These large first-floor rooms at the Hotel del Coronado overlooking the tennis courts and picturesque beach are some of the most expensive in San Diego. And they’re a mess. The bedding in them is rumpled; sooty cigarettes fill the ashtrays; sodden towels lay underfoot. Someone ought to come in and give them a good cleaning. And someone will. Her name is Nelia Mills, and she is part of the army of women that every day trudges into hotel rooms everywhere to straighten up the disorder created by others.
Mills has been cleaning the same fifteen rooms at the Hotel Del for more than six years. That doesn’t by any means make her the seniormost maid in the city; one of her coworkers, for example, has been on the job for twenty-five years. But Mills must be one of the most cheerful maids in town. “I’m easy to get along with. I get along with a lot of people,” Mills announced to me one recent morning. About the nature of her work, though, she said simply, “It’s a hard job.”
By 9 a.m. that morning Mills had wedged herself in among dozens of other women in the antediluvian quarters of the hotel’s housekeeping department. “Good morning,” Michael Figueroa greeted the group, a few seconds after the hour. Figueroa is the idealist young, “executive housekeeper” in charge of his department, he likes the idea of gathering his troops around him every morning before dispatching them to do their daily battle against dirt and disarray. “Is anyone here Irish?” Figueroa asked the assembled women. This seemed highly improbable. The hotel has Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Hawaiian, and Filipina maids, but among the sea of black hair, one or two dark-skinned hands went up. “I want to wish you a happy St. Patrick’s Day.” Figueroa said. He also wanted to warn the women that an extraordinary number of VIPs would be on the premises that week, due to the commencement of the hotel’s hundredth anniversary celebrations. “So I’d like you all to be on your toes and be sure not to forget your Maid at Work signs when you’re in the rooms,” he lectured them.
Earlier, Figueroa had told me how he cleaned rooms himself when he trained for his management position at the Del four years ago. He had sampled room cleaning before, in a previous job at a Texas hotel, but that was a modern facility in which all the rooms were alike. At the Del, in contrast, “Ten rooms a day just about killed me,” Figueroa said with a laugh. Few of the hotel’s 689 rooms are exactly the same size and shape, he said, and all the funky curves and alcoves take time to learn and master.
Mill’s set of rooms is on the west side of the huge courtyard within the central Victorian structure, and the first thing she does each morning is to tap on each door, unlock it, and poke her head into each chamber; she’s assessing what kind of work load she faces. This day she decides to start with room 3140. Following her in, I feel on guard, uncomfortable, as if I am sneaking into a stranger’s bedroom. Amid clutter on the bureau are a handful of loose change and a stack of post cards ready to be mailed (“Aunt Irma, Looking forward to seeing you. We’re enjoying San Diego…”). Two rolls of exposed film stand next to stacks of business cards and brochures; this must be the room of conventioneers combining business with sightseeing in San Diego. Whoever they are, they are not very tidy. Clothes stick out of the bureau drawers, and Mills draws my attention to a pair of boxer shorts, abandoned in one corner of the bathroom floor. “You see that?” clearly she does not approve. It’s as if after six years, she still hasn’t grown accustomed to the idea of grown people abandoning their underwear out in the open, where strangers will see it. Mills wasn’t raised that way. Born in a small town in the Philippines, she exclaims, “My mother was strict.” The maid’s English is fearless but often fractured. “You’re not going to believe this, but my parents, they don’t lay down if they not ironed the sheets. And that floor has to be shiny!” She says every one of her parent’s thirteen children had his or her particular duty at home. In this fashion, Mills learned housekeeping. Yet she never dreamed she’d wind up working as a maid. She moved to San Diego with her husband, a civilian naval employee, seventeen years ago, and she worked for many years at Rainer’s, starting as a seamstress, then working her way up to supervisor, and finally landing a position in the clothing manufacturer’s shipping department. She remembers the precise date she was laid off from that work—November 7, 1980. Her subsequent job hunt finally lead her to the Del, and Mills found she could withstand the laborious daily grind.
As Mills moved through her chores in room 3140, she voiced another complaint about the old sections of the Victorian structure. All the hundred-year-old rooms have white porcelain bathtubs, she pointed out. To get them really clean, you have to get down on your knees and scrub hard with an abrasive pad; in contrast, the rooms in the newer sections, which were built within the last twenty years, have plastic tubs that are easily sponged clean. Heat lamps in the new bathrooms dry up all the excess water, while maids like Mills in the old sections must painstakingly towel dry their newly cleaned tubs.
Despite the difference between the newer and older parts of the hotel, each of the Del’s day maids is responsible for fourteen or fifteen rooms a day, Figueroa says. He believes that assigning each woman their own section builds more responsibility. “If mildew’s building up, the first one we go to is the section lady, because she’s the one who’s there every day,” he explains. With a grimace, Mills concurs that having one’s own section increases the pressure on the workers—but on the positive side, the rooms have come to seem like part of her own home.
When Mills was assigned her section, the carpets were old and the wallpaper showing signs of advanced age. “It was ugly,” she recalls empathetically. But little by little, all her rooms have been updated. She takes pride in mentioning that Jeanne Lawrence (wife of owner M. Larry Lawrence) has more than once wandered into the section and chatted, “We talk like anything!”
Only four of Mills rooms are smaller ones without views ($105 a night). Most of the rest are so-called lanais, which boast ocean views and sitting alcoves (and command between $185-$210 per night). Their obvious drawback, from Miller’s perspective, is that they take longer to clean. But they also attract the wealthiest guests, those most likely to bestow generous tips and memorable gifts on the housekeeping staff.
“I’ve gotten Christmas cards from all over the world,” Mills asserts, eyes sparkling. Some guests remember her birthday. A small percentage of the hotel’s guests these days bestow upon their room’s maid a monetary tip. (Some leave this in the room, to the horror of Mills, who points out that all sorts of staffers have access to the rooms and can pick up money left there. She much prefers gratuity to be deposited for her at the front desk.) The largest amount Mills have ever heard of any maid receiving was fifty dollars, she says, while the puniest was the fifty cents left underneath the pillows by one group of Japanese visitors. But Mills says small gifts are much more common than cash; she’s received a variety of items ranging from food to a silver spoon and fork set engraved with the name “Singapore,” sent from a former guest visiting that city. She says, “I got pretty nice collection.”
Some of her regulars make reservations for the following year while they’re checking out of the hotel, Mills boasts. She likes to talk about the one very rich family from Los Angeles—mother, father, daughter, and grandmother—that every year settles into her largest room for a four-to-six-week stay. “They’re very VIP,” she says with a shake of her head, and they’re so picky that Mills claims that the hotel closes down the room for a day or two in advance of the family’s arrival to do an extra-through cleaning. “They also very, very tight,” Mills adds. In fact, the first year she served them, other staffers warned her that this family never tipped anyone—and yet they wound up giving her envelopes containing money every week. “They say, ‘Here’s something for your family. Go out and have a good time.’ One year they buy bathing suits for my daughters.” The coup amazed her fellow staff members.
“I don’t care how you clean the room, if you don’t have no personality, you ain’t never gonna satisfy,” she asserts. “You can clean and clean and clean, but if they don’t like you, they’re gonna call housekeeping anyway and complain.” Another triumph involved one grouchy old lady who snapped at Mills the moment she entered the room. Mills loves to recount how she charmed the old buzzard. “I said, ‘You not that old. If you grouchy all the time, you gonna be older. Why you want to be grouchy? When you smile you look pretty!” Soon the old woman was dressing up and calling the maid into her room to chat. “How can I get mad at you?” she asked the maid. “You can’t,” Mills replied smugly.
That reminds her of the elderly couple from New York who occupied Room 3143 this past December 26 through January 30. He was eighty-nine; the wife was seventy-nine. “Fighting with everybody. Fight with each other. And they never tip anybody. I feel so bad for the bellman. They had all this baggage and they get mad at him and don’t give him nothing!” She lectured them too. “You always argument! You’re on vacation. Why don’t you be nice?” she says she told the old man. “You’re so mean!” and he laughed that she was a little devil.” Upon their departure, they left not only a generous tip but also a written praise for Mills. “You never believe that! They joke about my personality. They say, ‘She very personality, but she can be mean!’ ” She laughs uproariously at the memory.
At the other extreme Mills never sees some occupants of her rooms.
“That’s weird. I can’t understand that,” She says. “Most old people, they want to meet the housekeeper. But young people, they don’t care. Especially people that’s messy.” She sounds genuinely appalled by the shamelessness of some visitors: people have left their underwear tangled up in the bedding, she confides, “Do you believe that? Sometimes you even find women’s underwear with Kotex in it!” At times she’s knocked on the door, received no response, and entered rooms, only to find the occupants cavorting in bed together. Mills rolls her eyes, “When I started this job, I thought, “My God, I don’t know how I can do this.”
She harbors no illusions that life would be better at any other hotel. Pay for maids is higher at some hotels, such as the Sheratons, she says (starting at $5.10 per hour there, versus $4.59 at the Hotel Del.) But those hotels aren’t unionized like the Del and so don’t offer some of the benefits associated with unions, such as a guarantee of a specified number of hours per day. And Mills sings high praise for the family atmosphere cultivated by Lawrence’s management, which organizes employee raffles, and special birthday lunches and a Christmas party that this last year went until ten at night. That impressed Mills. “We have bar man. You order. You drink,” she recalls. “They treat the people good. See, in other hotels you don’t get that. You just work.”
Mill’s boss, Figueroa, is an earnest young man who seems to devote a great deal of energy to thinking about ways to motivate his 168-person cleaning crew. He’s a man who preaches the value of smiley face stickers and prefacing criticism with compliments, and he’s led the housekeeping department on a two-year quest for glory. Last year Figueroa and his crew hit the pinnacle by winning the hotel’s Department of the Year award. He says that required months of drilling the maids on the importance of the tiniest detail; straightening the lampshades daily, placing matches directly in front of ashtrays, making sure that pencils stood erect in their holders, that all sides of each bedspread hung a uniform distance from the ground. Flushed with success, Figueroa says he deiced, “Let’s go for the Safety Award in 1987. Get two back-to-back! Let’s make a big impression on the hotel.”
Though Mills has been one of the top-rated maids in Figueroa’s department, no trace of fanaticism shows up on her approach to the job. She moves through her chores like a seasoned housewife, relaxed but efficient. Moving on to one of the big lanai rooms, she first strips the old bedding off the double bed. Then, standing on one side of the mattress, she opens one of the freshly laundered new sheets and with a flick of her wrist whips it into position, with enough of it folded over the top to cover, but not tuck under the top of the mattress. Over this goes the blanket, and then Mills settles a third sheet over that. This way the guest need not ever come in contact with the blanket. Mills brags that other hotels don’t do that. Now she can tuck the blanket and sheets in firmly around the bottom of the mattress. The two sides at the top she tucks in only slightly, to make it easier on the crew of up to thirteen people who turn down the beds in every occupied room in the hotel every evening (Figueroa says, “The whole concept is, the customer comes back from dinner and the nightstand lamp is on, and its gets the mood where, ‘Gee, it looks like I’m ready to lie in bed and go to sleep,’ ”) Finally, Mills positions the bedspread, and then with one smooth motion, she simultaneously flips the pillows into position and covers them with the spread. She’s ready for the bathroom.
The bothersome bathtub must be scrubbed, supplies like shampoo and conditioner must be replenished, and fluffy clean towels must be arrayed on all the towel racks. Mills offers the opinion that one of the Del’s great advantages lies in the quality and quantity of towels with which it supplies guests. Mills is still clucking at the memory of the skimpy, dingy towels she got while on vacation once in a Las Vegas hotel. “And when I asked for more, they said only two per room,” she exclaims.
The occupant of Room 3142 is much neater, the only discordant note in the $200-per-day room is two big unopened bags of Tato Skins left on the bureau. After changing the sheets and cleaning the bathroom, Mills gives the room a quick pass with the feather duster, then some fast but energetic vacuuming leaves her ready to move on. Today she is unusually fortunate in that one of her rooms has a guest checking out, an event that always creates much more work for the maids. When a room is vacated, all the floors must be cleaned thoroughly, closets must be searched for forgotten items. Though Mills says she has never acquired anything notable, stories circulate in the department about the one maid who got to keep a stunning diamond ring that was never claimed by its owner. Another, less fortunate, of Mill’s coworkers recently found a paper bag full of $5000 in cash—but that guest did reclaim the money.
A little before noon, Mills approaches Room 3144 with a whisper: “Friends of the Lawrence’s,” she discloses with wide eyes. Although the dark wooden door to these quarters could be mistaken for a linen closet, the rooms within have an old-fashioned graciousness—and a spectacular view of the beach and surf. Things begin badly when these guests arrived, Mills confides. The room wasn’t ready, which angered the man, who rolled his eyes at Mill’s estimation that it would take twenty-five to thirty minutes to prepare. “He asked me if I could make it fifteen. I said, ‘No, not unless, you want me to do a sloppy job.’” Somehow after that, “he calmed down right away,” she said.
Those people had asked for extra towels on the first day, which Mills has carefully remembered every day since, though she frets that the maid who cleans here on Friday and Saturdays (Mill’s days off) won’t know about the request. Mills also makes a point of showing the bathroom shelf above the sink. A folded towel sits on it, and on the towel rests the family’s toothbrushes. Mills tells me how she placed the towel there, on the second day, after she found the toothbrushes lying on the bare shelf, an image she recalls with a shudder, “When you working in a hotel, you see everything,” she says shaking her head. “I do. That’s all you can do, look.”