Washing windows across America
Proud motels were once filled every night back when Tucumcari was the major stopover point between Chicago and L.A. Now they are nocturnal beggars, with a dreamlike beauty to them.
"Want a little advice? Never take acid at an Iron Maiden concert."
End of the Mother Road (episode 12)
By Ben Leroux
The Lotaburger staff of Tucumcari, New Mexico, doesn’t deserve the abruptness with which I treat them. They are just innocent, fat, pimply white kids trying to serve with a smile. It is late, and I think they sense that I am at the edge of something, so they give me a wide berth. They call me “sir” and actually say “thank you” when I order. One even asks me for permission to mop around my table. I grunt at him.
“Thank you,” he says.
My surliness must be residual from two days in the inhospitable outpost of Las Vegas. Now I am just 50 miles from the Texas border, disoriented in mysterious darkened flatlands. Possibly I have raised my dukes in anticipation that the farther one goes east in this country, the larger the shoulder-chips on people grow. I leer at anyone in the Lotaburger who locks eyes with me.
After eating, I go out back and bunk down in the Plymouth. All I know of Tucumcari thus far is this exit area off the I-40, which consists of two filling stations, a chain motel, this Lotaburger, and a McDonald’s across the street.
The next morning I drive across the street and drink coffee in the McDonald’s with my atlas and a pen at hand. There’s still a chance that I may be able to afford a room for one night, but it is too early yet to go looking.
I end up eavesdropping on a table of men. It is the same table of men you find Saturday morning in any small-town McDonald’s, discussing trucks, farming, politics, and the weather over cheap pancakes and coffee. But with these Tucumcari men, such subjects orbit superficially around the true nucleus of their lives – football.
Listening to them while looking through the atlas, I realize that Tucumcari is a hybrid town — part New Mexican and part Texan. In addition to a Texas-like allegiance to football, there is an unchecked twang in a word or two.
I look up. Across the aisle is a young, fair-skinned, pregnant woman in McDonald’s maternity attire. She rests a knee on a hard bench-seat while wiping the tabletop with a wet rag. She’s stealing a break, watching up front for passing supervisors.
“Oh nothing,” I say. I hunch over my atlas.
“What are you drawin’ on that map?”
“It looks like you’re drawin’ something,” she says.
“It looks like you’re drawin’ circles.”
“Okay. I’ll tell you. I’m circling cities.”
“You’re what?” She tries to stretch her neck across the aisle.
“I’m circling cities. I’m a window-washer, and that’s how I travel. It’s not a big thing.”
“What kind of cities you circlin’?”
She scans up front before scampering across the aisle to my table. She kneels on the seat across from me and starts wiping my table. She looks down at the obscure towns I have circled throughout western Texas. She gets an eyeful then darts back to the booth where she resumes on one knee, moving the rag around and around in the same spot.
Feeling a trust in her, I elaborate.
“What I do is find all the cities in a state that have a population of between two- and twenty-thousand people. Those, I have found are best for window washing. Then I circle them. That way I always know where I can make some quick money.”
“And you’re going to wash windows in all them cities?”
“No, just the ones on my route. I’m headed in the general direction of Florida, but nothing’s set in stone. I just try to stay off the main roads, and away from big cities.”
“You should go up to Jeffrey’s Market,” she says.
“Do they need their windows cleaned?” I ask.
“I don’t know. But they got windows. Big ones.” She sets down her rag and shows me the rough dimensions of Jeffrey’s windows with her arms, and then starts to give me directions. I stop her.
“When people send me somewhere to go do windows, it usually amounts to nothing,” I tell her. “So I probably won’t go. Every place has windows. Thanks though.”
She seems a little wounded.
“But maybe you could tell me of a good, cheap mechanic in town,” I say.
She lights up. “What’s the problem?”
I list the array of maladies that afflict the underside of the Plymouth – rotting ball-joints, bushings, u-joints, brakes, and something called a pitman arm.
“Well, I know a guy from mud boggin’,” she says. “He’s a kind of a shade-tree mechanic.”
“Mud boggin’?” I flip through the atlas for the map of New Mexico, and scour it. “Is that a town around here? Mud boggin’?”
“No, no no,” she laughs. “Mud boggin’. You mean you don’t know what a mud bog is? You know, four-by-four racin’ in mud flats? No? Shoot, I met my husband at a mud bog. I beat him in a race when I was four months pregnant. He purposed to me right then and there.”
Tucumcari isn’t much in the daylight. It is mostly empty, dated motels along Route 66 with rooms for around twenty dollars a night. Since there’s no Wal-Mart to camp at, I decide I’ll get one, even though it means I’ll eat like a bird for the weekend.
I select a peculiar courtyard motel with peeling siding yet freshly painted doors. It is called the Snooze Inn and it resembles a commune more than a motel, as thin artist-types sit in doorways playing with cats or tinkering with wood sculptures.
Swampy water floats fallow in a half-filled swimming pool behind a chain-link fence.
The room has character, and a good bed and TV. I catch up on sports scores and news, and nap. I wake and eat a dinner of dollar-store junk food and malt liquor.
I come out after dark and walk Route 66. Now that it’s night, Tucumcari has been resurrected. It hums with neon as the mostly-vacant motels have switched on their signs for the trafficless Mother Road. The proud motels were once filled every night, back when Tucumcari was the major stopover point between Chicago and L.A. Now they are nocturnal beggars, with a dreamlike beauty to them.
I stop under the flashing pinks, blues, and greens of the signs and watch them plead for the salvation of Route 66 and motels like the Buckaroo, The Palomino, and the Blue Swallow. They call to the ghosts of old truckers and traveling families.
In a bar I spend two of my last dollars on a draft beer. A broken jukebox steals money from a group of listless drunks who keep urging one another to feed it more money. I watch the bottom right-hand corner of a football game on an obstructed set behind the bar. A meth-head couple comes in, exploring for activity, transforming the energy of the place into a nervous hell. I walk back to the motel. Bored hicks in a 4-by-4 rumble by, checking me out, followed by bored Mexican low-riders doing the same.
By Sunday morning, my plan to survive off of potato chips and malt liquor has failed, and I am queasy with hunger. I wake too early, craving greasy hangover food. So I set out on foot, just looking for something. I don’t know what. Food in a garbage can, I guess – another potato chip.
I come upon an American/Mexican diner and wade through its intermingling aromas of chorizo, maple syrup, and coffee grounds. I walk in, and a small brown man greets me at the register.
“Juan pear-son?” he says.
I say yes, one person, but that I’d like talk to him first. I tell him in broken Spanish that if he’ll allow me, I will clean his windows for breakfast. He watches me with blank eyes before disappearing into the kitchen. I start to leave. But out comes a kitchen worker in a stained apron.
“My dad says you wanted something?”
“Ah, forget it. I was just offering to clean your windows in exchange for a breakfast. I’ll try someplace else.”
The kid though, is already yelling into the kitchen in Spanish. He and his father banter back and forth. The kid takes a menu from the front counter and leads me out into the dining area.
“Will this table be fine sir?” he asks me, pointing to a nice window-table.
“Well, I’ll just go get my things and clean your windows first. I don’t need much. Just some eggs and hashed browns.”
“My dad says just to eat. You don’t have to do nothing. Just eat. Coffee?”
He fills my cup as I sit.
“Okay,” I say. “But after I’m done, I’ll be back to wash your windows. They look like they need it. I’m staying at the Snooze.”
I load up the coffee with packets of sugar, and half-and-half and feel the cobwebs start to clear.
I eat an omelet with hashed browns and juice and toast. The kid keeps my coffee refilled and checks to see if I need additional butter or juice.
As I leave, I tell him I’ll be right back. He nods at me unemotionally.
A half hour later I’ve checked out of the Snooze and am back cleaning the diner’s windows. The old man runs and hides when he sees me, and his son comes out to take his place.
It takes about 20 minutes to go around the joint. When I finish, I knock on a window and wave goodbye to the kid. I don’t go into thank his father. I don’t know him, but I think I know why he’s hiding from me. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t expect thanks for a spontaneous, selfless act. I think I understand him.
The food-for-windows program works again that evening at a Chinese restaurant. I eat a quiet dinner of sweet-and-sour pork and rabbit legs. I’m onto something, maybe.
I spend the rest of Sunday finding various places to waste time in Tucumcari. Each time I get out of the Plymouth though, I bound out with a giant leap. According to the local newspaper, it has been a record summer for rattlesnake bites. People by the dozens are getting nipped doing simple things like getting out of their cars. And uncharacteristically, the rattlers have been crawling on to sidewalks and going after little kids. No one knows what has gotten into the rattlers this summer.
Monday morning I walk into a downtown diner that is infinitely wide and long, with ominous spaces between tables. At the very back, some distance off, a kind-faced hostess waits for me behind the cash register. Halfway, I wave to her and she waves back. The endless march gives the town of Tucumcari a chance to check me out from their tables.
I give the hostess my pitch, proposing ten dollars for the outside or fifteen for both sides. She starts to shake her head, and I turn around for the endless march of shame out of the diner.
“You know what? Go ahead,” she says after all.
We negotiate both sides for ten dollars and lunch. After cleaning the insides, I delicately replace the window display of a hometown doll maker, and a shrine to the high school football team. The hostess watches over me with satisfaction. Women are often more impressed with my handling of their window décor than how clean I get their windows.
“So. Stranded, or stayin’?” she says as she serves my lunch. I have been given a ten-dollar limit.
I pause for thought, because the idea of stopping and living in a place like Tucumcari had never occurred to me until just then. It was a dying town of tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes, but what else was wrong with it? These people were kind and they knew who they were and they sure as hell knew how to treat a window washer. And I really liked all the space I had at this table. The nearest booth of people was a good ten yards away.
“Neither, really,” I say. “But I could. I mean, it’s a nice town. It’s just that there’s not enough windows.”
I leave and walk the deserted, oversized downtown streets with a full belly. Quiet shadows hang from square, steadfast buildings with boarded windows. I could just as easily be in a Kansas ghost town. A lone stoplight buzzes and clicks above what used to be an important intersection, changing colors for no one. I feel a little guilty for trying to get money out of these people. I walk from block to vacant block, on the alert for rattlers coiling up in the monstrous concrete gutters.
At a corner, I come across an antique/second-hand store that has no “open” or “closed” sign. There are old wheelbarrows and obsolete farming tools in the front window display. I hold my hands up to the glass and peer into the store and see a feint light somewhere in the back. The door moves when I push on it. So I step back and come up with an estimate for the windows, and go in.
A cowbell attached to the door clamors, and I jump back as the shadows of two bodies leap from behind old shelves and desks. They flee in opposite directions. A short squatty one disappears into a back room and a tall gangly one stands behind a stack of boxes, pretending to work. When he sees me standing in the doorway, he relaxes.
“It ain’t the old man!” he yells to the back room.
Together, the two shadows emerge and come to me, wading through used appliances and lawnmowers, rubbing their eyes and yawning. The tall slender one wears glasses and thinning shoulder-length hair. The squatty one is razor-stubbled and wears a grimy T-shirt.
“We thought you was the old man,” the slender one tells me, exposing dirty yellow teeth. “We know the sound of his truck, but sometimes he tries to pull a fast one on us. He knows we’re lazy bastards, but still we don’t like to disrespect him.”
“I was just in town doing windows,” I say. “I can do your outsides for ten dollars if you like.”
The squatty one stops mid-yawn, to laugh. But Slim elbows him in the chest.
“Wait,” says Slim. “You say you will wash all the windows for ten dollars?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal,” I say.
“All of them?”
Both guys reach for their wallets. “You got it, buddy. I’m Kelly and this here’s Ernie.” They each produce a five and escort me outside.
“Now you know where this store begins and ends, don’t you?” says Kelly.
“Yeah, from here to right here.” I point.
“Nope. Follow me.” Ernie wheezes in excitement as Kelly leads us down the sidewalk and around a corner, where I see that the second-hand store comprises an entire downtown block. They wait for my reaction, Ernie grinning perversely.
“Aw, shit,” I say. “There’s so many empty businesses here in Tucumcari, I couldn’t tell these were yours. It’s misleading.”
“Still wanna do ‘em? I mean you don’t have to, but if ten dollars is all you’re askin’, me and Ernie will gladly pay you. Otherwise the old man’ll make us do ‘em and if there’s one thing that me and Ernie hate, it’s windows. We are willing to pitch in five dollars apiece of our measly salaries, aren’t we Ernie?”
“Yeah, hell. Why not?” I say. “I said I’d do ‘em, so I’ll do ‘em.” I get ready to start.
“Hell yeah, boy. That’s a whole lotta windows,” says Kelly, jumping around. “We’ll get you some drinking water. Ernie, go get him a water.”
Ernie scoots off and returns with a cold bottled water for me, and they watch with curious admiration as I reach into my duffel bag and pull out my soft-bristled brush then take the lid from my bucket, and dunk the brush in. They shake their heads with respect as they see that I am actually going to go through with it. Kelly tells Ernie to go back into the shop in case the old man shows up.
“So where were you last?” Kelly asks me.
“Las Vegas,” I say.
“Woo-hoo. Crazy-ass Vegas town. What did you think‘ol Vegas?”
“I didn’t know what to think. What is wrong with those people up there?” I brush water onto the first pane.
“He-he-he. You had trouble in Vegas did you? He-he-he. Well, you’re the wrong color for one thing.”
“But I never had any trouble in Gallup, and that was all Navajos. I was treated very well in Espanola, which as I’m sure you know is mostly Mexican. Assholedness, it seems, knows no race. But it evidently knows geography. We have a town like that where I’m from. It’s called Cambria, practically all white and nearly the whole town are unbelievable assholes.”
“Now you’re preachin’, window-man. Yee-haw. I’m hearin’ it. I know Cambria.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about.”
“Not really. I was too fucked up on drugs at that time, so it’s pretty much a blur. I was playing in a rock band that toured up and down that coast. I just vaguely remember the name — Cambria.”
Kelly gets a few more pieces of information from me before he lights a cigarette and is off to the races. He talks and gesticulates incessantly, as if he hasn’t talked to anyone in years, waving the cigarette as he paces the sidewalk. He talks about the towns of New Mexico and what the people are like and by the level of interest I show in one topic, he decides which sub-topics to veer off into. I get very little work done listening to him.
“As far as Tucumcari,” he says, “well, you can probably already tell it’s dead. But some of us like it that way. It was I-40 that did her in. Throw in a few chain motels, and this is what you get. Hey, don’t do all these fuckin’ windows man. It’s hot out here. Come in and take a break. We got a swamp cooler inside – and couches.”
I follow him inside.
“I tell you what else, I’m gonna call the old man and see if I can get you some more work.”
As he goes behind the counter and dials, I migrate toward a section of used musical equipment.
I sit down at a drum set and pick up the sticks. I look around the place, astounded by its vastness. It is the size of two high school gymnasiums.
I hear Kelly bragging on the phone about how he and Ernie discovered an ace window-washer and took the initiative to muster up five dollars apiece to get the windows cleaned, and that the guy was only in town for the day. When he’s done, Kelly has made it sound like he and Ernie had sacrificed immensely.
Kelly hangs up and comes over to where I sit and says, “That was the old man. I told him you did the whole building. He’ll never check. He owns so much shit, he doesn’t know where it begins or ends.”
I hit the bass with the foot-pedal - BOOMP.
“Your drums?” I ask - BOOMP.
“Nah,” says Kelly. “The old man’s. He used to play jazz – Benny Goodman-type shit. He quit once his old lady died. Now he drinks.”
I start tapping one of the sticks on the hi-hat and throw in a soft snare. Kelly peruses four electric guitars propped up against an old couch. He straps one over his shoulder and plugs it into a little floor amp and starts tuning the guitar by ear.
“What kind of band did you play in?” I ask.
“I would describe it as a cross between Iron Maiden and Tangerine Dream, if you can imagine that.”
“I told him about you,” Kelly says, looking for a pick. “The old man. I think he wants you to do his home and some other properties of his. You could make some good money before you leave Tucumcari. You could leave Tucumcari rich, bro. When he gets here though, I gotta split to that back room. Me and Ernie are supposed to be back there priming his classic.”
I look into the fluorescent-lit back room where Ernie looks up from a girlie magazine and waves. He leans against an old classic car of some kind.
“Yeah man,” says Kelly, tuning his axe. “I used to tour up and down that fucking coast where you’re from, playing the bars. Acid, coke, you name it, I was on it. No more though. Last time I dropped acid was at an Iron Maiden concert in Albuquerque. Want a little advice? Never take acid at an Iron Maiden concert. Dude, the stairs were giant, and I thought the fucking world was coming to an end. I tried to climb the speakers. Next one I’m going to straight. He-he-he. Wouldn’t it be a trip to get kicked out of an Iron Maiden concert sober?”
Kelly cranks up the little floor amp and starts whacking at the strings with his pick.
“THIS’S MY BABY, MAN!”
You never know about someone who says they once played in a band. Musicians are notorious for delusions of grandeur. But Kelley is the real deal – a guy that should be touring with a classic rock band. His pencil-length fingers float along the neck of the guitar with butterfly grace as he bends notes, plays with dials and levers, and rattles the walls of the store with wailing licks.
I let up a little, because together we start to sound like Carlos Santana sitting in with a middle-school band. But Kelly starts rocking his body, and looks over at me and nods as if he’s trying to pick up on a beat. Tentatively, I move from the hi-hat to the crown of a cymbal to give it more of a rock sound. Kelly slams heavy-metal power chords.
“COME ON, WINDOW-MAN! HIT IT!” Kelly bangs his head at the dark, dusty air, his thinning strands of hair thrashing about wildly. I throw in a tom-tom, start giving the snare hell and smash the cymbals with authority.
“YEAH WINDOW-MAN! YEAH!”
We get lost in a heavy-metal haze. Ernie pounds an air guitar in the back room. We are at an Iron Maiden concert, loaded and crazy.
Abruptly, Kelly stops.
He mutes the strings and cocks his head and pokes out his lips like a concentrating weasel. He listens. I pinch the edge of the ringing cymbal to silence it.
“Ernie!” he yells, setting down his axe. “It’s the old man! Good knowin’ you, bro,” he says to me. “Good luck in Tucumcari.”
Kelly hurdles a roto-tiller and a coffee table as he splits for the back room. There, Ernie tosses him a piece of sandpaper, and they go to work on the classic.
I set down the drumsticks and wait for the walls of the warehouse to quiet before I get up and go to the counter. The old man is behind a messy desk, rustling through papers.
“You must be the window-washer,” he grumbles at me through the flemmy throat of a seasoned drinker. He looks at me through filmy reddened eyes.
“I got one of those sunrooms at my house,” he says. “Those Plexiglass fucking things that go over my hot-pool. Can you do those fucking things? They’re a pain in the ass.”
I wait while the old man unsteadily scrawls address on the back of a business card.
“Can you find these places?” he says. “Do you know Tucumcari?”
I tell him I’ll find them. I tell him I’ll drive by them and come back with here with an estimate.
“Are your prices reasonable?” he asks me.
“I’m pretty cheap,” I say.
“Just do them then. When you come back, we’ll work it out.”
“You sure that’s okay?” I say.
“It’s okay with me if it’s okay with you, buddy. Just do a good job.”
I drive through the backstreets of Tucumcari where I see how the people live — their modest homes and their roughly defined yards. I don’t break any speed records looking for the old man’s addresses. I take my time.§
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.
Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
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