Washing windows across America: Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)
I’m ready for any Texas bullshit anyone wants to throw my way. One thing Texas needed to know about me right off, was that I wasn’t here to make any friends.
Lubbock sure was a civil place. It made me think I could stomach big city life if people were all like this. And there was room to breathe in Lubbock.
Dry times in Lubbock
What does a guy have to do for a beer?
By Ben Leroux
WINDOW WASHING ACROSS AMERICA
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.
I feel I owe it to the great state of Texas to drink while driving. Though a guest only a few hours, I’ve already been stalked by rednecks, low-riders, and a cop with a Barney Fife complex. To compound matters, I’ve wasted eight dollars on one-half of a pathetic high school football game. So I do what I normally do in times of distress. I seek out a can of Old English Malt Liquor.
I stop at a corner market in a town called Littlefield. The used lottery tickets, phone cards and cigarette butts that litter the parking lot assure me I’m in the right place. Inside, farm laborers in dusty-legged jeans stand in line to cash checks.
I wander the aisles of the store. I go in circles: milk…soda…chips, milk…soda…chips.
“Am I missing the beer?” I ask the pretty Latina girl at the counter.
“No beer here.”
“Oh,” I say. “You don’t carry beer.”
“No beer here.”
I leave to find a store that does, wondering how a little corner market like that survives without selling beer. It’s admirable.
I find Littlefield’s supermarket, and again wander the refrigerated goods aisles, lost and nervous. Something is askance. I look around for a drinker. I find my guy–a young Mexican man in baggy trousers, tattooed, with a wife and a baby.
“Hey man, is this town dry or something?” I ask him.
“Where can I go to get beer?”
“You got to go to Levelland, man.”
“Levelland? What about Lubbock? I’m headed toward Lubbock.”
“I think so. But Levelland’s closer.”
I drive back and forth through Littlefield, trying to make neon beer signs appear in the windows of stores and restaurants. It was true that Levelland was closer, but it was out of the way.
I get back onto 84, and resume. Lubbock was a big city, so it had to have beer. Once in Lubbock, I’d eat, find a Wal-Mart to sleep at, then find some Old E. And if it didn’t happen, so what? It wasn’t like I was an alcoholic or anything.
Lubbock spreads out across the plains in a web of sedate lights as I approach. The streets swell in width, and I see the calming sights of civilization, and quit worrying about police cruisers sneaking up behind me. The Lubbock Wal-Mart is easy to find, and there’s a Taco Bell nearby.
I am greeted at the counter by an eager-eyed Taco Bell employee. He calls me sir, thanks me, tells me to enjoy my meal and to let him know if I need anything else. This type of treatment from Texas fast-food personnel is growing on me.
With one taco and a soda, I take a seat. I was conserving money for the weekend ahead. Maybe I was a fool for trying to drive through Texas in a beat-up Plymouth with California plates. Maybe it was poor planning. But at least I was setting aside drinking money for the weekend. I deserved a little credit for that.
As I go through my atlas, a woman and her grown daughter take a table next to mine. Like the rest of the people in the Taco Bell, they sparkle with purity, and look like they’ve just come from Bible study. They unwrap their burritos and start looking over at me. I get prepared. Let ‘em go ahead and say something. I’m ready for any Texas bullshit anyone wants to throw my way. One thing Texas needed to know about me right off, was that I wasn’t here to make any friends.
“Excuse me,” the mother says, trying to look at my atlas. “I just wanted to ask you what you are doing.”
I hover over the atlas, trying to obstruct her view. I don’t like it.
“Yeah, are you lost?” says her daughter.
I turn away from them. It was none of their business.
The daughter comes over and takes the atlas from me, and goes back to her table with it. She and her mother rifle through it. I reach for it, but they pull it away.
“Wher’re yew from, anyhow?” says the mother. “It looks like you began in California. Are you from California? Honey, he’s from California.”
“We went to California one time,” says the daughter. “We wanted to be on The Price Is Right. But chyew know, we never got on because of Bob Barker and his pross-trate cancer, and I don’t mean to bad-talk California, but people was so mean down there. Well, we just turnt right around and come back. Didn’t we, mom?”
“Ah just remember how ah couldn’t waiyt to get back to Texas. People are just so much nah-cer here.”
They ask me what I think of Texas so far, and I tell them about my trouble with the cops in Muleshoe and the bad football game. I leave out the part about not being able to find any malt liquor.
They apologize for Texas.
“What yew need to do is go see the Buddy Holly museum,” says the mom. “Did you know Buddy Holly was from Lubbock?”
“Mm-hmm,” says the daughter. “And Bobby Knight and the Dixie Chicks too.”
“Now, I have to ask yew,” says mom. “How are you financin’ your trip, sir?”
“Well, you probably won’t understand, but I’m washing windows as I go along.”
I wait for them to set down the atlas and move to another table. It’s the reaction I am accustomed to from women throughout Arizona and New Mexico.
Instead, the daughter’s eyes widen, and she reaches over and clenches my forearm. Thinking about a bed for the weekend, I look down at her ring finger. A massive stone adorns it.
“How very, very brave of you,” she says, looking through me. “It’s such a bray-eeve thing to do.”
“Seriously?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” agrees mom. “It is so, so bray-eeve.”
They give me back my atlas, dump their trays, and say goodbye from the doorway.
“Now don’t forget to go to the Buddy Holly museum,” says the mother.
“Yeah, and you be careful out there travelin’ around the country now,” says the daughter.
After eating, I leave Taco Bell, walking tall. Those women were right. I wasn’t a fool for daring to come to shitkicking Texas–I was a brave, brave warrior. I walk into a large convenience store feeling very brave. I look around.
“Where can I get some beer?” I ask the affable-faced woman behind the counter. The question seems to crack the innocence of an otherwise perfectly good shift.
“Yeah. Don’t tell me Lubbock is dry too. Don’t tell me I can’t get any beer here.”
“You can, I guess. Supposubly, there’s a place out of town called ‘the strip.’ I guess you can get whatever you want out there. But I hear it’s where the weird people hang out.”
“I’m there then,” I joke.
She lifts an eyebrow and says: “Oh?”
It drains the bravery out of me. I don’t go to the strip. I instead enjoy a quiet night’s sleep in the Plymouth at Wal-Mart with no malt liquor.
The next morning, with a cup of Starbuck’s coffee, I prowl the aisles of the Lubbock Barnes & Noble. I amass two armloads of reading materials, snarling at the inquisitive looks I get. Saturday morning in the big bookstore was when the strong secured comfortable chairs for the day and the weak were left to sit on the floor.
Up to my chin in short story anthologies, magazines, maps, almanacs, and humor books, I stand in the center of the store. I scan from left to right. A quick decision must be made.
Vacant over in Home and Garden, is a set of plush overstuffed chairs with gargantuan armrests, coffee tables, and limitless legroom. Yet practically under my nose is a lone hardwood chair that faces a wall of books. It should be a no-brainer, but there are factors to consider.
I take the lone wooden chair and stack my books around me. As I crack my first book and take my first sip of coffee, I see the overstuffed chairs over in Home and Garden filling up—couples looking for home improvement ideas—strangers sitting within inches of each other. Disgusting. Meanwhile, others roam the store with armloads of books, looking for chairs. Suckers.
Ah yes, this was a good place to be. This was a valuable chair and everyone knew it.
I read until I lose feeling in my ass and lower back. There were only so many positions to shift into. I know it’s a gamble leaving my precious chair and books, but I have to.
I scout the aisles, looking for a place to stash my coffee cup. It was a valuable thing that got you 25-cent refills. The large and heavily trafficked Christian section was out of the question. So was Politics or History. I walk past them and stop at the lonely, miniscule Gay Erotica section. I select the most offensive title I can find, and hide my cup behind it.
Outside, I stroll the groves of mall and box-store parking lots, without a care. Lubbock sure was a civil place. It made me think I could stomach big city life if people were all like this. And there was room to breathe in Lubbock. It was paved as if space wasn’t a consideration, with sidewalks and medians wide enough to play tennis on. The cars moved along in a steady, patient flow, side-by-side at the same speed.
Looking forward to being served by another considerate, fast food worker, I stop in a McDonald’s for something off the dollar menu. I was starting to get used to this courtesy thing.
But the sight of the slovenly kid who greets me, gives me a California flashback. He stands crookedly—an unkempt abomination in a rumpled, un-tucked shirt. He rolls his sluggishly perturbed eyes at me and sighs.
His society starts to close in on him right away. The people in line behind me go quiet and the McDonald’s crew stops working. Machines shut down. This kid has deviated from the pack. This is not the way we treat people in Lubbock. A huddle forms at the deep-fryer with the manager. They watch the kid at the register toss my receipt and change onto the counter.
“No kid, shouldn’t have done it,” I think. I leave my palm open, giving him a chance to salvage things. But he just shrugs at me and says “What?”
From my table, I watch as he is tapped on the shoulder and replaced at the register. He then disappears into the back with the manager. Saddened and embarrassed by his behavior, we customers look regretfully at one another. The pack practices good manners.
Back at the bookstore, my coffee cup is safe, my chair is vacant, and my books are still stacked in their original stronghold position around the chair. These are good signs.
With a fresh coffee refill, I relocate my fortress over to the overstuffed chairs in Home and Garden. The married couples have gotten their remodeling ideas and gone home to work on their castles. They have left in their wake, a cyclone of books that workers now go around and collect.
In the Texas almanac, I try to find out more about this “dry-county” business. I learn that there are not only dry and wet counties in Texas, but also something called a “moist” county. A map shows them shaded respectively white, black, and gray.
According to the map, I have just come through heavy dry/moist land in the western panhandle. Encouragingly, I am headed into the heart of the gray, moist counties. Beyond that, in the southeast, clusters of black-shaded wet counties await me.
As closing time nears I taper off on the coffee, then secretively return my cup to Gay Erotica. I close the place down. Once back at Wal-Mart, there wasn’t much for a guy to do but sleep.
Monday I am alert and motivated, and eager to get going. Lubbock had dried me out for a couple days. Thanks, Lubbock.
Lubbock had given me a gift. Lubbock had socked my fear of Texas in the face. Now, not only was I unafraid of what was down the road, I was anxious to conquer it. I gas up and head southeast on 84.
Out of the city, I watch for the “strip” of debauchery I’d been warned about, but see only endless yellow dirt fields. Not that I cared. Lubbock, it seemed, had broken me of my sinful urges.
At the corner of one such dirt field, though, sits an unremarkable white shack. It is a shack that could have passed for a pump-house or a tool shed were it not for the neon Budweiser sign harkening from its one small, black window.
I pull into its dusty parking lot.
Inside the shack is a man behind a cash register, and wall-to-wall coolers of beer. I browse around. I open the coolers and touch some of the cans to see if they sweat with the same cold sweat as the ones back in California. They do. I come to a sixer of Old English and watch it glimmer with its familiar gold and crimson. It’s good to see an old friend sitting 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:
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