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Dirty secrets of America's Middle Class, revealed by a cleaning lady: Cartons of cigarettes in the freezer, vomit spatters in the toilet bowl, porn magazines on the bedside table and opiates

On the surface, Stephanie Land’s clients lived the lives she dreamed of having: financial security, expensive cars, nice homes, devoted partners, access to health care, organic groceries and an exceptionally clean house maintained by a maid: her.
Land delineated her clients by the nicknames she gave their homes: the Sad House, the Porn House, the Chef’s House, Henry’s House, the Farm House. 
Cleaning the Porn House was never a pleasant task. She found herself changing the sheets and dusting around open bottles of lubricant and worn-out copies of Hustler that rigged the surface of a stranger’s bedside table. Dirty magazines were casually filed among travel pamphlets in the living room next to ‘the man chair.’ Over time, it became obvious to Land that the Porn House couple lived separate lives. The husband held court with his Hustlers in the king size bedroom while his wife slept on a small neatly made twin in a back room that housed all her carefully stacked bodice ripper romance novels. Land imagined them sleeping in different rooms while they fantasized about different partners and dreamed of living another life. A sign hanging above the kitchen sink poignantly read: ‘We’re staying together for the cat.’
Being invisibly entrenched in the most intimate aspects of her client's lives revealed that happiness was often an illusion for them too. The difference? They ‘just had longer hallways and bigger closets to hide the things that scared them’ wrote Land in her memoir titled Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.
Stephanie Land was a 30-year-old, single mother with absolutely no options. A 'back-up plan' would have been a luxury.  She didn’t have a college degree to cushion her fall. A supportive partner to split parental responsibilities, family to help when she was financially desperate, friends to babysit in a bind; she was always a few dollars away from complete destitution. Every indignity Land suffered was a sacrifice she made for her two year old daughter, Mia. 
'If I wasn’t working or taking care of Mia, I had to be taking care of something. I felt like sitting down meant I wasn’t doing enough — like the sort of lazy welfare recipient I was assumed to be,' she wrote.
The Cigarette Lady earned her moniker for the freezer packed full of Virgina Slims cartons. Despite her flawless façade, the Cigarette Lady had her secrets too. Observations pointed to a seemingly enviable life with endless massages, manicures and facials jotted down in her calendar book. Her closet was chock full of glamorous clothes and her bathroom sink was besieged by expensive wrinkle creams. Receipts showed that Cigarette Lady would often pay upwards of $50 for a single product—that would take Land eight hours to afford on her minuscule $6/ hour pay rate. The expertly decorated home reeked of sweet peaches from the electric wax warmers that ran non-stop which would sometimes give Land a headache. But by and large, Cigarette Lady’s home was a fairly easy job; of course notwithstanding the vomit splatters that constantly lined the rim of the toilet bowl. ‘It was the secrecy that fascinated me, the amount of energy she put into appearing perfect and clean,’ said Land.
The work was just as revolting as it was grueling; Land cleaned the messes people couldn’t stomach to do themselves. She removed the web of pubic hair that clogged the drain, unraveled wet wash cloths that were balled up in the shower, scrubbed black mold from the grout and emptied trashcans that overflowed with feminine products, used tissues and condoms.
Next to the Porn House was the Sad House; occupied by an elderly man that lived in extreme loneliness after the deaths of his family. A life well lived was distilled in the mementos, trinkets and photos that lined the window sills and display cases throughout the house which stood as a shrine to the widower’s deceased wife and son. It was unclear when exactly the Sad House’s matriarch passed away; but the ‘to-do’ lists still pinned to the fridge that had yellowed over time told Land that it had been a very long time. Aside from a few blood drops in the bathroom, the Sad House never got dirty. The old man was sick and spent most of his time at the hospital. His loneliness forced Land to reckon with mortality: ‘He’d done everything right—good job, gorgeous house, married a woman he loved and traveled with—but despite all this he was still dying alone.’
The Chef’s House got its name from the giant stove top that sat as the focal point of the kitchen, but overtime it became defined by the enormous bottles of prescription opiates that were found in every room of the house; cycling from full to empty during her bi monthly visits.
The interesting details exposed in people’s filth did not make the demanding work any easier. Land popped 800mgs of ibuprofen like candy to allay the back spasms she got from being on her hands and knees all day long. ‘Living with illness or pain was part of my daily life. Part of the exhaustion. But why did my clients have these problems? It seemed like access to healthy foods, gym memberships, doctors, and all of that would keep a person fit and well. Maybe the stress of keeping up a two-story house, a bad marriage and maintaining the illusion of grandeur overwhelmed their systems in similar ways to how poverty did mine’ she wrote in her book.
Her memoir is as much as about peeling back the curtain on the middle class as it is about her own struggle to survive. Suffering indignities did not stop at cleaning people's houses in a life defined by government acronyms: SNAP, TBRA, LIHEAP, WIC, Medicaid and Pell Grants. She recalls reaching out to an old friend who upon telling her about the government assistance said: 'My tax money's paying for all that, so you're welcome.'
With no safety net, her life as a single mother was scheduled within an inch of its life. The bureaucratic shuffle required extensive paperwork, appointments and draconian rules-- applying for them was practically a full time job that she had to balance between cleaning houses, taking care of her daughter and attending night school at the community college. 
There was no padding in Land’s budget for gratuitous spending nor was there time for it. Every expense including the gas required to get from job to job had to be accounted for; most days. One small unexpected expenditure, like a trip to the emergency room could have catastrophe consequences.
Nevertheless Land persevered, she continued with her education at the local community college: ‘There was a voice nagging at me that refused to be ignored. Part of me demanded that I become a writer.’ Eventually she was awarded a scholarship for survivors of domestic abuse, and combined with student loans she was able to enroll in the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Montana- a dream she kept alive since before she got pregnant. 
Land graduated with a degree in English in 2014. Now 40 years old with two children, she works as a professional writer for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, The Nation and The New York Review of Books. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is her first book.

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