Monday, December 17, 2007

La Mucama Esmeralda

Mucama is the Argentine word for a female servant, but I like ama de llaves, literally woman of the keys. Whatever keeper of the house lingo you prefer, I am of course talking about my criada, the maid. Esmeralda comes Tuesdays at 10, a time I mark on my calendar as a reminder to leave extra early for Spanish class to avoid the awkward encounter between servant and master. At a hotel would you enjoy room service with your feet up and television on while the morning maids put your room in order? Since I’ve never met my empleada dómestica, I actually don’t know her name, but imagine that Esmeralda fits just fine.

Apartment rentals in Buenos Aires commonly include once-a-week cleaning. Although I keep neat on my own accord, I won’t pass up a free scrub of the scrum lining the toilet and sink. Ironically, if you want to find my apartment at its cleanest, knock at 9:45 on Tuesdays. I feel compelled to leave my place in good condition before hired help does the job for me.

I get Esmeralda off to a running start. Grocery bags full of trash are put out in the hall next to the garbage shoot. Boxes of crackers and granola bars are aligned. Apples are stacked. Dishes are cleaned and placed in the drying rack. Crumbs from tablecloth and hairs from bathmat are released into the morning air off the sixth-story balcony. Bathroom and bed-making duties, however, remain squarely in Esmeralda’s domain.

Spooked by tales of low-paid crooked maids, I lockdown the apartment before leaving. All electronic devices are stowed inside my suitcase, such as a MacBook Pro 2GHz laptop, Canon XTi DSLR camera and Oral B 7400 toothbrush. The last is done more out of concern that Esmeralda will knock the bristly vibrator off its perch on the mirror’s ledge, switching me to manual twice a day from here on out.

I vacate no later than 9:55, and walk 45 minutes downtown to my 11:00 class. When I return by 2 p.m., I can tell that Esmeralda has worked her magic. The balcony door is ajar; curtains billow in the breeze. But upon closer inspection – sink and toilet aside – the magic is an illusion. The bed smiles with hospital corners, but the floor is crunchy from whatever she kicked up underneath while making it.

Had Esmeralda bothered to sweep, she would have treated herself to the dollar’s worth of pesos I discovered when surveying the filth under the bed. Instead, I pocket the change as compensation, slipping golden coins into my bag to pay for tomorrow morning’s subway ride downtown.

Esmeralda has also failed other tests I devised following that first peek under the bed. The apartment has a mini moth problem – small in physical size and scope – not big enough to warrant redecorating with balls of naphthalene, but just annoying enough to make me give chase while clapping my hands.

For those unfortunate to have been caught up in my standing ovation, I use their powdery remains as checkpoints to evaluate Esmeralda’s thoroughness, or lack thereof. Yes, I deposit dead moths at strategic locations around the apartment: by the telephone, on top of the television, next to the nightstand lamp. Yet, there is no change come Tuesday afternoon. Just as moth remains lie undisturbed, so does Mel the (living, and usually sleeping) spider in his web-bed corner behind the bathroom door.

An army of Esmeraldas with buckets and brooms makes a small, hard-earned living cleaning up after foreigners able to afford to best of Buenos Aires by day and night. Where is the time or motivation to deep clean dozens of apartments in one day, all grander than hers somewhere out in Lomas de Zamora or Villa 31? The prism of cursory service casts a spectrum of valuations. For me, coming home and seeing sunshine strike the straightened comforter feels special that someone has been in while I’ve been out, no matter how helter-skelter the toiletries now are in the bathroom.

After hand-exterminating another moth fluttering around my closet (and laying it to rest on the stereo’s power button), I unlock electronics from my luggage and boot up the computer. I open the calendar and highlight the following Tuesday, marking it as Día de Esmeralda.

1 comment:

michan said...

Hahaha! Maybe she's really having a party at your place! ;)