A few weeks ago, I switched my normal Thursday cleaning to a Saturday. No big deal, just trying to stretch out my days a bit. For those of you who don’t know, I clean houses to pay the rent and try to write on the sidelines.
When you clean houses, you develop intimate relationships with the doormen of Manhattan apartment complexes. You never learn the other’s names, but are eternally bonded by your roles of servitude. We look at each other with knowing glances. “Sucks don’t it?”
Well, when I arrived this particular Saturday to my cleaning that I had been doing for the past three years, there was a new doorman who I didn’t recognize. Evidently…The Saturday Guy. When I asked for access to the 17th floor, he looked at me hesitantly.
“What do you do there?”
“Well, I clean for Susan and David.” I gave him the squinty-eyed knowing look only exchanged between lower-class citizens, but he wasn’t biting.
“Is there a note?” (Traditionally, in Manhattan, the people who are rich enough to live in buildings with doormen have to write permission slips for their “help” to enter). Susan and David had never bothered to do this, since I had always entered the building on Thursdays with no problem.
“No,” I said. “But I’ve been cleaning here for the past three years. If you could call the other doorman, I’m sure he could vouch for me.”
Without speaking, this new guy did just that. I gave him my name and my destination, and sat in one of the cheap, thinly-cushioned lobby chairs. He dialed on his fancy “lobby phone” and I could here him speaking.
“Hey, Armando?…Yeah. It’s Juan here. I have a Margaret here who wants to get up to the 17th floor.”
I knew that Armando didn’t know my name, because I have never given it to him. I have also never asked him for his. In that moment, I wondered how close and Armando and and I actually were. We had nodded and smiled at each other knowingly for the past three years, but I had never thought to ask him his name. Or the state of his family. Though we were brothers in the roles of servitude, it had become apparent, we never gave much thought to each other. I felt lonely and somehow out of place.
This point was proven when it became obvious that Armando had no idea who I was. The new guy prompted him.
“She’s tall, dark hair, Mexican…”
I started. Though I’m not completely sure of my background, I do know that I’m as white as they come. I think Scottish-German. I’ve never had a tan that lasted more than a week, and only know how to say “My cat is happy” in Spanish. What was going on?
Armando was undoubtedly hispanic. He had the name and everything and had a year-long, lovely, olive-color tan. Our cultural differences were now becoming apparent. True, I cleaned the apartments and he collected the dry cleaning. But, I had graduated from NYU with a major in theater and a minor in religious studies. Poor Armando was most likely a first-generation immigrant with 7 children and a forged social security card. He probably lived in Queens, as I do, in a one-room apartment with 2 cans of Cambell’s on the stove every night for dinner. And here I was, being compared with him.
Didn’t they know? Weren’t they aware of who I was? Yes, I was one of them, but not really. My social status was chosen. I was a proud starving artist. True, my parents didn’t have any money but I was white. I didn’t have my diploma on me at the time, but couldn’t my integrity and scholar be proven with my obvious disregard for social and cultural status?
When Armando refused my entrance to the 17th floor, on the account of not knowing me, I eagerly accepted his denial on the account of his jealousy. I, as he somehow knew, was not Mexican.