The Worst Thing A Woman Can Do
My dad was mowing strangers' lawns on the day that he died.
He woke before sunrise - the habit of a blue collar lifetime - with his schedule for the day written out on a piece of college-ruled paper, copied from the app where homeowners booked him for reasonably priced lawn services. He had the rest of the week drawn up as a grid too, with blank spaces for last-minute jobs that might pop up on his newly purchased smartphone.
He loaded the truck with the tools of his trade: edgers and whips, a spade and a rake, a refurbished secondhand push mower, and drove the ride-on mower (also a refurb) onto the small trailer behind his 15-year-old F150. He put a lunchbox with two turkey sandwiches and four bottles of frozen water into the cab. They would melt during the hot Florida spring day, keeping his food cold and providing hydration as he worked in the full sun.
Sometime after 8am, he started having abdominal pains. The worst of his life. My father - no hypochondriac, also the habit of a lifetime - called 911. The hospital did some tests and discharged him by 10am, diagnosis mild constipation, prescription two kinds of laxatives. He didn't feel better. His last few outgoing texts were to friends letting them know he couldn't meet up later, he was sick. He went on to complete 3 of the 5 jobs on his schedule.
He died that night. 70 years old, retired not even one day of his life. When we found his phone, most of the missed texts and calls were from the app, set to automatically ping when he didn't check in online for his agreed jobs.
"What, are you too proud to scrub a toilet?"
That was a question I have heard a lot. After coming out as a former sex worker in 2009, I could count on at least one know-it-all standing up to pronounce more or less this exact accusation at every book signing, public speaking event, or festival I appeared at.
The question askers never stuck around to hear, really hear the answer: it's hard to get a job in the UK as an American student, I couldn't work more than 15 hours a week, no one was allowed to hire me if any qualified EU applicant was available, and that wouldn't have made a dent in my bills anyway. ‘Too proud to scrub a toilet’ also seemed to be the takeaway most columnists went with when discussing my writing. According to everyone with a public opinion my problem was not lack of cash but that I was too proud, or precious, or whatever to do real work. I was spoiled.
Thing is, I wasn't just spitballing about whether or not scrubbing toilets pays the bills. I knew already, from experience, that it would not - because cleaning was the very last job I held before moving to London. I worked for months at a hostel in Aviemore while writing up my PhD thesis. In between changing beds and mopping bathrooms, I collated data on forensic pathology cases and assembled chapters on the processes of human decomposition. Because I also was the hostel’s cook and lived on site, I was able to save almost everything I earned. I thought this would put me in good stead for the autumn, when I planned to submit my PhD back in Sheffield, then move to London to look for work.
Long story short: my calculations of expenses for life in the capital city were way, way off. By the time I paid the extortionate deposit and rent on a sad little room in Kilburn, I was already out of cash. But with my PhD not yet approved I couldn’t apply for science jobs. So I became a call girl. A choice that I thought (also mistakenly as it turned out) would be lucrative, not require a particular visa, and that I could leave behind as soon as I started my “real” career.
That was then.
This is now: I'm scrubbing a toilet in a million dollar house in one of my county’s fanciest neighborhoods. American Standard. The water in the American Southwest is mineral-heavy and leaves rings on everything; I'm not so much scrubbing as chipping away at stalagmites of built up lime.
It's the first toilet I'll clean today, the first of four bathrooms in this house, but it's not the last time I'll think about those people who imagined I was too proud to scrub a toilet. I've been scrub-a-toilet poor before; it’s not that big a deal. No, instead they were telling me the thing they considered to be the last-resort job of choice before "selling your body." Their deepest fear, the most undignified thing short of being a whore (which as we all know is the worst thing a woman can do).
That’s the calculation according to society. Whore is worst, cleaner is second worst, and no one in their right minds would do either. Let alone both. Yet the jobs persist. Even in a recession. Even in a pandemic. Key workers both. Not the front lines, accumulating accolades and sometimes hazard pay, but the back lines, doing jobs few want to admit always need done.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic it seems cleaning after oneself is still a job for someone else. Lifestyle columnists Sarah Ditum and Janice Turner raised a few eyebrows when they staunchly declared the unavailability of house cleaners in the first wave of covid to be beyond bearable. Not for them picking up the mop, or worse yet, asking one’s husband and children to chip in. No, went the logic, cleaners wanted the work. They loved their clients.
I’ve heard people say things like that before almost word for word. People who are the customers of sex workers. Do I have to tell you women like those are just the sort of people whose husbands I once would have fucked for money? I know it, and I guess they know it too.
If you too are in possession of a house and neither the time nor the inclination to clean it, you could book me or someone like me through any number of websites and apps. They all have slick, modern sites, enormous market capitalisations, and most importantly in this buoyant gig economy: they employ none of the people who show up at your door to do the work.
The landing pages show clean, modern homes resplendent in bare wood, white tile and brushed metal fixtures. Homes with six-burner gas ranges and fresh cut peonies in fishbowl vases. The kind of homes that few of the cleaners could ever dream of calling their own. The vibe is upscale, quiet suburb or cool high-rise urban.
And if you don’t mind what happens to your body, to your health, then there are always jobs like this, just not careers. With ubiquitous smartphones and widespread internet services that previously were available mainly to the well-heeled can be booked at the touch of a finger. In many ways the rise of sex workers on the internet when I was an anonymous blogger presaged the way many would soon be working in the 21st century.
My entry into cleaning for apps is straightforward. Sign up, submit a photo of my driver's license, wait for a background check. Answer a few (very few) questions on my experience as a cleaner. I have a bit, from the aforementioned pre-London days turning over an 80-bed hostel in the Scottish Highlands for a summer, to helping out friends with holiday cottages.
I'm accepted on the platform and my rate is set at $15 per hour. That's 4 dollars an hour above the nearest city’s minimum wage, more than twice the Federal minimum of $7.25, but well below anything that could result in the "thousands" the app's ads on Craigslist promised. Up to thousands, I remind myself. Technically that means anything above zero. I'm assured through a short series of videos that work is straightforward and easy to come by, and that any problems I might experience with the app itself are quick to figure out. I'm told if I book 10 jobs this week my rate goes up, maybe as high as $22. I complete the series of Youtube videos that constitute training and log on.
There are no jobs. At all. Not today, and not tomorrow.
There's one in three days! I click, eager to "claim" before anyone else does (because that must be what's happening, right? There are no jobs because they're already taken?) But when I google the location I find it's in central Colorado - a 330-mile round trip from where I am now. Sure, there's a $20 "bounty" for picking this one up, should I choose. But I decide to forego it. There is zero chance at this rate I will ever earn more than $15 an hour through the app.
We live in the age of the side hustle. Everyone I've met since moving back to the US has one. The fine artists with an Air B&B, the candle maker who cleans for them, the solar installer who is also a part-time fire captain, the fire captains who sell third party phone cases on Amazon. The jiu-jitsu instructor with a window washing business. The college professor who works as a part-time paramedic on ski patrol. The ski patroller who proctors exams at the college.
There is no mystery as to why. None of these people are rich or have any illusions of becoming so. Side hustle as a phrase sounds cool, as if a few hours of your week here and there will make it rain and make the Moet pour. The reality is more prosaic. Life in the land of opportunity is expensive. With a stunted public transport infrastructure, cars are a necessity if you want to get by in most of America. The college degree has more or less taken the place of a high school diploma, sought out even for entry-level customer service, and the expansion of the student loan industry leaves many in debt long beyond their 40's. Credit rating determines everything from your ability to rent accommodation to even whether or not you get a job, obliging people to spend and keep spending in the name of being a trustworthy consumer. Being a consumer obliges you to work. Once entered, the cycle has no end. Not even retirement, for those (unlike my father) lucky enough to contemplate it: in 1985, 10.8% of people over 65 in America were still working. The number in 2017 was double that, and expected to become still higher when the twilight years of Baby Boomers give way to geriatric Generation X.
It gets worse. A shocking number of America's personal bankruptcies are due to inability to pay medical bills. From a high of 1.5 million in 2010, the year the Affordable Care Act came into law, it declined to 770 thousand in 2016. And yet the problem is not solved: the requirement to buy insurance even on price-capped markets still leaves a lot of room for expenses in the form of deductibles that can be thousands of dollars or more. People still avoid accessing preventive care and instead end up in the emergency room, sometimes not until they are on death's door. We may be in post-Obamacare America, with many on the left making noises about some form of universal, free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare, but the wolf of sudden medical emergency could turn up and destroy your life anytime. Even in the coronavirus pandemic America did not manage to elect a candidate who promises universal healthcare.
Four-Toilets is not a bad job as these things go. I know that immediately. It isn't a 330 mile round trip to get there, for starters; only an hour from my house. The place is owned by a couple of about my age, pet- and child-free. They are not hoarders, and while some of it requires elbow grease (the aforementioned hard water in toilets situation) they've not left cleaning so long that any of it is out of hand, save a giant walk-in shower I spend about a third of the allotted five hours scrubbing.
The man goes out, and when he comes back, has brought me a sandwich. I don't have time to eat on the clock of course. The app's clients feed in the size of the job and the app gives them an estimated finishing time (no breaks). I do the last toilet, vacuum and mop, and am done bang on the hour the app predicted. I can't help but wonder if there was a box they ticked that said "our house is already pretty clean" (it was) or if, in the future, similarly-sized jobs with less scrupulously tidy clients will be assigned the same five-hour time slot.
I don't think about that, just sign on to the app to confirm completion of the job, load up my car (you are required to bring all supplies, including mop and vacuum, and more recently, PPE), and accept a shyly-offered $30 tip from the man. They want to book me again, once every fortnight. I say I'll have a look on the app but I'd like that.
I have no illusions: few jobs will be as straightforward as this. On the drive home, I start making a list of what I need to replenish. Paper towels, microfibre rags, oven cleaner, furniture polish. Pick up some limescale remover! And some drain unclogging liquid. The tip covers my time driving to and from the house, and the gas, just about. It reminds me of being an escort when the client's tips usually covered my transport.
[I found this as a cut from a NYTimes guest essay and it's something that may resonate to many]
Every once in a while the mainstream corporate media runs a piece that offers a glimpse into the lives of people who are poor or working class. They don’t do it enough, but often, as in this case, the story is well told and worth reading:
“When I think of my first semester of college, the memory comes to me as a physical sensation. I feel tired. There is the siren-screech of an alarm sounding at 3:40 in the morning. I feel it in my teeth. Then images: the orange glow of the jumbo numbers in pitch black, the instinctual, semiconscious tapping of the button, the gradual shrinking of my bed as I climb out of it and move toward the door. I do not change my clothes. It was my habit to dress for the day the night before, because an alarm blaring at 3:40 really does sound much better than an alarm blaring at 3:30.
Outside I feel the Rocky Mountain winter on my cheeks as I begin the scramble to campus on sidewalks that will not be salted for another three hours. I’m heading for the engineering building, where I will pick gum out of short nylon carpet, wipe strange equations from dusty chalkboards, and scour the interior of toilet bowls with an odorless blue gel. I will finish around 8 a.m., then head to class.
This was my routine for the first two months of my freshman year. Then, because I was short on rent, I added a second job, serving coleslaw and Jell-O in the cafeteria. The woman who worked alongside me was also a freshman who could not afford the meal plan. I don’t recall either of us mentioning the fact that we were serving food we could not afford to eat; I don’t recall feeling angry as I hooked my apron in my locker and reached into my backpack for my own lunch, a protein bar and pack of ramen noodles (10 cents at my local grocery store). I also don’t recall feeling humiliated or disrespected to be cleaning plates or toilets used by my classmates. The full complexity of my opinion on inequality and poverty then could have been summed up with utter simplicity: I was tired.
I wrote about these and other experiences in my 2018 memoir, “Educated,” which surprised me by becoming a best seller. My story was one of extremes: born in the mountains of Idaho to Mormon parents who kept me out of school, I had never set foot in a classroom before my first semester of college at Brigham Young University. I graduated in 2008 and won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where I earned a Ph.D.
A curious thing happens when you offer up your life for public consumption: People start to interpret your biography, to explain to you what they think it means. At book signings, in interviews, I’m often told that my story is uplifting, that I am a model of resilience, an “inspiration.” Which is a nice thing to be told, so I say thank you. But every so often someone takes it a bit further, and says something to which I do not have a response. I’m told, “You are living proof of the American dream, that absolutely anything is possible for anybody.”
But am I? Is that what the story means?
After being tired, here’s what I remember most about being poor: a pervasive sense of costly trade-offs. Of course you had to take the maximum number of credits, because tuition was expensive; of course you had to pick up that second job, that extra shift, that third side hustle raking leaves or mowing lawns or shoveling snow. The only question I ever asked was how soon could they pay.
The architecture of my life was defined by money, meaning its absence, right down to the alarm blaring at 3:40 a.m. The night shift paid a dollar more, $6.35 an hour instead of $5.35. Never mind that my roommates blasted music until midnight, so that on a typical night, I got around three hours of sleep; never mind that I was dozing through my lectures, or that I spent the entire winter with a raspy cough and string of unexplained sinus infections. It was a dollar more! The math was straightforward and decisive.
My college ambitions nearly came to an abrupt end in my sophomore year. Blinding pain in my lower jaw turned out to be a rotting nerve. I needed a root canal and $1,600 to pay for it. I decided to drop out. My plan was to hitch a ride to Las Vegas, where my brother was working as a long-haul trucker, and to get a job working at the In-N-Out Burger across the street from his trailer.
Then, a leader at my church pulled me aside and insisted that I apply for a Pell Grant, a federal program that helps poor kids pay for college. Days later a check arrived in the mail for $4,000. I had never seen that much money, could not wrap my brain around the amount. I didn’t cash it for a week, afraid of what possession of such a sum might do to me. Then the throbbing in my jaw motivated me to take a trip to the bank. I got the root canal. For the first time, I purchased the required textbooks for my classes. There was money left over, more than a thousand dollars, so I quit the cafeteria and swapped the night for the day shift. I stopped sleeping through my classes; the cough dried up, the infections cleared.
The day I cashed that check is the day I became a student. It’s the day the current of my thoughts shifted from obsessively tracking the balance of my bank account, down to the dime, to obsessively tracking my coursework. It was an experience not of wealth but of security, and with security, the freedom to ask questions about what I wanted from my life. What did I enjoy doing, or thinking about? What was I good at? I started seeking out and studying books outside the required reading; I took courses that were not required, for the simple reason I was interested in them, and I had the time.
Every decision I made from that moment on was a function of that check. In those desperate years a few thousand dollars was enough to alter the whole course of my life. It contained a universe. It allowed me to experience for the first time what I now know to be the most powerful advantage of money, which is the ability to think of things besides money. That’s what money does. It frees your mind for living.
It’s tempting to tell my story in the way people want me to. I would love to be the hero, and say that it’s all about hard work and determination, the white-knuckled triumph of the human will. But if I put my ego aside, I know that’s not the case. I entered college in 2004. I attended Brigham Young University, a private college heavily subsidized by the Mormon Church. Tuition was $1,640 a semester. This was before the housing crisis, when it was possible to find a shared room in a shabby apartment for just $190 a month. What these numbers meant, in real terms, was that it was possible for me to work my way through college.
I could make enough to cover tuition by bagging groceries for $5.35 an hour during the summers. Back then, the nearly $3,000 I needed for two semesters seemed staggering, and it necessitated me saying the words “Paper or plastic?” an unthinkable number of times. But it was possible. Without family money, without cultural advantages. It was a thing that could be done, if only just, if you really wanted it.
For kids today from poorer backgrounds, the path I took through education no longer exists. The numbers are not imaginable — not if your parents are truckers or farmers or cleaners or cabdrivers, maybe the hardest-working people in our country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the last three decades, tuition at four-year colleges has more than doubled, even after you adjust for inflation. A 2019 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy tells us that at some state flagship schools (not fancy private schools, just regular four-year public universities), low-income students are asked to cover some $80,000 beyond what they can afford. Even at B.Y.U., one of the most affordable four-year colleges in the country, tuition has nearly doubled since I graduated.
A Pell Grant was my first taste of financial security. Now even a full grant would be wholly inadequate, because of the rising costs of tuition and housing. When the program was established 50 years ago, the largest grant covered 79 percent of the costs to attend a four-year public college. Today it covers just 29 percent. It’s not enough. What that grant offered me — security, peace of mind, a space in which to consider, for the first time, what sort of life I wanted — it no longer offers.
To poor kids today, we present a no-win scenario. We shout shrilly that they must get a college degree, because without one they can’t hope to compete in the globalized economy, but even as we say it, we doubt our own advice. We know that we are asking them to bury themselves in debt at a moment when it is very uncertain what kind of job they will be able to get or how long it will take them to repay the loans. We know it, and they know it. For them, the American dream has become a taunt. Perhaps my story is proof not of the persistence of the American dream but of its precarity, even its absence.
The solutions are multitude. We could restore funding to public universities and insist that they operate as public utilities, rather than as strictly profit-driven businesses. We could increase Pell grants and reform student debt. If we were more ambitious, we could tackle the supreme inequality that, in recent decades, has disfigured every fact and facet of social and political life.
For my part, I will begin by telling my own story differently — by discarding that fashionable old fable that reduces any tale of success to one of grit and diligence. I will admit that, to be frank, it was an easier time, and things were better. Our institutions were better. Perhaps that is what the story is about, inasmuch as it is about anything. There is the one thing I learned when I cashed that check: that people cannot always be resilient, but a country can.
Tara Westover is the author of the memoir “Educated.”
Do you ever consider to return to sex work?