The Rogue Voice


August 01, 2007

Washing windows across America: Peripherals

I leave Tire Mart and move on down the main street of Victoria, earning a few bucks here and there, but mainly cursing the brakes of the Plymouth, mechanics, and all the goddamned peripherals in life.

Every mile was driven in a white-knuckled state of terror that I dealt with through such diversions as deep-breathing, visualization, singing, prayer, chanting, and good old fashioned denial.

Illustration by Jawbone Len

Episode 23

Why worry when you’ve got a Slant-Six?

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.

“She’s a good car,” said Pat Loomis of Loomis Automotive and Muffler. It was the August day I was leaving Morro Bay and the Plymouth sat in his lot, sagging and packed to the roof with an incensed cat aboard. Pat had just put in spark plugs and cables and patched up a corroded gas tank.
“She’s got the old Slant-Six engine in her,” he said. “And it’s one of the best, if not thee best engine ever made.”
“Really?” I’d only owned the heap for four months, so I took it as good news.
“Yup. It’s basically indestructible and will run forever. You can’t kill it, actually.”
“That’s comforting.”
“Well now don’t get too comfortable. There’s peripherals to watch out for.”
“The things around the engine–brakes, tires, electrical, etcetera–little things off to the side. But keep water in her, and change the oil regularly and she’ll be a good little car for you.”
“Will she get me to Arizona?”
“Where in Arizona?”
“I don’t know about Flagstaff,” said Pat. “Laughlin, Nevada maybe. Barstow, California, for sure. Just remember what I told you about the peripherals.”
I told Pat I would and with that, he snapped the tail of the Plymouth with a grimy rag and watched me drive away.
I took the Plymouth down the off-ramp onto Highway 1 where it joined the southbound five o’clock traffic. From there, it grumbled south into Santa Maria, sailed east through the Cuyama Valley, scaled the Tehachapi Mountains, and braved a sweltering night through the Mojave without so much as a cough. The following day, in defiance of doubters and critics alike (and there were many), the Plymouth rose through mountains of northern Arizona in a way that made me feel proud to be associated with such a beast. There had been jokes back in Morro Bay. One popular dig was to say to me, “Call us with your new address in (fill in nearby city of choice: Atascadero, Santa Maria, etc).” It wasn’t until the final push up the grade into Flagstaff that she began panting, unable to reach 60 mph. I quickly got her into a Flagstaff mechanic.
“Don’t you know that a car loses half its power at this elevation?” this mechanic said to me. “Take her down to Phoenix and she’ll get all her power back.”
“You mean she has altitude sickness?”
“So to speak. But this thing has a Slant-Six, and that is one of the best engines ever made, if not thee best.”
“Then I have nothing to worry about.”
“Wouldn’t say that. It’s an old car. You might want to consider getting a new one. You can get a decent car these days for five thousand.”
For the next month, the Plymouth sat out in front of my room at the Hummingbird Inn while during the day I went around on foot, hustling window-washing jobs. In it’s golden rust, it looked made for such a high, rugged setting. But I had the itch. So on my last day, I reloaded it, and on the way out of Flagstaff, stopped at a wheel and alignment place for a precautionary inspection.
After an hour wait, an attendant came into the lobby and handed me a list: ball joints, bushings, alignment, wheels, brakes, u-joint, and something called a pitman arm. Somehow, in a month of sitting at the Hummingbird, the entire underside of the Plymouth had gone to shit. It had to be addressed immediately I was told, but of course I had only enough dough to get to the next town of Winslow. On the map, it didn’t look like there was much to Winslow, or anywhere in between there and New Mexico.
“Could I make it to New Mexico?” I asked the attendant.
“Where in New Mexico?”
“I wouldn’t try it.”
“Maybe Gallup.”
I balked at the advice and drove as if it were my choice to do so. The Plymouth made it to Gallup, then to Albuquerque, then up through the hilly Painted Desert around Santa Fe. However, I don’t remember much of the drive and can describe very little of the scenery. Every mile of it was driven in a white-knuckled state of terror that I dealt with through such diversions as deep-breathing, visualization, singing, prayer, chanting, and good old fashioned denial. Then one September day I looked up and I was in the Texas panhandle with enough money to get the left ball-joint fixed. After that I began to feel like I might get an upper hand on the repairs, and maybe start to make a dent in the peripherals.
Now though, I am in the far southeastern Texas city of Victoria, and the closer I get to the Gulf of Mexico the more the economy seems to sink. The peripherals eat at me more than ever, and I am making a push to get the last of them taken care of. I have a set of brake shoes in the trunk and am looking for the right man to put them on. It was easier said than done.

“What kinda car’d you say?” says Darrell. Darrell mans the computer at the Victoria Tire Mart. He wears a black and red uniform with a checkered collar and tire tracks around the shoulders. The office is tidy and sealed off from the spurning, whirring hydraulic tools in the adjacent garage.
“A ’75 Plymouth,” I tell Darrell. “I already have the brakes. Just need someone to slap them on. What would you charge me?”
“First of all, we don’t just ‘slap’ things on here at Tire Mart. Now does that have the old Slant-Six in it?” With his molars, Darrell rips a strand of beef-jerky to shreds while gulping from a can of Diet 7-Up.
“Yes it does.”
“Did you know that is one of the best engines ever made, if not thee best?”
“I’ve been told so.”
“Well you can’t kill that thing. It’s indestructible.”
“I know, Darrell. It’s just the peripherals you gotta watch for. Like brakes.”
“Exactly,” says Darrell, then stops and smiles. “I used to have an old Duster with a Slant-Six you know.”
Darrell holds on to the memory for a couple seconds, then frowns and rips off another hunk of jerky and goes back to pounding at the computer. “Now brakes and alignment would run you, let’s see…six… fi…two…eigh… Two-hundred.”
“Two hundred? And without the alignment? Like I said, I already have the brakes. I just need you to slap—I mean, put them on.”
“Let’s see…” He clicks at the computer some more. “At three hours labor you’re lookin’ at…one…eigh… thir…ten…. You’re looking at one-fifty.”
“One-fifty? What gives? On this street alone, I’ve been quoted everything from eighty to two-eighty, and I don’t even think you need an alignment with brakes. I think that’s tires.”
“All I can tell you is you get what you pay for.”
“But three hours? It’s just brakes.”
Darrell takes a deep breath, and I know this breath. This breath is predictably followed by the three words well, it, and depends. When you hear these three words together, on the heels of that predatorial breath, you have two choices: Leave, or bend over and take what’s coming.
“Well it depends,” says Darrell. “It depends on what other problems we might encounter on an old car like that.”
I leave Tire Mart and move on down the main street of Victoria, earning a few bucks here and there, but mainly cursing the brakes of the Plymouth, mechanics, and all the goddamned peripherals in life.

Will-n-Bill’s Radiator, Tire, Wrecking & Auto Body must be the best garage in Victoria, as it has much too much business for its space. There are cars parked around the block. As I move through the maze of late-model vehicles, I pass the tire showroom. Two obese women sit outside of it, arms folded across their Buddha bellies, watching the activity with slightly ajar mouths. I am relieved to see that the windows of this showroom have been recently cleaned. I don’t want to get stuck inside that glass oven on a hot afternoon like this.
I find two men sitting in the shade of a bay, on plastic chairs, conducting the movements of the lot with sharp whistles and waves of hands. One’s nametag says BILL and the other says WILL. They roll toothpicks around in their mouths and slurp from Big Gulp’s. I tell them about the Plymouth, then wait the traditional thirty seconds or so it takes a mechanic to acknowledge your presence. I use the time to survey the lot of Bill-n-Will’s.
Cars are wedged within millimeters of each other, and some are stored twenty feet in the air by outdoor hoists. In each of the three bays, a baggy-drawered grease monkey squints under the hood or belly of a car, twisting, cranking, or pounding. Then one shoots out from under a car and hollers, and Bill or Will whistles, and the other two mechanics run out into the lot, each start a car, and the entire lot shifts as the repaired car is taken out to the street. A car is then lowered from a hoist and moved into a bay, and another raised so a new one can be parked under it. The grease monkeys then disappear back under their projects. Amongst the mayhem, three small boys dash about serving the mechanics. They each wear mechanic’s smocks that fit them like dresses, and each have a green rag hanging from a pocket, and well-placed grease about the faces and arms.
“An old ‘75 Plymouth?” Bill finally gets to me. “With the Slant-Six?”
“One of the best engines ever made,” says Will.
“If not thee best,” I confirm.
“Indestructible,” says Bill.
“Can’t kill it is what I hear.”
“Can’t,” says Bill, and along with Will walks out to the street, and looks for it.
“Where is it?”
“A few blocks away. I’m a window-washer, and I’ve found it easier to park somewhere and get around on foot.”
“Well, go get it,” they say. “We’ll take a look at it while you’re washin’ our windows.”
“Your windows don’t really need it,” I say. I didn’t want to get stuck in that broiler-terrarium for any amount of money.
“Fuggit, do ‘em anyway. You need the money don’t you? Go get your Plymouth. Go get your Slant-Six.”
I hike back up to where I’d left the Plymouth in front of a bank, a little excited. It seemed a connection had been made on account of the old Slant-Six, didn’t it? Maybe they’d give me a deal on the brakes. It would be one more peripheral I could scratch off the list.
When I get back, the lot has shifted again, and cars that were on the street are now hoisted over cars that were previously on hoists, and the three small boys have their green towels out, waving me through a narrow path that’s been cleared just for the Plymouth.
“Hay sir! Raght here, sir!” the boys yell, the biggest one pushing the other two aside. The two women sitting outside the showroom clap as I squeeze the Plymouth into a vacated bay, getting the real VIP treatment.
Before I can kill the engine, Bill and Will are under the hood.
“Lookit’er,” they say. “Look’t the ‘ol Slant-Six in there.”
I take my equipment over to the terrarium and start on the outsides, convincing myself the work will pay off. It goes fast but I run out of water. When I go over to ask Bill and Will for some, they are still under the hood, and I wonder when they’ll get to the brakes. Bill peeks out from under my hood, annoyed and whistles.
“Boys, git ‘im some water!”
The little boys charge me, racing, tripping over their dresses, getting up and readjusting their rolled-up sleeves. When they get to me, they fight over my bucket and try to pull it from me. The older boy hip-checks the other two aside, winning the right to lead me through the garage bays to a basin near the back. There is then a tug-of-war to see who gets to operate the hose. The oldest boy wins again, but the other two each grasp onto an insignificant piece of the hose and watch the bucket fill.
When I get back, the women have turned their chairs to face the showroom.
“They shore is clain,” says one of them.
“Shore is,” says the other. “Look, you can see the tars better.”
As expected, the angle of the sun turns the inside of the tire showroom into a steam bath and, to make matters worse, I have to work from atop a wooden display platform that encircles the showroom floor. After some time, the women get the idea to bring their chairs inside to enjoy the enhanced view of the lot through the newly cleaned windows.
“We wanted to look through yer clean windas,” they say, as the oxygen in the room dissipates. “From out there you can see the tars better, and from in here you can see the cars better.”
Captivated, they follow me from pane to pane, shifting the angle of their squealing chairs. A window is dirty, then clean. It’s a simple joy. Atop the platform, I feel almost obliged to go into song and dance.
It’s not long before the three little mutts rediscover me, and come into the showroom and scramble around, asking a million questions, opening and closing doors, moving tires, sucking up the last of the oxygen, and asking me if I need a drink of water. They get into an argument over who gets to get me the drink of water if I decide I want one and like most things, it goes up the pecking order to the oldest.
When finished, I emerge from the incubator dripping and looking for the Plymouth. But it is not on the lot, which has once again shifted beyond recognition. Bill and Will are seated back where I originally found them, Bill pouring a package of M&M’s down his throat, and Will inhaling a bag of Bugles.
“So?” I say. “When can you get me in? Tomorrow?”
“It’s a good little car,” Bill says. Will tosses me the keys. “Sorry to say we cain’t do your brakes.”
“But they’re in my trunk. All you have to do is put them on.”
“Too much liability if something happens. It’s so old is all.”
I pick up my things and go find the Plymouth, three blocks down. There was no winning against the peripherals. Peripherals bred while you slept, and it didn’t do much good to worry about them. Sometimes the best thing to do was just pretend they didn’t exist. After a certain point in a person’s life, the war against the peripherals became one of attrition and you might as well just opt for the drink instead, and that’s what I do. I slip into a cool little mini-mall lounge and slam three mugs of Budweiser. When I come out, the peripherals are still there, but now they are fuzzier and less urgent.

Charlie of Charlie’s Chevron stands at the sidewalk, covered from head to toe in grease, a daft orangutan masticating a burrito while watching cars go by. Why is it these fuckers are always eating or chewing? Whatever time of day, they are gnawing on something–apples, toothpicks, tobacco, beer nuts, straws, jerky, sandwiches, licorice, nachos, pens, seeds, Twinkies, cigarette butts, matchbooks, popcorn. They meet you with that same dippy look and crisscrossed eyes, always ripping a bite off of a hot dog or candy bar or dumping a package of Ritz crackers down their gullet. Then you wait helplessly as they take that deep predatorial breath, about to emit their steaming bullshit. They never give you a straight answer.
I get out of the Plymouth and walk up to Charlie. I don’t say anything right away. I circle him a couple times, looking him over. He stands unaffected, working the burrito. I stop and face his dull, lazy eyes and begin speaking very slowly.
“I have brakes in the trunk of my ‘75 Plymouth, Charlie. Follow me? I need them installed. Though I am well aware I am in need of other repairs, I am here only to address brakes at this time. I am trying to make it to the next town. I don’t care about any other deficiencies you may find while under my vehicle. I don’t even care if you find a bomb under there. If you find a bomb Charlie, leave the bomb. The deal is I hand you the brakes and you slap them on. Or, put them on, if that makes you feel better. Can you do that, and if so, how much would it be?”
Charlie rolls a mash of brown-gray burrito filling around his chops.
“Sixty bucks,” he says, wiping his mouth, then nose with a sleeve.
I hand Charlie the keys then walk to a nearby Wendy’s to eat lunch and give him the hour he’d asked for. I wanted to trust Charlie. But there was tendency when meeting a new mechanic to try and make him into something he wasn’t, to make him into the mechanic of your dreams. After so many bad cars and deceitful mechanics however, I had long been soured into a state of conspiratorial phobia whenever it came to anything automotive. So I don’t give Charlie an hour. I go back early, hoping to catch him in the act of his preferred form of betrayal.
I find the Plymouth parked on the side of Charlie’s Chevron and Charlie in the office, sitting in front of a fan, eating a powdered jelly donut and watching a game show on a greasy little TV. I know this old trick. This is where Charlie tells me he can’t do A until he does B, and he can’t do B until he does C and D.
But Charlie hands me a smudgy bill for sixty dollars, and my key.
“You did ‘em already, Charlie?”
Charlie burps, and I take out my wallet and hand him three twenty-dollar bills.
“Charlie, I just want you to know I appreciate your fairness.”
“Treat people lak I lak to be treated.”
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been quoted for brakes just on this street alone.”
“Prob’ly everything from a hunnerd to two-fifty.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to brakes, really. So why charge so much?”
“I look at windows the same way. I figure if I can clean them, an orangutan can. So I charge what is reasonable.”
“It’s a lost form of doing business.”
“Some places won’t even work on this car, Charlie.”
“Pussies. This here’s a good car. It’s an old Slant-Six, ain’t it?”
“Yes it is.”
“Engine’ll run forever.”
“Can’t kill it.”
“Cain’t. You’ll need an alignment soon, as you know. And tars. Just do a little as you go along.”
“I see you understand.”
“Ah been there b’fore.”
Over his shoulder, posted on a bulletin board is a snapshot of a man who could be Charlie, leaning over the bow of a boat, spewing a stream of beige vomit from his open mouth, into what could be the Gulf of Mexico. The vomit is suspended in midair.
“That you, Charlie?”
Charlie puts down his donut and turns and looks. A wide smile breaks across his hairy, blackened face. White powder has clotted at the corners of his mouth and cherry filling covers his teeth.
“See what kinda friends I have? Here I am pukin’ from a hangover on a fishin’ trip and all they can do is take a picture of me. Some friends.”
“It’s a nice picture though.”
“Yes it is.”
“Well, thanks again.”
“Aright, partner. Jest remember, shop around. What ones ain’t decent are either crooks or pussies, and that’s the cold, hard truth. Hey, at least you got an old Slant-Six. That’s one of the best engines ever made, if not thee best.” §

Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at
Read more of his Washing windows across America series here:
  • Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)
  • Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)
  • Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)
  • Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)
  • Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)
  • Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)
  • Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)
  • Directions from Texas (episode 17)
  • A bug you can't see (episode 18)
  • The bigger they are (episode19)
  • Life in Lockhart (episode 20)
  • Slow grinding war in Lockhart (episode 21)
  • On the Riverwalk (episode 22)

  • Go to the main page for this month's Rogue Voice

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