Window washing across America
The birds in these towns sing with more conviction than birds in neighboring towns.
I pull away from the curb and into the gloom of downtown Jeanerette. I feel like I am going off to war.
Sugar Towns (episode 31)
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.
Towns have souls. Some towns have nurtured souls that cradle you when you cross the city limits, causing you to look for excuses to stay. The birds in these towns sing with more conviction than birds in neighboring towns. Other towns have unfinished souls that flop around in purgatorial suffocation. You want to hurry through these towns — cruise swiftly through their fevered air, past their brutish birds and distant people. Then there are towns like southern Louisiana’s Jeanerette and Franklin with sad, abandoned souls that make you want to turn and pretend you’d never seen them. They are stained little towns that moan in the middle of the week under a whiskey miasma heavier than Los Angeles smog, a haze from burning cane, sugar money that’s gotten away.
I park alongside a decaying curb in front of the first Jeanerette business I see, a defeated old second-hand store that one would ignore were it not for the handmade OPEN sign leaning in the pane of its cracked, taped window. The air is hard to move through as I get out. It drags and pulls.
The front door doesn’t budge, but a feint bell tinkles which brings out the little white crown of a woman’s head from a curtained back room. I wave and she disappears then returns with a set of keys. The primarily bald head of her husband floats in the doorway of the back room, eyes blinking behind spectacles. Waiting, I survey the ratty inventory of the store — shelves with dusty colanders, glasses, and silverware, an obsolete baby seat, cheap useless toys that no one will ever buy. It shames me that I am about to ask these people for money, but that’s how I roll.
“Well hello,” the woman says, like she’s been waiting for me. She lets me in and locks the door behind us.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m in Jeanerette today washing windows. Thought I’d see if you want these cleaned. I understand if you don’t.” In a show of respect, I give Jeanerette my best French pronunciation: zjon-a-RETT.
“Would I want my windows cleaned? Well sure I would. I can’t believe you stopped at our little old store. No one ever does.”
She introduces herself as Mary Ellen and her husband as Eldon. If Eldon shares her excitement he hides it, keeping most of his face hidden behind the curtain. Mary Ellen asks my name and has me repeat it, first and last, and says it back to me. Then she asks me questions about my situation that when compared to the questions I typically get, sound almost scripted in their specificity. The word “why” never comes up. It’s as if Mary Ellen has the background and has been waiting for the details, catching each one of them with her darting little blue eyes. She asks me if I knew the couple that came through here a couple years ago on bikes washing windows. She describes them and I tell her they don’t ring a bell and remind her that I better get to her windows if I am going to make any money today. I ask her if five dollars is all right, though I probably should get ten.
“Sure, sure. We’d love it. But only if you do one more thing for me.”
“What is it?” I say. I don’t commit because if you’re not careful, a woman who owns a shop can have you up on their roofs, down in their basements, under their cars to do a little favor on the side which leads to another and another …
“When you are done, will you please take a minute to show me where you’ve been on the map? You see this row of books?” She points to a shelf behind her. “All maps and travel books. I used to be a schoolteacher, you know.”
It takes me about ten minutes to finish Mary Ellen’s hopelessly pocked, nicked windows. She watches from behind the counter while Eldon pokes his pink noggin out for occasional blinks.
I put my things back in the Plymouth then before going back in remember the atlas I’d been scribbling into for the last three months. I grab it and wait for Mary Ellen to come unlock the door.
Inside, I spread the centerfold of the U.S. out on Mary Ellen’s counter and show her the dots and circles I’d drawn around towns, and the roads traced in pen beginning on the coast of California and ending last night in New Iberia.
Along the route, Mary Ellen’s gnarled little index finger follows mine. We stop in northern Arizona where I tell her how I lost my cat at a Taco Bell, then we’re off to New Mexico where I tell her about the beautiful, quiet Navajos of Gallup. In Santa Fe there was the Wal-Mart I got evicted from. In Texas there were old Chisolm Trail towns and barbecue towns and even a town on the gulf where my car nearly got flooded in a Blue Norther. Mary Ellen makes a fuss over every town, over every bend in the road, moving her little crooked finger back and forth over the land.
“Oh I can’t get over it. I hope you are writing about it.”
“I’m jotting some things down. After dark I don’t have much else to do.”
“You know most people would never risk coming into a little town like Jeanerette, and by the way it is Jeanerette (JEN-rett). When you go in you’ll see. I want you to remember that the people of Jeanerette are as good as any, but it’s very sad you see. We have third generation welfare here. We survived sugar beets and corn syrup, but not Fruit of the Loom. They employed all our women and then when they just up and vacated, we were left with a town of men that knew nothing but the streets. Well, you’ll see when you go on in. Some people like to blame it all on a certain race of people because it’s easier. But nobody wants to be on welfare.”
The lower lids of Mary Ellen’s eyes start to puddle and I use the opportunity to fold up the atlas and move toward the door.
“Anyway, I’d tell you to be careful but I know you know what you are doing. I wish you could stick around for a while. Just remember not to worry about what anyone thinks. It’s your time to wander.”
Mary Ellen locks the door behind me and stands behind the still murky glass. Eldon comes out and watches me get in the Plymouth and together they wave as I pull away from the curb and into the gloom of downtown Jeanerette. I feel like I am going off to war.
For the first time since Gallup, where desperate, marinated Navajos traipsed the streets scratching for booze-coins, I roll up the windows and lock the doors of the Plymouth before getting out. The brisk, confident, purposeful walk I normally have is forced here and I find myself bypassing many of the meager businesses, afraid perhaps that their bad luck might rub off on me. Nearing the town’s main intersection I start to make out a shifting cluster of bodies outside the doors of two adjacent saloons. In flux, the cluster grows, divides, vanishes then regenerates with wild limb movements and raspy laughs.
I cross the street where catty-corner from the saloon there is another second-hand store, this one four times the size of Mary Ellen’s with enough glass to feed me for the week if I can get the job. It is very poorly lit inside, and it takes some exploring to locate the owner sitting behind a glass case tall enough to conceal her. I clear my throat and she looks up defensively from a romance novel, until she sees something about me that relaxes her. I say hi.
“They still out there doin’ their thing?” she asks.
“Who?” I say though I know exactly whom she means.
“You know. I guess they would be.” She chortles.
She’s peeking in my door, sniffing out the boundaries. That’s how we do it. We drop a “they,” “them” or an “’em” and watch the reaction. We stick our head in and snoop around — see if it’s all right to continue. If it’s your door being peeked through, you have two choices: lock and deadbolt it, or step aside and let the person through. Choose the latter. It’s quicker and besides, the person is coming through anyway. I make a last attempt at distraction by re-pitching the windows for twenty dollars, but this one isn’t going to be sidetracked. She’s coming through.
“Some people blame it on Fruit of the Loom,” she says. “But Fruit of the Loom doesn’t make ‘em go from bar to bar all day long. It doesn’t make ‘em live in the streets. I mean look at ‘em.”
I don’t want to, but from where I’m standing my only view is the intersection and the two tragic bars where skinny grinning men, young and old, fluctuate from one to the other, ashy-skinned, baggy rags hanging off their bones, cigarettes dangling from blue lips, eyes electrified with red juice. Some are just brilliant white teeth in dark doorways.
“There’s a lot of ‘em moving into town now too. What they do is win a lawsuit or something, come into some money then think they are better than you. There’s a Pentecostal Church for ‘em out there.” She waves her romance novel in the direction of where I assume the country is — the cane fields, bayous, and substandard housing. “They used to stay out there with their own but not any more.”
I watch an old-timer in a torn brown jacket stagger out to the gutter. He sits down in it and using the curb as a backrest, stretches his legs into the street, crossing them at the ankles. He lights a cigarette and stares ahead. Meanwhile, behind him two younger men transferring saloons, bump into each other, stop, hug, and play-box. The man in the gutter says something to them over his shoulder that causes them to double over in laughter and they say something back to him that causes him to toss his pack of cigarettes over his head. It lands at their feet and they each take a cigarette then pocket the old man’s smokes and run off with them into the saloon they’ve decided they need to be in. The old man gets up and chases them.
“Only time you meet decent people any more is at weddings and funerals. I’m glad to be leaving Jeanerette.”
“I’m saying I would have you clean the windows but we are selling the store and getting out of here. We’re thinking about Saint Martinsville. I mean, wouldn’t you?”
“Wouldn’t I what?”
“Wouldn’t you move?”
I look again at the dirge outside. “Yeah, I guess I would.”
There’s tightness in my throat as I drive out of Jeanerette. I don’t know why. Every town had its problems. Maybe it was the “ette” on the end of Jeanerette’s sweet little feminine name that reminded you of something delicate or lacy. On the outskirts I see an abandoned house sliced down the middle by an overblown tree. It has turned the wooden porch into a rickety V but it doesn’t stop some of ‘em from sitting on it with bags in hands, pulling, laughing, stopping to glance at the Plymouth going by.
Franklin has to be better but, being only fifteen minutes away, it can’t be. Here, a cane plant fills the brown sky with floating bits of husk. Big green and yellow trucks with inverted triangular cages full of cane, cough black exhaust into the rusty air. Overworked men walk along railroad tracks with lunch buckets and downcast eyes, and a prison work-gang in orange jumpsuits cuts yellow weeds along another stretch. When I get to the downtown, I see that like Jeanerette, Franklin also has two saloons, only instead of being adjacent, these two are directly across the street from one another. Here the men do not slither and wheel from one to the other like they did in Jeanerette. They skip like daddy longlegs, or triple-jumpers or coal-walkers across the street, toes barely touching the asphalt, two steps and they are across, dodging cars, exchanging information on the run, hand-slaps, cigarettes, grins, grins, grins or intercept a buddy and take him where you are going and what is going on in there. They go from hole to hole like this — exposed spiders running for safety.
After a few unsuccessful tries at Franklin’s mostly white-owned businesses, where proprietors sit guardedly behind counters, much like they had in the shops of Gallup, I flee downtown and find an area away from all this — a little shopping strip across from a boarded-up supermarket. I do my usual thing of parking away from it so as not to let anyone see the California plates. It’s getting late and I’d like to leave these impoverished sugar towns with a little more than the five dollars I made in Jeanerette. I start off at a clothing boutique owned by a black woman. She’s dressed in a loud red dress and wide-brimmed hat from her product line, which looks to target the pre hip-hop black woman. As she listens to my offer, she chooses to keep her eyes glued on a spot on the floor down and to the left.
She agrees only to having the insides done, which I find peculiar, but decide not to question. I go to work on her windows, trying a couple times to lighten the thick tension in the store with small talk but she doesn’t respond. She watches me from behind her counter, arms folded.
“You can get that one a little better,” she says.
Relieved to see that she has a good, dry sense of humor I let out a loud laugh. But when I turn I see she is serious. I thought I had done a damn good job on that window.
“I say that window you just did, it don’t look that good.” She still fixes her eyes down and away in the area where cowering animals sometimes look. “You could do it better.”
It’s a tiny window, so I start over. It takes a minute then I’m on to the next one.
“That’s better now.”
I stop and take a moment. We’re at the point in the deal where I usually tell a person to go to hell and walk away from a job. If she was a white woman and I wasn’t in the South, I might do just that. But I’m not confident of myself in this store. I feel restricted and lost. I force a quick smile and say “thanks.”
“You can do them mirrors there too,” she says. “For what you askin’ you can clean them mirrors.” She refers to a hanging set of five small, badly-smudged diamond-shaped mirrors . I measure the squeegee up to one of the mirrors and am glad to find it doesn’t fit.
“Can’t do ‘em,” I say.
The woman digs around under her counter and comes out with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and sets them on the ledge beside me and returns to her station behind the counter and resumes her supervision.
“Now you can.”
Trembling, I spray and wipe down the little mirrors when what I want to do is drop everything and leave. But I am afraid to do it here, to this woman, to cross her. I finish and go collect my pay. Though I never get a flash of eye contact, I get a two-dollar tip.
Driving out of Franklin, the cane smog slowly lifts and the land opens up into yellow, nondescript fields. They’re trying to tell me stories, it feels like — not all of them, but certain fields. They leap out at me with a yellow heat that gives me the shivers. Then slowly, the smell of burning stalk weakens and the fields give way to nice yards and houses, some even lavish, and I think to myself “this must be sugar money” and drive a long way without stopping. §
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.