The Rogue Voice


July 01, 2006

Washing windows across America (episode 10)

Santa Fe pride

You have to wonder about a guy who lives out of rust-bucket

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

Pride is a funny thing. Without at least a sliver of it, your very existence can fizzle out. Too much, and you set yourself up for a suicidal downfall. Supposedly pride’s a sin, but try going through a typical day without showing people how proud you are, and society dines away at your soul bit by bit.
When it comes to a guy who parks his rust-bucket randomly in a busy Starbuck’s parking lot, eating donuts and grooming himself mid-morning, as the rest of the adult world functions around him, you have to wonder about his pride. He just sits in broad daylight, parked between Lexus’s and Range Rovers. With really nowhere to be, one spot is as good as the next. He’s been evicted from a Wal-Mart parking lot for vagrancy. Sometimes he just stares into a map of the United States, or into bright nothingness, picking his nose or something. You have to wonder what kind of bleakness is in store for this guy. It’s as though his pride runs on fumes. Maybe he’s waiting around for the stores to open so he can go wash windows. Maybe he’s not paying attention to who is coming up behind him.
“Good morning, sir.”
A woman has her head bent to driver’s side level, but she’s a safe distance back. She looks very ordinary. She introduces herself as June from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and gets my name.
“Ben, I wonder if I might give you a little bit of good news,” she says.
I can tell that life has recently kicked June in the guts. Maybe a rich husband has left her for a petite blonde with big tits. I get a good vibe from her.
“Here is our literature.” June hands me her pamphlet mechanically, as if following a checklist.
I take a look at it.
“May I ask what you are, Ben?”
“Today I am a Pantheist, June,” I say, joking.
“A Pantheist? Now what is that? I haven’t heard of that one.”
“A Pantheist believes that even though we die, we really don’t, because everything is alive and interconnected, and that you, me, these cars, the solar system, we’re all one thing – one divine, sacred thing.”
June coils her eyebrows.
“Hmmm. And why do you say you’re a Pantheist today? Is that part of the religion?”
“No. Personally, June, I am not wired for religion or belief. Pantheism was just something I was reading about last night in Borders. I was going along with it until the ‘divine’ and ‘sacred’ part. I don’t know why people have to ruin things.”
“You know Ben, the way you describe Pantheism, it sounds very Shirley MacLaine to me.”
“I see what you mean, June. Shirley MacLaine would have made a fine Pantheist, yes.”
“Well, in our religion, we believe that it’s too late for humanity and that the end of the world is preordained and inevitable. It’s man’s fate.”
“I guess that is good news in a way.”
“There’s more to it, of course. But I get the feeling you’re not interested.”
“Don’t take it personally.”
“Good luck with your travels, Ben.”
“Good luck with your travels, June.”

A windowed corridor leads down into the darkened hole that is Jackie’s Pub. I can see day drinkers in there getting started on a brunch of suds. A man with the self-importance of ownership leans against a wall of the corridor, smoking a cigarette. A few customers are smoking with him. His glass panes are nicotine-stained, and I am penniless. A perfect fit, I’m thinking.
“Hi, are you the owner?”
“Why, what are you selling?” He won’t look at me. His face is a smug, bloated cherry with a pointed goatee. Finally he looks up and checks me out, and I become conscious that my clothes are badly wrinkled and have become two sizes too large for me. He looks at my window-cleaning gear and grins like he’s having a private joke.
“I was just going to offer to clean your windows,” I say. “Ten dollars for both sides.”
Aroused, he springs up and paces buoyantly around his corridor. He makes sure his smokers and his regulars can see and hear him as a spiteful laugh starts to crackle from within him.
“What did you say? Windows? Ah-ha-ha-ha. You see any windows in my bar? Oh Jesus, ha-ha-ha!”
“I was talking about these right here.”
“Windows? Shit. You call these windows?” He pokes his head into the doorway of the bar. “Hey, he calls these windows!” Some regulars look up, but too late for the joke. A couple of the smokers force chortles.
His hysteria climbs as I pick up my bucket and duffel bag to leave.
“Yeah, go ahead and clean all the windows in my bar. Ha-ha-ha! Yeah, right. Oh shit! A-ha-ha-ha!”
In a perfect world, I now set down my gear and walk over to this man. I deliver a solid blow to his throat or eye, or some other fleshy, vulnerable area. By walking away from this man without providing him, at the very least, the sting of a sharp one to the ribs or abdomen, I not only cheat him, but I cheat the delicate balance of the universe. One too many men have walked away from him, not taking the time to stop and restore order.
But the prideless man, immune to narcissistic injury, turns his back to such a guy and walks away, leaving the problem for the next poor sap.
“Hey, buddy! Hey buddy!” I hear over my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, ha-ha-ha! Hey, buddy! Hey, window man!”

I shake it off. The day is brilliant with clarity and tender sunlight. As advertised, Santa Fe is a few things: poor and dark, white and eccentric, dirty and stunning. As an artist’s colony, it is a tolerated visitor in the paint-stroked brutality of the high desert.
Walking along the main boulevards, I am able to glance down charming, narrow side streets that are spotted with adobe, shade, and cruelty. This is as close as I will get to a travel-guide experience of Santa Fe.
Such charms, while endearing to the typical American tourist, can be irrelevancies to the window-washer on foot. In my Santa Fe travel guide, there are sections on the crumbling edges of Cerrillos Street, and the sketchy sidewalks that stop and resume willy-nilly, or trail off into gulches or weed thickets, or just simply end without warning into a brick fence or a building.
And cities are hard enough as it is. Small, remote towns are peppered here and there with dirty windows. But city hustling is akin to trolling for the big fish. You’re looking for a “pocket” of businesses that the local commercial outfit has either forgotten or abandoned. There’s no guarantee that such a pocket even exists. The only guarantee is that you are in for hours and miles of repeated rejection.
But later that afternoon I find my pocket.
It starts with a hair salon owned by a Nigerian woman. Strangely, her clientele consists of feeble blue-haired white ladies, and strangely, she has bars on the insides of her windows, which are hell to get around. I have assured her that I can get behind the bars and get the glass cleaned, but I don’t think she believes me. She and her clientele watch me closely. Somehow, in the process, it becomes my job to seat customers as they come through the front door. They sit in the lobby, spellbound by a TV show called The View, which blares from a wall-mounted set. During commercials, they shift in their lobby chairs and gawk at me. When I’m done, I pass a thorough inspection from the Nigerian woman and her clients, and move on to the next cluster of businesses.
There, a dog-grooming salon hires me to clean both sides.
Mistakenly though, I start at the window of a neighboring medical office that had already rebuffed me. It is an honest error, since the complex is cramped and it is difficult to tell where one business begins and the other ends. Realizing my mistake, I hurry to remove the water. But the curtains part, and a mortified office-aide frantically mouths to me: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I TOLD YOU NO! NOW, STOP!”
Through the glass, I attempt to convey remorse for cleaning her window, and explain that I’ll finish it and be on my way.
“NO, NO, NO!” she gesticulates, pulling at her hair. “LEAVE NOW! LEAVE NOW! AHHH!”
“Okay,” I say, “but don’t you want me to—?”
So I leave the soapy water to dry on her window, and move over to the adjacent window where I am relieved to be looking in on Poodle Paradise – a salon exclusively for poodles.
I resume, but soon spot trouble.
Inside Poodle Paradise, a small child, possibly 4, sits on the floor. She nibbles at a lunch of McDonald’s while fending off three overgrown, salivating poodles. She eats with the particular boredom of a child who goes to work with mommy every day. I am leery of this child. Two major threats to the momentum of a window-washer are very old men and very young children. Both are fascinated with the art form.
Sure enough, the little nipper notices me, and her McDonald’s hits the plate. But this one is smart. Before coming for me, she stands and faces the poodles, and points and says “No!” The dogs cower and drool at the McDonald’s.
The kid then methodically slides a chair over to the window and climbs onto it. She studies me. I pretend not to see her. She is messy-faced with tangled hair. After careful deliberation, she smashes her face to the glass and launches into a routine of fantastic pig-faces. She follows me, working her tongue, lips, and nostrils along the glass like the underside of a snail. Not wanting to encourage her, I show no reaction, though I am somewhat impressed with her feats.
Her mom, snipping away at a poodle, tells her to stop, but the child is insolent. She knows there’s noting anyone can do. So she follows me, sliding the chair from pane to pane, discharging a trail of grease, ketchup, processed cheese, and saliva on the glass I am to clean.
Tiring of the pig-face bit, she changes into a blowfish routine, where she unhinges her jaw and begins exhaling against the glass, inflating her little head into a disturbing beacon of redness. I can see into her tonsils. She backs up and looks at her face-prints on the glass, and giggles.
Inside, the girl becomes my shadow, interrogating me in a language of her own. She follows me from room to room, demanding to be told the names of everything I touch: blinds, buckets, hoses, chairs. She repeats, but is usually way off. She tries to pick up my bucket and poles at times, and, at one point, runs off with my large squeegee. She gets in the way. To shut her up, I give her my small squeegee to look at. She tries to rake the tile floor with it. So I put some water on a window and show her how to slide the squeegee along the glass and take the water off. She becomes silently engrossed, allowing me to finish up.
“Isn’t that adorable?” I hear someone behind me say to the mother, as the girl and I work side by side.
“Here I thought she was going to be a dog-groomer,” the mom says, “But look at her. She’s going to be a window-washer.”
“More,” the little girl turns to me and says. She has gotten most of the water off.
“No, we’re done,” I say. I pack my things up then go behind her and secretly touch up her work with a rag.
“No,” she says. “More.”
Mom tells her it’s time for the man to go and to give him back his squeegee. But the girl wants me to tell her how the thing is pronounced. Otherwise, she’s not giving it back she says. So I tell her, and she comes pretty close, repeating “skee-bee.”
“Okay, give me back my skee-bee,” I say, prying it from her fingers.
Her mom pays me much more than I had asked for. As I leave, the little kid chases after me repeating “bye, bye, bye.” As I pass the storefront outside, she waves to me with her face up against the glass. Behind her, the poodles lick up the last of her McDonald’s.
Still, the day is young in the pocket.
A few businesses later, Tim, the hyper-effeminate owner of a dance studio greets me like royalty, as students warm up for a ballroom dancing class. The class consists primarily of middle-aged executives who have left work to take lessons from shapely young women. It is filled out with nostalgic couples and studio-rats who will dance to just about anything.
“Everybody, everybody,” says Tim. “Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you all to Ben. He is going to clean our windows today.”
“Hi Ben,” they say in unison and wave.
They wait, as if I am to say a few words. I smile uncomfortably, and look back to Tim.
“The mirrors too,” I remind him.
“That’s right, the mirrors too,” Tim says, clapping and pointing to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that encircle the dance floor.
“Oooooh,” the impressed dancers harmonize. “Mirrors toooo?”
As squeegee rubber graces mirror, the first note of jaunty piano music chimes, and the dancers begin moving counter-clockwise to my clockwise around the studio. The strokes of the squeegee and the steps of the dancers start to fall into synchronized rhythms, and I find myself the unwilling participant in a bad, live musical. In graceful strides, the students twirl my way, and during natural pauses, an odd curtsy between dancer and window-washer develops. We smile and nod. It is a very friendly place. Everyone is happy.
One of the solo dancers is a woman held together by cosmetic surgeries. She could be a forgotten actress that has come to Santa Fe to fade away obscurely. At our curtsy, I kindly warn her to be careful because there may be a little water on the floor.
“Oh?” she says, her face frozen in something like surprise; then, she twirls away.
When I finish, there is great fussing over my work. Tim makes a grand spectacle of it, muting the music and clasping his hands under his chin.
“Oh, that looks wonderful!” he says. “We can see ourselves in the mirror! We can see our cars outside! Look everyone! We can see our cars outside! You are our new favorite person, Ben. Please come back and see us soon.”
I leave to a round of applause.

Walking back toward the Plymouth, my pockets are loaded. The dance studio hadn’t been the last of the goldmine. I’d run into a lone Latino strip-mall with the typical shoe store, cantina, market, and bakery. I’d snagged them all. Without counting my money, I know I am going to be relaxing in a cheap motel for a week. The Santa Fe air tastes clean and hopeful with roasting chiles light in the breeze.
So when I hear the laughter and bottle-clinking of happy hour coming from Jackie’s Pub, I don’t go in immediately. I stand outside for a moment and think, and look down the long glass corridor that leads to the little dark hole where my manhood had been challenged earlier in the day. Only then, after deciding that I should walk on by, do I go in. Truth is, all I want is a cold draft beer.
But bellying up, I see the glitter of fear in the eyes of the man behind the bar as he recognizes me. I can hear his heart pulsate and the crazy fears that rocket through his imagination. The lowly street-urchin that he’d seen earlier in the day begging for work — someone he never thought he’d see again — is now back, in the middle of happy hour, sun-baked, sweaty, and dirty. Surely he has come back for revenge. But then this street-urchin drops a stack of bills onto the bar so high that they tumble and cascade over one another.
I start off with a few drinks for myself. Then I order rounds for the house. Since it is not in this bar-owner’s nature to eschew lucre of any kind, he serves me. But he does so with downcast eyes and hesitant mumblings. With each drink he brings me, he slouches a little more, and grows a little more insecure behind his own bar. And as my pile of bills dissipates, I start to feel something like satisfaction.
I tip him outrageously, vengefully, each time more than the last. He never once thanks me or makes eye contact. He just quietly serves, as his regulars become my new best friends, and they and I get each other drunk.
Nursing my last beer, I try to come up with one final humiliating gesture to leave this jackass with. I recall the way certain customers used to try to demoralize me when I was a bartender. One trick was to wad up fives or tens into little balls, and toss them behind the bar, to see if I would fetch like a seal.
So I take a twenty from the pile.
“Hey buddy, hey buddy,” I say. “Look.”
I hold up the twenty and crush it up into a tight little ball. Shamefully, he watches.
“Hey, here you go buddy, here you go.” I fake throws in a few different directions and watch him as he crouches, anticipating the trajectory of the flying tip.
Then, as all his regulars have stopped to watch this, I start to feel like a drunken, vindictive jackass myself. So I stand up. I un-crumple the bill and flatten it out on the bar. I press the winkles out.
“This’s for you, buddy,” I say, and leave.
Outside, I pick up my bucket, poles, and duffel bag and stagger into the warm afternoon. Judging by the weight of my pockets there will be no motel room this week or anytime soon. It’s just as well. I’m headed for eastern New Mexico next. On the map, it looks like the type of wide-open country where a guy could get by on minimal amounts of pride or money. It looks like type of country where a guy in need of a little space could have as much as he wanted or needed. §

Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
  • Part 9: Evicted From Wal-Mart


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