Washing windows across America: On the Riverwalk
I find the need for work a sick fault in the human animal, where he doesn’t feel whole unless he’s busting his ass.
Maybe San Antonio wasn’t your typical big city, but it had the smell of one. You could smell the generations of great drunks who’d stopped to mark the concrete along the way.
Photo illustration by Stacey Warde
On the Riverwalk:
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.
I wouldn’t really advise anyone to live like I do. It’s not for everyone and there are few certainties to cling to, and sometimes your only friend is your own humility.
But were someone foolish enough to attempt it, I might be able to give them a couple pointers. I would tell them, for instance, that when entering an unfamiliar major city low on gas and funds, not to be a hero by going down strange boulevards in search of things like lodging, as one wrong turn could spell disaster. I would instead advise them to take the first freeway exit seen, chug into a convenience store or fast-food parking lot, kill the engine, and wait. You’re not late for any board meeting or flight departure or tee-time or check-in time, so just as if you were lost in the wilderness, stay put and evaluate your resources. Something will come to you.
It only takes a half-hour at a San Antonio 7-11 before my resources pull up in a sporty silver SUV. Two casually dressed black men of middle age get out and pump gas and nervously watch me approach. I could have gone to the two women behind the counter, but this is another thing you learn. It is rarely advisable to ask women for directions, especially when you are looking for the part of town where they keep the “lower end” motels. These well-meaning women will send you and your last ounce of gas out to a cluster of elegant Best Westerns, Econolodges, and Motel 6s. Way out of your league.
The two men know right away what I’m after and point up the freeway. “You want the Old Austin Highway,” they say, and look at me enviously. Men drive by these motels all the time fantasizing about laying low there for a while, hiding from responsibilities or going on a two-week sex and alcohol binge with some floozy. These perfectly good motels are normally located in a once-vibrant, but now fallow part of the city and are sometimes referred to as fleabags or flophouses, but are rarely either. They have character and history and brassy names like the Palomino or the Goldenrod or the Thunderbird. They are usually somewhat rundown, and empty except for three or four long-term residents and the live-in Hindu family running the place.
The men’s directions prove to be lean, logical, and linear, and posit me at a motel called the Sandman, near a gas station and mini-mart—all the urban survivalist needs for a weekend of luxury. In front of the Sandman is an empty swimming pool, rusting swings and toy horsies, and on the porches of a couple rooms are potted plants and lawn chairs and preening cats. The clincher is the pungent spice of the Far East coming from the family kitchen behind the office. It’s a mild October afternoon in San Antonio and I haven’t had a shower or slept in a bed for over a month.
After a shower I flip through the channels and catch part of a football game and some news. Ahead were two nights of no Wal-Mart, public restrooms, or the police.
I try to enjoy the privacy and cleanliness but the quiet makes me restless. So I go out and walk the Old Austin Highway. I look at windows. The dirty ones reassure me. I come back to the room and sit and stare at the blank TV and wonder if living in the wild has gotten into my blood and if I’ll ever be able to live under a roof again. I point the remote at the TV but don’t turn it on. There’s nothing to see. There’s a pile of books at my feet–about half as many as I left California with. I leave them in towns along the way–on a park bench, in a library, or in some motel room like this. I guess I’m getting some reading done. I hit a few chords on the guitar. It doesn’t sound like much.
Monday morning before checkout, I put on the only clean shirt I have left–a nice brown sweater from better days. It’s a cool morning so I should be OK. My plan is to leave the Plymouth at the Sandman, work my way up the Old Austin Highway on foot, away from downtown, circle back, then before it gets hot, drive downtown and enjoy a couple beers on the famous Riverwalk.
I come across an old uncovered mall early, and get a daycare center and an alarm systems company. I feel better once I start washing windows. It is out of character for me. I find the need for work a sick fault in the human animal, where he doesn’t feel whole unless he’s busting his ass. It gets imprinted early and irreversibly so that throughout his lifetime the beast needs more work piled on. He can’t go too long without it.
The main foot traffic of the mall comes from a state workforce agency that young black men and women file glumly into. The windows of the agency are dirty as most government windows are, because there’s rarely anything in the budget for windows. But sometimes employees are so flabbergasted by their pasty windows that they’ll pool their monies to pay a window-washer, so I go in. Plus, some of the girls I’d seen going in there were worth a second look.
I set my things down and wait at the counter. As I do, a couple white faces appear through a small square window of a door that looks like it belongs to a bank vault. There is a buzzing sound and the vault door opens, and a woman comes toward me. As she appears, three black girls get up from the their plastic waiting-room seats and rush her. They converge at the same time, talking over each other. In a recorded voice, the woman tells them to wait for their counselor.
“We already seen counselors,” one girl says. “We need our damn assignments.”
“Yes, I know. If you’ll just take your seats, we’ll call your number.”
“What about my benefits?” asks another. “I don’t want to lose ‘em. Cain’t I just get both?”
“If you’ll sit down please.”
“I bet’ not lose my muh-afuckin’ benefits, bitch,” the other says as they all walk back to the waiting area.
The woman gives me a white-to-white look. There are several variations, but this one is the “It’s sad, isn’t it?” look. She says she doesn’t think so on the windows but that she will go check, and buzzes herself back into the vault and latches the door shut.
Waiting, I look across the room at the bored, miffed faces connected to the slouching bodies of the young and the beautiful—strapping, smooth-skinned specimens in the primes of their lives, spending their mornings in this government agency, filling out forms, yawning, fidgeting, and waiting for counselors, the irony being the agency’s windows thirsty for a sponge and a squeegee.
The woman comes back out of the vault apologizing. There just isn’t any money.
I tell her I understand and leave. I go across the mall to a Tex-Mex restaurant and order chorizo and eggs. I sit where I can see my equipment outside and watch the young and unemployed passing it by with glances of curious disgust.
On her way to my table, my waitress spills a large pitcher of iced-tea and I reach down from my table as if to help, but there is nothing I can do. I feel responsible somehow, because she had gone to the extra effort to bring me a free sample of something I’d asked about on the menu. It was a nice thing to do and showed the way that San Antonio people seemed a little different than most big city folks.
Continuing to watch the parade outside, I think maybe I’ll grab one of those guys and tell him how that disgusting bucket could make him a hundred dollars in about four hours, and get him out of this miserable agency, jumping through hoops to get some miserable job for miserable pay, wasting time that can never be gotten back. I’ll show him the squeegee, the towels and give him a free lesson on the government windows. To the right guy I might even consider handing over my equipment. If he followed my program, in two months or less, he could have a thriving business and not have to come in here and fight snotty white women over a degrading job performing mindless tasks to pay the cable bill, numbing himself each day into believing it counts for something.
As my waitress rushes to my table with my bill, she swipes the side of a man’s plate with her hip and sends it crashing to the floor leaving eggs and potatoes and silverware on the carpet. I crouch down to help her but she looks up and says tersely, “It’s okay I got it.” The woman’s day wasn’t half over.
I don’t go out and approach any of the young men. I just keep marching up the Old Austin Highway. Everyone had their own journey, and at this stage of their journey, humility would only be a hindrance. The sweater starts getting warm in the early afternoon sun, and it’s good to know I’m about ready to circle back toward the motel and the Plymouth.
Mysteriously though, the buildings start getting bigger and traffic denser, and I see that I am not headed away from downtown at all, but standing in the middle of it. I’d been turned around the whole damn weekend and had been within walking distance of the Riverwalk. It could have been something to do.
Now I had to make the walk back to the Plymouth, put my tools away, dig out a musty old T-shirt from the bottom of my dirty clothes, drive back here, find parking, and search for the Riverwalk.
Or did I? I might risk looking mentally ill strolling the Riverwalk in a brown sweater and cutoff gym shorts, carrying, a bucket, poles, and a green, canvas duffel, but I was so close now. So I keep heading toward the towering buildings of downtown San Antonio, following the hot rank of urine rising from the alleys and walls. Maybe San Antonio wasn’t your typical big city, but it had the smell of one. You could smell the generations of great drunks who’d stopped to mark the concrete along the way.
My unseasonal attire draws a few looks, but I am too busy looking for signs of the famous Riverwalk to notice. I consider turning back. The sweater is starting to feel like a wool blanket. I stop a man and ask him for directions.
“How close am I to the Riverwalk?” I say, itching at the prickly wet heat of the sweater. The man, wearing a nice loose Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda slacks looks at the sweat dripping from my chin and nose.
“You’re standing right over it,” he says.
I look over the railing next to us and see the Riverwalk down there.
“In fact,” says the guy “with your poles and bucket, I thought you were going to try fishing along the Riverwalk. But now I see you’re not. You can’t fish along the Riverwalk. I don’t think there’s any fish, and if there were you probably wouldn’t want one.”
I walk down the stairs and sit on a shaded bench by some trees and just think. If I searched the Riverwalk shops I could probably find a T-shirt for 12 dollars or so, but there would go my beers. It was a problem. With car repairs and gas, it just wasn’t in the budget.
I start looking through my duffel bag for some ideas, and come up with the little razor blade I used for scraping paint flecks off windows. I look at the sweater. It had been a nice sweater that I’d worn places back when I was a member of society but now it seemed of little use in its current form.
I take the blade haphazardly around the sleeves, then around the elastic waist. A Riverwalk bum walks by and gives me a look. When I’m done, the sweater is a jagged, uneven remnant of a previous life. My cutting job has left parts of the sleeves up around the bicep and parts below the elbow, and strands of yarn dangling in places. But some breathing room now. I stuff the two old sleeves behind a tree, and continue up the Riverwalk.
My first beer sets me back $6.50 and I drink it on a patio and try to mind my own business. Eventually though, I catch two clean-cut pretty-boys, family-type men at the table across from me, having a private little laugh over me and my frayed, imbalanced sleeves and hemline. I glare them down but it doesn’t faze them. They feel confident, as they should. They are part of the majority down here—well-dressed tourists. So I start muttering to myself and twitching and giggling at nothing. The men lose their smiles and get up and leave. [Maybe they felt sorry for me.]
A tall, lanky black kid with close-cropped hair comes out holding a bus tub, and cleans up their mess. I see him checking me out–my sleeves and ragged, stained shorts. He’s curious.
“How’s that beer, man?” he says.
“Alright,” I say. He continues to stand there staring, holding his bus tub.
“Expensive though, huh?” he asks.
“Yes. Are they all in this price range?”
“Nah,” he says. “They vary.”
“Some are more ridiculous than others.”
“If you know what I mean.”
“I think I do. Thank you.”
“The farther you go up the Riverwalk, the—“
“Why don’t you just ask me about them?” I say.
“What’s up with them anyway?”
“I was hot.”
“OK, man.” He carries the tub of dirty dishes away, looking over his shoulder at me a couple times.
After the beer, I think about skipping the rest of the Riverwalk and the posh motels, casinos, and chain restaurants, and people coming from all around to spend their wonderful dollars from their wonderful careers down here, walking around in hordes. But I keep going, determined to have a full Riverwalk experience. As a diversion from the staring eyes, I gaze into the river and its lethargic, glaucomic, blue-green, water. I watch spoiled mallards skirt around bobbing vodka bottles and bits of Styrofoam to get to tortilla chips that people throw to them.
I find some refuge at a lone table that doesn’t appear to belong to any of the restaurants, and take a seat. It has a big umbrella which means I can hide my hideousness and, for a moment, relax. But before long an immaculate waiter in a white-pressed outfit is flittering over me, setting silver, and presenting me with a menu.
“Sorry,” I say, getting up but glancing at the prices on the menu. “I was just taking a little rest.” I see that the dishes are 18 or 19 dollars a plate but that the domestic beers are only $3.25 a bottle. “That’s a good price on the beer, though. I suppose you wouldn’t let me just sit here and drink a Budweiser and watch these ducks, would you? There’ll be no tip.”
He puts a hand on my shoulder and pushes me back down.
“Honey, you sit here as long as you want. It’s just one less asshole tourist I have to wait on. Want some chips and salsa?” He smiles flirtatiously. I think he has the hots for me.
“OK,” I say.
“This shirt is great,” he says, toying with the frayed sleeves.
“You think so?”
“Yeah, very masculine.”
For a moment I feel as though I belong on the Riverwalk. I eat chips and salsa and sip Budweiser and watch overweight pigeons peck at my sneakers and try to get into my duffel bag. I watch people pack onto gondola tours, thrilled to be going down this murky channel, all crammed together, about to capsize, anything to be on the water. They push off making sounds like “Whoo!” and “Here we go!” while a tour guide talks monotone to them over a speaker.
The next table over, a father is trying to make a Riverwalk experience happen for his family, but none of them are into it and he makes it worse by interrogating them over the level of fun they are having. He goes around the table trying to get a consensus but is ignored. Finally, his oldest son, too embarrassed, gets up and stomps away up the Riverwalk. The dad throws some money on the table, and the family absconds after the boy. Before the fat birds can swarm their salads and rolls, my waiter is there with great quickness, shooing them away with flimsy waves of the wrists.
“Assholes barely touched these,” he says, bringing a couple of the plates over. “You want?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” I say. “It wouldn’t be classy. Is that one a Chef’s?”
“Yes, and this one’s Chicken Caesar.”
“They don’t look bad, really.”
He looks around then slips me the Chef’s and the Chicken Caesar, and some rolls and pads of butter.
After the Riverwalk feast, I take my time walking back up the stairs and onto the downtown streets. It’s a beautiful late afternoon and the piss smell is lessening, and pretty girls are starting to jog along the bank. The Riverwalk had cost me a sweater, but what good is a sweater when a man is hot? There will be other sweaters. [Anyway, it was my journey.] §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of his Washing windows across America series here: