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Hospital housekeeper works overtime but is still stuck in place

8/01/2011 - Boston, MA - Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital - Esther Chase, cq, stops cleaning for a moment to chat with a patient. She works as a housekeeper on the cardiac intensive care floor at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. She makes $14 an hour and spends it as carefully as possible to cover her bills and monthly rent. She cleans quickly and quietly throughout her early morning shift amid the doctors on rounds and nurses tending to patients. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Esther Chase stopped cleaning for a moment to chat with a patient on the cardiac intensive care floor at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.

The bus is crowded on this weekday morning, and quiet except for the whine of the engine and the automated voice calling out stops – Grove Hall, Dudley Square, Longwood Medical Area.

A passenger sits primly among the others, back straight, hands folded across her lap, eyes fixed ahead.

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Esther Chase has made this trip many times – each day, the same. She takes the first bus leaving Fields Corner to the hospital where she works. In the basement, she signs in amid the exposed pipes and noise of the building’s ventilation system, then ascends to the sixth floor and changes into her uniform.

For eight hours, she quietly cleans, moving among the sick and the doctors and nurses attending them. She finds no insult in her work, or exaltation. “Housekeeping is cleaning,” she says. “Nothing else.”

She has been doing it most of her life. She did it in her native Barbados, cleaning up behind officials at the Ministry of Agriculture. And she did it after coming to Boston about a decade ago, among the affluent at a Back Bay Hotel.

There was a time, when she was younger, when she’d imagined a different path, of becoming a nurse like one of her aunts. But, as she thinks of it now, at age 62, it seems a fool’s dream. She was poor, always has been.

“It costs money to learn nursing, you know,’’ she says and gazes for a while, saying nothing.

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There is defiance in her silence, and pride.

She’s long made peace with her lot in life and won’t feign dreams about things she can’t get. When she came to America, she had visions of a life of prosperity. But she soon discovered things were not easy here. She keeps her dreams small and brushes aside big ideas with a dismissive hand and a swift shake of her head to indicate there is no point talking about it.

Lately, though, cracks have shown in her veneer. She’s dared the thought of buying a house to settle in after retirement, and tinges of excitement have crept into her voice.

***

Chicken is cooking in one skillet, red snapper in another. Esther’s small two-bedroom apartment on a hilly Dorchester street is filled with the sweet smell of onions.

It’s a plain apartment decorated sparingly. The dining table is covered with a linen table cloth, and curtains flutter in the window. On a wall, a single framed picture of a family wedding shows Esther wearing an elegant blue dress, surrounded by relatives.

She sprinkles garlic powder on the frying food and opens the back door to let in a breeze.

As always, Maya, a 21-year-old granddaughter who lives with her, is there. A guest is there, too, another grandchild, seven-month-old Tyler. His parents bring him once a week.

The two grandchildren – her oldest and youngest – are links to a family salted across the US northeast and Barbados. She is separated by an ocean from her husband and three adult children, including Maya’s mother. A sprinkling of siblings lives here.

It’s a divided life, bridged by phone calls and annual visits. Maya and Tyler help her feel less alone.

Even if it’s a difficult life, Esther is thankful for it. Many people don’t have jobs, or families, she says. The $500 she takes home each week covers her bills, but only just. She knows how to make do.

In the living room, Maya is trying to entertain Tyler, but the boy fusses impatiently. Esther turns down the burner, wipes her hands on her apron, and turns to him.

“Come to gam, gam,’’ she says, taking him in her arms.

Esther had hoped to have her own house with a yard by now. In her mind is a picture of her old neighborhood in Barbados, of front-yard gardens blooming with hibiscus, of families having weekend dinners under the Caribbean sun, eating macaroni pie and pudding and pickled pig. Sometimes she longs for it. But she doesn’t allow herself to dwell.

***

A house would bring a feeling of ownership and accomplishment for Esther, and stability so she doesn’t have to keep moving from one bad apartment to another.

For years in Boston, she lived in a roach-infested flat and coped with a landlord who seemed uninterested in making repairs. Esther eventually moved. And the apartment she has now is cleaner and more comfortable, but it is still in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Crime feels ever present. More than a dozen people were killed there this year.

Friends and family who watch reports of the violence on the evening news often call her to make sure she is all right.

And, in any event, renting feels like a dead end, like she will be forever giving her money to someone else.

Housing prices have been dropping in Boston lately. Maybe, she thinks, someone like her could afford to buy.

Her older brother, who has long lived in Boston, has been helping her look. He recently found a single family in Dorchester, but she couldn’t afford the $350,000 price tag. He kept looking.

“My brother said he’s going to show me one that’s better,’’ she says at work one day, a flame of excitement flickering beneath her cool exterior. “He says it’s a two-family. It will be cheaper because I can rent out one of the apartments.”

***

Fall comes. A lingering warmth occasionally hints at the long-past summer, but trees stand barren and the lawns along Esther’s street have gone brown.

Little has changed in her life. She still gets on the bus each day and rides to work and boards again to come home. In late September, she told her supervisor that she wanted to leave the intensive care unit and asked to work in another part of the hospital where there are no patients. Now, she cleans places where she is mostly alone. She likes being alone.

Lately she has been trying to figure out what to do when she retires.

The house her brother showed her months before had intrigued her. She had considered pulling money from her retirement savings for a down payment. But it quickly became clear that even if she tried, she would never have enough for that and would never be able keep up with the mortgage.

So she is trying to find other plans.

“I changed my mind about the house,’’ she says with a faraway look in her eyes. “When I retire, I’m going back home to Barbados. The prices of houses up here are too high for me anyway. Plus, I’m too old to be bothered now.”

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.

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