An unrequited love affair with a New Mexican outpost
By Ben Leroux
My waitress, a mountainous mix of Navajo, Mexican, and frontier woman, looms over me with fat biceps and hostile pad with pen.
“I’ll take the sopapilla,” I tell her, and slide the menu to the edge of the table.
I recognize the sopapilla from a list of food items that one should consume while in New Mexico. Though I’d never found out exactly what a sopapilla was, I am not concerned. My impeccable pronunciation (soap-uh-pee-yuh) ought to put the dinner crowd in Charlotte’s Café at ease. They’d turned funeral-silent when I’d walked in wearing shorts and sandals and headed for the men’s room. Now that I’ve taken a table in jeans and sneakers, and set my atlas and clothes beside me, they have fallen into an advanced state of pulmonary arrest.
I open my atlas and try to locate where I am. But my waitress’s big shadow is still over me. And the locals in Charlotte’s, I notice, have stopped chewing. The Cobb Salads of a venerable retired couple have paused. The children of the hardware store owner have turned in their booth to gape at me. The town football hero and his girlfriend, who have been twirling French fries in a pool of ketchup, now dab them up and down in one spot. From a cook’s hole in the kitchen, a second mountainous woman watches me.
“What do you want in it?” my waitress says.
“What do you want in your sopapilla?”
“What usually comes in one?” I ask, reaching for the menu. I hear utensils freeze, and I can see a slim muscle in the football hero’s jaw twitch.
“Whatever you want,” my waitress says. She drops her massive head to one shoulder and sighs.
I tap my toes and look inside the menu for some help. Nothing jumps out at me. My waitress reluctantly bails me out.
“You want beef and potato?” she says.
“Yes. Yes, I do. I want beef and potato. Thank you.” I close the menu and open the atlas.
“What kind of beef?”
I reach again for the menu.
“Umm,” I say, wondering what these people have against background music.
“Ground or steak?” she says, shifting her weight to one leg. Forks now tick in an agitated, picking tempo at plates.
“Steak. Yes, steak.” I say.
“Please. Definitely smothered.”
“What do you mean, ‘In what?’”
There are gasps. The hardware store owner tells his kids to turn around and the girlfriend pats the football hero’s trembling hand. She whispers to him: “Let it go, babe. Let it go.”
“What do you want it smothered in?” my waitress says to me, threateningly.
I still hide behind the menu.
“Green or red?” she says.
I tell her green, which I now know means green chili sauce. She leaves me, and I relax a little, and peer into the atlas.
On the map, I follow my progress along Interstate 84 from Santa Fe. The chilly air had caught me by surprise as I’d pushed the Plymouth through the lower rungs of the Santa Fe Mountains into Las Vegas, a trek that ended with a glimpse of some far-off snow-tipped peaks.
The sopapilla comes, smothered in hot, spicy green sauce with a side of beans and rice. I break into the puffy, delicate capsule of dough with a fork, and eat what’s inside. Charlotte’s sopapillas are heavy and heartwarming.
Las Vegas, New Mexico, has a Wal-Mart and I find a corner of its parking lot to sleep in. I inform the staff I am out there in the Plymouth, but they are indifferent. This Wal-Mart is wild and loose and I try to stay as far away from it as I can. I feel besieged and I’m not sure I want to close my eyes. My lower bowels begin to tremor and rumble, as the green sauce goes to work and I have to make runs for the restroom.
Back in the Plymouth, a man on the radio tells me that new statistics show New Mexico leading the nation in out-of-wedlock births and drug overdoses. I would add to that list: Vast, pothole-ridden parking lots; sidewalks that end without warning into large adobe walls; the overuse of green chilis; and burning, stinging rectums.
In the morning, I hit the dusty old streets of Las Vegas with my bucket and poles. Things look optimistic early when the friendly ladies at the Chamber Of Commerce hire me, and throw in cookies and a cup of coffee.
Then I target downtown. I am immediately infatuated with it. It is stylish and unrefined, and dominated by interesting old buildings. The plaza has a Victorian, pioneer look, with large antique stores, an old motel, and a couple bars. I start to think I might rake it in here. There’re enough dirty windows to keep me busy for three days at least. And it’s the kind of town I wouldn’t mind staying in for a while.
But when you go door-to-door, peddling window-cleaning services, you run the risk of having your image of a town shattered. Want to or not, you tap into the true energy of that town. If you don’t want to know how pious or rude or cheap a town is, then don’t go in and ask about windows. Just do the tourist thing – shop, eat, sleep, then leave.
All a vagabond window-washer really asks is to be rejected with a smidgeon of respect. A “no thank you” is great. A “no thank you” with eye contact is preferable. A “not today, but thanks for asking anyway” with eye contact and a smile can fill a window-washer with temporary euphoria and drastically alter his outlook on the world.
In Las Vegas, I get another type of reaction, and I get it in almost every business. The merchants don’t want to look at me. As soon as they realize that I want to clean their windows and am not there to buy anything, they hold a hand up, as if shielding themselves from a blinding, nauseating accident scene. They squint and shake their heads and run away to some darkened part of their store. They hide and wait for me to leave. It happens so frequently that it becomes comical.
The next business is one of a few huge antique stores on the plaza, and it has at least fifteen tall, dirty, panes of glass, with overhead panes above each one – a forty-dollar job for a commercial window-washer, easy. I pause outside before going in. I think about how much fun it would be to blurt out “it’s free!” just as the storeowner is trying to interrupt me and leave. To watch their reaction would be almost worth doing their windows for free. But I decide that such an offer might come across as sarcastically aggressive and earn me some unwanted attention. So I decide on the next best thing.
I go in and track down the owner. She is with a customer, so I wait quietly, pretending to browse at some postcards. She sees me over her shoulder and asks if she can help me. I go into my regular pitch.
“Hi, I’m in the area cleaning windows, and …”
Up goes the hand and the wagging head, the squinted eyes, and a taut frown. She whisks her customer away, and they drift off to the back. That’s when I blurt out: “For five dollars!”
The woman stops and does an about-face. Abandoning her customer, she comes at me with a grin that says, “Are you shitting me?”
“What’s the catch?” she says.
“No catch,” I say. “It’s been a slow day.”
And so I go to work on this antique emporium as the owner watches me gleefully from inside. Her husband comes along, and they stand together and watch me go up and down the panes, using my extension poles. Customers come in and the happy couple brags to each and every one about the great deal they just got.
You’d think I would feel pretty low cleaning those windows, which would take me about an hour to do. You’d think I’d feel cheated, embittered, and resentful. After all, what kind of guy lets people take advantage of him like this?
And I do, for about the first five minutes. But thinking about it, what the hell else did I have to do? Doing this place for five dollars was better than doing no places for zero dollars, and it sure as hell was a lot better than working at a place like this, for cheap people like this, trapped inside a workplace with ridiculous hours and demeaning rules.
When I finish, the owner comes out, tugging at the edges of a crisp five-dollar bill. She comes to me charitably, like she’s bringing me a big doggie biscuit – like she’s performing an act of philanthropy.
“Here you go,” she sings. “Five dollars.”
I take it from her, and as I leave, I think, “Fuck it. If I have to take five dollars an hour, I’ll take it. In fact, whenever I run into a place like Las Vegas, I’ll offer to do anything for five dollars. And that will be just fine. Five dollars can get you a McDonald’s value meal. Five dollars can get you enough gas to get to the next town.”
I make my way around the last of the town plaza, wondering the entire time how Las Vegas got wasted on such a bunch of low-balling assholes. Ever since arriving, I’ve been trying to fall in love with this town, but Las Vegas hadn’t seemed interested.
My hatred for it peaks when I stick my head inside a barbershop and give the nickel pitch to do the outsides. It would normally have been a ten-dollar job.
“Five dollars?” says the barber, snipping at the hair of a young man. “Some other guy does both sides for four dollars.”
The young man in the barber’s chair, about 20, has to butt in.
“Yeah,” he says, sitting up. “I think you should do both sides for four dollars, man.” He laughs with the barber.
I look at this giddy kid. How does he know I won’t wait for him outside?
“Who asked you, punk?” I want to say. But I don’t. I say to him and the barber: “Really? Great. I’ll be right back then. I just have to go get something.” Then I leave. I never come back. You have to find ways to cope.
Done for the day, I drive to the far edge of town where there is a dirty rundown motel that advertises rooms for $25 a night. I could get a room for two nights, but wouldn’t be able to afford to eat well. I try to convince myself that if I stayed one more night, and made one last effort to make Las Vegas work, it just might. I might just leave loving Las Vegas and missing it to death and vowing to come back.
So I walk up to the lobby. But before I get to the door, I stop and turn around. I come back to the Plymouth. It was just too late. Me and Las Vegas weren’t going to work out.
I fill up the Plymouth and look down Highway 104, with the sun setting to my back. The greatest drives are eastward, running away from the sun. On the map, the road to Tucamcari looks long and lonely and I don’t like the sound or the look of it. I see a dry, poor town of last chances and few services. But I feel like there’s no stopping or turning back now. I feel like I am already rolling down the slope of a chasm that I can’t see into, and that slope angles directly into the bowels of Texas.
I pay for the gas, and leave.
As I wind the Plymouth down the soft hills and small canyons southeast of Las Vegas, the land slowly broadens out into farmlands then rolling plains. I realize there’s no turning back west now, and I feel the reality that I am about to become truly alone out here. It’s bittersweet drives like this, with the sun to your back and the shadows of tall grass and yucca fronds, and ranch houses thrown out ahead of you, that you move into a depth of solitude you’ve never known, and you embrace that solitude. You embrace it because it’s all you have, and all you want.
Behind, the sun quits quietly as 104 straightens itself out, leaving just the slightest bend in the road here and there. §
Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)