Teri Orr: My worst job and an important lesson learned
At our Rotary meeting this week we were given a silly assignment meant to be a conversation starter — write down the worst job you ever had — fold over the paper — put it in the bag and the job would be read out loud and folks would guess the author.
There were answers of worst jobs that involved “military mortician” and a favorite — Wall Street lawyer. Mine was maid. I didn’t elaborate.
In the early ’90s — after taking a leave of absence from my job as editor of this paper to work on a book from a grant I had been awarded — I returned to Park City after three months away. After just two weeks back I knew it was time to leave as editor.
I had no plan beyond leaving and keeping my part-time weekend job at Dolly’s Bookstore. I had two kids in college on scholarships in two different states. A friend offered to hire me to clean condos during the holidays. I gladly took the work.
Besides the obvious reasons why being a maid in ski season in high-end properties would be … un-fun … I felt left out. The easy but exclusionary camaraderie of the Hispanic women I worked with was something I envied. They knew how to move through rooms with great efficiency and to treat the work … as work they were grateful to have. I hated the work — though I was grateful for it — because it was a daily reminder that sometimes making a hard personal snap decision has difficult consequences when you need to also make a living.
It was crazy back then — folks left their business papers all over dining room tables. Folders and computers and spreadsheets and envelopes with the names of New York firms on the return addresses. The journalist in me had a hard time walking away from all that. We would pick up the glasses around the papers but never disturb the messy display of power and wealth.
I don’t remember a single time a guest left any tip for the maids. Though I didn’t speak any real Spanish and my coworkers spoke broken English, we communicated enough to get the job done each day. I took directions from the very capable leader and she would check my work before we left every condo. Sometimes I would forget the fancy fold on the toilet paper — a thing I never did in my own home. And sometimes I missed a dust bunny under the dining room table — hell, there was a regular bunny breeding ground at my house under my own dining room table.
I only did that work for two months before a communications job came along that paid well enough to leave the maid job — if I kept the Dolly’s job on nights and weekends. There were freelance writing jobs after that and I soon landed a few writing gigs that kept me going and then work editing someone else’s book and a then a continuing consulting gig.
I decided after much painful consideration not to allow my own book to be published nor to take the contract for the HBO Movie of the Week. It turns out “based on a true story” meant they could change pretty much all the facts and just manipulate the sensational stuff. My domestic violence marriage that led to me to run away to Utah in 1979 and the domestic violence murder in front of the grocery store here in Park City — almost 20 years later — had made for a series of award-wining stories and a book contract and grant. And that ride was amazing from start to finish. But I realized my own children didn’t need to have that define their lives. As very young children, they never really witnessed any of it — except the residual anger of their father. I made the difficult decision to walk away from those opportunities while I was cleaning condos.
So I associate all that time of being a maid as a time of strong convictions that led to painful decisions. But also great personal disappointment of dreams not just deferred but derailed. What I wanted more than anything was to be strong for my kids. It wasn’t the actual job of maid that I was sad about — it was the decisions that I had made quickly that changed the trajectory of my life — again. Those decisions that led me to need to take the job of maid. Still, I wanted my kids to see that all jobs mattered when you needed one. I didn’t work nine to five or have weekends off. Those Hispanic women treated me fine but they knew their jobs, and teaching me the nuances of professional housekeeping was not something they needed. I was not — as we say now — “value added” to their day. They weren’t unkind, they just kinda tolerated me. I ate my lunch alone. And that feeling was what made the job the worst — feeling left out while working as hard as I could to keep all the plates spinning in my life.
My life and the jobs got better and my work eventually involved travel and staying in hotels. If I was in a room when the maid arrived I tried to make some small talk and acknowledge them and their work. I always make certain I leave tips on the pillows so the maids know the money is left there specifically for them. About half the time now — if I am somewhere for an extended stay — during the middle of the week I receive a handwritten note from a maid thanking me for the very modest tips.
Maybe in hindsight being a maid for two months wasn’t my worst job. It was a bridge when I needed it desperately and it gave me a small window into a world I had never visited before. And it taught me being appreciative is a muscle you can develop at any point in your life — even a messy Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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