Washing windows across America (part 9)
Evicted from Wal-Mart
Santa Fe’s ‘Always Welcome,’ low-price alternative
pulls the welcome mat
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
By Ben Leroux
There’s a rumor that camping overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots is free. A quick Internet search confirms this. Though the policy is intended for people to stay just one night, Wal-Mart is lenient — up to a point. Sam Walton’s successors know that travelers, more than anyone, need food, toiletries, and auto supplies. And it’s all at Wal-Mart — anything a human being could ever need.
As I pull into the Santa Fe Wal-Mart parking lot, I face an ethical dilemma. Where I hail from in California, it is fashionable to harbor a deep-running contempt for the Wal-Mart culture, and the dulling, materialistic havoc it wreaks. Any socially responsible, liberal-minded Californian worth his salt recognizes the late Sam Walton for what he truly was — the personification of evil. At the same time, I have no money for a motel room. All I have is a vehicle to stay in.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart sir,” says Edward. He is a Mexican man, a senior citizen of meticulous grooming with every silvery black hair raked into position. His neat gold watch and gold-rimmed bifocals highlight carefully clipped and filed nails. His blue Wal-Mart vest is pressed to perfection and adorned with award buttons and pins. Edward is one of Wal-Mart’s front-line soldiers in the war against high prices. Edward is a Wal-Mart Greeter.
“Is it true what I’ve heard?” I ask Edward. “Is it true I can camp overnight in the parking lot?”
“Sure, we don’t mind,” says Edward. “There’s an area out by the far fence where we like the overnighters to park. You’ll see them all gathered out there after dark.”
“Thank you, Edward. You’re a nice man.”
Edward looks me up and down, managing to hold his greeter smile. Slowly though, he arches an eyebrow, as he sees the change of clothes and makeshift shaving kit under my arm, and the scabbed chicken-scratches on my forearms. The day before, springs and metal had slashed into my flesh as I’d done battle with the bench seats from the Plymouth, extracting them victoriously in the end.
“I’m just going to use your restroom, Edward.”
“Of course. It is down there and to your left.”
I discover quickly that men’s-room hygiene is impractical. There is nothing quite like the reaction of a father and son as they walk into the men’s room and see a half-shaven, half-dressed man with one bare, soap-lathered foot lifted up into the sink. It’s not something you expect your little boy to have to witness when you bring him to Wal-Mart — a truck stop maybe, but not Wal-Mart.
I manage though, and get clean enough to scare off the two flies that had been following me around for a week.
I go back to the Plymouth to enjoy its new décor. A plank of plywood the width of my body now extends from under the glove compartment to the backrest of what used to be the back seat. I have the plank swaddled in padding and blankets. There is more than enough room to lie down now, and I can even sit up against the backrest and stretch my legs out. Everything I need is within arm’s reach: my books, my guitar, my clothes.
I read and sleep and sleep and read. I sleep like a madman, making up for a month’s worth of shallow, skittish catnaps. I sleep the ferocious type of sleep that leaves one’s bone marrow buzzing with electricity.
I awake to a grainy pink sunset, and see what Edward is talking about. Seven or eight of the finest motor homes you’ll see are lined up along the side-fence of the parking lot. I start the Plymouth and drive over and join them. A few curtains shut as I near. I park among the RVs.
I get out and go into the Wal-Mart to use the restroom. On the way, I pass huge families coming out pushing carts that spill over with Wal-Mart products. The undercarriages sag with bags of dog food and cases of soda. I am proud to not be a part of this. I am proud that I have the self-discipline to use Wal-Mart for nothing other than its parking and restroom facilities.
A Wal-Mart security cart cruises innocently down the lane toward me — a golf-cart with an anemic, turning yellow light. I wave it down. Sitting inside, wearing a reflector-orange vest and a badge that says Wal-Mart Security, is Neil. Neil has the build you might expect of a man who sits in a golf-cart for a living.
“Hey, excuse me,” I say. “I just want to let you know that I am staying in that Plymouth over there. I’ve already told Edward about it. He said it was okay.”
“You say you’re staying in that car?”
“Yes, Edward said it was okay. I made sure to check first.”
“It doesn’t matter to me what you do,” he says. Then he zooms off at 5 mph.
Edward the greeter is gone when I get into the lobby. He’s been replaced by a hefty red-headed woman, probably in her late 50s. She shares a hearty laugh with two co-workers. Where Edward’s awards were arranged with great detail and order on his vest, this woman’s pins and buttons spread out crookedly and chaotically around a nametag which reads: MYRNA. Some of her pins are family photos covered in plastic. When she laughs, her enormous bosom causes all her family photos and smiley faces and Wal-Mart slogans to clank and clatter together obnoxiously. Myrna does no more than glance at me as I pass through. I wonder where my greeting is.
After using the restroom I come out and pass by the aisles and aisles of cut-rate bargains that so many Americans are titillated by. I scoff at it all. I’ve never really shopped in a Wal-Mart, and don’t care what they have on their shelves, to be honest. I pass through the lobby and Myrna again shuns me. It irks me a little bit. I think about asking her what her problem is. But something tells me to let it pass.
Outside, the high New Mexican air is spicy and warmly arid. I walk past the RVs, toward the Plymouth. Tomorrow I’ll explore Santa Fe a little. It’s the nation’s highest and oldest capital, and some say that it and New Orleans are the two most culturally unique cities in America.
Before settling in for the night, I think about getting some malt liquor. I figure that since I haven’t had any in some time, and since I have remodeled my living quarters, I owe it to myself to drink. So on foot, I locate a 24-hour convenience store. There, I buy a bottle of the Old E and a large soda cup, which I fill with ice.
Back in the Plymouth I recline and throw a cover over me. My cover is an unzipped Coleman sleeping bag I found for eight dollars in a thrift store. Underneath, hidden from the Wal-Mart security cameras, I drain the Old E into the cup of ice, and stick the straw through the lid. I bring it out and openly drink from it. Neil chugs by in the security cart, and I wave to him while taking a long drag from the straw.
In the morning, Edward the Greeter is back on greeting duty. I smile and wave to him as I enter the lobby, and say “Hey, Edward.” But he looks down and away, as if he’d never met me.
Well, I deduce while peeing, a Wal-Mart Greeter greets so many people in a day that he can’t be expected to remember every face. A Wal-Mart Greeter has more important concerns than some boondocker from the parking lot who keeps coming in to piss in the Wal-Mart urinals without buying anything.
Still, I start to wonder what the deal is with my Wal-Mart Greeters. Either they despise me because I lack a shiny motor home, and am instead tarnishing the parking lot with the ugly Plymouth. Or, maybe I had started to take on the invisibility of a homeless man and the sight of me had become just disturbing enough to keep me under the Wal-Mart radar. Perhaps that was a good thing, I thought. Being able to sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot indefinitely would change the ball game. It would give me a whole new set of options.
The window washing gets off to a slow start. The monsoons hit every couple hours it seems. I kill the stormy periods inside a Borders bookstore. I earn enough for meals but that’s about it. I am only able to canvass a very small part of Cerrillos Road, the main thoroughfare of Santa Fe. It goes on like that for a couple days.
Each night a new set of RVs joins me along the fence at Wal-Mart. One night, down to a few dollars, I loosen my standards and allow myself to buy Wal-Mart toothpaste and beef jerky. Just this once, I tell myself -— until I start making a little cash.
On the third night, I decide to take advantage of Santa Fe’s proximity to the Santa Fe National Forest. I drive north into the mountains, and pull into an unoccupied campsite.
I lay in the Plymouth all day drinking, reading, writing, sleeping, and smelling the crisp musk of pine trees through open windows. Huge, heavy globules of rain pelt the old metal roof of the Plymouth in spasmodic kettledrum riffs. I snack out of two bagfuls of Wal-Mart products: canned meats, crackers, pickles, cookies, and peanuts. I write into a nice Wal-Mart notebook with a nifty Wal-Mart pen. Together, it had all cost about seven dollars. It would be my very last purchase ever from a Wal-Mart. I fall asleep fat, lazy, and drunk. I wake up at 5 a.m. from the cold, and drive back into Santa Fe.
I snag a few jobs later in the day. Though friendlier than Albuquerque, there is still the city’s suspicion of strangers, so I get turned away about 90 percent of the time.
But now that I know I can fade into obscurity in any Wal-Mart parking lot, I begin to feel like I have a home base. And now that my Plymouth is converted into a poor man’s motor home, and now with my newfound invisibility, I believe that if I wanted to, I could live at the Santa Fe Wal-Mart or any other Wal-Mart a year or longer without anyone noticing.
And, I suppose I could eat Wal-Mart food on a short-term basis, and buy their dirt-cheap toiletries and clothes and whatnot. I could conceivably drive across the country that way, without ever checking into a motel. With all the Wal-Marts strung out across the nation, I could boondock my way to the Atlantic or down to the Florida Keys. How cool would it be to spend the winter in the Florida Keys?
On my fourth night, stumbling back half-awake from a 4 a.m. restroom run, I notice a piece of paper folded and stuck under a wiper blade of the Plymouth. I leave it, assuming it’s a flyer. But in the daylight, when I wake for good, I unfold it and find that it is an eviction notice in Wal-Mart letterhead.
In so many words it explains that I have been identified as one of a few bad seeds that are not complying with Wal-Mart’s generous overnight parking policy. It includes a friendly reminder that all license plate numbers parked a day or longer at Wal-Mart are filed and tracked, and that if the abuse continues, ne’er-do-wells will no longer be allowed within Wal-Mart stores or on any property under its immediate control. Someone has scribbled “noticed 4 days” in a margin of the letter. At the bottom, it is signed by Leena Thompson — Wal-Mart Management.
Washing windows later that day, not knowing where I’d boondock for the night, I repeatedly take the folded eviction notice from my pocket.
As I reread it over and over, my mind races with conspiracies regarding Edward, Myrna, and Neil. I keep looking at that handwritten: “noticed 4 days” in the margin, and seethe at the injustice of it. I become convinced that it is the handwriting of Neil the security guard. Neil was a bold-faced liar. He hadn’t given me credit for the night I spent up at National Forest. I should only have three days against my record.
Throughout the day, I think about going back to Wal-Mart and confronting Neil, Edward, Myrna, and Leena Thompson. But I let it go. I fold up the eviction notice and put it away.
That evening I settle into a big, soft chair at Borders, and guzzle their coffee. Sure, I buy their coffee, but none of their books. I’ll read them, but not buy them. That’s where I draw the line. If I need to buy a book, I’ll go to a little used bookstore.
Just as Borders is closing up, I come up with a Plan B for sleeping that night. I decide I’ll park behind the 24-hour IHOP I’d seen earlier in the day. I have two or three more days worth of window-washing left in Santa Fe, so I’ll need a homebase of sorts. The IHOP parking lot is spacious and well lit, and there’s an accessible men’s room, which I’ll use as needed. But no pancakes. You gotta draw the line somewhere. §
Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.