Washing windows across America: Zen and the art of messing with Texas
Beginning is the path to true joy. Maybe the high plains of Texas would be where I would stumble onto enlightenment.
The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Why did man give up the nomadic life?’
Washing windows across America
Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)
By Ben Leroux
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.
Slaton’s town square, though clean and orderly, looks fatigued from years of economic misfortune. Four sparse rows of resigned businesses face each other across a manicured yard bordered by four wide streets. Like withered wallflowers at the town mixer, the stubborn little businesses just wait.
I step out of the Plymouth and begin going door-to- door. What do I care?
Beginning is what I do now. I’m a fugitive from the Big Rut—Career, Home, Family. All I do is begin. The Buddhists are advocates of it, saying that beginning is the path to true joy. Maybe the high plains of Texas would be where I would stumble onto enlightenment.
Slaton’s town square puts me to work right away: physical therapy clinic, cell-phone store, mail store, furniture store, two insurance offices, and an auto-parts store.
Pockets loaded with sweaty, gnarled bills, I get back in the Plymouth and leave Slaton. The window-dirt of Slaton now settles at the bottom of a water-bucket with the window-dirt of Lubbock. Soon it may be joined by the window-dirt of Snyder or Post or Sweetwater. Or not, my only commitment being the here and now.
Windows down, I take Highway 84 southeast toward Snyder. Some of the tiny farm towns of the Texas panhandle are nothing more than a church and a silo. The Plymouth slices through the wide-open skies, fearless as any car on the road. The question I keep asking myself is, “Why did man give up the nomadic life?” With the help of some Old English malt liquor I slurp through a straw, my mind explores the myriad possibilities. The Old E helps with the mindfulness–yes it does. So does messing with Texas.
It’s a little past five when I arrive in Snyder’s town square. A Norman Rockwell evening has begun. A grandmother and two grandchildren sit on a bench feeding squirrels. A mom drops her kids off for karate classes. A bronze sunset moves in.
Warm from the Old E buzz, I walk around the square, evaluating the cleanliness of Snyder’s windows.
The way I do it is I get up close to a store window, and while walking by, extend ever so slightly the backside of my index finger and swipe it along the glass. Once past the store, I examine the back of my finger. It’s a method I’d developed when I’d learned that people didn’t appreciate me standing and staring at their glass point blank. They’d come out to see if I was a kook.
There is more than enough dust on Snyder’s windows to justify staying the night and attacking the square in the morning.
But the vastness of Texas makes me want to cover ground. So I put gas in the Plymouth and ask the cashier where, with all the inane county-to-county Texas liquor laws, I might find some beer. I tell her I’m headed toward Sweetwater.
“You can get anything you want in Sweetwater,” she says. “Or better yet, Colorado City.”
I head for Colorado City, taking back-roads through smooth fields that fade under a coppery dusk. Light gusts of crude oil and manure float in some places. An armadillo–a slick, shiny little guy on the side of the road—watches me go by with two beady black specks.
The answer was security and safety. It was man’s soft spot for security and safety that convinced him to trade in his spear and basket for a salary and a humming refrigerator. Looking around, I wonder if it’s been worth it.
I arrive in Colorado City picturing a revolting bastion of sin replete with bars, hookers, and drug dealers lining the streets.
I search Colorado City for beer. I ask around. No one really wants to talk about beer. There are no bars, no hookers or pimps or gangs or strip clubs or anything. The town is asleep except for a Pizza Hut.
“What kind of beer do you have on tap?” I ask the young man at the counter. I get out my bills.
“We don’t, sir,” he says.
“Sir, this is a Pizza Hut.”
“I know it’s a Pizza Hut. Where I come from, Pizza Huts serve beer.”
“Would you like to order, sir? We have a special tonight. A free salad with your order of a medium or larger.”
“Let me think. I just need to see beer at this point.”
“I’m sorry to hear that sir.”
“Listen,” I say. “Somebody back in Slaton told me there was beer in Colorado City. That’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t know about Slaton, sir. I’ve heard rumors that in some parts of Texas, beer can actually be bought in grocery stores. But I don’t know it fer a fact.”
“What about Sweetwater? I was told you could get anything you wanted in Sweetwater.”
The word “Sweetwater” strikes a nerve in him, and makes his face go from smug to acrid. He looks down and starts straightening napkins.
“Well?” I step closer. “Tell me about Sweetwater.”
“Sir,” he says in quivering growl. “Sir, I do not regularly ‘sociate with folks from Sweetwater.”
I get on the I-20 eastbound to see why.
Sweetwater’s darkness isn’t warm and coppery like Snyder’s. It has a depraved hot, black chill running through it.
The sight of a sports bar however, relaxes me. It will be comforting to sit down with a beer while catching the end of Monday Night Football. I think the Packers are playing.
At the front door I stop. A sign stares at me. DRESS CODE FOR MEMBERS it says, listing requirements forbidding T-shirts, jeans and shorts.
I put my hands to the glass and peer through. Except for a cute barmaid, it didn’t look like a very sophisticated club. It was occupied with the cheap haircuts, tank-tops, and jeans of a motley crew of Texas white trash.
I pace around for a while, listening to the beat of the jukebox and the smack of pool balls. I stop and watch the lights of video games and the Packers playing on the high-def TVs. Finally, I go in.
The barmaid takes two dollars from me and issues me a membership card good for a year’s membership at Manny’s Sports Tavern and Grill. The dress code, I am informed, is seldom enforced. A frothy mug of Budweiser is set in front of me.
I start climbing the club’s social ladder immediately, as the friendly barmaid turns her back to her regulars and dotes on me.
“So, what do you do?” she eventually asks. I disclose.
She waits a minute before escaping. She goes to the other end of the bar and stays there. Good, I get to watch Monday Night Football in peace.
At McDonald’s the next morning, a table of burly farmers halt their cussing and gossip when a slight, timorous black man in glistening geri-curls and a beige petticoat takes a nearby table. The men sit straight and nod to him. “Mornin’ rev’ren,” they say.
The reverend sits, spreads a napkin across his lap, nods back, prays, and eats by himself.
I run both sides of Sweetwater’s main street, making about seventy dollars. Twice I pass a long, steel shed where a fat man in overalls comes out. He stands in the sun and watches me, his charcoal skin prickling with sweat. He bounces with a wheezy, secretive laugh. I don’t know what it means.
Wanting to take full advantage of my membership benefits at Manny’s, I decide to spend the night in Sweetwater. There are two horridly rundown motels in town, so I pick one at random.
The office of the Lakewood Inn is decorated in tacky Christian and African art, and smells of curl-activator. A white leather-bound bible lays on the desk, open to Psalms.
A man comes in and sits demurely behind the desk. It’s the little reverend from McDonald’s. I tell him I’d like a room for the night and he leads me outside.
“Let me know if this will do,” he says, fluffing his curls.
The room is in an advanced state of decomposition. The doorframes are splintered, the bathroom door hangs on one hinge, and a decrepit bedspread dips concavely with a craterous mattress. The mirror is lacquered in greasy fingerprints and vice grips serve as the handles for leaky shower faucets that dribble orange water onto a moldy shower floor.
“I’ll take it,” I tell the reverend.
With a wire-hanger antenna I try unsuccessfully for TV reception. So I instead sip Old E and play guitar in the worst motel room in the nation. I was happy. This room was fine. It was the comforts and luxuries and the stagnant, mundane niceties where misery frolicked. That was where people turned into depthless bores–not in sordid fleabag motel rooms in Sweetwater, Texas.
Once amply juiced, I leave for the long walk to Manny’s. The night is again prickly with a sultry chill and there are no cars on the street.
I’m near the steel shed when I hear the raspy, esoteric giggles of the shed-dweller. I look for his two bugged-white eyeballs lurking happily around in the blackness, but don’t see them.
What the hell was so funny to him? Was he crazy? What was up with Sweetwater? Why did I hear footsteps behind me? Maybe it was me that was going crazy.
But the footsteps are real, and gaining on me. I clench a fist and get ready to fight. They sound too light to be the shed-dweller though.
“Yew waitin’ fer midnight?” a voice says.
I turn and jump back in a fighting stance. For all I know, it’s the town witch. But I instead look down to see two small, pale women in tight, raggedy clothes. They look up at me curiously. They appear harmless. Town hookers maybe.
“Didn’t mean to scare yew,” the older of the two says. “Was just wonderin’ if you were waitin’ till mindnight like us. At midnight, food stamps kick in.”
We start walking together, the three of us. The quiet one, freckled and big-chested, giggles and shuffles mutely along, staying hidden behind the talker. I keep my eye on her.
“Thanks for walking with us,” the talker says. “We don’t like walkin’ alone in Sweetwater at night.”
“Something about this town gives me the willies,” I tell her.
“Guess you’re not from here,” she says. “Wher’re you staying?”
“At the Lakewood. Probably should have gone to the other one but it’s too late now.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered,” she says. “Both’re bad. We was livin’ at the Lakewood for awhile, but left on account of the people there.”
“Bad, huh?” I say.
“Oh yeah. The owner? The reverend or whatever he is? A white woman and a black woman were stayin’ there, and for $25 they’d let you watch them ‘uh-hum’ and then they’d both ‘uh-hum’ with you, and I guess the black woman liked to put ice on the man’s ‘uh-you-know-what.”
“You don’t say.”
“Oh yeah. And so we moved to the other motel. But we got kicked out because of men-strew-ation blood on the bed, even though I told’em I’d make sure there’d be no more men-strew-atin’ on the bed. They said no, too late, and kicked us out even though we’d paid for a week. It was a rotten thing to do. You know, women men-strew-ate. It’s a fact of nature.”
“Yes it is,” I say.
“There’s a few things you ought to look out for if you’re gonna be walking around Sweetwater at night. Those two motels of course, but also the black magic and the pokies.”
“Police. I call’em pokies. But I’d be more worried about the black magic if I were you.”
“Well,” I tell her. “I’m a member at Manny’s.” I show her my card. “I’ll just sit in there and mind my own business.”
We stop in front of the 24-hour market where the women plan to utilize their food stamps. The talker puts her hand out for me to shake.
“By the way, I’m Beverly.”
I shake Beverly’s hand, then reach over to shake the hand of her friend. But Beverly jumps in front of her, blocking me with folded arms. Again, I step back a few feet, jumpy and nervous.
“What?” I ask, my voice dry, and an octave high. “What’s going on here?”
“At’s my daughter,” Beverly says. “She’s only thirteen.”
“Good god,” I say, walking away. “She looks thirty-five.”
“Sorry!” Beverly yells after me. “Didn’t mean t’scare yew! It’s just I told’er if she ever touched a man she’d get pregnant! Thanks again fer walkin’ with us!”
I sprint-walk to Manny’s, planning to close the place down and drink as much as I could. Who knew what I might encounter on the walk back to the Lakewood? There was the black magic, the pokies, that creepy shed-dweller, and the androgynous Christian voodoo reverend.
Membership card in hand, I push in on the front door of Manny’s. It doesn’t budge. I put my hands to the glass and look inside. My club is dark. The video games, televisions, and jukebox are all dead. Next to the posted dress code are the club hours. I read them. “CLOSED TUESDAYS,” they say.
Security. Safety. Belonging. The three booby-traps of the nomad.
On the way back I stop at the market where I’d left the mother and daughter. After ensuring they are gone, I go in for one last Old E and begin walking back to the motel.
I keep a fist balled as I near the shed, drinking from the paper bag. Luckily, I don’t run into the shed-dweller.
As I see the disgraceful Lakewood Inn up ahead, I detect that the Old E in Texas doesn’t pack its usual punch. It takes more to do the job. There’s no telling what Texas has done to it. It would be just like Texas to mess with its alcohol content. Dry counties, wet counties, moist counties–the confusion itself was enough to make a man give up drinking. Moreover, it was enough to spoil his state of enlightenment. §
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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