Mary Marcus: Unhelpful

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A while ago, I was thinking about giving up writing. I imagined how great it would be not to have to sit alone most of the day, not worry so much about getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, not drinking, and exercising, all so I’d be clear-headed enough to write every morning.

I didn’t want to go back to advertising even if I could get a job. I thought about going back to school and becoming either a teacher or a shrink. But the idea of going back to school did not appeal to me.

I was visiting my friend Lisa in New York during this time and she said, “Why don’t you look in the paper?”

One ad caught my attention right away: EXECUTIVE HOUSEKEEPER, MUST LIVE IN FIVE DAYS A WEEK. Starting pay 75 thousand plus benefits.

WOW, I thought, not a bad gig. I could certainly be an executive housekeeper.

It was a 212 number. Which meant it was probably some huge apartment on the east side with a servant’s wing. I remembered when I was just out of school writing fashion promotion how the dragon lady Eleanor Lambert, the woman responsible for the BDL, had hired me to be one of her “live in” assistants. She gave one a back room in the giant apartment on Fifth, a couple of hundred cash for spending money, and a limo at one’s service when it wasn’t serving her. She was compiling some encyclopedia on fashion and I was one in a long line of ingénues who did the actual writing of the book. I don’t think it was ever published.

I don’t remember much about that time chez Lambert except for reading The Portrait of a Lady for the first time in the green chintz canopied bed in my room and dinner on a tray when I wanted it. There were some consultations with Lambert while she was in the tub and a few desultory rides in her limo. I also remember getting sick and her kicking me out of the back room with a curt note.

I assumed this executive housekeeper gig would be more rigorous, but I was strong. I wanted to run away from LA and live in NY. I could order groceries, cook dinner for the family if I had to – but they probably had a chef – and I could help him/her and generally run things. I had grown up in the kitchen hanging out with Aline, my mother’s housekeeper, during all of my formative years. And of course, I’d run my own house.

I guess I should mention, my son had just gone off to college; I was probably in a state of empty nest psychosis. I never once thought in the elaborate fantasy I concocted about this job how I would tell him that, since he left home, I’d become a housekeeper. Albeit an executive one with a good salary. But I do remember thinking that he could stay with my mother-in-law when he was in town and not have to stay with his mother in the servant’s wing. And of course I never told my husband about any of this. Part of the executive housekeeper appeal was disappearing one day—no strings attached.

So I went into Lisa’s beautiful little office (she was still asleep) and dialed the number from the ad. I was imagining an aristocratic voice, Locust Valley Lockjaw or something like that. The voice that answered the phone had a nasty nasal twang and sounded more Queens than Brooklyn, certainly not to the isle of Manhattan born. Not like my husband’s parents, or my husband come to that.

“I’m calling about the ad in the Times,” I said.

She gave a little laugh and told me she was glad I spoke English.

“Oui, oui,” I said, but she didn’t laugh back. “So tell me a little about the job. You’re offering a lot of money for a housekeeper.”

“I know,” she said, defensively. “The applicant must be very qualified.”

“I couldn’t be more qualified to be an executive housekeeper.”

“Do you have references?”

I didn’t have a smart phone then, so I mentally sifted through the Rolodex of my mind. I knew lots of writers, any one of whom could pretend to be Mrs. Joe Schmo Rich Person and give me a glowing reference.        Mary has worked for me for five years, her cooking is great, her kitchen cabinets are well organized, and if she only ironed, she’d be the best household slave you’ve ever had. Never have to worry leaving money out and she won’t break the crystal. Good with kids and animals too.”

“I can give you several references,” I assured her.

“Okay,” she said, “maybe we should meet.”

“And I do great flowers!” I’m assuming you entertain a lot.

Indeed, I was deep into the fantasy. I would wear a long black dress like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Or maybe all white like a California waiter. I’d been on many job interviews, but never a job interview to be a servant. Would I be obliged to enter by the back entrance?

“We go out a lot,” said Mrs. Whoever She Was.

That’s cool, I thought. Less work for me. I don’t know what made me say what I said next.

“You know, of course, I don’t do floors and toilets.”

“Well!” she fired right back, “if you work for me, you’re doing floors and toilets.”

I was totally indignant.

“You said it was an executive housekeeper. Executive housekeepers don’t do floors and toilets.”

“They do in my house.”

“I don’t want the job,” I said.

“I knew when I heard your voice you weren’t the right person.”

“Screw you. I’m a great housekeeper. You’d be lucky to get me.”

“You’re not worth all the money I’m paying—”

“I’m worth far more than that!”

Believe it or not, it went a little further from there until we finally banged down our respective phones.

I guess I sort of knew I wasn’t going to give up writing…


The New Me coverMary Marcus thankfully didn’t give up writing and it currently working on her next novel, Lavina, which will be published in 2015. She is the author of The New Me.

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» Inside Look » Mary Marcus: Unhelpful
On December 22, 2014
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