The millionaires of Portland, Oregon have a place where they can live out their class fantasies. And I was there to play my part.
The Multnomah Athletic Club is nestled deep among the tree-lined streets of the Goose Hollow neighborhood, where Portland’s wealthiest merchants built themselves massive Victorian mansions at the turn of the twentieth century. The lobby looks like an art gallery, with decorative slatted wood ceilings, massive windows, and thick glass doors with chrome handles. I waited for my interview on a leather bench in front of a wall of portraits of notable MAC members, including Olympians, professional athletes, and philanthropists. I was sitting in a sunbeam that illuminated the rarified air of the club, and I did my best to look uninteresting.
I was applying for a position as a janitor, one of the least prestigious jobs at the club. I noticed the dust catching the breeze that came through the glass doors every time a member came or left, settling equally, invisibly, on the plexiglass case containing a scale model of the club in Lego blocks. The glossy reception desk manned by three attendants; the waxed brick floor polished to a jelly-bean shine; and the tasteful arrangements of tropical flowers, delivered weekly in a van that parked at the far end of the entrance’s circular drive.
In October 2019, I had earned enough for a book tour to launch my second short story collection but I needed money to fill the gap between the beginning of fall and the 10-stop tour of independent bookstores that would take me to both coasts. I wore a plain shirt with buttons and a collar and dark slacks to the interview. The important thing was to look clean and unassuming. They weren’t looking for a writer. They just wanted someone who was good at following directions.
When it came down to work and writing, I would always take work. Work was a sure thing. Plenty of writers did other things between books, and I was no exception. Charles Bukowski delivered mail. T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk. Tennessee Williams packed cans. David Foster Wallace, like me, worked for a couple of weeks at a private athletic club and then quit in shame when someone he recognized saw him folding towels. Before I picked up the swing shift at the MAC, I had punched the clock as a baker, receptionist, lifeguard, clerk, cashier, delivery driver, barista, caregiver, customer service rep, telemarketer, and freight forwarder. I was an award-winning author with work in the Library of Congress, a top-shelf undergraduate degree, and an MFA, but so what? In Portland, a liberal arts education was not the fast track to a career that my parents seemed to think it was — certainly not the kind of career I was suited for. To be a working writer meant seeking blue-collar work that paid consistently, didn’t use too much brainpower, and was easy to leave. This work wasn’t tourism for me; it was a necessity.
“What interests you in this job?” the head of housekeeping asked at the beginning of the interview. She had an Irish accent, bright eyes, and a tasteful scarf. “I’m a good worker,” I said. My resume was scrubbed of any higher education and showed only my address and where I’d gone to high school. (They didn’t ask if I’d finished.) I spoke very little, worried that my vocabulary would give me away.
I was also far enough along in my transition that my voice was low and boyish, but I still sounded like what I was: too smart. I hid my knuckle tattoos with my free hand. I said, “I don’t drink or use drugs and I live up the street.”
That was enough for them. I was hired a couple of days later. The HR specialist raised her eyebrows when she saw that my sex marker was “F” on my driver’s license, but I believe she and the managers were the only ones who knew. Certainly, they did not tell the other workers. Or, most importantly, the members.
I started out in the lobby, wiping the glass that covered the portraits. I noticed that the photos dated back to the club’s inception in 1891. Over the decades, the faces stayed pale and male, but in 1977, when women were finally admitted as members, a few women appeared. (Not pictured are the white male members who protested this change with a picketed protest outside the club.)
There might have been one or two Asian and Black men in the photographs at the more recent end of the wall. To get onto the MAC’s prestigious member list — which is capped at 22,000 — you need to be born into a family with membership or be chosen by lottery after paying an initiation fee is approximately $5500; to be considered, a current member needs to sponsor you, and additional recommendations from other members improve your chances.
I was raised in a family that aspired to this type of wealth. Arguably, belonging to this bastion of white privilege was almost my birthright. My grandfather’s employer, Tektronix, bought him a membership to the MAC in the 1960s, but he didn’t keep it. (“Waste of money, never used it,” he said.) If he had, my father and his siblings would have been born into membership. They would have grown up at the MAC, as many of their friends did. I might have taken my first strokes in one of the immaculate swimming pools, instead of the oily water of the community pool on the military base in Monterey.
With their fee, the members purchased access to the gleaming eight-story club, housed in two separate buildings. The MAC is the largest indoor athletic club in the world: a tiny, self-sufficient principality. Its membership outnumbers the population of nearby Ashland, Oregon. It is a secure haven for old-money prestige of a type most people will never encounter. Historically, it was a place where white, powerful men sequestered themselves to do private business. The exclusivity hasn’t changed, though the wealth is not as ostentatious as it may have been, especially in Portland, an overwhelmingly white, neoliberal city that claims to value “character” over capital.
Walking through the members-only, 600-space parking garage during my first day at work I counted the Vote! bumper stickers on the SUVs: Volvo, Subaru, Land Rover, Porsche, Tesla. A champagne-colored Lexus sedan nearly backed over me, braked hard, and blew its horn. Coexist. I slunk past the receptionist’s desk upstairs and went down the service stairs, over the sky bridge, and into the lower second basement to the housekeeping office. The low-ceilinged room was lined in industrial lockers, where I hung up my jacket and pulled a standard-issue uniform polo over my black t-shirt.
I was also far enough along in my transition that my voice was low and boyish, but I still sounded like what I was: too smart.
Someone else’s name was embroidered on the chest, and I wondered — not for the first time — where these other workers went, when they moved on. I took off my glasses and put them in the plastic sack with my sandwich. The world blurred, but I could still see the grey snowdrifts of lint at the lockers’ feet. The laminated safety posters looked sticky, their corners peeling. Even the mop closets were cleaner. I grabbed a rolling trash cart packed with spray bottles, plastic liners, and microfiber cloths, and rode the elevator to the lobby.
It must be one of Newton’s laws: Wherever there are people, there is mess. Kneeling to sop up a pool of spilled coffee, I made eye contact with a member. He squared his jaw and gave me a brisk nod. About my age, in his mid-30s, he was wearing a cashmere sweater and immaculate khakis and carrying a leather folio. As he walked away, I could see his self-satisfaction, congratulating himself for his liberal manners. I could imagine him telling his middle-class friends about how progressive he was: “I treat the janitor just the same as the CEO.”
Yet, he was not progressive. Members were entitled to play lord of the manor, and their membership fee made them a protected class — an asset, in a way. The MAC generates $43 million in revenue every year under its nonprofit status. Much of that is from member fees. If it pleased a member to follow behind me in muddy shoes, scuffing the floor I just buffed, that was their right. Members did not have to discipline their children for throwing handfuls of popcorn. The member newsletter included gentle reminders about “appropriate behavior,” but they were unenforced and unenforceable. If a member followed me around, offered their phone number, solicited me, or demeaned me, I could not complain. Unless their behavior interfered with my work, nothing could be done. They were untouchable here.
Members seemed to relax as they entered, breathing the rarified air that was lightly scented with biodegradable, earth-friendly cleaning solutions. Within the 600,000 square feet of the MAC, even the most progressive-minded members expected (and received) a level of service that could only be described as feudal. That was the greatest privilege of all, I think: to be waited on hand and foot, without a single thought for the personhood of the servant.
As a janitor, I was the personification of what money could buy: a living and breathing cleaning machine. I polished grimy fingerprints off mirrors, handles, and walls, chipped smashed mini marshmallows off the reading room’s tile floor after a children’s party, and wiped every conceivable body excretion off toilets and urinals in the lobby’s six bathrooms. I sterilized a toilet bowl full of runny streaks of shit and so much blood that the water stayed pink even after I flushed several times. After the first holiday party the club hosted, there were flecks of vomit on the floor that I squeegeed away. People left sodden, dirty diapers on the floor next to the trash cans. I was not allowed to touch the pianos.
Every day, I contended with their mess and staggered home coated in grease and dust. Humans are filthy. The rich are just as unguent and crumby as the poor, but the rich employ the poor to erase their mess, because they can afford to farm out the labor of cleaning. They are not better than we are, I thought, running a buffer over the linoleum. We, the servants, maintain their assets. From private Pilates instruction and an in-house hair salon to floors so clean you could eat a ribeye off them, the MAC provided the level of service that Portland’s one percent were accustomed to.
If history had turned a hair in either direction, I would have been accustomed to it, too.
I worked odd hours, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., five days a week. A girl I was dating sent me a link to Lucy Dacus’ 2017 single “Night Shift.” I think it was a coded complaint about how quickly I disappeared into this world of work, how my evenings vanished, how I never texted anymore. I can’t see anyone right now, I explained. She was educated, with doctors for parents; she had never done scut work. I don’t think she understood. I told her the truth: my hands were always busy.
I had four managers: two for day and two for overnight. When I clocked on, one of them told me which part of the club I’d be cleaning that day. I might strap on the vacuum backpack and chase morsels of popcorn across the sports pub’s chronically sticky floor. I might push hundred-pound hampers of freshly folded towels to refill the linen racks in the nine tennis courts, eight squash courts, ten racquetball/handball courts, gymnastics arena, rock climbing gym, indoor track, batting cage, pilates studio, exercise room, three fitness studios, four locker rooms, and three swimming pools. I might have cleaned the handles of the 6,400 lockers or the plastic seats in two of the pools’ spectator galleries. Collected tennis balls and swept the courts clean of the neon felt they left behind. I gathered sticky beer glasses from two separate decks — one outside the members’ reading lounge, and one by the cardio machines in the gym — that overlooked the soccer stadium where the Portland Thorns and Timbers teams played.
By my second month as a janitor, a layer of puffy white blisters appeared on the soles of both my feet. I accrued blisters on hands that were soft from typing. I stopped wearing my glasses to work and buzzed my head, because of the Pigpen-cloud of grime that clung to me even after several hot showers. I could never feel clean enough. Bodies make oil, sweat, and dust, but the dust of the body, and especially rich people’s bodies, smelled different. It coated my sinuses. My uniform was dingy, though I washed it daily: a member called the switchboard to complain that one of the employees “looked homeless.” They didn’t like dirt or dirty people. The worker, they said, “didn’t look like they belong here.”
If a member followed me around, offered their phone number, solicited me, or demeaned me, I could not complain.
I kept my phone in my pocket to track my steps. On the nights when I ran a dust mop over the basketball courts, I walked about eight miles. Once they assigned me to the men’s locker room, however, the number doubled.
I was too masculine-looking to go into the women’s locker rooms when the club was open, but my night manager decided that I seemed male enough to service the men’s side. Thanks to my recent top surgery, I passed as a twink. In my black Goodwill pants, orthopedic ultra-thick-soled sneakers, and blue polo shirt, I was dressed to be ignored.
The locker room was usually the territory of Mick, a slim, short man with a watery leprechaun tattooed on his forearm. On Mick’s days off, I emptied tall trash cans, collected newspapers from the sauna, and gathered towels. I averted my eyes when I saw one member caressing his friend in the spa; I removed the stiffened and stained towels they left behind. I zipped up the pants of a disabled member who wasn’t able to dress himself. He stood with his chin on my shoulder, then walked away without thanking me or acknowledging what I had done.
One night, the last member to leave lingered by his locker. He asked me how long I’d worked at the club. “I don’t know,” I said. He wasn’t curious. By now, I knew about rich men. Their questions are rarely a bid for more information. They are bait. They ask to see if you will come closer.
“I haven’t seen you before. What do you do for fun?” He dropped his towel and gazed at me. His body was dewy with sweat from his tennis match, in perfect condition. His skin glowed with good meals, clean water, on-demand healthcare, and frequent massages. His wedding band was thick and gold. When he smiled, it was a clear invitation. I thought of something another manager had said to me. He used to work at one of Portland’s gay bathhouses and said there were quite a few crossover memberships. When he saw these men at the MAC, the same ones who’d come to watch hardcore porn together in the darkened cells, he averted his eyes. As this man stroked his thigh and asked me what my name was, I knew he was not curious about me, not at all.
I was not paid enough to do these things. If I had dropped to my knees on the grey, industrial carpet, I would have clocked out that night with the same hourly wage as before (no tips). Instead, I mumbled that I didn’t have fun and went to see if the cordless vacuum was finished recharging. When I came back, the man was gone. I picked up the crumpled, sodden towel he’d left draped over the changing bench. It was the temperature of a human body and smelled faintly of cologne. I half-expected to see his business card underneath, but that would have meant I was a person, not an appliance —that we both existed outside this space, in other configurations. We were not there to talk.
I didn’t report him. What would I say? He thought I might have an additional function; he was interested in a different type of service. He was entitled (even encouraged) to think so. In my position, it was better to remain silent.
Finally, my first royalty check came. My book earned out its advance in pre-sales and I had enough money to hold me for a few months. I was going to be a full-time writer again. The timing was good: I had more tour stops coming up, and my janitor sneakers had holes in the bottoms. Over the four months I’d worked at the MAC I had walked over 500 miles and put on a layer of ropy muscle. My hands were rough now, the nails permanently grey at the edges.
At 2 a.m., I clocked out and left the club the same way I’d come, exiting through the garage. I was still invisible as I made my way up the hill, past the stadium and the Town Club’s walled garden. For the duration of my shift, I was a body. I didn’t have to think. But maybe it wasn’t about the return as much as it was about leaving. After all, an earth-friendly cleanser will make you just as sick as one marked “highly toxic.” The only difference is the exposure time.
My own street was run-down brick apartment buildings slumped like melting sundaes on their concrete foundations. The grandeur of the club and its velvet curtains, polished bronze fittings, and soft lighting felt like a world away as I contemplated the crumbs and mysterious stains on the brown carpet in the clanking elevator. My dog welcomed me as I slipped through my door and toed off my ruined sneakers. I dropped my uniform shirt on top of them. My apartment was neglected, with dishes in the sink. The only tidy space was my writing desk, where my notes waited for me in carefully marked stacks. The clean, empty pages would be there for me when I woke up the next morning. After hundreds of hours cleaning up after the filthy rich, I was trading my mop for a pencil. As it nosed across the paper, leaving graphite tracks behind my hand, I was grateful to be making my own mess again.