How does a renowned hotel in New York City maintain its stratospheric level of service?Patricia Marx walks a mile in housekeeping’s Hush Puppies to find out.

Martha Camarillo Removing a dining service.
| Credit: Martha Camarillo

Why do my friends laugh when I tell them I am training to become a housekeeper at the St. Regis Hotel? I guess they’ve never talked to my vacuum cleaner. If they could find the thing, it would roll its eyes and tell them that working for me is the easiest job it’s ever had. Not long ago, however, I decided to clean up my act and my apartment. And so, off I went to the most spick-and-span 422,000 square feet I could think of—the five-star hotel that has been ranked in these pages and others as one of the best in New York City. Here the standards are so high that housekeepers must clean the tops of the Q-tip holders in the bathroom every day.

Normally, the training program for room attendants (for we do not call ourselves “housekeepers”) lasts three to four weeks, during which lessons include the proper angle to position throw pillows on the sofa, but I am planning to endure only three days of this domestication drill. As you may have gathered, I am not undertaking my apprenticeship covertly. Let’s say I’m semi-incognito, though, for I will be polishing brass and vacuuming carpets in a uniform—a high-hemmed black-and-white number complemented by a starched apron, dark-tinted sheer pantyhose, and a frilly cloth tiara. I know what you’re thinking, but take a look at the photographic evidence: Doesn’t it look a lot less X-rated than it sounds?And a little more Florence Nightingale?Maybe it’s the white lace-up Hush Puppies.

Let’s get cracking. Our day begins at 8:30 with the housekeeping meeting, during which we room attendants on the morning shift, a happy bunch of about 20 women, pick up keys, get our work assignments, and listen to an insightful word or two from Scott Geraghty, general manager of the St. Regis. This morning, Mr. Geraghty reminds us about the hair dryer bags in each room. “Don’t skip that bag,” he says. “Never! You never know what you’ll find inside.”


“Okay, ladies,” Mr. Geraghty says, “have a nice day.” And with that, we head up to our rooms. I resolve to stay away from those hair dryer bags, no matter what.

Without colleagues blazing the trail, I would never have found the elevator. In fact, I’m pretty sure that to this day I’d be wandering around the vast maze that is the St. Regis lower level. What is down there?Everything. The laundry, the kitchen, the itty-bitty shampoos and Dewar’s scotch bottles. It is hard not to think of a feudal manor, especially when Mr. Geraghty tells me, as we pass a chef making hundreds of petits fours, that if the St. Regis doors were locked, all the guests and employees would have enough food and clean clothes to survive for five or six days without reinforcements from the outside world. “So if something tough comes up…” he says. I make a mental note: In case of natural disaster, reserve room at St. Regis. Page butler ahead to stock mini-bar.

Before we start cleaning—anything to avoid that—may I tell you about our butlers?There is one per floor, on call 24 hours a day to serve tea, draw baths, or fulfill any other reasonable request. During the morning butlers’ meeting I attended, the needs of certain guests were chronicled so that they could be indulged. We were briefed that the guest in room No. 1105 is a doctor and likes to be addressed as such, that the guest in No. 820 prefers mixed nuts and shouldn’t be charged for them, that the Mrs. in No. 1831 enjoys chamomile tea without honey or lemon, that a steak knife should accompany the fruit delivery to No. 927, that the couple in No. 1002 should be asked how they want their bed set up each night (a duvet or a blanket) because they keep changing their minds. The room numbers are made-up, by the way, to protect the guilty and because I can’t take notes that fast.

Though being a guest does seem preferable to cleaning up after one, my duties, I believe, cannot be shirked a moment longer. I have been assigned to work with Gjuner, although in retrospect, maybe work is not the right word, since what I did under her tutelage was a lot of standing around and admiring the tremendous energy, competence, and conscientiousness of this woman who was named Best Room Attendant in New York City at the Big Apple Awards in 2005. Gjuner, who looks a lot more gorgeous in her uniform than I do in mine, has been at the St. Regis for 16 years, having landed her position here not long after she arrived from Macedonia at age 19.

Room No. 1611 is the first of six “we” must make spiffy today. Our daily workload ranges from six to nine rooms, depending on their sizes. On average, a standard room takes 45 minutes to clean—though I bet I could raise that average by a ridiculous exponent. I am guessing this because in the time it took Gjuner to scrub the moldings with the beige solution, buff the mirrors with the blue solution, polish the brass in the shower, and dust all the flat surfaces (and even some lightbulb-shaped ones), I’d managed to put exactly one pillow into its pillowcase. “Take your time, don’t rush,” Gjuner advised me as she rushed off to the storage closet to pick up a vacuum cleaner. I consulted my notes: never place pillows under your chin when putting on cases/all pillows same height, size, and amount of fluffiness… No one ever saw my pillow work, it turns out, because Gjuner redid it, turning my wrinkled blob into what looked like one of those restaurant mints by the cash register, only magnified a thousand times. Gjuner kindly explained that it took her a long time to learn, too.

And I did improve! You wouldn’t believe how much more carefully I watched Gjuner clean room No. 1623. It was so inspiring I almost offered to help put the new supply of chocolates in the candy dish (six dark, six milk). But I was too exhausted. “Would it be rude of me to sit down?” I asked Gjuner, wretched at having interrupted her while she was making the bed. Gjuner removed the duvet from the just-vacuumed chair (we room attendants never put linens on the floor!) and suggested I help myself to some chocolate.

Help myself?That constitutes work, doesn’t it?And yet, as our shift ended, and Gjuner noticed the $20 tip on the table by the door and insisted that I take half, I graciously declined. “To see a job well done,” I told her, “is payment enough.”

When I mention to friends that I learned how to be a housekeeper at the St. Regis, they ask for cleaning tips. “Don’t hire me,” I say. “No, really,” they say. “Is your apartment cleaner now?” I do not tell them, but in fact, at this moment, it is dirtier. Last night, in an effort to emulate Gjuner, I swept the floor of my kitchen. So far, so good. And then I dropped the Dustbuster on my foot. My foot has not recovered, I now own a busted Dustbuster, and how am I supposed to clean up all that grit and junk?I’d ask Gjuner, but she’s busy.