The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 15, 2015

Hiring Help — and trying not to be Hilly Holbrook

My husband is not a tidy man.  Few Southern men are tidy men.  There are some.  I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment (platonically) with a Southern man from South Carolina who was as neat as a pin.  I don’t know with any certainty that he ironed his pajamas, but if he had, I would not be surprised.

However, my husband is of the more common variety of mess-amassing masculinity that dominates Southern constructions of manhood.  I have come home to ask questions like the following:

  • Honey, why is the vacuum cleaner covered in mud?
  • Why is our dog drinking water out of my Tiffany cut-glass bowl?
  • Why is the cat box in the kitchen?
  • What was this object under the sofa, and what happened to it to make it smell that way?
  • Why are your sweaty socks on the dining room table?
  • Why is there a pile of trash on the mattress?
  • Is there rotting bacon in here under one of the throw pillows?
  • Why?  God, why would you EVER put THAT there?

Normally, I clean up these messes when I am home, but my husband and I have to be apart some of the time for our respective professional activities, and he has agreed that in order to keep the house something less than a health hazard, we will have a cleaning service come in monthly and repair such damage.  They are making their debut today, shortly before my departure.

The two ladies who have come here in a uniform of jeans and black polo shirts with a company logo are two white women in pony tails.  They are vacuuming the man cave right now.  Still, I find myself, particularly for the purposes of this blog, reflecting on Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which is perhaps well-intended but ultimately essentialist in its views of women of color in Jackson, Mississippi at the time of Medgar Evers’ assassination.  What I will say in great favor of the novel is that Stockett has accurately portrayed the neighborhoods of white people of Belhaven in Jackson in the early 1960s and the outlying town of Richland, now a bit of urban sprawl, but then a farming community.  The person she surely best understood among her characters, perhaps the most memorable among them, was Hilly Holbrook, the nasty, catty, racist Junior Leaguer who is terrified of appearing ridiculous in any way to her peers.  For her, the engaging of a maid is a birthright, the ultimate symbol of white privilege, class privilege (while she is a disgusting human being, no one at her Junior League meetings would suspect her of the slightest trashiness), and one of the limited assertions of power a Southern Lady of the bridge-playing, pearl-wearing set in 1961 could make with impunity.  Without apologizing for one iota of her horrible behavior, her manipulative, demeaning cruelty to characters white and black in the narrative, one can understand her temptation to play the tyrant in a system of power in which she occupies only a middle rung.  She treats her maid horribly — and receives a comeuppance delicious to the reader, though perhaps less so to her.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman.  I hope I am not at all like her ever.

This woman is my least favorite Southern woman. I hope I am not at all like her ever.

She comes to my mind as one of the cleaning ladies apologizes for spilling something brown on our cream-colored carpet.  She cleans it immaculately.  I am not upset.

Hilly Holbrook is the loosely fictionalized worst of Southern womanhood, surely.  But even a Yankee like me thinks about what this cleaning service’s presence in my home represents in terms of class privilege and racial privilege.  I am sure that Oprah Winfrey hires someone to clean up.  I of course know that there are plenty of white families in America who can’t afford the price tag that accompanies these cleaning women’s perfect streak-free shine of my mirrors, their careful straightening of things on shelves, their dusting in corners.  However, even though every person in my house right now is Caucasian, the mark of employing a maid service is one that has privilege, racial and class privilege, all over it, and no amount of these logo-sporting workers’ scrubbing can rub that out of the surface of this transaction.

I don’t feel guilty.  FOX would call me a “job creator.”  However, I remain conscious, though I grew up in a house with two working parents and cleaning help that came in regularly, that this is my participation in a game that is rigged against some people.  My husband’s job at a large corporation helps us to be in the category of those who don’t have to clean up all their own messes.  Tennessee Williams once castigated himself, after a particularly drunken bout of lost weeks in a New York hotel room that he trashed, in a preface to one of his plays.  He thought, at least abstractly, that nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess.  This was for him an expressed ideal, and he never really got sober or tidy again.

I will not consider anyone who works for me less than me, I hope.  I think, though, about Stockett’s remarkable statements from her character Hilly, who believes that she’s not a racist, that racism lies outside of her household, out of her interactions with her maids.  “Oh, it’s out there,” Hilly declares.  I never want to have that kind of myopia about my own privilege, though I am grateful not to have to clean up disastrous messes for my husband when I get back from my time away.

November 26, 2010

Talk to me, Harry Winston — My Golem-like, and Completely UnSouthern, Obsession with Certain Bling

My precious....

I know that in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Lorelei-Lee-like obsession with ice, square-cut and pear-shaped, is not all that useful.  I mean, if a gal wants to bake biscuits, she might just get dough stuck between the platinum claws that hold the stone in place.  When I’m sweeping leaves off the table outside, nobody is going to care what’s glistening on my finger.

That said, when William gave his momma’s ring to that girl he’s been seeing, I got covetous.  Pray for me.

Understand, I have no desire to marry into that Windsor clan.  They keep marrying their cousins so often they are starting to get goofy-looking, and they are none too bright, for the most part.  I like a smart man who is burly enough to tackle the quarterback, and I’m married to one of those — no desire to change dance partners.

But just look at that thing, glowing, beckoning — I’m the Golem of that ring!  What’s a gal to do?

As a New Yorker, I admit, if I saw that skinny British bee-hatch walking into an uncrowded street, I would think about ways to yank it off her finger and run as fast as I can.  In this photo, the ring looks loose enough on her that if I were determined and completely willing to get kick-boxed in the process, I could probably, even at my age, manage to elbow her in the guts and whang it off of her.  Pray for me!  I’m a sinner.  I’m weakened by the blue glow of that exquisite sapphire.  I think about this ring, just billions of finger-widths away from me in the UK, way, way too much

My friend Maegan took pity on me yesterday — I guess it was her Thanksgiving good deed — and sent me a URL where I could get information about replicas of this thing.  A place called The Natural Sapphire company is offering similarly cut and diamond-encircled jewelry.  I looked, and I’m sorry — it is just not the same.  That blue, the color of the anorexic sorrows of Lady Diana, cut with the princely precision of her posing on a bench alone with the Taj Mahal in the background while her cheating man back home sleeps with that other woman she called “The Rottweiler” — the pain that the ring contained is not in the knock-offs.  The pain makes it luminous.  The blue of the sapphire howls, “Help me!  I’m beautiful and destined to die young!  I’m loveless, but I have this ring to mark me, like a multi-millionaire Cain, destined to roam East of the Eden where I wanted to remain.”

Okay — I’m reading a little too much Yeats lately, and the falcon cannot hear the falconer right about now.  Pray for me!  I’m obsessed — with rings, with royal pains, with Irish quatrains.

I should go finish cleaning the Thanksgiving messes in my house, but it just seems so much nicer to imagine my finger refracting blue light in the kitchen sink.

I have an absolutely gorgeous young friend named Lylah, who is Egyptian, and I took her about two years ago to Harry Winston‘s boutique on Fifth Avenue, the one where they display rocks that make Tiffany & Co. look like they are the Walmart jewelry counter.  They had necklaces with egg-sized emeralds, rubies the contours of a cat’s brain, and sapphires that would make a smuggler choke if he tried to swallow them to hide them at the border crossing.

I pointed to a very nice emerald necklace and earring set and asked Lylah, when she married an oil sheik, to send these to me.

These days, I cannot even imagine where I could wear such things.  In Mississippi, there is no cotillion where one could wear a stone worth more than the historic antebellum mansion in which it was hosted.  Anyway, I’m a Yankee, and we don’t get invited to such things, besiege them as we might.  Why hasn’t the native lack of pretensions — I mean, my new community is all about hound dogs, shot guns, grits, and carefully worded laments against mendacity — oh, and many people around here like to drink — why hasn’t the red-neckiness of this locality gotten my neck out of the mindset of the noose of a Harry Winston necklace?

The truth is that nobody gets big rocks like that without somebody suffering a great deal.  In Tolkein’s work, all of Middle Earth gets in a war over a frigging ring.

Pray for me!  Remind me of the atrocities committed to collect conflict diamonds, of the hegemony of the DeBeers family!  Pray for me!

Why isn’t it working?  I read in the red letters of my bible, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I mean — those are the RED letters, people!  Why am I not putting my treasures in better places?

That ring I’m obsessing over sealed a curse over the life of the woman who wore it.  Am I not better off with my perfectly lovely wedding and engagement rings that are not ostentatious and do not invite the paparazzi to my window?  Am I not much better off now?  I might be less sparkly, but why can’t I take comfort in the Shaker hymn’s idea –’tis a gift to be simple, a gift to be free, a gift to live in a land where pick-up trucks have rattlesnake flags saying “Don’t Tread On Me?”

Seriously, pray for me.  Either send me a gift certificate for serious Harry Winston bling or pray for me to find a healthier obsession.  Amen.

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