough in my first full-time job out of college. I struggled to break-even every month. The turning point came with a turn for the worse. I woke up to find myself marinating in perspiration; my blankets and sheets were drenched. Plagued with a bad case of the flu and a budget that restricted me to generic brands at Walgreen’s, I vowed to find a better paying job. And once I got it, I promised myself a medicine cabinet full of Advil, Nyquil cold and flu, and maximum strength Sudafed.
After an initial interview and a subsequent half-day of interviews, I was prepared to negotiate. I knew the people at the startup liked me. The CEO had even expressed his hope that I would seriously consider joining their team. I knew my negotiation skills were lacking given the outcome of my first job offer. In pleading for a living wage, my first full-time employer had simply shook his head no. “But I can’t afford electricity with that salary.” “Sorry, this is all we can do.”
Armed with the memory of that failure, I prepared more for the negotiations than I had for the interviews. Then the head of human resources called with the details of my offer. I was silent. How do you tell someone they’re offering too much? They were more than tripling my salary. I signed for six figures—more than my immigrant parents’ and sister’s teaching salaries combined.
With $3 million in funding, the technology startup I worked for built a web-based sales and marketing effectiveness application. Ironically, we were more effective at spending than we were at selling or marketing our own software.
But it isn’t the money. It’s the food I remember most: the Prince Edward Island mussels at Plouf, the pork chop at Hawthorne Lane, the juicy steak at Bix. The last time I’d had steak was at Sizzler’s after Easter Mass when I was twelve and it wasn’t Kobe beef. I wasn’t used to fine dining. Working three jobs in college, I was content with the price, convenience, and variety of Cup O’Noodle. I considered a super burrito slathered with guacamole and sour cream a gourmet treat.
My first day at the startup, the receptionist handed me a menu for sushi. “Don’t forget to pick out your lunch, dear. Whatever you want.” I was confused. Was today a special day for ordering out? Would I have to settle my portion of the bill later on that day? I ordered a single California roll just to be safe. A few hours later, at noon, I was ushered to the large conference room. I watched in awe as co-workers retrieved large orders of rainbow rolls, sashimi, miso soup, chicken katsu. Our receptionist came over and put her arm around me, “I know you can eat more than that.” The next day, she handed me the menu for Bistro Burger with a wink. “Have at it.”
Even though we worked hard, we played even harder. We wined and dined at the trendiest restaurants several nights a week, ordering an array of appetizers, individual entrees, and cocktails and bottles of wine throughout the meal. The senior managers never glanced at the bill as they tucked their expense cards into the leather fold. After officially launching the company, we went on an all-expense paid cruise to Puerto Vallarta—over fifty of us. It wasn’t responsible. Anyone could see that. We were playing with our funding.
By 2001, I’d been working at the startup for almost three years. Everything was going smoothly. 20% bonuses were still kicking in until September 11th when the dot-com bubble turned into a dot-com bust. We lost several major accounts, the pink slips were distributed, and I had a few good cries in our CEO’s office as he promised me his highest recommendation and reference. I felt ill—the same way I’d felt at Walgreen’s with no choice between generic and brand name medicine. Like I had vowed then to care for myself financially by getting a new job, I vowed never to end up like my defeated CEO, laying off employees because of his fiscal irresponsibility.
Trolling the multitude of postings on Monster.com for a permanent position, I also looked for a side gig: hostess, waitress, babysitter, tutor. I came across a curious ad on Craigslist. The posting read, “Looking for cute girl to clean my loft.”
Intrigued, I responded, “Cute laid-off dot.commer looking to make some money under the table.”
He asked to meet on a Tuesday at 3 in the afternoon at Kelly’s Mission Rock, a restaurant along the Mission Bay waterfront. Why in the middle of the day? Was he living off of an inheritance? Was he also laid off like me?
Corey was a modern day Master of the Universe. An options trader for the Pacific Stock Exchange just like Sherman McCoy straight out of Bonfire of the Vanities, he shouted ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ and calculated pricing spreads, but on the west coast—the San Francisco financial district—instead of Wall Street in New York. He worked from 6am until 1pm then was free to golf, sail, row, or drink at the bar several hours before everyone else could happy hour. Only two years my senior, Corey had a commanding presence. He was tall, 6’3” with curly brown hair and dark brown eyes. He was the quintessential athletic Ivy League alum—attractive and academic with his wire-rimmed glasses. When he came over to introduce himself with a hungry look in his eyes, I knew I had secured a job.
We got along well and time passed quickly. After four hours of spirited conversation over dinner and dessert, it was now time for business. We drove separately in our cars to the home he owned in nearby Potrero Hill. It was dark and I couldn’t see anything until he turned the lights on inside. The tri-level loft was new construction, a homeowner’s dream: floor to ceiling windows, stainless steel appliances, indoor washer/dryer, a garage, and three bathrooms—one on each floor. I had never seen such a large, spacious home in the city. When my eyes bulged, he asked with concern, “Oh no. Do you think my place is too big to clean?”
I shook my head no, but as I wandered the halls and walked up and down the stairs, I realized there was one big concern. The place was already clean. It was immaculate.
Corey paid me $100 a week for work that took an hour of my time. I’d hook his cordless phone to my jeans and talk to my friends while dusting. I watched movies on his wide-screen TV while waiting for his laundry to dry or the dishwasher to finish—all the while helping myself to sliced deli meat from Whole Foods and butterscotch Godiva ice-cream.
Months later, I was surprised to walk in and find a pile of shopping bags on the dining room table. They were from high-end boutiques in the city, their contents wrapped in pastel-colored tissue paper. I continued surveying as I always did before starting to clean. Starting on the main floor, I gathered used glasses and plates from the coffee table. I ran upstairs and spotted an empty glass on his bedside table. As I reached to grab it, I stopped suddenly. I took one more step forward and peered in. There was a head of smooth shiny black hair peeking out from the top of the blanket. I quickly put my right hand over my mouth to stifle a gasp. I stared for a few seconds longer, realizing Corey had a girl in his bed. It was 10:30am. Didn’t she have to work? I was here to do my job and now I couldn’t since she was in the bed. I tried to figure out what to do. Should I clean his bottom two floors and come back tomorrow to do the upstairs bedroom? I’d have to come back. I couldn’t very well start vacuuming loudly while she slept in bed.
I descended the stairs quietly. As I gathered my belongings to leave, she called out, “Hello there. Are you the cleaning lady?”
I heard footsteps above.
“Ummm, yeah.” I mumbled with a backpack slung over my shoulder and keys in hand.
She came down in one of Corey’s extra-large Hanes t-shirts. She was petite, but looked tall even with an over-sized shirt and barefeet. She had perfect posture. Her straight black hair swept her shoulders as she walked towards me. Face-to-face and eye-to-eye, I felt like I was staring in a mirror. She looked very much like me.
“Hi I’m Julie. I’ll get out of your way in a second, but I need to show you a few things.”
I followed her back up the stairs to the master bathroom where she pointed out the mildew in the shower and the yellow rings circling the inside of the toilet bowl. I turned and looked at the mirror. It was streak-free, exactly how I had last left it. I should’ve spent more time cleaning other areas of the bathroom.
“I needed to show you that,” Julie noted. “But I’ll be on my way. More shopping to do. I think the shopping here is so much better than Hong Kong.” Julie was a trust fund baby—traveling the world and living a magazine lifestyle thanks to her rich father, a roller coaster designer in Japan.
I walked out of Corey’s loft that day feeling like I was living Cinderella’s fairy tale life, but in reverse. Instead of wining and dining, I listened as someone my age told me where to mop and scrub. This isn’t how I had imagined my life. I hadn’t gone to college for this.
The life of excess happened to me twice. First as an employee for a dot com, second as an overpaid maid. I wouldn’t allow it to happen to me again. I wanted recession-proof skills, the opportunity for a secure future, and I wanted to know what it was like to work hard again—the way I had as an undergrad.
Corey didn’t need a maid anymore than I needed to be a maid. Back then, the tech world didn’t need another dot-com anymore than today’s housing market needs another residential home builder. But everything ultimately unwinds itself. The Pacific Stock Exchange has been replaced by an Equinox fitness club. Corey moved back home to Boston to work in the family publishing business. Julie’s dad made her get a job, ringing up the cash register at Banana Republic. The dot com boom went bust just like today’s housing bubble goes pop. And I found myself huddled in the basement of a graduate school library, studying the economics of it all.