On a hot morning in early June 1976, my best friend, Katy, and I met at the corner of Darby and Georgica and took off on bikes to our first housecleaning job. We pedaled at a clip, her tire nicking mine, all the way to the end of Further Lane. What must we have looked like, biking madly past golf greens and leafy estates, wearing white maids’ uniforms made of some god-awful synthetic with our Ray Ban sunglasses and Tretorn sneaks?
I could smell the heat from the sun baking into the road, the pungent scent of newly cut grass. I was glad summer was back, stretching out before me in all its perennial possibilities. I was also a little nervous. Could we really pass as professional housecleaners? The only houses either of us had cleaned were our own. But we needed a summer job to make spending money—new bikinis, cocktails and door cover at the Talkhouse—and to save a little for our freshman year of college (I was off to Princeton, Katy to Smith), so we concocted this cleaning and party-help business and ran an ad in the local paper with a photo of us posing in our uniforms, holding feather dusters aloft. Katy’s father took the picture with his tripod, while sipping a martini. Within a week, we had a dozen jobs lined up, from grand summer homes to grungy share houses.
We arrived a bit wobbly legged that first day, leaned our ten-speed Peugeots against a tree and stood a moment, looking up at the three-story house with its flower-filled window boxes, wondering whether to knock at the front door or walk around to the back. Fortunately, we were saved by the bell—or lack of it. When the front door opened, a middle-aged woman in Bermuda shorts and ropes of pearls waved us toward her. As we approached, she studied us doubtfully. “You’re awfully young,” she said. I glanced at Katy. What could we say? We were. “How much per hour did you say you charge?” she asked. “Five dollars,” I said. “Each.” She was aghast. “Five each? That’s ten dollars an hour!” I felt my face flush and my words pile up on top of each other. “But we’ll do the house in half the time, because there are two of us, so really you’re paying the same as you would if there were only one…” She flicked a glove in the air like she was swatting a fly. “Well, come inside. We’ll see how this works out.”
We followed her into a long paneled living room furnished with sofas and chairs in various plaids and more end tables than there were ends of furniture, each one covered with clusters of silver picture frames and bowls of potpourri. “Along with the normal cleaning, I’d like you to polish all the furniture in the house with lemon oil,” she said. All of it? We came up with a game plan, and a template for the rest of the summer: start upstairs and work our way back down, always in the same room—one of us dusting or waxing, the other vacuuming; one cleaning the shower, the other the sink. This way, we could talk and laugh and keep each other company.
We’d always stuck together, growing up year-round in this resort town, weathering the long, isolated winters, when all there was to do on a weekend was stroll along the empty beach and wander up to the houses on the dunes, peek in through the windows at the rooms full of furniture draped in sheets, and imagine what it would be like to live there. We’d picture ourselves throwing cocktail parties on the terrace, dinners in the dining room, the guests, laughing and tipsy, spilling out into the late summer night, ripping down to the shoreline to watch the phosphorescence sparking the water or tucking into the dunes for clandestine encounters.
The Further Lane job went smoothly and it became our Monday morning regular. Of course, we had our share of mishaps over the summer, there and elsewhere—from breaking a porcelain lampshade, to accidentally turning the thermostat up while dusting on the hottest day in August, to using an ice bucket for the mop water (we thought we were being resourceful since it’s all we could find; the owner was not pleased. “It’s just not intelligent, girls!”). Once, we even cleaned the wrong house, top to bottom, by mistake.
Our bikes were our typical mode of transport, unless the house were too far, in which case, we’d corral a spare family car. Either way, we’d bring our bathing suits and towels so we could jump in the ocean between jobs. We also took along a dime-store notebook, which became our daily journal. I’d write about the day’s escapades and Katy would illustrate with amusing pencil sketches.
Luckily, our clients provided plenty of good material. There was the germaphobe in the spotless house who had us clean the oven, even though she never used it and didn’t plan to, and who followed us around, asking questions like, “What do you use on the Formica countertops—Fantastik or a damp sponge?” She even came into the bathroom to watch us clean the toilet. “Do you start from the bowl and work out, or from the outside and work in?” I remember trying to keep a straight face. “Outside in,” I said.
While we got to know the clients who came out for the entire summer (they’d be lounging by the pool or coming in and out from tennis lessons), we rarely saw the transient renters of the shares houses, which were vacant all week—a key left under the mat, money in a drawer. We loved those jobs, dirty as they were, because we could clean whatever day and time suited us, without anyone hovering about. We’d blast music—taking take mini breaks to dance—while scouring tub slime or scraping candle wax off tabletops.
Once in a while, however, we were surprised by midweek vacationers—like the time we arrived at a group house to find five or six hairy-backed men milling about, drinking coffee, eating bagels out of paper bags, shaving with electric razors, and doing chin-ups on bars wedged in doorways. As we were dusting, one of them announced that the rags in our hands, which we’d found under the sink, were his discarded underwear. He thought it time to give them up. “Ha ha.” We laughed back and kept cleaning. What choice did we have? Later, we received high praise: “Hey, you guys really don’t shit around.”
In one day we could literally go from rags to riches—from a shoebox of a share house in Amagansett to a waterfront home in Wainscott, a white-shingled affair with wraparound porches and views of Georgica Pond, and beyond that, the ocean. This was the kind of house we aspired to live in one day. Unfortunately, the fantasy house came with a snippy owner, who had us clean a fireplace screen with Brasso—not once, but twice. I still remember the dizzying fumes and the sound of the owner’s flapping sandals on the floor as she came over to inspect. To further torture us, she then made us clean the outside windows. To reach the higher panes, Katy balanced on my shoulders with Windex and a roll of papers towels. She got a few swipes in before falling with a shriek into the hedge. We should have known to say, “We don’t do windows.”
The reward was always worth whatever tasks—and scrapes—we had to endure. When work was done, we’d pedal slowly home, hands free, the sun lowering in the sky and taking the edge off the heat, and recap the day’s events, soon to be recorded in the journal, its spine filled with sand.
We wrapped up our business on Labor Day, serving at a wild, boozy party near the ocean. Afterwards, our pockets stuffed with cash, we drove to the beach. The humid night air blew across my face, carrying the scent of wild roses. The ocean was lit up by the moon— every whitecap and ripple…the whole infinite expanse of it. I sat there thinking about how big the world is and yet how small—how it was that my best friend and I happened to land here, along with the characters we worked for, how one way or another, all of our lives had intersected on this one narrow spit of land.