Washing windows across America: Directions from Texans
I’ve found the law enforcement brain unable to sort through the gray concept of my seemingly motiveless existence.
Getting directions from Texans, as it turns out, involves more than an exchange of practical information. It requires the sharing of oral histories and the sacrificing a good part of one’s day.
Washing windows across America
It ain’t easy finding your way through the Lone Star state (episode 17)
By Ben Leroux
Each cop has his or her own style. One might utilize the metallic tap of flashlight on glass. Another may simply yell, “HEY, WAKE UP IN THERE!”
But this Ballinger, Texas, cop wakes me thoughtfully, with three light raps of a knuckle. He gives me some time. “Hello in there?” he says.
Eyes closed, I push myself up into a sitting position. There’s no point in opening your eyes when the beam of a high-powered flashlight is zeroed in on them. Slowly, I reach behind for the dashboard where I keep my wallet. I remove my license and push it through the opened window, toward the source of the white light. I yawn.
“Looks like you done this b’fore,” the light beam says to me.
“It’s the car,” I say. “It draws the wrong kind of attention.”
As the light is lowered onto my license I can see that my copper is a thickset ‘ol boy with a golf ball-sized plug of chew in his cheek. He communicates with the station while splattering intermittent streams of chaw onto the Wal-Mart asphalt. A shrieking dog barks off somewhere.
Before his knock, I’d been down the homestretch of one of my best Wal-Mart sleeps yet. This Ballinger Wal-Mart was not your typical Super Wal-Mart with 24 hours of slamming car doors, bawling car alarms, earth-shaking stereo bass, or refrigerated semis grumbling all hours of the night. No, this was a quaint little box of a Wal-Mart, no bigger than a Rite Aid. After closing at midnight, the parking lot had become almost serene, with a perfect mix of fresh air and warmth flowing through the open windows. It had put me out in minutes.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” says the cop, handing me back my license. “I’d seen you earlier in the day and I was checkin’ to make sure you was OK.” He drops another deluge onto the asphalt. “SHUT UP, MAYBELLE!”
I start to duck under the covers.
“That’s Maybelle barkin’,” he says. “She don’t shut up. YEW SHUT UP, MAYBELLE! Here we had a murder three weeks ago, and I had to leave the investigation to come and take Maybelle in fer barkin’. She’s a sort of a Spuds McKenzie type. What you doin’ anyhow—just traveling or somethin’?”
I don’t go into much detail with him. I’ve found the law enforcement brain unable to sort through the gray concept of my seemingly motiveless existence. Though they detect no threat from me, the procedure manuals in their minds have some trouble with it. I’ve tired of watching their tortured eyes grapple with such fuzzy data. Out of pity, I now cut it short.
“Okay,” he says, after a silence. “You can go back to sleep now. I just wanted to make sure you was okay. YEW SHUT THE HELL UP, MAYBELLE, OR I’MA COMIN’ OVER THERE T’GITCHYEW!! I apologize for Maybelle. Hope she don’t keep you up.”
Of course, there is litte sleeping after a late-night brush with the law, no matter the outcome.
While scarfing down a breakfast sandwich at a nearby Sonic, I remember that I am out of clean rags, so at random I pick a young Sonic employee to ask for directions to a Laundromat. She leads me out to the road.
“Go down’ear,” she says, fishtailing her hand through the air. “You go down’ear issaway, then attaway, then issaway two more times and you’ll see the laundry there.” She does the same motion each time.
“So a left, a right, then two lefts?” I ask.
“You go issaway,” she says. “Got it so far? Then attaway. Then issaway-issaway.”
“But you’re doing the same thing with your hand every time.” I mimic her swerving hand movements.
“Okay, look’ear. I’m gonna tell yew one more time. Now listen. You go issaway….”
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll find it.” I start to leave but she stops me.
“You should know that only two of the dryers work.”
“Well, which ones?” I ask.
“Ones on iss’ear end.”
“Iss’ear end.” She fans her hand back and forth in no special direction.
“You mean the end closest to us or the end closest to the front door of the Laundromat?”
“Just the ones on iss’ear end. Ones on atta end don’t work worth diddly.”
I find the Laundromat by doing the opposite of what I think she means.
Getting directions from Texans, as it turns out, involves more than an exchange of practical information. It requires the sharing of oral histories and the sacrificing a good part of one’s day. Even then, directions come out either ambiguously inaccurate (like the ones from the Sonic girl), or drawn out in such a tedious fashion as to reduce a normally patient man like myself to a curt, interrupting asshole that vanishes prematurely, brain numb with rage and boredom.
Waiting for my rags to wash, I sit on the Laundromat sidewalk and replace a rubber squeegee blade. While they dry, I read Checkhov and watch the people of Ballinger go back and forth lazily through town.
I’m the only person at the Ballinger Laundromat in the middle of the day. It’s the kind of moment I feel like the luckiest man in the world–like maybe I’d finally gotten it right. Texans could give me all the bad directions they wanted–have me going in circles the rest of my life, and what would it matter?
Walking downtown Ballinger, my duffel bag is stuffed with clean, warm rags. But downtown isn’t much more than a few streets of old buildings–many of them gutted and crumbling. And not much interest in windows. I am about to suffer a shutout in Ballinger when an art gallery hires me. In Ballinger, an art gallery sells oil paintings of cowboy boots, horses, deer, barbed-wire, and saddles.
As I do the outsides, a man at the candy store next-door comes out and leans against his brick wall and watches me. He’s got a potbelly and a cheap, thin western shirt tucked into faded turquoise Wranglers.
It’s a little past noon when I finish and start packing up. Maybe because of fatigue from the lost sleep, or maybe because I am masochistic, I decide to ask the candy-store man for directions. I’m ready to move onto the next town down the road–Coleman.
I begin by asking him how he’s doing.
“Well…ah’m …oh…” he starts.
It’s a step I could have skipped. In fact, I could have skipped the whole process. How hard could it be to find the gas station in Ballinger?
“Good, good,” I interrupt. “Glad to hear it. Hey, can you tell me where the nearest gas station is?”
“…ah’m doin’…good…I sup-pose… ”
“Great. And where’s the nearest gas station?” I start to feel closed in. I’m thinking about bailing on him.
“Uh?…the whay-er?…to get to whay-er?”
“Gas station, gas station. Gas for my car.”
“Ohhh…you want some…gas?”
“For your car?”
He lights a cigarette and tucks a thumb into a belt loop and settles in against the wall.
“Well now,” he says, “…useta be was one down by the old…”
I leave him there talking to himself. I know how the rest goes. Shortly, other citizens will be called over. A committee will assemble—a committee devoted to helping me get to where I want to go. I will be asked to explain why I want to go there, what I plan to do once there, where I am going afterward, where I am from, and why I am traveling without my family. While repeating answers, I will massage my temples and look for an escape route.
I do the opposite of what I think the candy-man means, and find the gas station and the road to Coleman.
The next knuckle is taut, and void of the courtesy and politeness of the knuckle back in Ballinger. This knuckle is accompanied by the grating squelch of police radio, and the stink of stale aftershave.
Trying to collect myself, I sit up, dig through a pocket, find my wallet, and stick it out the window.
Waiting behind the wheel, I try to remember where I am. A town called Coleman, right? When I’d gotten into Coleman, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I’d pulled into the first patch of shade I’d seen, and that was where I was now–resting in Coleman.
As my eyes close and my jaw tries to drop to my chest, the wallet is shoved back at me.
The wallet is one of those tacky yet practical things with a clear plastic window for your ID on one side, and a money-clip on the other, and that money clip is where I store my life’s savings. This day, it is a couple tens and a few ones.
“You might want to remove the money from this thing before handing it to a police officer. In fact, you might want to remove your license period. Don’t you think that would be a good idea?”
“Oh yeah,” I say, wiping drool from my chin. I take my license out, and hand it to him.
In half-coherent garble, I try to explain to him what I am doing in Coleman. He looks away, his sharp-edged face bothered by my speaking. I start to nod off again.
He finishes talking to the station and hands me back my license.
“Do you know where you are parked sir?”
“Coleman, right? I thought it was Coleman.”
“I want you to look to your right, sir.”
I lean over to the right, and look through the passenger-side window at the tall cinder-brick wall that had been providing me with my shade.
“What am I looking for?” I say to him.
I look higher up the wall and see painted in capital letters: FUNERAL HOME PARKING ONLY. I start the Plymouth while apologizing.
“Do you think it’s wise to park next to a funeral home? If I hadn’t a come along, you would have blocked a funeral that is comin’ through here in about ten minutes. Now you go find somewhere else.”
Relieved not to be in custody, I drive around Coleman. Once awake, I park and get out and start looking for work.
It pays off: portrait studio, hair salon, cable TV office, and home-furnishing store.
Taped up on the insides of the windows of Coleman are posters for their annual Fiesta de la Paloma, with its brisket contest, Miss Coleman beauty pageant, line-dancing contest, and Championship Dove Cook-Off. They are juxtaposed with photo placards of hometown soldiers stationed in the Middle East.
I put a coat of soapy water over those young shaven faces, and as I clear the water away with the squeegee, I try to imagine what they looked like as kids going to the Fiesta de la Paloma with their families. I wonder if any have attended their last.
I get about ninety dollars out of Coleman. Next stop, Brownwood.
Packing up, I see a guy coming my way—an intellectual-looking guy wearing a tie and slacks, and carrying a briefcase. Just to dispel my stereotype of Texans as incompetent direction-givers, I stop him. I decide to appeal to his intellect. He looks like a man who knows which way things are.
“Can you tell me which way is south?” I ask him. Brownwood was actually southeast, but if he could get me going south, I could find east.
“Where was it you were wanting to go?” he says.
“Just south.” I say. “South is all I need to know.”
“Where south though?” he wants to know.
“Just point me south. I can get it from there.”
“Sir, if you will tell me where you want to go, maybe I can help.”
“Southeast, then okay? Does it matter?”
“Where in the southeast are you trying to get to?”
“Okay, dammit. Brownwood.”
“Oh, Brownwood,” he says, laughing the kind of laugh people laugh when they’re convinced they’re dealing with a moron. “Why not just say that? You follow that road there.” He points to a road.
“So that road goes south then,” I pronounce. I want to win this one. I need it.
“I thought you wanted to go to Brownwood,” he says. “Brownwood’s that way. Hey, you have to know where you want to go. I can’t help you unless you know where you want to go.”
He walks away, shaking his head with disgust. He was a man who had little patience for south or southeast. He just knew where Brownwood was. To him there was little sense in going more than one direction at a 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 email@example.com. Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
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