Washing windows across America: Noble hacker
Why there is a big toy-train store in Angleton, Texas, I don’t know, but there is, and a jolly red-faced owner inside, playing with toy trains.
I shift in Frank’s doorway, unsure whether to stand, lean, come in, or put my hands in my pockets. The situation brings back military memories of submission for survival.
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.
Don’t tell this to an established window-washer, but almost anyone can do his job. It’s special only in that few people wish to do it, and like most jobs, can be mastered through a combination of observation, imitation, repetition, and bullshitting. Any monkey can pull it off really. The premise is simple. You have a dirty window, now make it clean, monkey.
Acceptance of this, combined with a healthy fear of becoming stranded in an obscure southern town, has afforded me an unintended level of competence in window washing. In some towns I am even treated as a kind of hero because I know how to do one thing—get a window clean, then leave. The leaving is a big part of it. If we knew when to leave, we could all walk away heroes once in a while. Don’t let these secrets out. Once enough monkeys learn them, we have trouble.
It is these types of thoughts I am left alone with during the morning hours between dawn and 10 a.m. while occupying a bench in a dark, soggy park in Angleton, Texas. I have little to do but watch pecan-stuffed squirrels run across lumpy lawns while thinking thoughts of madness.
At ten o’clock, the commercial world awakened, I take my gear from the Plymouth and start walking. The first business is a dusty old drugstore with shelves of faded and obscure products—more of a drugstore museum than a drugstore. In the center of the store is a table of old men gathered around a game of dominos. I address them as a group.
“I am in town washing windows today, and—.”
“This is a non-op store,” one of them says. “But go back and ask Frank. He’s German, so he’s cheap. But try anyway. And tell him to hurry up. We’re waiting on him for dominos.”
Back in the office I repeat the pitch to Frank, a tall, square-jawed senior, sitting at his desk.
“Your price is good—very low,” Frank says and looks me over. His office walls are plastered with military photos and awards.
“Because it’s early,” I say. “I hike them up as the day goes on.”
“I like the way you present yourself. You ever served?”
I debate whether to lie to Frank. There’s a good chance he’s a warmongering Texan looking to grill me on my politics, but there’s an equal chance he’ll help me out if I’m a veteran.
“Three years back in the ‘80s,” I tell Frank. “Germany.”
“Why only three years?”
“I wasn’t your best soldier. Many people advised me not to re-up.”
“Doesn’t matter. You served.”
Frank motions toward his walls and the framed discharge papers of his, his father’s, and his son’s. He tells me that when he was a Navy man in San Diego, he remembers street signs that read: DOGS AND GI’S NOT ALLOWED ON SIDEWALKS.
“The country’s caving in, you know?” he says.
“I guess so.”
“When a man from Enron can steal millions and escape jail, yes it is. Since you served, I want to show you something. I don’t show this to anyone.” He reaches into a drawer and produces a framed photo of his father from WWII and hands it to me.
“I’m thinking about having you clean my windows,” he says as I handle the photo. “I’m sizing you up. You served and you seem like a hard worker.”
“OK,” I say, handing him back the photo. I shift in Frank’s doorway, unsure whether to stand, lean, come in, or put my hands in my pockets. The situation brings back military memories of submission for survival. Frank just stares at me.
“But it’s a non-op store,” he says. “Maybe next time you’re in town. Doesn’t matter you didn’t see action. You served.”
It goes that way with pitching. Pitch your ass off, have someone on the hook, and at the last second they let go. You can try modifying your pitch if you like, but it usually has little effect. It’s just another way for the monkey to feel like he has a special way of influencing people with words.
By eleven o’clock, most of Angleton’s shops still haven’t opened, and with maybe two cars on the streets, there’s really no reason. The ones that are opened, like the woodshop I wander into, are unmanned and silent. Large bay doors are wide open, expensive tools are laid out, and a small pile of cash sits on a desk. For five minutes I stand and yell. No one comes.
Just down the street, the same thing happens in an old city building—a darkened shack full to the ceiling with shelves of city records. If I wished, I could grab armloads of manila folders and leave town with them quite easily. I stay a few minutes and enjoy the dark, cool privacy.
Across the street, I find a business both open and manned. Why there is a big toy-train store in Angleton, I don’t know, but there is, and a jolly red-faced owner inside, playing with toy trains. He looks up from one of them with a merry squint and leads me outside where we look at his 20 or so small French panes. I measure my 12-inch squeegee up to one, and it just snugly fits. I give him a good price—fifteen dollars.
“Oh yes,” he says. “It’s very affordable.”
“Well it’s early,” I explain as I start going to work.
“Does it get more expensive as the day goes on?”
“Definitely. I’d even charge you less, but you have all these panes.”
I soap up a few panes, then clear one with the squeegee, and after each swipe, turn from the glass, and whip-snap my arm and wrist downward, splaying residual water onto the sidewalk. I then dab the squeegee blade with a rag and move onto the next pane.
“Why do you flick it like that?” asks the train man. “I never seen that in a winda-washer.”
“It’s a style I’ve developed. Instead of wiping the blade each time with a rag, I just flick it then dab. I don’t have a lot of rags, so the flicking saves me rags.”
“You’ve really got a system.” He goes over to my bag and removes my brush. As he looks at it, I feel a prickling sensation along the back of my neck. “You have to special-order something like this?” he asks.
“It’s a soft-bristled brush,” I say, taking it from him and dropping it back in the bag. “It’s the thing to use.”
“And this squeegee,” he says, handling my 18-inch squeegee. “This is some operation you got here.”
“Well, equipment is important,” I say, snatching the squeegee from him. “Mine is just starting to get broken in.”
“You’re fast too. You’re almost done.”
“You get fast after a while,” I say. He was right. I was becoming a quick little monkey.
Moving on through Angleton I don’t hike the prices much, the little town having its share of boarded-up storefronts and weed-sprouting sidewalks. But I do get five-dollar jobs at the hardware store and the Red Cross office, then a ten-dollar job from a daycare center run by two young black women. I zip through their windows and when I’m done, knock on the glass, interrupting story time. One of them comes out with the dough as the kiddies watch.
“Damn, you fast. And no streaks.”
“Streaks aren’t my problem. It’s the drips that gather around the top of the window up there.”
“Yes that’s right, drips. That’s what they’re called. Look, there’s one that I missed.” I reach up with a towel and dab away a few droplets of water that have trickled from the top moldings.
“Drips huh? Hmm, I always thought it was streaks.”
Late afternoon, I drive out to the edge of town where the mini-malls are usually found. It’s the hour of day I can take my time if I want, and if there’s a bar in town, stop for a beer. I can also walk away from a potential job if I get a bad vibe or if someone has an attitude or starts nagging. I don’t find any bars in Angleton, but I do find the one thing every town has. The Vietnamese-owned nail salon. When you’ve gone into over a hundred of them like I have, you know the ropes.
Before opening the door, I take a deep breath, knowing it may be my last for a while, and start going through the salon, hunting for the one or two English-speaking members of the organization—usually an adult son or daughter in their twenties.
I find them—a brother and sister—and on the exhale, while using the universal sign language for window washing, I let go the pitch. I do this with the eyes of four white-masked Asiatic women glued on me, along with the indignant glowers of four prudish white ladies whose nail-jobs I am diverting attention from.
The brother and sister begin discussing it, volleying back and forth in their native tongue, which is a good sign, but it also forces me to take in another breath, which results in coughing and running eyes.
Listening closer, I forget about my coughing and eyes and try to determine if I am hearing things. If this is an actual language, it is the most startling I’ve ever heard—a dissonant garble of chicken-gobbles, yelps, twangy arias, deep, guttural whispers, unpredictable howls, cat-hisses and facial spasms. It makes any dialect of Vietnamese I’ve heard, sound timid.
As the brother and sister debate, a disheveled old woman sits at a back table, using her fingers to pick at the carcass of a large red fish on a plate. Watching intently, she tries to get up and intercede, but each time she’s ordered back to her table by the kids, where she resumes with the fish. She is five feet tall, in a flowered mumu, and her lips and fingers glisten with fish oil.
Finally, there is a pause in the violent family dialogue, and the son comes to me smiling.
“Yes please, you clean our windows. Sank you.”
Outside, I twist the brush atop the wooden extension pole, and the squeegee atop the black plastic one, and begin working. Buying that plastic pole had been one of the better decisions of my life. It saved me countless hours in changing attachments. Sure, it was a little cumbersome, but I’d found a way to carry the poles in my duffel, so that when it was wrapped over my shoulder, just the tips stuck out.
Through the glass, I see the old woman watching me, not happily. Repeatedly, she tries to escape her table and make it to the door, each time her children catching her and sending her back muttering to her red fish. But finally, with a little persistence, the cagy old broad gets past the kids and does what she’s been wanting to do, and that is come after me.
“Watch out,” the kids warn me, laughing while chasing her. “Watch out. She is a-crazy.”
The kids try to corral her, but she is nimble and fast, and slips past them. She looks into my bag then peers down into my bucket and starts shrieking. Clucking, she runs inside and comes back with a box of cleaning products—bleach, Pine Sol, ammonia, Windex, toilet brush, and rubber gloves, still clucking. The son and daughter howl with laughter as the woman tries to hand me the box.
“Maybe you put little Pine Sol in bucket to make her happy,” the son says to me. “She think your water in bucket too dirty.”
“It’s out of the question,” I say, as the old woman starts to unscrew the top of a bottle of Pine Sol, and I get between her and the bucket. “Tell her it’s just silt on the bottom of the bucket. The water itself is not that dirty. Besides, the water’s not as important as the equipment you remove it with, like a good, worn squeegee. I’ll show you all.”
I put some water on a tall pane, then go to take it off. When I do, the wooden pole, which I’d bought in Flagstaff, snaps in two. One too many uses.
After sealing my bucket, I run out to the Plymouth for a roll of duct tape and when I come back, the kids are laughing again as the old cur is battering the glass with my splintered half-pole and squeegee. I feel the prickle on the back of my neck again, and go stand over her. She stops and looks up at me for a second then unintimidated, elbows me aside and goes back to her antics.
“Better tell her to give me back my pole,” I tell the kids. “I’m not crazy about people touching my equipment.”
“She is a-crazy!” they laugh. “So, so crazy!” They bark at her in their language, but the woman waves them off with gobbles and squabbles as she continues to butcher the windows. Finally the daughter wrestles the pole from her and hands it back to me.
“You have to ‘scuze her,” she says. “She is a-very crazy a-woman.”
They take the ancient woman back into the salon and sit her at her table where she goes back to picking at the fish carcass, as if nothing had happened. The white ladies, intent on their nail-art, have hardly noticed.
I decide to make my last job a ten-dollar one at a mini-mall dry cleaners. Aside from the pole breaking, it had been a near-perfect day, with interesting characters, just enough money, and not too much work. As I lay my duffel on the sidewalk and unzip it, I think about how nice it is having a specialty like window washing. Every monkey needs to feel special now and then, like he’s mastered something.
I reach into the bag and without looking, toss the brush somewhere over my shoulder. While it is in the air, I grab the squeegee with the left hand and stand straight. Extending my right arm, I wink at the female attendant inside just before the brush handle falls into my open hand, right side up. It’s all second nature when you know your equipment.
Time for a little entertainment. After a quick dunk of the brush, I give the glass a thorough scrubbing, followed by a behind-the-back interchange of brush and squeegee. With the right hand, I now twirl the squeegee like a six-shooter before putting it to glass. Starting in the top left hand corner, I use it to pull off the first strip of soapy water, all the way across to the opposite corner where I tip it back a few degrees and let a little water trickle down the side. I then pivot backwards, and using the trademark Ben Leroux Flick, splash the excess water onto the sidewalk.
After a few flicks I see that an elderly couple with a little grandson are standing behind me, watching while licking ice cream cones.
“Look at this guy, honey” gramps says. “He’s got the job down doesn’t he?”
“I wish he’d come to our house next,” says grandma. They laugh. “My, look how clean he gets those windows.”
“Gramma, I wanna be like him when I grow up’” says the little boy. “I wanna be a winnow-washer.”
“Well, keep watching this man then. He’s a professional.”
No one notices the red van that pulls up a few stores down, until the passenger side door opens while still moving. A man leaps out and strides toward the store toting like a pole-vaulter, a long silver telescopic extension pole with a green rubber handle and a green wooly sponge-apparatus at the end. Within seconds, this tool belt-wearing man, in his early sixties perhaps, uses his contraption to swab one, two, three full-sized panes. Store to store, he goes, leaving no visible signs of excess water.
Meanwhile, from the driver’s side a younger man emerges wearing a tool-vest shrouded in squeegees, ropes, rags, and other clattering tools. While talking into a phone headset, he shadows the older man, effortlessly clearing each pane with one, two, three whips of a three foot-wide squeegee. The team goes this way from pane to pane, no towels, no flicking, applying virtually no pressure, doing four stores in ten minutes.
As they near the dry cleaners, I do the only thing I can do, which is ignore them and go back to my methods, hoping to win back my audience, which has gone silent now except for the crunching of ice cream cone.
“Hey partner,” says the older of the two window-washers. “What are you doing? I never seen that before.”
“Nothing,” I say.
He looks into my duffel bag, really sniffing around. It seems to amuse him. He calls his son over and they begin picking up tools and commenting on them as if appraising antiques.
“This’s my son Pete,” says the man as they examine my brush. “Pete’s a three-time southeast regional speed-washing champ. Lost at nationals last year to a guy from New York. A Frenchman always wins world.”
“Friggin’ frogs,” says Pete and walks back to the van.
“You need better equipment, my friend. You got a basic old Ettore squeegee and an old dime-store brush. Are you trying to make things hard on yourself?”
“It gets the job done.”
“We use the Turbo 6000 System,” he says, showing me his belt of metal loops and pockets, which hold color-coordinated, ergonomically sound squeegees, scrapers, brushes, micro-fiber towels, and a cylindrical holster for holding the T-shaped wooly sponge.
“I mean look at this rubber,” he says, running his thumb along the tattered blade of my squeegee, toying with the mangled edges. “How long have you been using this blade?”
“Three months. It’s just getting worn in.”
“Worn in? Rubbers don’t get worn in. They get worn out. We change ours every day. Your windows look fine though. You must be good.”
“I just press hard. And I’m good with the rags. My only problem is drips.” I show him what I mean by drips.
“What you are talking about is not drips,” he says. “It’s crying—or tears. Tapping should help that. Now watch.” He uses his doohickey to lather up one of my windows, then with my squeegee, clears a strip. Afterwards, instead of flicking or wiping, he lightly taps the blade on a yet-to-be cleaned pane. My audience ooh’s and ah’s as he demonstrates his tapping skills.
“You know,” he says, handing me back my squeegee. “I’ll be retiring soon, and my son’s gonna need a partner. Think about going into business with us. We’ll teach you tapping, fanning, the S Method, the L Method—all that. We can tell you are of a professional caliber.”
“I’m on the road right now. But thanks.”
“Ah. You’re a hacker.”
“Yeah, someone who works under the radar. No taxes, no license or insurance. It’s not derogatory. It’s kind of a noble thing. We all do a little hacking.” He grins and hands me a business card and tells me to think about it. Then he and his son drive off in their red van.
After the dry-cleaners, anxious to try out tapping, I decide to look for one last job, and get one at a car-stereo dealer about to close up. A few minutes into the job, the owner comes out, worried.
“What’s going on out here? Jesus, is somebody knocking?”
“I’m tapping,” I say. “It’s a technique.”
“Well don’t break anything.”
I don’t break anything but I never get the art of tapping down, and the drips keep coming and tapping just makes it worse. I go back to my old ways of flicking and using the rags, and calling drips “drips” instead of tears or crying.
Walking back to the Plymouth, I see another hacker coming my way—at least he has all the signs of a hacker—tools sticking out of an orange bucket, dressed in rags, sucking a cigarette butt. I feel bad for him because I know what it’s like to arrive in a town on the heels of a hacker that’s already gone through and sucked out all the window-washing dollars. I think maybe to cheer him up I’ll give him the business card and tell him about the opportunity with the son and the father.
But as we get closer, I change my mind. He doesn’t give me a very friendly look, and I find that I don’t have any special feelings for him either. We’re just two hackers, two monkeys, passing each other by, sizing up each other’s equipment. Glancing into his bucket, I get some satisfaction from the fact that his tools look more pitiful than mine, like outdated relics from a window-washing era gone by. §
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: