Washing windows across America: Bayou Teche
It has always been my contention that once you’ve walked into the wrong dive, you keep walking all the way to a barstool, careful not to make any sudden movements for they excite bikers and rednecks like rabbits excite hounds.
In her eyes is the alluring self-assurance that belongs to society’s flawless. They are eyes that are used to looking over the shoulder and seeing happy men.
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.
Nickels, dimes and pennies are what I have to drop on the counter at Victor’s Cafeteria, but it adds up to forty cents and that’s enough for a cup of Community Coffee. A hefty waitress behind the register counts up the coins.
“You good, bey-bey,” she says and hands me an empty Styrofoam cup.
I fill up with coffee, sugar, and cream, and begin the walk out of Victor’s. It’s a long trek out of these old, deep dining halls with the chow-line in back, and the locals sitting at tables silently sipping black coffee, watching but not watching who passes, and I feel I’ve been here before.
Out front, I cross New Iberia’s empty Main Street, then an empty city parking lot, and sit on a steel bench facing a stagnant river. This is the Bayou Teche (pronounced ‘tesh’) and this early its motionless black surface beams with a sneaky yellow reflection. I sip coffee and watch the water and listen for movement, a gator I hope. But the bayou is soundless. The coffee starts to aid a head and stomach in recovery.
From what I remember, the root cause had been a gas-powered leaf-blower. As landlord, Wal-Mart wasn’t the best, sometimes sending workers out after midnight to clean parking lots. This was all the motivation I needed to walk to a nearby gas station, purchase two cans of Old English 800, transfer the contents to a plastic soda cup and sip through a straw while traipsing two miles to a dive-bar I’d seen earlier that day. In daylight the dive had given me the willies, and darkness didn’t lend it any flattery. It was next to a porn-shop, which is never good, and a row of choppers outside is usually a sign to stay away. So I went in. Pierced bikers went mute and 30-something classic-rocker types took tense gulps from bottled Budweisers. It has always been my contention that once you’ve walked into the wrong dive, you keep walking all the way to a barstool, careful not to make any sudden movements for they excite bikers and rednecks like rabbits excite hounds. I took a stool at the end of the bar where everyone could have a nice look at me, made myself at home, ordered a Bud, and to show I was a regular guy, went to the jukebox and fed it a couple dollars. A Stevie Wonder CD dared me but I wasn’t that dumb. I played Tom Petty and Aerosmith. When I got back to my stool, the bar had gotten a little emptier and the attractive bartender, who had at first been civil, wouldn’t look at me. “This is bad,” I thought, guzzling and watching bikers leave one by one to rumbling choppers outside. “They think me a narc or they don’t like my face.” Resigned to the fact that I would never know which, and convinced an ambush was being set up for me outside, I settled into some serious drinking — just me, the barmaid and two delinquent-eyed men in camouflage ball-caps. Five bottles later, and reasoning that a guy shouldn’t die with money in his pockets, walked directly to a 24-hour market and presented the last of my coins. Sipping more Old E and stumbling toward Wal-Mart, I kept to the darkened areas behind buildings where I could both hide and freely piss. God bless Old E. It had always been there for me — a loyal friend, a cheap date.
The bikers and rednecks must not have been that interested in me because here I am the next morning on the Bayou Teche both ambulatory and alive, with yet more coins from an early-morning excavation into the rotting crevices of the Plymouth.
Fine vibrations start spreading across the bayou’s surface, and I get excited at the prospect of seeing a gator. But vibrating too is my bench, and a high-pitched buzz is approaching from up the bayou. As the buzz gets louder, two motorboats appear, a man aboard each, standing and steering. In tandem, they charge down the bayou with white sheets of spray fanning out behind them.
They whiz by in a flash and, after going under a drawbridge, disappear behind a bend. They leave the sleepy bayou with a rolling surf that climbs the green banks and rocks floating plants. I sit and listen to the foliage slosh and patiently work its way back to stillness.
But before it can settle, the buzzing returns and the two boats are back up the bayou, letting their motors out. One of the men hoots as they vanish in the other direction. It’s not over. They race the best-of-five, two Cajun boys having a hell of a time at 8 in the morning up and down Bayou Teche. Something about this scene too, and that drawbridge especially, seems familiar.
With few stores open, it’s still early for windows, so I wander through an historic district canopied by ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. There are white antebellum mansions preserved as historical sites or bed and breakfasts, and I know them, I think. I know the people who have lived in them, don’t I? From where, dreams?
I come upon a public library and take a seat in front of a computer, click onto the Internet and snoop around. It’s a way to waste time. After my pixel fix, I roam the aisles, and in a regional section find three shelves devoted to the works of author James Lee Burke. It’s then that I remember how I know New Iberia. It is the setting for Burke’s novels about the Cajun cop, Dave Robicheaux. He writes about that bayou, that drawbridge, those homes I just passed, and that cafeteria where I got my coffee this morning.
Near the front door, I spot a wire rack holding multiple Burke paperbacks. They have round orange stickers on the bindings, which in many libraries means they are for sale — usually for about fifty cents. I pick out two that I haven’t read and take them to the checkout counter. Advancing in line, I listen to a librarian mocking the titles and names of authors that patrons come to her with, while another librarian sits idle behind the weather section of USA Today.
“It cold in New Yolk City right now,” USA Today says to her co-librarian who ignores me as I set down the two Burke books. “Twenny above in Novemba.”
“Coooh. Dass cold,” says counter lady.
“You could evva leeve in a place like dat?” says USA Today.
“Say could you evva leef in a place like dat?”
“Like New Yolk City.”
“If you put a goo-won to ma head maybe.”
“I say you have to put a goo-won to ma head first.” She makes a pistol with her thumb and forefinger, puts it to her head, and pulls the hammer twice. “You know, a goo-won. Bang, bang. Whatchyou want sir?”
“How much are these James Lee Burke books?” I show her the books with the orange dots.
“How much dey is? Sir, dees lie-berry. Dees not booke-stowe.” She says it with the same aggravated, disgusted look I’d gotten from perturbed women back in Lafayette. USA Today puts down her paper and together they start laughing and snorting and coughing. “You thought you was in booke-stowe but you in lie-berry.”
“He tink he in booke-stowe,” USA Today announces, drawing two more portly librarians from the aisles to come out and get a look at me. The four of them gather in a laugh circle.
“In some libraries …” I start to explain, then stop. Nothing but drywall behind the eyes. Flat. I leave the books on the counter.
Once Main Street wakes, I get a few jobs. The first is a little Italian restaurant with many sweaty, mildewy French panes that take a while to do. Then there is a clothing boutique. The two jobs put me around $20 before 11 a.m., which is good. It means lunch at David Robicheaux’s hangout where the waitresses are fat and call you bey-bey, two things I like in a dining experience. Walking to Victor’s, my starved brain cells and frazzled stomach anticipate the Cajun morsels Burke writes about — etouffee, po-boys and jambalaya.
Finally I’m in line with the lunch crowd, a wayward extra in a Burke whodunit, holding a tray and a glass. A smorgasbord of steaming mystery food waits under heat lamps and plastic sneeze guards. I don’t recognize any of it from Burke, but what do I know? I slop onto my plate what they slop onto theirs. I sit down and start sticking forkfuls of it into my mouth. Greens, I knew that for sure. Not so great. Next, smothered okra. Bad. It was southern home cooking more than Cajun. The only thing I finish are scalloped potatoes and a glass of Coke. It’s a disappointment, but that big waitress comes around a couple times and asks me if everything is all right and calls me “bey-bey.” That gives the meal a better taste. I wish more waitresses did that.
With some food in the stomach, senses sharpened, and the town’s main streets conquered, I can begin the process of hunting out side streets. I no longer have to look at a map or ask directions because I’ve developed a skill which, as far as I know, is of use to no one but the nomadic window-washer. Standing at the end of a street, looking down it while concentrating, I can tell if there is unseen commerce beyond.
Exploring one such street I come to a tiny beauty salon with two windows and a glass door caked in a year’s worth of mud and bird shit. Inside, standing behind two chairs, are a pair of clean-coiffed, waspwaisted women snipping at heads of hair. One is an older Leslie Caron from the musical Gigi. She is friendly and smiles. The other, an undernourished Zsa Zsa Gabor, huffs when she sees me.
“Hello,” I say. “I could clean these windows for you. Five for outsides or ten for both sides.”
Zsa Zsa puts her nose in the air and pushes some air through it. She seems like one of these difficult Cajun princesses I’d come to know back in Lafayette, so I prepare as she and Gigi mull it over.
I interject: “I’d just go with the outsides if I were you. Your insides don’t look that bad.”
It’s not good business practice, but I go out of my way to avoid doing insides. One reason is that people like to look over your shoulder while you are working inside, and point out “spots.” It is a form of entertainment and amusement for them. As a nomadic window washer, you don’t need such scrutiny. Secondly, with nowhere to fling excess water from your squeegee, you are forced to use more rags and be tentative about where the water lands. People love to show you a drop or two you left on the floor. Lastly, and most importantly is that women who own small boutiques and salons can be highly creative at manipulating you into side jobs like rearranging furniture, plucking cobwebs, killing spiders, dusting mantles, sweeping up hairballs, replacing knickknacks, fixing broken doorhandles, vacuuming, scotch-taping flyers, designing window displays or re-decorating entire lobbies. I’ve been bamboozled into them all. The danger however of doing only outsides is that they sometimes try to claim they misunderstood the deal, expecting you to include the insides. So I reiterate the price for the ladies. Five dollars for the outside — ten if they want both.
“Should we?” Gigi asks Zsa Zsa.
“Hmmff,” says Princess Gabor. “Guy befo, he do both sides fo eight dolla, ‘an he do it twice.”
Gigi looks at me.
“Twice?” I say. “Why twice? Once should be good enough.”
“Naw, naw, naw,” says Zsa Zsa. “Ah mean he come back two week later and do it again.”
“I don’t believe you,” I say. It’s irritable hangover talk that comes out on its own. I’d be lucky to make it through the week in Cajun Louisiana.
Zsa Zsa drops her client’s mane and comes to the counter with her snippers — the kind with the little hook for the thumb, and points them at me.
“You callin’ me a liar?”
“It just seems strange you would pay a guy eight dollars to come back a second time, instead of paying him four each time, or five for that matter.” Gigi watches us uncomfortably. “Seems a strange way to do it. Where is that guy by the way? Maybe you should call him.”
I don’t stick around for the fallout. I’m already out the door, laughing a half-drunken laugh to myself, with Zsa Zsa on the porch behind me sputtering nasty Cajun French. I hear her hawk up a loogie and spit like a man. I keep laughing, both at her absurdity and my timely quip. I was on my game. This little private joke continues a ways until I remember that I have to come back up this very street to get back to the Plymouth. Then I’m not so giddy. Zsa Zsa would have more than enough time to contact the rednecks and bikers from that bar last night, all of whom I imagined part of a vast Cajun mafia that specialized in making Yankee intruders go away for good. It happened in Burke books. Now I had something to really laugh about while searching for isolated pockets of businesses along this long boulevard.
It’s odd to come across a bank on such a street, but I do and set down my things, go inside and follow a path of velvet ropes. Banks are a waste of time — the last places that want to enter into a business relationship with an unlicensed, uninsured hacker. But they are always air-conditioned and quite often have cookies and other treats left out. Standing in line, I look down, not at anything in particular, when I start to feel a happiness for which there is no explanation — a oneness with my world. It takes a while before I am able to perceive what it is. Before me, wrapped in green corduroy is the most splendid gluteus maximus I have ever laid eyes on.
I’m not the kind who stares at women’s asses. I prefer to get my looks on the quick and imprint an image that is filed into an ever-growing storage bank of ass visuals that began around the age of 12. But the work of art before me entrances me in a way that has me stopping to consider the existence fate, purpose, miracles, intelligent design.
Ever so dovelike does the upper shelf of this marvel swoop from tight lumbar muscles into a gentle plateau before effortlessly bifurcating into two brash, flourishing hills. Happily, the little individual rows of green corduroy wind and play along the hillsides as they bloom into mirror symmetry, pushing the parameters of purity until they blur with licentiousness. Then, as if to reassure the rows of corduroy that all is connected, the hills reunite under a sweet evening where they tuck into thick, meaty hamstrings. A day past ripeness, the hills swell as nature’s bounty — a place for a lucky man to park and live quite happily the rest of his days.
When I hear its owner speaking, I don’t look up initially. I somehow want to keep the masterpiece booty its own separate entity, free of association with a face, be it beautiful or hideous. But finally I look up and show the woman a stupid, slobbering grin.
She is a light creamy chocolate, and one of society’s average — far from beautiful yet far from comely. But in her eyes is the alluring self-assurance that belongs to society’s flawless. They are eyes that are used to looking over the shoulder and seeing happy men.
We stand for a few seconds and smile about her ass. What else is there to do? She gives me a moment before repeating her words.
“They’re callin’ you over there.”
“They’re calling you.” She points to a teller. “I’m waiting for something else. You can go ahead.”
“Oh alright,” I say. “I’ll go ahead of you then…” But my feet are stuck. Maybe I’m still a little drunk. My mouth begins moving on its own accord.
“I just want you to know… I mean I hope it’s alright I tell you … ” She giggles and tugs the arm of my T-shirt, guiding me toward the open teller window.
After a standard pitch to the teller, I hear only a muffled response. For all I know, I get the job. My attention is on the velvet ropes, where obstructed behind customers somewhere is that rump of redemption, that fanny of felicity, that trunk overflowing with its glorious junk.
As I am leaving, its owner is called by a teller, and I watch the corduroy hills rustle away, crowns rising and falling to the rhythms of the cosmos. She flashes me one last smile over her shoulder, and we know what it’s about. It’s about that hump attached to her backside and the power it holds. If harnessed properly, it could end wars, mend racial conflicts, feed the hungry, cure diseases, unite the world.
A half hour out of the bank, still in a state of blithe rapture from the derriere, I come to the point opposite the salon of Gigi and Zsa Zsa. I know because I hear Gigi across the street calling for me.
“Alright! We’ll do it!” She waves a five-dollar bill from the porch of the salon.
I cross the street and start in on the outsides. I’m in my own world, trying to hold on to the image as long as I can. Like all visions of beauty, its vidvidness would start to fade soon. I think about going back after it. But beauty like that was meant to beheld in passing.
Then I smell cigarette smoke behind me and it is Zsa Zsa standing on the porch. She hawks up another loogie and lets it fly out into the parking lot. “Cooh, dass a lotta money fo windows,” she says, blowing a plume in my direction. “You betta do them sills good. No drips, kay?”
After the two windows are cleaned I do the inside of the door, which is customary, then reach for a five-dollar bill that is laying on the counter. I say goodbye and thank you to Gigi, and head out the door.
“Whaw?” says Zsa Zsa. “Ain’t gone do inside too?” She addresses her clientele and Gigi. “Boy only gonna do one side fo five dolla. Coo-hoo-wee.”
I stand in the doorway. I have the lines all ready — a stockpile of insults, sarcasms, perhaps an unflattering impersonation. You have time to practice them, walking the long boulevards of towns. You have time to rehearse a good comeback or two over and over in your mind. But looking at the faces of Gigi and the two clients with their wet, pinned hair, I see there’s no need. They are uncomfortable, embarrassed, tired. They’d had enough of Zsa Zsa for one day. So had I. §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.