May-June 2017

Suburbanology: Why Do We Separate Ourselves from "The Help"?

Breaking down the "us" and "them" when people are working in our homes

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Illustration by Anne Bentley

Years ago I bought an old house in a beachside community that had been developed when Jim Crow laws codified racial segregation throughout the South. As the new homeowner, I discovered a slide bolt on the swinging door that separated the dining room and the kitchen. It could only be locked—or unlocked—from the dining room, leaving whoever slept in the teensy bedroom off the kitchen a literal outsider. Then it dawned on me: That’s where the maid slept.  

I’ve never forgotten that slide bolt—and not just because it made that house feel like a three-bedroom time capsule. I can’t forget because I constantly see reminders—even in liberal suburbia—of the enduring human impulse to divide the world into an “us” and a “them.” 

The smart, lively young woman who cares so tenderly for my sister’s toddler twins recently asked if she could tell people that she’s a distant relative. In Poland, where she grew up, she was an accountant. Now, as a nanny, great conversations with the young mothers she meets at parks and playgrounds abruptly come to an end when the other women realize she’s being paid to watch kids who are not her own. The young mothers drift away to talk to someone who seems more like them.

The skilled contractor I hire to open my pool each year and to keep its mechanical equipment running smoothly tells me that I am one of his few customers who offers him coffee, water and something to eat. He has spent days sweating through big summer projects in the backyards of Bethesda or Potomac McMansions for homeowners who never offer him a glass of cold water. Maybe some people are like that congressman who spent so much money decorating his office like the set of Downton Abbey. They get a little success in life and start to think they’re Lord Grantham. And that, I guess, makes them think of their pool contractor, no matter how honest or reliable, as just the help.

I laughed out loud when I stumbled across a letter to Miss Manners earlier this year from a woman wondering when or if it was appropriate to offer a contractor some muffins that were a few days old. She wanted to do the right thing, she wrote. She just wasn’t sure what it was.
It’s not that complicated, I wanted to tell the letter writer. Just treat anyone who comes to your home the way you would want to be treated. But, of course, it is complicated. 

Home and family are, in theory, our private sanctuaries. Yet home- owners—especially parents—who work long hours depend on a host of others to help run their lives even reasonably smoothly. A lawyer I know struggles to avoid resenting the woman she pays to tutor her middle schooler. She sees the tutor and her daughter laughing, heads tilted together as they take a break to watch a cat video on Reddit. She is paying an outsider to take on some parental responsibilities, and that pains her. She wonders if it pains her daughter, too. The lawyer would like to be the one laughing with her daughter, instead of logging the billable hours that pay the tutor and clothe the child and keep that big suburban roof over her head. 

It’s complicated because a lot of us were raised to believe that being an American means being egalitarian. While the two sisters from El Salvador who I hire to clean my home are mopping floors and scrubbing the toilets, I stay on my feet, picking up, sorting mail and folding laundry. I’d be embarrassed to let them do all the work. I recently met a woman who feels the same kind of awkwardness that I do about being waited on, but deals with it differently. She leaves her townhouse, which is on the border of Rockville and Potomac, whenever her maid comes to clean. “I feel I’m in the way,” she tells me. “I don’t feel as free in my own house when she’s there.”

Georgia Ruggiero, 35, an aesthetician who rents a townhouse in Silver Spring, goes to some wealthy clients’ homes to do their makeup before big events and sometimes ends up socializing with them. Her clients spend summers on Martha’s Vineyard or in the Hamptons. They invite her to go places that she could never afford on her own. So sometimes, when she can afford it, she picks up the dinner check. “I don’t want to feel like a charity case, not that they would ever treat me that way,” she says. “I want to be friends. I don’t want to feel unequal.”

I was thinking about all this when I met Patty Greenwald, a retired fund-raiser for a nonprofit, who was visiting downtown Bethesda with a friend. Greenwald, 70, has owned her home near Chevy Chase, D.C., for 35 years. She has the same repairmen and helpers year after year. She can’t imagine not offering a beverage to anyone who comes to her house to help. Even if they don’t accept, “I think they appreciate that I offer,” she says.

I asked her how she thought the election of President Donald Trump affects these issues. Not that much, she said. If there are mass deportations, of course, this area “will be hard hit in terms of loss of workers.” But the underlying impulse toward an “us” and “them” is ageless, she says. “People who don’t offer water to somebody working hard in hot weather didn’t offer water before Trump was president, and they wouldn’t offer water if Hillary was president. That’s who they are as people. It’s a failure to connect. They are not seeing the people working in their home or yard. They are looking past them.”

I’ve lived in Bethesda long enough to have forged a network of contractors, tradesmen and other helpers who I like, trust and admire. I’d trust any one of them with the key to my suburban sanctuary. Still, I like to be home when they work because I always learn something from talking to them, whether it’s about my home’s mechanical systems or about life. I know their political views, and they know mine. I know who is going through a divorce or illness. I know how much happier the roofer’s youngest daughter is in her new school. They know, among other things, that in the privacy of my own home, when I think no one is listening, I sometimes sing silly, made-up songs to my dogs. I dread the day my heating and cooling contractor, who I’ve known for 17 years, retires—and not just because he knows how my home’s steam-heating system works. He’s a good man. The last time he was here, I was making food to take to a friend whose son is very ill. The contractor asked the child’s name and said he would pray for him. I’m sure he did.

Like most homeowners, I’ve hired the wrong person a time or two. Last year I went a few rounds with a tradesman who allowed his unlicensed nephew to do some work in my home that was bad enough to flunk the initial county inspection. The uncle eventually redid the work correctly. I plied him with coffee, water and snacks as he worked. When he left, we shook hands. Even though I’d caused him heartburn with the county, he told me I was OK. He divides customers into two camps: those who offer him something to drink and those who don’t.

Lately, I’ve been mentally dividing the people who help me around the house into two camps, as well: those who voted for Donald Trump and those who are at risk of being deported by his administration. 

When the Salvadoran sisters who clean my home arrive, I always start the visit by serving them coffee. We all chat and drink a cup. I never thought to ask their immigration status until recently. If they don’t show up for a scheduled appointment, they told me, it will be because they have been taken. 

They are trying to figure out what to do. So are their customers who have bothered to ask whether they are here legally. They show me texts that a customer in Kensington has begun sending, warning them where immigration agents have been spotted in Montgomery County. 

I want to help the sisters. I want to do the right thing. I’m just not sure what it is. So I do something uncomplicated. I pour more coffee. 

April Witt ( is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.