Window washing across America: God, giving and the Gulf
Who could say they’d washed windows in over thirty towns throughout the western United States? Who would want to?
God, giving, and the Gulf
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
It’s evening in Port Lavaca, Texas, and families in campers are pulling up to a set of concrete stairs that the Gulf of Mexico gently laps. Across the port are the lights of a town called Point Comfort. There’s a sweet breeze, and streaks of pink and lavender threading dark blue clouds. If you took a pen and a map and connected the thirty-one towns I’d washed windows in, the route would dead-end southeastward here at these steps.
The families get out with fishing gear and set up little operations comprised of bait tables, tackle boxes, coolers, and light-playing radios. Some of them fish from the steps while others venture over to rickety old splinter-beds that were once piers. Silver fish are leaping out of the water teasingly. I’ve noticed some changes in nature here on the gulf. There are long, sleek grasshoppers, menacing-looking mosquitoes, and birds with elongated tails and beaks. Maybe Port Lavaca was the place for an ending. Who could say they’d washed windows in over thirty towns throughout the western United States? Who would want to? It’s time to go find the town Wal-Mart.
The morning starts at an old downtown building that is an amalgamation of photography studio, museum, chamber of commerce, antique store, and real estate office–Port Lavaca’s bridge from the past to the future. Jim, the proprietor is on the phone, and motions for me to wait, so I wander around looking at real estate flyers and wall photos that chart the history of Port Lavaca: Indian raids, a shipping industry boom, slavery, wars, hurricanes, fishing, bankruptcy, and more hurricanes. Curiously, there are also recent photos of alligators on the walls.
Jim comes to me the way you’re taught in business school, as if everyone is a potential somebody. Little does he know.
“What’s with these gator photos?” I ask Jim. “Did you go to Louisiana to shoot these? You certainly got close.”
“Let me show you something.” He takes me to the back of the place to a wall and opens a cabinet. Inside is a huge, flat-screened computer monitor. Clicking a mouse, Jim pulls up a gallery of alligator photos, and in digital clarity shows me close-ups of the Jurassic-sized gator and its blue-green bumps. In some shots the gator hides in brush, in others he frolics out in open water near concrete steps.
“Hey, those almost look like the steps I sat on last night. Wait, they are.”
“Gator sightings are rare,” says Jim.
“Still, I like to know my surroundings. Next, you’ll tell me there are deadly snakes in that bay.”
“Water moccasins. But they and gators mostly stick to the creeks. It’s rare for them to come out in the open water.”
“I slept by a creek last night. The one over by Wal-Mart.” It had been a good sleep, with the windows down, listening to frogs.
“There’s several in there. Kept your windows up didn’t you? Water moccasins will climb, and are not the least bit afraid of people. If you get bit by one you can pretty much kiss your ass goodbye.”
Jim hires me to do his windows, and the building he owns next door. I do them both, and as he pays me, tells me some other places to try.
“You will find the people of Port Lavaca to be very friendly. That’s why I want to see this town market itself better. It has so much potential. You should consider staying, buying a house, settling down.”
Jim ends up being right about the people. Nice people with nice things to say. I get another antique store, restaurant, and hardware store. A hobby & craft store is the last stop for the morning, and inside, sitting behind a desk, is the owner, Veronica, in a red church dress. I give her the pitch—ten dollars for the outside. A blonde woman sits across from Veronica smiles frozenly.
“Yes please,” says Veronica, tilting her head and fluttering her eyelashes in a manner that makes me uneasy. “But I will pay you more than ten dollars.” She looks at the blonde. I sense something from the blonde, like she is trying to send me hostage signals. But I dismiss it and go outside and start. It’s these unexpected acts of kindness that make your day and put a lift in your step. When I come back in, Veronica has her checkbook out.
“Now, I am going to make this out for…” and she pauses, pen in hand and looks at the blonde, then me “…twenty-five dollars. Not ten, mm-kay, but twenty-five.”
I’m about to express my gratitude, when from off to the side, a dark blur soars through the store, closing in on me. All at once, I duck my head into my shoulders, break out in gooseflesh, and start flapping arms at the whipping sound beating across the back of my head and neck.
“He just wants to land on your shoulder and kiss you,” says Veronica.
I look above the doorway where perches a large blue and yellow bird of some breed. I knew little about birds, but I knew they didn’t kiss. Birds really don’t have anything to kiss with. Pecking is not kissing. Anyway, I keep my eye the thing while Veronica writes the check. He didn’t look too cuddly to me.
“Just one thing,” I tell Veronica as the bird bobs its head like it’s thinking about another dive. “I’ll need cash. Banks want two forms of ID and I have only one.”
“Don’t worry about that,” says Veronica. “I’ll call the bank and tell them it’s okay to cash this check for…” and she glances at me and the hostage woman again “…twenty-five dollars. If they give you any trouble at the bank, you tell them that you know Veronica.”
“Gosh Veronica, you people sure are nice here in Port Lavaca.”
Veronica puts her pen down, folds her arms on the desk, and looks at the blonde then me. The bird crouches and makes a low noise.
“Really?” says Veronica. “Who else has been nice to you?”
“Oh, the antiques guy, the hardware folks, the people at that restaurant over there. Very nice people. Port Lavaca is a very nice place with very nice people.”
Veronica slowly tears out the check and holds onto it.
“You say people were nice to you? I suppose they said a nice thing or two. Something like that maybe? Well, in Luke it says, ‘invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, then at the resurrection of the godly, you will be rewarded for inviting those who could not repay you.’ I don’t know if that is the kind of nice you are talking about or not. Is it?”
The hostage-blonde nods and smiles painfully, and I theorize that she must have come in here trying to make a sale of some kind–insurance or advertising perhaps, when she’d unwittingly fallen into Veronica’s religion-guilt trap. I adopt the same frozen smile as she and wait for Veronica to relinquish the check.
“And you know I barely make anything in this store,” Veronica continues. “Last year, sixteen thousand dollars.”
“Is that bad?” I ask, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “I’m not the world’s greatest businessman. People are always telling me to charge them more.” With one eye on the bird, I make my way over to the desk and reach for the check and thank Veronica sincerely.
“You are so very welcome,” she says. “And you know, the next time you come through Port Lavaca, I may even ask you to clean the inside of my door. Mm-hmm.”
I get out the brush and start cleaning the inside of Veronica’s glass door. It had been my oversight. Cleaning the inside of the door is customarily included in the cleaning of the outsides. But, as I explain to Veronica, I’d been so distracted by the bird that I had forgotten.
Just as I finish, the bird makes his move, and I and the blonde flinch and duck our heads into our shoulders as the bird sails past both of us, through the crafts store, perching in another corner.
“He just wanted to kiss you both,” says Veronica. “He just kisses.”
I make it to the doors, but Veronica makes it there first, presenting me with a pink pastel business card. It has her name on it, with the words “Servant of the Lord” underneath, along with a 1-800 number. At the bottom is a passage from 2 Corinthians 9:7: “God loves the person who gives cheerfully.”
“Now those nice people that you ran into in town today? I wonder if people call them from all over the country for help. The toll-free number you see there costs me three cents a minute, but I don’t say anything. In Matthew it says ‘give your gifts in secret, and your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.’ So you see, people call me with problems any time day or night, from all over the country, and you can too. Anything you need. I may not have it, but the Lord will. I mean, sixteenthousand dollars in a year? Give me a break.”
I take the card, and the check, and make a run for it, the gooseflesh coming back. I wipe sweat from my brow and rush over to the bank. I didn’t know if Veronica could put a stop payment on a check, but I figured God could.
On the way out of Port Lavaca, I come to the outlying spread that no small town seems to exist without. It always includes three or more of the following: Dollar General, Dollar World, Family Dollar, Whataburger, Lotaburger, Big Lots, Sonic, Subway, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Walgreen’s, Lowe’s, H.E.P., Eckerd, Edward Jones, Sun Loans, H$R Block. I drive past it all and head east, up the coastline. Thirty-two towns and counting.
Lake Jackson, in contrast to Port Lavaca is laid out as if it never had a history. In trying to make the commercial district interesting by eliminating straight streets and tall buildings, they’d instead created a bland maze of identically crooked streets and flat one-story huts. Its only advantage seems to be entrapping visitors. The circular confusion causes me to lose track of which businesses I’ve gone into, and so I repeatedly alarm innocent receptionists by pestering them a second or third time.
My legs are rubber when I come to what looks like a small food market with very dirty windows. A woman working in the back hears me pulling on locked door and comes to it, flushed. She is 60ish, sporting a nice gold cross around her neck. I offer to do the windows for ten dollars, and she tells me that this is the Intercoastal Food Bank and that they are actually closed.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I usually don’t bother the nonprofits. They’re usually too strapped. Goodbye.”
“I am prepared to facilitate you,” she says and leads me through the little darkened food bank. As we squeeze between cases of boxed macaroni & cheese, and coolers of juice and milk, I try to explain that I have not come for food, but that I am a window-washer who lives in his car and survives off of what he can make that day. But Lila takes me to a manila folder and pulls out a sheet of paper.
“These are the income requirements. So if you know someone …”
“Oh well yes, I see what you’re getting at, and it’s true I probably qualify, but I’m not exactly your average homeless …”
“Look,” she says. “Milk …”
Then she starts showing me cereal, frozen and canned vegetables, chili-mac, SpaghettiO’s, cookies, pastries, pies. She starts giving me ideas of how I could eat the food, what I could have it with, and methods of preparation. It really wasn’t my kind of food, and all I could think about was the space it would swallow up in the Plymouth.
“Things like windows just don’t get done when you are trying to feed the hungry. It’s overwhelming work sometimes. You know, I am supposed to be retired. Some retirement, huh? The help I get never sticks around, so I end up doing most of it myself. Sometimes it’s easier that way. I—the food bank serves over three-thousand families.”
“Tell you what. Why don’t I clean your windows and you give me food in exchange–whatever you think is fair.”
Lila agrees, and when I am done with the windows, she has two cardboard boxes for me, filled with canned ham, Danish, canned fruit, milk, and crackers, and other non-perishables.
“You would have made what, ten dollars doing those windows? Well now you’re getting probably–oh, I don’t know–thirty dollars worth of food, while I don’t make a dime. Do you see that? I hope you see things.”
“I think I’m starting to see. It’s a good deal.”
“You bet it is.”
Lila then tells me that if I help her with some heavy lifting, she’ll take me to her house and have me do her windows for thirty dollars. I move a pallet of baby formula for her, and crush some boxes out by a dumpster, then follow her in the Plymouth.
The home is an impeccable two-story, blockish and stalwart, as are the other homes on the tree-lined street. A man is waiting for us in the driveway. He is Bill, Lila’s husband. He is a neat, calm-spoken silver-haired man, wearing a pressed red and black plaid tucked into clean, pressed jeans. Lila goes and explains something to him, then calls me over. Bill shakes my hand.
“This is Ben, honey. He has fallen on hard times and needs money. I have just given him enough food to keep him going for a while, and now I’ve told him he could do our windows. But like I said, he’s fallen on hard times.”
“Down on his luck, is he?” says Bill.
“A real hardship case,” says Lila, then they both look at me.
“Well,” I say, stricken with a sudden spark of dignity. “I don’t know if I’d put it that way.”
“But you told me you are living in a car. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes. And I am. But it’s a choice. Yet it isn’t. It’s a bit of a paradoxical situation. I don’t understand it myself.”
Lila’s gasps and pinches her temples and goes inside.
“She’s overwhelmed,” Bill explains. “She’s the only one that can run that food bank. Three-thousand families, you know.”
Bill shows me the ladder and the hose, and goes inside and leaves me to do the windows. The major ones are Plexiglass panels covering their patio. I have to get up on a ladder, rake pecan-tree leaves off it, then clean the panels with the hose and extension poles. It takes a while and there is tree sap to deal with. But the backyard is quiet and peaceful, and I stop a few times and play with a Golden Retriever.
When I’m done, Bill is inside, removing a pizza from the oven and has two places set at the big oak dining table. I try to decline, but Bill insists, and since I don’t see any thirty dollars yet, I take a seat. As Bill brings the pizza, he lays out a crisp twenty and ten flat on the table, between us.
Bill cuts the pizza into eight equal slices and we each put a piece on our plate and wait for it to cool. The old house creaks behind the ticking of a wall-clock. To fill the quiet, I ask Bill about the family portraits on the walls. He tells me about his children and grandchildren, all successful and educated—scientists, teachers, preachers. I poke a finger into the pizza to see if it has cooled enough to eat.
But the confined stillness is unbearable, so I pick up the steaming piece of pizza and prematurely tear off a bite, feeling it scald the roof of my mouth. It doesn’t stop me. I keep eating, hurrying through all four slices. A couple times I glance at the stairway, wondering what happened to Lila.
“She’s overwhelmed,” says Bill. “Absolutely overwhelmed.”
I continue to tear the hell out of my mouth with the blistering pizza while picturing Lila upstairs crying into a pillow or consulting a bible. It puzzled me, yet it didn’t. Things worked out–the hardship cases down here with their boxes of food and the Lilas up there where they needed to be–one step closer to heaven. §
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: