Washing windows across America: The bigger they are
Shop owners want me to stay, housewives want my phone number. I have no phone number. I’m a full-time transient.
Through unknown twists of fate, we have all managed to arrange our lives so that we can sit in a darkened tavern in the middle of the day with a cold beer or two. It’s an indescribable pleasure and perhaps the benchmark of the truly free man.
Photo Illustration by Stacey Warde
The bigger they are
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.
There’s about five of them over at the bar–local Bastrop, Texas boys.
Like me, they are indulging in midday libations in the town’s only tavern. We have that in common. Through unknown twists of fate, we have all managed to arrange our lives so that we can sit in a darkened tavern in the middle of the day with a cold beer or two. It’s an indescribable pleasure and perhaps the benchmark of the truly free man. I find that a cold beer for lunch makes a man forget about such tedious matters as shelter, clothing, and his unfulfilled quest for a bowl of authentic Texas chili.
Who knew how the boys at the bar had worked it out. I’d done it by one day piling my excess belongings onto the driveway of a semi-detached studio apartment in Morro Bay, California, and leaving them behind for the town scavengers. That was three months ago. The actual seed though, had been planted years earlier while watching a feral-looking homeless man clean a store’s windows for twenty dollars. It took him about a half-hour. After he was done he went across the street to a liquor store where he sat in the shade and drank from a paper bag and ate an egg-salad sandwich. He had nowhere to be. He caught me staring at him and gave me the finger. When an eviction notice came a year later, I knew what must be done. That was how I’d ended up here, sitting in a bar in Bastrop, Texas, in the middle of the day.
The barmaid, shopworn and sexy, brings a fresh Bud to my secluded table. As I pay and tip her, she takes my empty, and smiles apologetically. I know why. Over at the bar, the tone of the conversation has shifted: “I don’t back down from no one. Don’t care how big sumbitch is.”
“Bigger they are, harder they fall.”
It’s my cue to drink up. I’ve spooked them boys. They’ll have to wait though until I’m done with the beer.
The Bastrop boys get louder.
“Told y’all ‘bout that big ‘ol boy from String Prairie? One thought he could whup me?”
“You kicked his ass, aint’chya?”
“Right over there.”
There’s a weighty pause as the boys at the bar all look to some dangerous corner of the saloon.
“I don’t care if you Andre the Giant, ain’t nothin’ you can do someone socks you square in the nose.”
“At’s right. Makes the eyes water up. Cain’t see.”
“Or kick ‘em in the nuts.”
“Ain’t nothin’ they can do.”
“Ain’t nothin’ they can do lookin’ down the barrel of a deer rifle, neither.”
“At’s right. Not even Andre the Giant.”
I wanted to finish the beer. I’d spent two dollars on a year’s membership at this saloon and had the card to prove it. That card was now in my wallet along with cards from the Lime Squeeze in Brownwood, Manny’s Sports Bar in Sweetwater, and the Wild Pig Lounge in Copperas Cove.
As the bravado at the bar rises, the tales get taller. Each one of them boys it seems has beaten to within an inch of his life a man twice his size. A couple have even slain multiple giants simultaneously. They then start brainstorming new and inventive ways of finishing off big guys.
“It’s like I tol’ my wife. I tol’ y’all she got that job at Walmart didn’t I?”
“Oh did she? Good”
“Yeah, well for trainin’, they give her some scenario questions and one of ‘em was sumpn’bout if you was workin’ at night what would yew dew if a robber come in or sump’n-r-other –sump’n like that.”
“What’d yew teller?”
“I tol’er hell, run back to sportin’ goods, grab you a propane tank and roll it at ‘im (the robber) then take a rifle and a box of shells off the shelf and blast the tank all to hell. That’ll get rid of the bastard. Don’t care how big he is.”
“Hell yeah, would.”
I drain the beer, wave to the tender, nod at the boys at the bar and go outside. My trusty window gear is waiting for me in the shade next to the door. I take it out into the intense sunlight. The two beers take the edge off of shapes and put a languid veneer around the day. It’s a funny way to spend an afternoon.
I’d hit Bastrop just right. Thirty dollars that morning, two beers in the saloon, and afterwards twenty dollars for a swank new restaurant just opening up. Later, a couple five-and-ten jobs. The merchants are as friendly as they come. It’s a happy little town on the Colorado River with a riverfront park and a bamboo grove along the riverbank. Shop owners want me to stay, housewives want my phone number. I have no phone number. I’m a full-time transient.
I quit around three, return my things to the Plymouth then walk back through town toward the riverfront park. I catch my reflection in some of the store windows I’d earlier cleaned, and what I see makes me a little self-conscious. I’m a little on the big side.
Being big isn’t exactly conducive to a life of solitary wandering. It doesn’t help that I tend to pick the most secluded areas of places to sit in. Loners draw enough suspicion as it is. Loners kick up the pack instincts in humans. A large, reserved loner like myself can be an especially disquieting sight to a bar full of locals. A smaller guy looking to earn a couple belt-notches may stare me down over a few beers and start thinking: “That big bastard over there must really think he’s tough shit. I bet I could get a few licks in on that big cocksucker. He ain’t that big.” He may then even mistake my impassive demeanor for smugness, when really I just want to be off to the side, fading into the background.
At the park, the ground is still a steamy bog drying from a week of rain in this part of Texas. A nice breeze hums through erratically, and cools my noseeum bites. The noseeums are little invisible parasites that live with me in the Plymouth and survive off my flesh. They hitched a ride somewhere around Sweetwater, and I’ve yet to attain the weaponry to destroy them, but their day will soon come.
Sitting atop a picnic table, I watch the brown, listless Colorado River amble by. Teenagers hang out in the park smoking cigarettes, while squirrels whiz around their legs and run up and down pecan trees, foraging and playing. Now that I’m not in the thick of everyday life, I can sit on a picnic table like this for hours and just watch. Prolonged traveling can do that to you. Live off to the side long enough, and you’ll see the differences between things dissolve into each other, and something as perplexing as “existence” gets distilled into one not-so-perplexing thing as “foraging” and it strikes you that no matter what a thing is, it must start foraging like a savage as soon as it wakes, or it goes under. Squirrels do it in parks. Noseeums do it on the flesh of mammals. Through all the savageness there’s a streak of naïve tenderness, though. And one way to see it is to sit off to the side. Even then, it makes little sense.
One thing that makes sense though is the Colorado River. That dirty old thing looks full and satisfied.
I take a hiking trail along its bank, and under a canopy of cottonwoods, come to a calm wading pool where a father and little daughter splash around in the muddy water. I kick off my sandals and descend the bank and go to the other end of the pool. I wade up to my knees and it makes me feel young and I start to think seriously about taking a dip, maybe even swimming out halfway.
“How come I don’t see anyone swimming?” I ask the father, swishing my hands through the water. “I could go for a swim.”
When I look up, the man has his daughter pulled tightly into him. He looks at me with trepidation. The girl senses this and wraps her arms around him and recoils from me though I am a good distance away.
“You kidding?” dad says with a wavy voice, halfway up the bank, dragging his little daughter. “You know how swift that thing is? It’s very dangerous.”
I watch them get quickly into their shoes, pick up their towels and squish-squash away.
I wade around alone for a while, looking out across the river. How swift was he talking? I’d swum swift rivers before. He was right, though, the big, slow-looking rivers were the ones you had to be wary of. They were the most deceptively swift. So I just wade, wondering where the fading magic of wading goes as you get older.
Then I start thinking about water moccasins. Where did water moccasins come in? Louisiana? With every passing day I was getting closer to the swamps of Louisiana. If there were water moccasins in the swamps of Louisiana, what would prevent a family of them from slithering up the brackish channels into southeastern Texas? What about gators?
I climb out and slip back on my sandals and start wandering around the park, thinking about how that man and his daughter were in such a hurry to get away from me that they didn’t even stop to dry their feet. I must have looked like The Creature From the Black Lagoon to them, coming down the bank in my torn shorts and soiled, raggedy T-shirt. I really needed some new clothes. Maybe some new clothes would help.
I start thinking that if I got stranded in Bastrop though, I could handle it. I couldn’t say that about the last few towns I’d been through. I could live in Bastrop. Those guys at the bar, well I’d grow on them. After a while they’d see I was no threat and that I wasn’t after their women, their trucks, their jobs, and that I had no alpha-male designs of any kind. I just needed a little space by the river to read my books, and a bar to drink in. I’d even be willing to pound one of them unmerciful just to earn the right to drink in that bar. I decide I’d fit in well in Bastrop.
At an old concrete basketball court I come upon a wiry young man in brand new hoop garb shooting baskets by himself. According to the unwritten laws of the public basketball court, anyone can walk up and start shooting with him. As an out of town courtesy however, I ask first.
Without responding, he takes a shot and misses. I retrieve his high-quality leather ball and nail a shot from twelve feet out. I wait for the kid to shag my rebound, but he doesn’t. It’s very discourteous. The laws of the public court dictate he’s now supposed to keep feeding me until I miss. But he just stands, arms folded, making annoyed puffing sounds with his nose and lips, as I keep making shots.
Unfortunately for him, I’m hot today and hit a succession of jump shots, each time running down my own rebound, working up a sweat and a rhythm in the process. I attempt to strike up a conversation with the young man, but he’s not interested. When finally the ball rolls to a stop at his brand new Nikes, he picks it up, takes it to the other end of the court, unzips a dandy Adidas duffel bag, puts the ball in, and leaves.
I must have looked like a real bully to that kid. I wonder what he was afraid I might do?
That evening I go to Bastrop’s newly built theater complex—a mutation of movie theatre, bowling alley, video arcade and Christian family center. It’s not too Christian though to refrain from wringing every last dime it can out of me. Eight dollars for admission, $3.75 for a small soda. Makes it hard to enjoy a show after getting screwed like that, but I give it my best try. The movie is Seabiscuit, starring Toby Mcquire. I slink down into one of the elegant new seats and pull a half-pint of rum out of my pocket and empty it into the soda.
Playing the part of Mcquire’s rival jockey is real-life jockey Gary Stevens. I remember the kid from childhood in Idaho, having played little league sports with him. As he got older, he stopped coming out for little league. Then one evening I was watching the sports report, and atop a sprinting horse at the racetrack in Boise, was little Gary Stevens. They were doing a story on how he was training to become the new jockey sensation. He looked born for the saddle. Now he was a millionaire and a Hollywood actor living the life. He was living proof that size matters in this world.
Polishing off my theater cocktail I think, Jesus, I really squandered my size. With a little ambition I could have become a leader of men—a football coach, a politician, army general, captain of industry like Donald Trump. But what can you do when the thought of leading anyone other than yourself gives you a stomachache?
Seabiscuit was good. If the Christians hadn’t taken me for twelve bucks, I probably would have given it two thumbs up.
Prolonged traveling also starts to play mind-pranks on you. It laughs at you when you entertain thoughts of staying put in places like Bastrop because it knows you are bent on the next stupid little obsession up the road, like a dirty window or that bowl of chili.
So while on a back road, looking for the town of San Marcos, I slow at the turnoff for the town of Lockhart. A sign says that it is 10 miles up the road and is the BBQ Capital of Texas. In my mind, I put the barbecue and the chili together, surmising that if Lockhart is the BBQ Capital of Texas, it must also be the mecca of Texas cuisine. I take the turnoff.
It wasn’t about the chili for me anymore so much as it was the hope that some things in America stayed in place no matter what. You wanted to know you could still find chili in Texas, gold in California, potatoes in Idaho, prostitutes in Las Vegas, gators in Louisiana, etc. You wanted to be reassured that the country wasn’t flushing itself into one commercialized sewer.
I pull into the first place I see—Dead Man’s Barbecue. Outside the front door of Dead Man’s, a grill the size of a Sherman tank crackles and whistles with marbleized clods of meat and chains of sausage. It looks like the starting point before going in, so I stop and wait. A man soon appears behind the grill. He is a six-foot-ten Sasquatch of a man—hirsute and foolish-looking.
He starts flopping slabs of flesh around with long metal tongs, tossing pork, ribs, chicken, sausage, and several different kinds of beef around, looking at me over bursts of flames.
“What can I get you?” he asks.
“I’m here for chili,” I say. I have to look up at the giant.
“I handle meat,” he grunts. “Anything else you go inside and ask my wife. She’s the little thing behind the counter. She handles anything that’s not meat. You get your meat here first, then go in for the rest. You do want meat don’t you?”
I get the impression that bypassing meat at Dead Man’s would be an act of heresy.
“What is the traditional Texas barbecue?” I ask.
“This,” says Sasquatch, jabbing the prongs at a glistening veined glob of blackened meat and showing me all blistered sides of it. “Brisket.”
He saws off three slices and throws them directly onto a tray covered with a sheet of wax paper, and hands me the tray. I don’t take it right away.
“Well, I …”
“Here,” he says, looking me over again, perhaps evaluating my shoulder-width, gut capacity, and jaw-strength. “You better take a couple of these too.” He drops two cucumber-sized sausages onto my tray.
I take it and start to go inside.
“Wait,” he says. “These too.” He gives me a few ribs. “This should keep you from having to come back.”
“What about a plate?” I ask.
I go inside with the piles of meat oozing bloody grease across the waxed paper. I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do for a plate.
At a small buffet next to the register, I find coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad. The little thing behind the register is about six-two and bursting out of her clothes not with fat but with just plain size.
“You want anything else?” she asks.
“Where’s your chili?”
I decide to lay it on the line for her: “Listen,” I say. “Before coming to Texas, I looked some things up. Supposedly you’re known for your high school football, barbecue, and chili, right? Well, the football turned out to be shit. I’ve found barbecue, so where’s the chili? Just let me know if it’s a myth and I’ll give up on the idea, OK?”
“There’s chillypeppers on the tables if that’s what you mean. Hallapeenyas.”
She motions toward the dining area, where people sit along wooden picnic tables, eating their food right off of the waxed paper. Atop each table is a jumbo loaf of Wonder bread, a huge jar of pickled jalapeños, a pump-bottle of barbecue sauce, and a roll of paper towels.
“Forget it,” I say as I pay her. “Being from California I was under the impression that there would be Texas chili in Texas, that’s all.” I start to go out into the dining area, feeling somewhat victimized.
“You ain’t from California,” she says.
“I am,” I say. I stop and turn back and face her.
“But you ain’t growed up there.”
“No you ain’t”
I look down. I look up at her. “How did you know that?”
“I just could tell. You’re big like you grew up around here somewhere. Bastrop or String Prairie. Am I right?”
I take my tray over to a corner bench that is off to the side and has a window. I’d already sneaked a peek before sitting down–seen how they do it. No plates. You have to be sneaky. I sit down and start sawing brisket off the waxed paper like I’d been doing it all my life. §
Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here: