Maid in the Shade While vacationers play on the shore, a hotel housekeeper fills the order of the day: cool, clean rooms. The work is hard, but always interesting.


OCEAN CITY - The open windows of her Honda frame a succession of motels as she drives down Coastal Highway. Big, small, cement, wooden, balconied, banner-waving, vacancy-flashing - the parade lines both sides of the street. They scream for attention - Only $89.99 a night! Continental breakfast! Kids stay free! - yet she drives on.

There are 9,500 motel rooms in Ocean City, but only 12 beckon to Anita Briddell.

She arrives at the teal-and-white Santa Maria Motor Hotel a few minutes before 9 on this muggy Wednesday morning. In a basement room hazy with cigarette smoke, she fills her cart with freshly laundered sheets, towels, soap in plastic sleeves, and Windex.

"I've got eight check-outs tomorrow," another maid tells Anita as they collect supplies.

"Good for you and not for me," she replies. Check-outs mean more work, but they also mean the envelope on the night stand might be full.

Briddell pins on a name tag reading "Bitsy," the nickname her aunt gave her when she was a child. She wrestles her cart into an elevator and pushes the button for floor 3. Anita started on floor 1 when she was hired by the Santa Maria 22 years ago. She rose a floor a year until she hit the top, then spent another year working the poolside rooms. Now all but two of her rooms are ocean-front. They're the nicest, and hopefully so are the tippers who stay there.

Check-out isn't until 11 a.m., and floor 3 is still quiet. Anita walks down the hall, ducking her head to check door cracks for light. "Everyone is still asleep," she says. She lingers until a woman in a white bikini steps out of Room 308. A man sits on the bed, watching television. He motions Anita in.

"Good morning," she says. She always says that, then waits to see if the person wants to talk or be left alone.

"I woke up at 2:30 this morning," the man tells Anita as she straightens his floral comforter.

"Goodness," she says, smiling. She moves into the bathroom and sprays disinfectant into the sink and tub.

"Forty-four years old, and I've never seen the ocean," the man continues.

"Is that right?" Anita asks, emptying two Kool cigarette butts from an ashtray. She doesn't ask why he is sitting here with the shades down, watching Regis and Kathie Lee, on this beautiful morning when the ocean is just steps away.

She bids him goodbye and steps into the hall, leaving a stack of fresh towels and a pleasant-smelling bathroom. Room 303 is empty now, and it's her favorite. The room may look exactly like the others in her row, down to the aqua DreamMaker mattress and 10 wooden hangers. But spend a little time inside, and their personalities emerge. Don't her 10 children look alike, but act so different you'd never guess they were related?

A favorite room

Room 303 is the good room, the one that's never too much trouble to clean. Some of them - well, she wants to cry when she sees the sticky beer spills on the dresser and potato chips ground into the carpet. But 303 is lucky.

She steps around the dresser, which is cluttered with ingredients for a day at the beach: Chex mix, cheese whiz, suntan lotion and a Sidney Sheldon paperback. 303 isn't a check-out, which means it doesn't get dusted or vacuumed. But the sink still has to be wiped, and the bed made, and the trash emptied, and soon a dark triangle of sweat appears on the back of Anita's pink uniform.

The triangle spreads as she moves down the hall, wiping sand out of bathtubs and squirting mirrors with Windex. She passes the room where she once walked in on a man sitting on the toilet, naked as a jaybird. He hid his face under the comforter when she came the next day. "His wife was tickled, though." A few doors down is where a family from Pennsylvania stayed a week and left her $50, her biggest tip ever.

A father, mother and red-haired girl carry suitcases out of 302. A check-out at last. The little envelope holds $5. "Bless their hearts," Anita says. The room is tidy, but the mini-refrigerator needs cleaning. Anita runs hot water on a washcloth and rubs and rubs, her gold "Mom" ring flashing in the sunlight.

"Now they come in, and they've got a nice refrigerator," she says with satisfaction. She draws the blinds, plunging the room into darkness. Someone might have to drive a long way to get to the motel, and their room should be cool. Sand crackles in the vacuum as she backs out.

It's 11:15, time for a break. 306 is another check-out, so she can rest there. She flips the television channel to "Sunset Beach" and leans back on the rumpled bed, swinging her right foot, the one with the tennis shoe missing its little blue "Keds" tag.

Briddell loves soap operas; she watches them every afternoon after work, too. Getting glimpses of people's lives, watching them fight and make up and scheme - it's the same reason she loves her job. She always learns a lot about the lives of people who stay in her rooms.

Like that guest who left a comforter on the deck - it was a man who slept outside because he loves summer breezes, not because he got in a fight with his wife. And the people who stayed in 306 but didn't leave a tip - well, Anita knows they over-spent their budget: "Living in Ocean City is high." And take the man watching television in 308. He'll go to the beach later today and just stare and stare at the ocean he has never seen before.

Television soap operas are fun, but she prefers the ones that play out in the Santa Maria. Because in Anita's 12 rooms, she gets to write the story lines.

! Pub date: 8/03/98

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