First, you strip the beds. The linens and dirty towels need to be tossed down the laundry chute, to be washed immediately. Fresh linens from the cart are stretched across the mattress, folded at the creases. The bedspread must look freshly ironed; no wrinkles, Vida Afram was taught. Then, you vacuum every corner of the room. If the guest has too many personal items on the floor, you immediately call your manager to ask permission to move them. If there are valuables, your manager will probably come to supervise. You move on to the bathroom. You replace the lotion, conditioner, shampoo, and soap. Every room must look exactly like it did before the guest enters. The guest, in fact, must not be able to notice that anyone was ever there.
Some rooms are so cluttered it’s hard to see the carpet. Some people treat the room like it’s their own house, separating dirty clothes from the clean clothes. Every guest is different. Every guest has their thing. One time, Vida found a room so organized that the pens were equidistant from one another on the bedside table; a suitcase packed neatly, compartmentalized by item, lay open on the luggage rack. Wow, Vida thought, I wish this had been my family. Sometimes guests will smile to her face, then complain to the hotel manager that their room wasn’t clean enough. Sometimes the guests stay in the room, working, while she cleans. Vida doesn’t like the feeling of being watched, of being judged. So she tries to make herself invisible, tiptoeing around the room—preferring not to be noticed.
Vida has been cleaning rooms at the Sixty SoHo Hotel for the past two decades. Typically, she estimates she cleans about 12 rooms a day. They each have their own names, none of which she remembers. Instead, she knows them by their size, their shape, their views of the city: some look out west toward the Hudson River; some east, toward lower Manhattan; some south, toward the spire on top of One World Trade. On average, Vida cleans 168 rooms per month; roughly 2,880 per year, and 57,600 since she first started working. She has no plans to stop anytime soon. “If you quit working,” she says, “you become old fast.”
The Sixty SoHo Hotel, a luxury hotel chain with properties in Los Angeles and New York, advertises one thing to its guests: “Be Inspired From the Moment You Arrive.” Built in SoHo in 1998 with an official opening two years later, the 12-story Sixty SoHo has 97 modern guest suites, each uniquely furnished with artwork by Harland Miller, a British artist famous for reimagining Penguin book covers. The cost of a room averages about $500 a night on weekends, and $2,000 a night for the loft suite. Part of the cost comes with location—the hotel is in the center of SoHo, a manufacturing district now supplanted with luxury retail shops. To enter the hotel there are two doors: for the guests, sliding glass doors with matted carpeting just beyond restaurant Bistrot Leo, and a hidden side door about 20 feet away where the hotel staff enters.
Vida has worked at Sixty SoHo longer than the current manager, her boss, her colleagues, and the rest of the concierge staff. She has been there longer than the several different iterations of the lobby’s design, and much of the hotel’s modern exterior, and longer than some of the new high-rises that were built next to it. To her, the hotel feels like her second home. “The job keeps me confident,” she says, her voice warm and full, when we met during her break at the hotel in September. She is a tall woman, with soft brown eyes and a wide, toothy smile. She is dressed head to toe in a black uniform. “It’s like I’m married to it. Oh! My job is my second husband!” She laughed.
Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Vida remembers a mostly happy childhood. As a kid, she and her friends used to flock to Labadi beach, an expansive, sandy coastline overlooking the Gulf of Guinea, where she would dance barefoot with the other children. When she was a teenager, her mother died suddenly, and she found herself inheriting the burden of watching after her three youngest siblings while her father worked. “I couldn’t finish my schooling, so it was difficult,” she says. One day, when she was in her 20s, she met a man who was living between Ghana and New York. He proposed to her and asked if she wanted to move to the United States. In 1996, she landed at JFK in the first place she felt she belonged.
Vida moved to a neighborhood colloquially known as “Little Accra”—a Ghanaian enclave in the south Bronx around 167th Street—and had three children not long after she arrived. She hasn’t left since. The neighborhood reminds her of home back in Ghana: the smells of tilapia grilling, South African music blasting from speakers, young boys playing soccer on the sidewalk. But by the time she was in her 30s, Vida was divorced, with three children to support and bills to pay, and she found herself needing work. Every week, she scoured the Help Wanted ads in all the newspapers. One day, early in 2001, she saw a listing looking for eligible housekeepers at a brand-new hotel in SoHo. She immediately faxed in her résumé. They ignored her. The next week, she faxed in her résumé again. “I had to fax it in three times!” She laughed. “Then I called and called and called, every day, checking in. Finally, someone called me back for an interview, and then they offered me the job. I was so happy!”
Five days a week, Vida wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get to work by 9. For two decades, she has followed exactly the same routine: Before she does anything else, she boils hot water to mix with cocoa and carefully wraps wheat toast, a croissant, or a piece of coffee cake in a paper napkin to eat on her way to work. Then she showers, wakes up her children, makes them each breakfast, and walks them to their public school in the Bronx, seven blocks away. Her kids don’t like her to pack Ghanaian food for lunch—other children make fun of them—so she shops for the staples of an American lunch: Lunchables, fruit, juice, cookies, sandwiches, chips. Home is where she cooks the food that reminds her of her childhood: spicy jollof rice and grilled tilapia, pounded yam and spinach, fufu, banku.
There are three trains that she can take to get to SoHo. Usually, she takes the B or the 4 train, riding with the morning commuters, the train gradually filling with every stop. She transfers with other morning working commuters at 59th or 14th or W. Fourth Street. Sometimes she takes the B to Columbus Circle, then switches to the ACE to get downtown. She cherishes those subway rides; it is one of the few moments in the day in which she gets to be still. When she’s lucky, she’ll get a seat on the train. Aside from a 30-minute lunch break at work, she is on her feet for eight hours every day.
An hour and a half after she leaves her apartment, Vida reaches Sixty SoHo, to change and clock in by 9. Her clothes are stored in her private locker, and she changes alone, in silence, before receiving her schedule of the day: the room numbers that need cleaning, and the times in which they must be done. The days are largely the same, varying only by how dirty the rooms are, by whether a guest leaves a tip or not, or what she decides to bring for lunch. Usually she brings leftovers from food she’s cooked or from the nearby Ghanaian restaurant. “Every day you change the food you have for lunch,” she says. “So it doesn’t feel the same.”
For as long as hotels have been around, housekeepers have appeared individually dispensable but indispensable as a whole. Throughout the late 18th century, housekeepers—or in the parlance of the time, “chambermaids”—were often single women who lived on the premises, working for low wages in exchange for a place to sleep. In a 1900 manifesto written by housekeeping manager Mary Bresnan, The Practical Hotel Housekeeper, chambermaids were expected to be “good-natured and willing,” preferably, Bresnan writes, “over thirty, strong and healthy.” They were expected to provide services that made their presence as light as possible, including, Bresnan advises, how to behave while sweeping the hallways (“no loud talking or singing”) and how to call on a lady (“brief, pleasant and business like [sic] in manner”). In the 1900s, domestic service was transformed from a household model of hospitality to a more commercialized model, but, according to Daniel Levinson Wilk, a history professor at the SUNY–Fashion Institute of Technology, the optics remain key: “Many hotels continued with the illusion of household-style hospitality even when they became much larger.”
By the turn of the century, U.S. business tycoon Ellsworth Milton Statler had developed the concept of the modern hotel chain. Statler’s slogan was: “The customer is always right,” and good service was the beating heart of a successful hotel. The mass industrialization of the hotel industry meant more jobs, and from 1870 to halfway through the 20th century, the number of women employed as domestic workers increased dramatically—but their salaries did not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a hotel housekeeper in the United States is $27,400 a year ($13.18 an hour)—just barely above the national poverty line for a family of three. “The housekeeping industry is essentially women, and women of color,” says David Brody, author of Housekeeping by Design. “These women are often doing labor that is precarious, invisible, and taken for granted. Even today, housekeeping is based on this notion of invisibility, except for moments when people want to see that the labor was done, like the case of the folded toilet paper and the chocolate on the bed.”
COVID has only exacerbated the vulnerabilities of many working in the field. A 2020 study from the Oxford Economics company found that nearly half of the 16.9 million jobs in the hospitality and leisure sector in the United States were lost in March and April last year; today, more than a quarter of those workers remain unemployed. To accommodate dwindling numbers of travelers, many hotels reduced the number of rooms being cleaned per day or made it optional for guests to request the service. According to a recent report from Unite Here, the union representing hospitality workers, this set a dangerous new precedent: If hotels stopped using housekeeping services on a daily basis, then an estimated 39 percent of hotel housekeeping jobs in the U.S. would be lost—roughly $4.8 billion in wages and close to 181,000 jobs.
For Vida, COVID was a complete shock. At first, in late February and early March 2020, the number of guests at the hotel dwindled slowly, trickling down to 10 rooms to be cleaned, then 8, then suddenly, almost overnight, none. The city became desolate; the streets either filled with the scream of ambulances or eerie silence. Following city and state COVID protocol, all hotel team members were furloughed until further notice. Some applied for unemployment. After a couple weeks, Vida began working again with an on-call limited schedule—reduced work attending to the public areas and guest rooms as the hotel remained open.
New York became a different city to Vida. The few times she had to ride the deserted subways, she felt unsafe. But a friend of hers had a car, so every morning at the peak of COVID, she caught a ride into Manhattan and then one back home. She tried not to think about whether she would lose her job; she focused instead on praying. “I prayed every day for a solution to cure the sickness,” she says. She’d been hearing of layoffs, and about lots of people whose lives were turned upside down because of COVID. “I’m lucky, the hotel took care of us,” she says. “They protected us.” She had far fewer rooms to clean—there were only a few guests from the state who needed a place to stay during the pandemic—but still, she continued coming in. She wandered the deserted halls, dusting, mopping, making and remaking beds. For months, the hotel was a ghost town.
Music got Vida through the panic of COVID. “Music is a good thing, it’s like therapy,” Vida says, her eyes smiling, her head swaying back and forth. Anytime she feels lonely, she puts music on and dances. She doesn’t care what she is listening to—she likes all kinds of music: “white people music,” she says, country, R&B, pop, Ghanaian music. “It all depends on the beat,” she says. “The beat can push you to dance.”
Now that things have started to feel normal again, Vida has been able to relax a little more. Every evening after work, she walks home from the subway, the fading shadows of late fall bringing her past the neighborhood’s community center, public school, barber shop, and her favorite African restaurant. Sometimes, her children complain about the neighborhood. The few times she’s taken them to SoHo, her daughter has asked, “Ma, why can’t we live here?” Vida would leave the Bronx if she could afford it—she dreams of living in an apartment somewhere, anywhere, in Manhattan. But for now, the Bronx is home. So, too, is Sixty SoHo.
Vida says retirement is not on the table, not for a long time. “What would I do instead?” she asks. “If I stay home all day, I will be bored.” She loves the feeling of having a daily purpose, like she’s earned the day. She loves her job, too: the anonymity of arranging and rearranging a room to perfection, meeting new guests and getting to know returning ones, and occasionally, spotting a celebrity.
Only sometimes, when she feels restless or stuck or sick of New York, she fantasizes about all the places left to see in the world. She wants to visit the whole of America, one state at a time, she says. She dreams about what these other states would look like, or feel like, or how they would be different from New York. One day, she hopes to see them all. But until then, she will keep making rooms feel as untouched as when she last cleaned them, as if she had never even been there at all.
>> Next: The God of Silence Speaks Up