The little strip of hotels on West 44th Street in midtown Manhattan -- between 5th and 6th Avenues -- is, like many streets in Old New York, a casually important one. The Harvard Club is there. So are the New York Yacht Club and the International Immigrants Foundation.
Important men -- and some women -- make their way to that short corridor on a regular basis. So do a large number of tourists -- either staying at the hotels or making their way across Times Square to Fifth Avenue shopping and, a little further up, Grand Central Station.
Then, of course, there are the immigrants -- the staff members of the hotels, Ivy League clubs and restaurants, as well as the taxi drivers, who are almost exclusively the only vehicles along the asphalt strip at any given time.
It was no doubt a little more than unsettling when the Sofitel Hotel, located on that high-toned stretch, attracted an enormous amount of attention recently. It is not the only hotel where powerful men take leave of their faculties for a moment of release, but it is currently the most famous. It was at the Sofitel, on May 14, 2011, that Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK) -- now former head of the International Monetary Fund and strong contender for the French presidency -- admittedly participated in a sexual act with a young hotel maid.
The incident with DSK and the maid hasn't shattered any myths about power and sex, but it has left hotel staff in New York, and particularly on West 44th Street, shaken.
"We had a staff meeting when the news came out," a maid at a hotel next door to the Sofitel told me recently. "They told us again that we are not to clean the room when the guest is present," she said to me, as I sat in my room, wondering.
I thought about judgment and human instinct -- how common sense goes far in this often harsh world.
There were memos to the staff, too, apparently along the same lines of keeping to themselves.
"You know, there was a lot of commotion that day, a lot of coming and going and media," another staff member said. "It's a busy street anyways -- there are lots of guests like him on this street," the staff member said of DSK. The look on his face made me think it was a double entendre.
Many of the staff are members of unions in the city. Their unions have also been proactive about addressing these kinds of concerns and behaviors. The local union has continued to be supportive of Nafissatou Diallo, the 32-year-old maid involved in the incident. Perhaps, they know all too well how vulnerable staff members can be.
The Hotel Worker's Union, Local 6, has provided new evidence disproving media reports that Diallo was hired by them to act as a "prostitute earner" at the Sofitel.
"We tend to know each other in this hotel, but I don't know anyone from the Sofitel," my maid continues. Again, I wonder. None of the staff I spoke to admitted to knowing anyone at the hotel next door, although I have seen some of them chat on the street.
"I have a family -- I know about funny business, but I don't have time for trouble and I don't know anyone who does," she reinforces her point.
The thing is, if the guest is in the bathroom or shower, he or she will not hear the knock on the door for the maid service -- it happened to me -- and a simple misunderstanding like that can quickly become a situation where a hotel room door is closed and two strangers find themselves on the inside of it.
There is also the apparent imperative of cleaning. The hotels seem to be very serious about getting rooms cleaned for their distinguished guests. If a "do not disturb" sign prevents the morning cleaning, a card is placed in the room's keyhole and at least once, if not twice, later in the day and evening, these guests receive reminders -- both in person and by phone -- that the room has not been cleaned. Guests have until 9 p.m. to get their rooms cleaned, which means that maids can be on hand until quite late in the evening.
Perhaps, those maids who need more money are willing to take the late shift -- perhaps it even brings some overtime pay.
In a city like New York, after-hours bedroom visits can easily be confused or taken advantage of. The hotel rooms, even in the nice hotels like those on West 44th Street, are compact, and the pathways from the bed to the bathroom tend to be, like the street itself, just wide enough for one-way traffic. There are closed-circuit TV cameras in the hallways and elevators, but what goes on behind closed doors is less obvious.
In the city that never sleeps, bedrooms aren't just for beds. And maids, ever present, ever in the midst of it all, know this better than most.