When I was a young woman I cleaned houses for $6.50 an hour. The company charged $65 an hour for the clean, and obviously I did the math on this as I sat in the parking lot right after they hired me. They had me sign two papers: Something for taxes and then a non-compete clause promising them I wouldn’t work on my own.
I cleaned with a woman named Jacqueline. She was older than me and in charge of our two-person crew. We switched between wet and dry for each house, one of us taking the kitchen and bathrooms and any place with tile, the other taking the carpets and dusting.
Overwhelmingly the houses were already spotless; we would only have to leave vacuum marks and spray this pink can of generically “clean” smelling chemicals into the rooms as we backed our way out the door, making ghosts of ourselves as if we hadn’t been there at all.
I learned a lot at that job about class and how to be a nobody while intimately cleaning someone else’s toothpaste spit out of their sink.
Jacqueline, however, showed me how to live through it. She blared Guns and Roses through the car speakers between cleans, and called her husband from the kitchen phone at every house, giggling and gossiping about their friends. They’d been married three times to each other, divorcing when they got mad enough and getting back together when they got lonely. Jacqueline and the man on the other end of the telephone were the sort of love I was looking for.
There are so many providences from one end of a person to the other.
I remember lying on a dock somewhere in Georgia with a motley crew of friends and 40s, watching shooting stars and listening to tree frogs hum. Someone was playing banjo, someone was humming along. It got late and when I muttered something about needing to finish up work before morning, my lover rolled onto his side, his face close to mine, and whispered: Your boss will always allow you to work more and work more for free.
I instinctually pushed away his gentle admonition, thinking he was much too carefree. I had come a long way from housecleaning and had been raised to value myself through my productivity, holding close my degrees and my CV, to assure myself and prove to the world my worth. But there on that dock, among the hobos and the anarchists, telling stories by campfire and speaking philosophy by sunrise, my value never had to be proven, my worth had never been questioned, effortless love always reigned supreme.
I have always sensed there was something more precious in this world than order. Something more noble than success.
I remember once going into a house to clean and the homeowner was there: She must have forgotten it was Tuesday. I saw her there in her bedroom through the partially opened door. I knocked gently but she did not answer, so I went in and made the bed and took my time vacuuming, dusting every surface, more thorough than usual, aware she was hiding in the back of her huge walk-in closet the entire time.
Jacqueline and I laughed the whole way home: Who wants to face the girl who picks up your dirty underwear and puts them in your hamper three feet away?
That day, Jacqueline and I felt powerful, grinning wildly in the car with the huge pink magnet that read Maids in Waiting on the side, singing Paradise City at the top of our lungs, relishing our freedom between houses with the windows down.
You can be young and still understand power. I understood why these people did not want to see Jacqueline and me. But I did not understand why they wanted us to make their houses so clean that it looked like they also weren’t there. What a funny way to live.
When I first learned about Haymarket and May Day and the fight for the 8 hour work day — about the unionists and the socialists and the anarchists showing up 40,000 strong in Chicago for days upon days — it stirred in me something that the Maids in Waiting company picnic likely never would. And because I understood power, I understood why Grover Cleveland and Maids in Waiting granted us Labor Day, a date on the calendar far from May Day. Labor Day has always tasted like lemonade made from a mix to me.
I remember that night on the dock something else that was said, this time by an old friend. In that sleepy profound way one speaks as the sun is rising and the wine is all gone, she said that we must take what we want, for we can’t expect it to be given.
I let this roll around in my head as the sun came up and as I fell asleep among friends, knowing that I would be late for work, knowing that things would not be done, that deadlines were bound to be missed, and knowing that I was wasting away my time in the absolute, most perfect way. I wish I hadn’t lost touch with Jacqueline.
Paris. Madrid, Santiago, Athens, sometimes even Caracas or Paramaribo, burn metaphorically and sometimes literally each May Day, like the cities are sending smoke signals to each other. Workers find themselves able to speak a same language throughout decades and across seas. In the United States, the birthplace of May Day, our flame was long ago extinguished, stamped out by race-baiting and xenophobia and myths of meritocracy. We figure ourselves each a tally of our individual failings and become almost too ashamed to march.
But still we resist imperfectly.
There is a wonderful riff-raff that keeps May Day alive here, with puppet pageantry and smoke bomb actions, small marches through sleepy downtowns consisting of all those who still dream. But more we find our own quiet, personal propagandas of deed. Our May Days can be all the days that two working-class maids laugh back their dignity as they drive away; the days that friends lay on docks scheming and dreaming; the days that we find places where we don’t have to fight for our value because we already have it, for we are human and we are together, here, today. May Day is tonight as I stay up late to write this, long after my child is in bed, leaving dishes unwashed in the sink; a chaotic act because I am now too old and will be too tired at work tomorrow, tell-tale bags of my rebellion under my eyes, proud and shameful all at once, I refuse to give them my best. It is these moments of irrationality that help us live. These days, after all, are days to take, not be given.
For hearts starve as well as bodies. Yes, it is Bread we fight for — but we also fight for Roses. Jacqueline and me. Nighttime docks and old friends. Late night writing and exhausted morning commutes. Bread and Roses. Bread and Roses. We fight for Bread and Roses.