Working in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store can be tedious. I fold sweaters. Process returns, a mental challenge that is only getting slightly easier. Size the merchandise, meaning make sure the clothes go in the proper order on the rack. Take outfits off mannequins. Put outfits on mannequins. Wait for customers. Where are the customers? The mall is dead today. Adults are absent, home shovelling. The teenagers are all here, of course, haunting American Apparel and tussling. They would never come in to our store, which sells to ladies of a certain age. Mature. Silverhaired. Tasteful. Kind of like me.


The glass doors shut at night and I become the low woman on the totem pole. The manager closes out the books. Someone has to clean the store. That someone is moi. 9:00 at night, my toes pinch me, I’m swiffering the length of the floorboards. It’s not surprising the amount of lint to be picked up, but somehow I’m surprised that the job falls to Jean Zimmerman.

I always think of the portrait Barbara Ehrenreich drew of her experience with a cleaning company, examining the minute and disgusting structure of dust castles under the furniture. When I was sixteen I farmed myself out as a housekeeper one day a week to neighbors, but ran in horror when I realized I had to clean their toilet bowls.

Now here I am. Me, the successful writer, whose fingers usually only touch a keyboard or a Uniball pen, wiping up the dust kicked up by customers. I write books, does anybody know that?! Of course I swiffer in my own home, but there is something different about cleaning up after strangers at the store. Now comes the vacuuming of the dressing rooms, crouching to pick up the detritus women leave behind – hair pins, clothing tags, bits of paper. Shoppers can bomb a dressing room in 10 minutes flat, explode the clothing inside out and every which way, after which I have to restore order.

This is honest work, I tell myself. Someone has to do it. Someone has to empty the garbage pails. My old feet hurt. Putting in new plastic trash bags. Can I go home now? My television and beer await me. My youngish manager counts the cash and calmly takes a look over at silverhaired, stooping me. Her menial days are past. Mine have just begun.

I wanted this job. I wanted a brainless break from writing, to make a buck or two, before tree season kicks in. I didn’t count on making the classy, intellectual person I thought I was into a maid.


Filed under Arborist, Clothing, Culture, Fashion, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Trees, Writers, Writing

7 responses to “Scutwork

  1. Bethany

    It sounds hard, and I hope you only stay as long as you need to, and get out of it as much as you can use for writing. Dignity seems elusive under the fluorescent lights, dangling a swiffer. Though as Hopkins said, “Glory be to God for dappled things/… And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” And Berryman: “Women is better, braver. In a foehn of loss/ entire, which too they gotten understand,/having had it,/we struggle.” So I also expect great things and am eager to read the next blog.

  2. Regina

    The ultimate in political writing Jean. I will be joining you soon I am sure. I supported myself in college cleaning houses. Big moments: I told a client I would not do a semesters worth of laundry for her spoiled son. I gave myself a raise. I had to separate and re-sheet the marital bed of two professors when she had her period. I was embarrassed and horrified. A young girl and anthropology major.
    I so love your blogs again.

  3. Betty Zimmerman

    We feel bad, reading your post today. How much longer do you have? I assume the job is over when you come out here? Anyway, that will be a real contrast, from the job to Enchantment!


    Sent from my iPad


  4. anngine

    PHILANTHROPISTS (PHILOSOPHERS and BENEFACTORS): In NICKLE AND DIMED, Ehrenreich wrote: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you …. The “working poor” … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.”

  5. Anonymous

    Okay Jean. You’ve done your market research on what work is like for the average uneducated American. Now get back to writing. I may have been a little nonplussed by Savage Girl, which may be my failing, but it did leave with some very vivid imagery of NYC, and who knew that my sailboat, named “Zoom,” was no doubt named for the racy part of fin de siècle Manhattan. I am expecting great things, and not in ladies wear.

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