I’m off island, staying at some friends’ home, while they are back in Jamaica for the holidays. Their housekeepers are still in the house. My family is easy to handle as we all know how to cook, wash, make beds, and clean. We also are out much of the time, heading back to base to sleep. Looking after us can be dull.
The housekeepers were bored, they told me when I got back early. I had wanted to take a late afternoon walk. But, I agreed to stay so that they could go out. There was only one ‘key’ to lock up. So, off they went. I caught up with messages and some reading and some football 🙂 I’d just had a late lunch with my wife and two of the daughters.
A couple of hours passed then the phone rang. One of the housekeepers wanted my wife’s number. I gave them the number at her mother’s, which is family ‘grand central station’. They had discovered that, now nightfall had come, they couldn’t get a bus back. They wondered when my lady would be headed back. They called her and got no joy; she was still raising GDP. They called me back and told me at least three times that my wife wasn’t back yet at her mother’s.
I listened. I got silence. “If you’re not too busy, could you pick us up?” I heard. I wasn’t surprised, at that point, but was on the point of being flabbergasted. These were not the visitors, unaware of local situations. I could barely contain how baffled I was, as I hung up and headed to the car, locking up, as I left.
What had they been thinking? Had they been thinking? Two women, out in the dark, and the simple options to get home dependent on the random activities of house guests.
But, I’ve come across this before. Around the home, at least, some people employed to do daily work seem to have a huge blind spot when forced to make their own decisions. I’ve noted the same with the new brand of ‘home help’ or ‘office management’ known as security guards. Is it adverse natural selection, of some Darwinian form, that lands certain people in these roles?
The security guard syndromes are seen in many countries. They may have some limited authority over who enters and leaves, and some are thrilled by that, some abuse the privilege, and some just use the post as a grazing ground, doing sweet nothing. Armed, now, with the modern opium of a smartphone, they often spend many hours texting and sharing images, or using the phone for extended chats. (I recalled that vividly, when I picked up the housekeepers. One got on her phone as soon as she sat in the car and I heard the pling, pling, of messages being exchanged. Her eyes were glued to the screen. “Please put on the seat belt,” I’d said. “I usually do that straight away,” she replied. I wondered what had changed, suddenly.)
The guards wield their authority within its narrow limits, but see what happens when they have to use discretion. Out comes the mythical rule book, which must have instructions prefaced by ‘Say, “We are not allowed to…”‘ I remember when my dad was in hospital for weeks and the security guards were the gate keepers for the intensive care unit. No one passed them. They took names and went to plead on visitors’ behalf with the nurses and doctors, and often, they came back with “They’re doing the rounds…it’ll be a little while.” That while sometimes went for hours. After a few visits, I pulled rank and engaged my brain. I knew the routines, by then, and some of the staff, and would try to bypass the security force, especially if they were in the midst of a call or message trail. He or she would feebly protest, and I would usually do what I needed, which was often just to let the staff know that I’d bought some medicine my father needed. (That’s how it works in developing countries.) On exiting, I got a little lecture and sometimes a request for ‘dinner money’ from the security detail. I’d sometimes give a side eye. I never went higher up the ranks and call in the doctors whom I knew at the hospital, especially the senior-ranking relative.
So, the ladies were fine doing their stuff in the home, but in the real world outside they seemed a little clueless. I told them they were crazy to go off and not have figured out how to get back. That was met with silence. I listened to the Jazz on the radio. When, we got home, neither of them could recall who had the garage opener–the ‘key’. I’d closed the garage door from inside and stepped over the beam, when I was leaving. They have a little confab, then pressed the button, strolled in and got into more phone-love. I sighed.
I thought about sharing the story with my wife when she got in. I figured she’d be one degree short of nuclear fission. Few housekeepers are adorable in their inanity, like Amelia Badelia, in her confused state over pot plants.
When I wrote earlier this week about how some people are trapped in a world they didn’t create, it was because of an incident with our own housekeeper, whose personal situation is complicated, but similar thought processes are there. One basic problem is she doesn’t understand modern banking, and sees money only as physical cash, though she understands that her cash ‘moves’ to another country. I should check if she understands how that works. But, it means she struggles to see how to resolve financial problems without seeing money in her hands. She zoned out when I suggested she borrow cash from a friend and that I’d reimburse the amount to the friend by Internet.
The housekeeper syndrome can be complicated when they are foreigners in a country, as the ladies I dealt with are, but they’ve been here years. Language isn’t a barrier for them, as it is in my home. Neither is a stark difference in culture. But, the struggle is in the thinking through. I see it sometimes in the decisions about food. We’ve said we won’t be around much. But, the routine may be to cook daily or regularly. With the hosts away, for whom are they cooking the huge ham? Sure, I took a few slices to make an evening sandwich, but didn’t need to.
I’m not going to dabble much into another aspect of life with these two species. Suffice to say, that I had a long conversation with some women who had tales to tell about housekeepers who pilfered, in many ways. Some oil here, some clothing there, a bit of flour here, some jewelry there. That seems to go to something else in the employer-employee relations.
A similar situation often occurs with guards who are fixtures at the home. I recall my posting in west Africa. The head of an oil company couldn’t understand how his diesel for the generator was being used so fast. Well, not until he caught his guard with a liter bottle full going home. Do that each day…
Sure, need and lack of income play their part. But, why is trust lopsided?
At my home, I recall having two guards day and night, initially. I observed what they did and decided one shift would do. My house was full of staff during the days, and one could open the heavy gate, which seemed to be the main task of the guard. That is, apart from hanging by the kitchen for food. At night, they each took turns to sleep, while one kept guard. Again, I understand that both might have had a full day’s work already, but my family’s security shouldn’t be subject to their fatigue. Get me some bad dogs.
The owner of the security company, an American, had told me to report immediately any slackness. I did. Once, when a guard was sleeping, I took away his truncheon and I threw stones nearby to see what happened. At first, little reaction. Then I threw more stones around the back yard, off the roof. He got up and looked for his truncheon, then took a brief peep around the corner. He came back to his post and went back to sleep. I got a bucket of ice water and doused him. He jumped up and rubbed his eyes. “I was not sleeping. I was in prayer,” he protested. I nearly cried in pain as my stomach cramped while I held in the laugh. I asked him where was his truncheon. He looked on the floor, then inside his rest room. Nothing. I handed it to him. His boss had said that I should take it if ever I found the guard asleep and take it to the office. I gave it back to the guard and suggested he make his report to his boss, whom I’d speak to later. He did not work at my home after, and I saw him doing other work weeks later. Harsh reality for him, but peace of mind for me. I’m a light sleeper.
We only had one theft, of some white, plastic chairs, one night. The thief was caught renting the chairs…he was one of my guards. Someone tried to break in upstairs once when we were away, by scaling a balcony. We never figured that out, especially as the house backed onto the ocean, with rough sea and a rocky bank to climb. It seemed more like an opportunistic inside job, while the house was only occupied by our male housekeeper. Considering that my residence was between that of two ambassadors, and I shared a wall with each, and they were well-guarded, too, the thought of a bandit or more getting that far without detection is hard to believe.
Jamaica has had home help for centuries and it’s part of our social fabric. It’s social policy and economics in action. Some see the problems I’ve outlined as part of failed education. People with few tradeable skills, doing things that require little more than what has been done since childhood. Managing a home, is complicated. Some employees can’t do it, but are charged to try. They can barely manage themselves.
Security work is relatively new on the scale we now see it. In the home, it’s still for the privileged few. In businesses and offices, it’s more the norm. When I buy bottled gas, the payment is to office staff but all the physical transactions are done by security guards. That’s one of the better set ups. It’s often boring work, though. Though, we don’t need it jazzed up with regular shooting or attempted assaults. It’s often the case in Jamaica that one sees as many people headed to work in security uniform as dressed as nurses or office staff. That’s excluding ‘elite’ staff, like rapid response staff, decked in flak jackets, armed, and on motorbikes.
Agreed that our society has too few good jobs. But, agreed, too, that it has too many badly educated people. If these jobs didn’t exist, what a calamity. Our domestic help is not like the polished butlers and housekeepers we often see in fictional tales. They’re a rag tag bunch, barely able to do much else. Likewise, our security workers are not like SAS- or Navy Seal-trained calibre. If they’re young, we’re lucky. If they’re older, we can expect them to be ninjas.