Porn, opioids and a freezer full of cigarettes: what one cleaner saw in America’s homes

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Stephanie Land: ‘I felt like if I wasn’t making it, I wasn’t working hard enough.’ Photograph: Kurt Wilson/Guardian

At first glance, it’s not immediately obvious that the toddler in the video I am watching is taking her first wobbly steps in a homeless shelter. Watching the tiny girl babble to her mother behind the camera, I am distracted by how spotless the floor looks. Yet in the eyes of Stephanie Land, the person who cleaned it, it was appalling: “Years of dirt were etched into the floor. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.”

People such as Land are perhaps the biggest threat to the myth of the American Dream: someone who worked hard, yet found her very country pitted against her success. Her new book, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is both a memoir of her time working as a cleaner in middle-class households, and a dismantling of the lies the US tells itself about the poor: namely, that they don’t work. As Land puts it, she was “overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor”.