Washing windows across America
Without warning I’d been sucker-punched by a hot, ghostly dread. Now here it was again, for no apparent reason, following me like a bruised cloud.
Johnston Street is psychosis on asphalt. There are no crosswalks and the rare crossing light or two are contemptuous with their short, daring intervals between WALK and DON’T WALK.
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.
By Ben Leroux
Johnston Street is four lanes of lunacy in the rising morning humidity, an atrophied artery flushing a continual stampede of cramped, volatile vehicles back and forth between the downtown and outer sprawl of Lafayette, Louisiana. From the green of sparse, quick stoplights cars shoot off and quickly reach 40 mph, then 60, then 80. Bumper-to-bumper, they push and shove to the next red, where they wait to start all over again. The traffic isn’t the worst of it. Johnston Street isn’t meant for pedestrians. There’s no sidewalk, bike lane, or shoulder, only the sloping apex of a grassy embankment to the right, and traffic to the left. It’s a Range Rover in the ass or somersaults down the bank of the hot, soggy gulch where some water moccasins probably live.
I come to a small cluster of medical buildings, cross a driveway that spans the gulch, and go into an orthodontist’s office. I lay on the pitch for the windows. Fifteen dollars.
“Whatt?” says a petite, attractive brunette in mauve scrubs. She sucks in her cheeks and one of her eyes goes astray. I repeat the deal about the windows. She scrunches her nose like she’s just tasted something bad.
“Hawwn,” she says through her nose.
It makes me wonder how effective I will be at communicating while in Cajun country. I was introduced to the dialect earlier in the public library. The words spewed out as if strained through dry, narrow nasal passages, producing a startling English, sounding part Ozark, part Bronx.
“Hawn much gone do’em fo?”
“Fifteen dollars, like I said.”
“Whaaah-waw. Why you don’t do’em fo five-fifty?”
“Five-fifty? How do you go from fifteen to five-fifty?”
“OK!” says the woman, slapping the counter, three of her co-workers gathered around watching seriously. “Fo-sempty-five and do blinds! Come on, bargain.” She glances reassurance around the room. Like the people in the library this morning, her scrub-clad co-workers show a buttery French bronze to the skin, soft-angled noses and lips, and the outward self-satisfaction that French actors and politicians sometimes carry themselves with, utterances commonly followed by hacking, throat-clearing or dry mucus being sucked back through the sinuses.
“Goodbye,” I say. “You’re bargaining backwards.”
“Whaw? Scared to do blinds?”
I pause at the door and look back, wondering how blinds had gotten into it.
I go back to the dangerous walk along Johnston Street and quickly get five dollars at a hot-tub dealer. Afterwards though, it’s a flat “no” from every business on the south side of Johnston Street. They aren’t the kind of no’s you like. They’re the kind that somehow add weight to your pack as you walk away. As they begin piling up, my interactions start to get saucy and I lose the ability to tell whether it was the people of Johnston Street that were being difficult or if it was me. The Cajuns were known for their hospitality and letting the bon temps roll but I’d gotten nothing but guff so far from a Lafayette workforce of perfumed, well-dressed receptionists and retailers.
After a couple hours on Johnston Street, I start thinking back. When was the last time I had, besides a passing transient, encountered a fellow pedestrian? Not since central Texas. No matter how beautiful a day or night, it seemed you never saw anyone out just walking.
Continuing to shamble unevenly along Johnston Street, one sandaled foot clinging to the bank, the other to the sliver of crumbling asphalt, hobbling like a troll with leg-length discrepancy, the clamminess of a 90-degree day begins to weigh heavy over Lafayette and with it something like worry starts to shadow me. It had happened a couple weeks ago too, while walking a busy street in Copperas Cove, Texas. Without warning I’d been sucker-punched by a hot, ghostly dread. Now here it was again, for no apparent reason, following me like a bruised cloud.
It had to be the repeated rejection, I tell myself. Rejection piled upon rejection can’t be good for the human spirit. But I was a pro at rejection by now. It couldn’t be money either. I had eight dollars on me, which was a lot for this time of day. It couldn’t be loneliness, as I preferred loneliness. It seemed to happen at times like this, when there was a vacuous stream of activity droning pointlessly past me. Whatever it was, I had to spar my way out while trying to side-scale the perilous Johnston Street.
Eventually I have to switch over to Johnston Street’s north side, and it is the first time I am hesitant, afraid actually, to cross a street. Johnston Street is psychosis on asphalt. There are no crosswalks and the rare crossing light or two are contemptuous with their short, daring intervals between WALK and DON’T WALK. Also, I’d seen nothing to indicate that anyone would slow for me, nor bother to scrape me off the road once I’d been flattened. I figure my best chance is some random point mid-road where people least expected it.
“What about getting in the present?” I ask myself while backtracking along Johnston Street. Getting into the present had gotten me out of the shit many times. I had learned it through some Buddhist reading materials. Here I was in Louisiana, a state I’d always wanted to visit, and I couldn’t appreciate it. I hoped to spend about a month here.
I look at store signs hoping to find the present. Cajun Cutlery, Bayou Bridal, Gator Gold & Jewelry. Yes, I’m definitely experiencing something. I focus on those signs—the here and now. It works for a minute, until the letters start to liberate themselves from the words. Now I’m out of luck. Jumble those letters up, slap them anywhere on the wallpaper of artless facades and erections across Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona and no one would really notice or give a shit. The thing about the present is it isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Some days the past or future is preferable.
I find a spot, place my toes over the dimly painted white line, and for five minutes wait for an opening. I watch the rhythm of traffic with the warmth of hot metal blowing across my knees. There is no median to speak of so it has to be one shot straight through the four lanes. I try to catch a beat or a pulse. The terror comes and goes. Since the Buddhism doesn’t work, I try to conjure up something from the West. There’s one by Kierkegaard that’s foolproof, but I cannot summon it. Johnston Street is a bad place to be going into philosophy.
Neck slightly craned, I use peripheral vision to look both ways and get ready to make my move. Were anything bigger than an SUV to come along, say a city bus or a semi, I would be decapitated, plain and simple. With one morose stream of traffic after another, I go into a sort of timeless trance during which I am, at some point, sprinting through a clearing in Johnston Street, duffel bag of squeegees and rags slapping mutely against my back. Cars, as expected, speed up when they see me, but my foot speed isn’t bad so I make it safely to the other side of Johnston Street to a symphony of horns and resentful engines.
Overheated from the mix of malaise and adrenaline, I duck into an air-conditioned Wendy’s and sit down and drink water and try to get a hold of things. I watch and listen. The Wendy’s is filled with Johnston Street workers on lunch break, some of whom I recognized. Now that I have these Cajuns all here in one place I can get a better read on them out and work up compassion or a good bitterness. Maybe there was a reason they’d been run out of Canada, and fled down here to the swamps. They had a way of giving you a dirty look that made you feel transparent. All morning they’d been practicing a sort of detached, conspiratorial disdain. It shouldn’t get to me but it does. Maybe because I’m part French-Canadian I was expecting them to roll out the red carpet.
Two loud women a couple tables over are making it hard for me to think. I can’t see them, but judging by their nasally drawls I imagine them as a couple of real sows. Even discussing such domesticities as dey bey-bey’s (their babies) and dey hose-bones (their husbands), they yak and honk like hens with laryngitis. I can’t wait to get a look at the ghastly viragos. So when the tables between us clear, I glance over.
Again, it’s another pair of petite Lafayette receptionist-types in sharp dresses that fit them like store mannequins. Though vulgar as sailors, they look much like French actresses, with pouty lips, long clean necks, and slender noses. When they catch me staring, they narrow their little skunk-eyes and scrunch their noses.
“Whatt he lookin’ at?”
Returning to their Wendy’s salads, they laugh and cough like flooded engines.
I go back outside to the tightrope walk along my favorite street. Waiting are further successions of no’s from more repelled Cajun office and retail personnel. All they have to do is see me and their noses furrow into prunes, their lips curl into dying worms, and their spines writhe in utter detestation. I don’t even need to get a word out. The north side has an equally deep gulch alongside it, and the continual ridge walking starts to send brittle stabs through ankle and knee cartilage. A little work would be nice, just so I could stand on level ground.
Cars keep blasting down Johnston Street, emitting a sticky gray exhaust while I keep one eye on the mucky ditch below and the cottonmouth moccasin bastards that may lurk down there. I had researched them in the library. You see, I like to know the venomous creatures of the region I’m in. It makes me feel better. Water moccasins (or cottonmouths) don’t care for humans, and don’t necessarily need a bayou or a pond. They do just fine for a while in shallow dampness like what is below. After sinking their chompers into you, they slither away, leaving you with such pleasantries as uncontrollable vomiting, hallucinations, and loss of sphincter control. Make it all the way to loss of sphincter control, the research says, and you needn’t worry about further symptoms. It all depresses me. Where is Kierkegaard when you need him? Kant? Schopenhauer?
I catch a break at a busy salon owned by beauty slaves too engrossed in facials and permanents to quarry sufficient contempt for me. For fifteen dollars they hire me to clean their outsides, which have a row of upper panes over lower ones. There is shade outside their store, and through some act of grace a slight wind tunnel blowing from where I don’t know. Unzipping the duffel bag, I am reminded of my independence and resourcefulness and my ability to survive without the things that most people need. It’s about 3:30 when I reach into the duffel and decide that for a morale-lifter I will quit after this job and get in the air conditioning of a library, a book store, a McDonald’s, or a Wal-Mart.
Still trying to beckon Kierkegaard, I grab for the poles and not feeling them right away, go over and peel the lid from the bucket. I come back to the duffel bag, feel around, and still not finding anything like a pole, my world begins to crumble. If I were a girl, I might cry.
I turn in circles, look up into the awnings and into trees then down into grates and gutters. Some Cajuns stop and watch me. People will always stop to watch a person’s world crumbling. It draws them together. I look into their eyes for the poles. I want to grab one of them and shake some answers out. Their smirks remind me that they wouldn’t be interested in anything I owned, least of all a warped black plastic pole and one wooden, splintered. Leaving bucket and duffel behind, I run back onto Johnston Street.
At a lopsided jog, I retrace my afternoon steps with Johnston Street growing muggier and more frenetic. When it comes time to cross to the south side, I again wait. It’s every man for himself now—a dogfight for every inch. When I finally do make my move, no one is too happy I’m trying it again, and they let me know with their horns and their incensed engines.
Once on the south side, I begin going into places I’d been in that morning. Breathless and dripping, I run in to face some of the secretaries I’d mimicked earlier and gotten into pissing matches with. They now contort their faces with pleasure as I describe to them the two extension poles—one wooden held together by a band of duct tape, the other black and plastic, bent in a sort of corkscrew fashion.
I keep moving along and asking. For clarity’s sake I stop referring to the poles as extension poles and call them what they really are—broomsticks without brooms. Only to me were they extension poles and only to me were they worth running after. This only seems to disgust the Cajuns more as I barge in to their work environs to interrupt sales and phone calls with my blabbering demands about broomsticks.
As the jog becomes a run and I work up a nice gluey coat of slime over the body, and the knees no longer feel much, I start to notice the great number of stray rags, buckets, brooms and rakes left lying around that nobody wanted. Usually the bucket handle was bent or the rake was too rusty. I could easily stop and unscrew the handles from a rake or two. No one would care. But I must have my poles—the poles that had made it from Arizona to Louisiana with me. I start running faster, out in traffic more now than before, catching swerving horns. I would flip people off, but I am focused on my broomsticks.
After a half hour of running along Johnston Street, I spot the poles leaning against the side of the hot-tub store where I’d started that morning. I scale down one side of the embankment, wade through the hot little pond of stinking water, and climb up the next side. I grab the poles, run back down the bank, through the moccasin pond…whee!…and then I’m back on Johnston Street.
Like a spear-toting bushman, wet mucky sandal straps scraping raw the back of my heels, I run well into the street, achieving a good pace. When it comes time to cross, I simply hold out my spears and step into traffic. Horns blast and bumpers stop a couple feet shy of me while some motorists take to flipping me the bird. I take my time walking through the halted traffic and pick out a guy in a black sports car and envision him being impaled with one of my spears. A good javelin lob with a little arch ought to cleanly pierce his windshield then sternum. He yells at me ferociously behind his windows and since I can’t flip him off while holding the poles, I raise them and yell back. I bet he’s not used to seeing a guy like me on Johnston Street.
The beauty salon girls are trying to close up when I get back, so I slip unseen over to one side of their store and quickly attach my brush to the pole and resume cleaning. They turn off their neon OPEN sign and come outside and try to strong-arm me into returning tomorrow. They say they don’t have time to wait for me to finish the windows.
Lucky for me, I’m good with the lies and the stupid questions. I play like a man with marmot-brains and stall them while cooking up a fib about having to run back for special equipment. Swooning, I clear the last of the upper panes. While the girls debate over what to do about me, I buzz through most of the lower ones. I hear them discussing my paleness and profuse sweating. One of the girls goes back into the shop and comes out with fifteen dollars and a bottle of cold water. They tell me that when I’m done I need to get in the shade or something because I don’t look good. They leave me to finish the last of the panes and their glass door. Nice girls.
I walk back to the Plymouth, drinking the delicious water. Surging endorphins have filled the soggy emotional gulch of earlier, and I feel very much sure of myself and where I am, which is nowhere. The Kierkegaard quote comes to me but it doesn’t matter now. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” was how it went. More interesting was the way I ran after those poles. I hadn’t run that far for anything in a long time. §
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.