Ted Anton is professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of three books and is working on a fourth, for University of Chicago Press, The Rise of the Microbes, due in 2016.
“A Day’s Work” by Truman Capote (1981) was collected in Capote’s last good anthology of magazine work, Answered Prayers. It describes a day in April 1979 in which he accompanies his maid, Mary Sanchez, as she cleans three vacant apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx. Written like a screenplay, the essay seeks complete “transparency” or absence of style, Capote writes in the introduction, offering a clinical take on a funny and haunting odyssey through the lonely city souls of the sexual revolution. As a day-in-the-life with a working class protagonist, the essay echoes George Orwell or Martha Gellhorn, and its deceptively simple method seems within the reach of students themselves.
Capote and Sanchez quarrel, qvetch, and share their losses, including Capote’s mother’s suicide, his relation with Willa Cather after they met in the New York Public Library, and the sexual bragging of designer Oleg Cassini and the young Senator John F. Kennedy. Sanchez talks about her children, the death of her estranged husband, Pedro, on a Central Park bench, and the Catholic faith. The drama builds as they share her potent Peruvian marijuana “to lift the heavies.”
Sanchez’s clients include an alcoholic ex-airline pilot, a promiscuous woman editor and poet, and the “stuffy” Berkowitzes of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, owners of a foul parrot that instigates the climax. We peek into medicine cabinets and trash cans, read poems and field calls from ex-lovers. Gawking at the private lives, the content is as unethical as it is touching and funny.
The style seems simple but features several disorienting, expressionist tropes. The religiously faithful, older Mary Sanchez is the instigator of the drug use. A deadpan, film noir, police reporter is peeking into the intimate lives of strangers, then soaring in poetic lyricism heightened by the pot. Behind the cynic is a longing romantic. Familiar streets become foreign when seen from the African American maid’s view. The higher they get the closer the two become, until Capote and his “cherub” Sanchez are dancing a wicked salsa in the Berkowitzes’ overstuffed apartment. Sanchez is “elegant yet smoothly abandoned” as the music builds and the furniture and an obnoxious parrot swerve and loom like German Expressionist elements in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
The kicker is the essay’s coda. After the Berkowitzes find Sanchez and Capote gorging on their food, Sanchez is fired and they are thrown out into a rainy, chilly street. Sanchez will take the subway to her isolated, dangerous South Bronx apartment because she refuses to patronize racist taxi drivers. But right before they part, she pulls Capote into a vacant church. She kneels and prays for her clients, her children, lost husband, and Capote: “Pray for your mother,” she admonishes him, “for all those lost souls out there in the dark.”
That turn takes us from the modern world of doubt to an ancient level of faith, effective because it is so unexpected. Students who have been responding to the humor, the illicit details, and the close relationship of a declining gay man and an aging woman of color, suddenly glimpse the essay is about something else entirely. As a short go-to reading in the first week of class, the essay exemplifies the unique surprise of nonfiction. The writer is not showboating, as were so many literary journalists of 1970s. “A Day’s Work” is the report of a child abandoned by his mother, with only the neighborhood maids as his friends.
I graduated from Columbia University in 1979 and might have passed Sanchez and Capote on my way to my uncle’s Bronx flower store. She resembles closely the Mississippi-born, Chicago woman who helped raise my two children. “Don’t pray for me,” Mary Sanchez tells Capote. “I’m already saved.”