05 June 2012

People-watching outside the Mall

It is May, and the sun reflects sharply off the glass and metal doors to the mall. Everything bright, even the colors of the housekeeper’s cleaning equipment. Yellow caution signs and pastel-green rags. 

Her clothing is more muted than anything else in sight, a nondescript maroon polo shirt and the standard unflattering black pants and sneakers. Her long black hair, twisted tight into a bun and a scrunchie, catches the sun’s light as she kneels in the open glass doorway, bucket of sudsy water beside her, and begins to scrub the thresholds with the long brush in her gloved hands. That’s where she keeps her attention, the dirt in the edges, as people mill in and out of the glass-windowed department outlet.

It is a setting I’m not used to being in, at a mall in the middle of the day, and though I have seen hundreds like her in my life I have never seen a person do this kind of work before. That is one of the reasons I watch.

I try to picture her differently, with her hair hanging long and loose and curly around her high cheekbones, her work uniform substituted for clothes more light and airy and appealing. With her bronzed skin, petite figure and perfectly rouged cheeks, full lips and black eyes, she would fit right in with the demographic passing over her head in and out of the doors on either side of her. In fact, her raw native beauty would shame the fake-tanned, treated-haired, botox-infused stream of people I watch pass. A few men in polos and dockers with computer bags slung over their shoulders. Corporates. Others in nice suits. A lot of longish hairstyles among them.

Mostly women, though, consumers, their curves clad in bright-colored shorts, denim capris and bootcuts, and breezy tops or clinging tanks. All with sunglasses, hair worn down, toned shoulders and arms, tanned skin and shiny gladiator sandals. I wonder if she feels their eyes on her as they pass her crouched form. If she does she gives no sign; her head does not raise from its vigil over the grill. My cheeks redden for her. They would be flaming if our places were switched.

The young man who next exits the building notices her too. Completely out of the element of the place, as she is. Baggy white shorts, baggy gray shirt, and a white flat-brim hat shoved on top of his too-long curly blond hair. 

He moves with a slow, deliberate swagger, and the metal collar and green earbuds he wears complete the image. He looks at her once as he comes out. Looks at her again as he stops to get his bearings. Then he sits on a low wall near her and takes drags out of a long cigarette. He doesn't speak to her. But every once in a while his eyes find her as they rove, and he watches her movements.

As he sits there she finishes with one threshold, closes the doors, removes the Wet Floor sign, and moves to one of the adjacent doors, propping them open. Her moves are graceful and assured, though whether that is because of who she is or the years of practice she’s had at thresholds is anybody’s guess. Again she kneels with her long brush and her pastel-colored rags and begins to scrub. 

Consumers and corporates flow in and out of the doors she just closed, their shoes tracking onto the still-wet floor. None of them stop to notice. But some of them can think on the move. They look at her as they pass, some with a glance of guilt, others with a scowl. None with a smile.

She does not look up. Whether her disinterest in their disinterest is real or feigned I can’t tell. She keeps her mouth closed, her eyes down, her hands moving. And becomes almost unnoticeable to them. Which is perhaps how both sides prefer it.

I wonder, as I watch her, about her people. Where she comes from. What heritage is in her blood. Who she herself is. What she does away from work. What she likes to do. What she dreams of doing.

Why I don’t know. I’ve never taken such an interest in any other housekeeper before. Perhaps it’s her well-groomed appearance despite her daily job. Perhaps it’s memories of cleaning around people in my own housekeeping days. Perhaps it’s the fact that she seems so intent on her work despite the eye-catching outfits that flow past her in both directions. Today, at this place, in this moment, she stands out to me.

Eventually the young punk finishes dragging and slowly rises, carefully taps his cigarette out in the trash can rather than simply throwing it on the ground. I watch as he throws what’s in his cupped hands away, rolls his shoulders and swaggers back into the building. He glances down at the housekeeper again, only for a moment. Then he looks back at the doors, takes his hat off, and walks through them. He avoids the one she just cleaned, going instead through the one adjacent.

And I realize it is true that covers do not market books accurately.

Finally the friend I’m waiting for walks back through those doors, as seemingly out of place in that stuffed-up chic strip as are the housekeeper and the flat-brim punk. She comes through the door just cleaned and stops halfway through it. She glances down at the housekeeper and smiles. Genuinely. 

I see the woman lift her head, a smile spread across her own face, sudden and flashing though still a little reserved. Professionalism no doubt. I watch as they exchange words and as my friend laughs with her then lets the door fall closed behind her as she heads to the car.

“What did you say to her?” I ask as my friend buckles up.

“Just told her she was doing a good job.”

I smile and take one look at the woman as we drive away; her attention is once again on her work, her lips closed, her eyes down as people flaunt their fashion past her, at each other, at me, at the world. As if nothing happened.

But I have watched. And I know it did.

And I suddenly catch a glimpse of the difference between people and real people.

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