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I Do Windows: Part 1 (Excerpt from my book)

“I Do Windows” is an excerpt from my book, Down and Out in California.

While driving me to my first day on the job, The Landlady says she has many reasons for hiring me and paying me fifteen dollars an hour when the average crew member, her words, makes nine dollars an hour. The first reason she gives is that I speak English. The second reason she gives is that she knows I won’t steal. The third is that I won’t stink up her car when she gives me rides. I bristle at the racism.

She’s driving a stick-shift BMW with a tan leather interior and black exterior. She’s a sun damaged woman in her sixties, with a recent facelift that caused the bruising under her eyes. This facelift is the reason that all the other reasons lie on top of as excuses. She’s afraid of what people will think of her for getting a facelift, and since I already know because I live right below her and I’ve seen her throughout – so she might as well tell me everything about it and then she won’t have to feel shame. Not quite her words.

She’s also had opera box seats to the drama with my vehicle.

She would sometimes be sitting on her back terrace as I changed the oil in my car. We’d cross paths every morning as I left for work. She once asked how much I made at that job, with clear disapproval. When I told her she said she’d match it if I’d come and work for her. At the time working for my landlady seemed like a bad idea. A few weeks later my car died and the idea started seeming much more attractive.

Throughout the next weeks I learn quite a lot about cosmetic surgery, and how it’s “necessary to compete in Los Angeles”.

I don’t feel that way. I think that’s a state of mind. Many things in Los Angeles are a state of mind. Or, I suppose, more broadly – culture is a state of mind. Her state of mind seems old fashioned to me, and fraught with anxiety. The rides are full of a lot of me nodding and yes’ms. She talks a lot about age.

Until now I’d been exposed in the work environment to gender balanced work forces, or about eighty to ninety percent male work forces. Usually in every other way they’d been diverse, or just all white. This is my first experience being the only white female on an all Mexican male crew. 

The Landlady is paying in cash and when I say Mexican, I mean citizens of Mexico.

She hires them from outside of Home Depot where the male day laborers congregate and compete for jobs that use their bodies, no matter their backgrounds. She selects for those that are responsible, hard-working, and will show up repeatedly. Once or twice she takes me with her to find new help, at the beginning of the day. I feel hot with shame as she cracks the window only enough to squawk out some poorly phrased Spanish requests for painters or carpenters in a flat white accent, displaying so well the fear she has of her own choices.

The way she talks about the workers makes me squirm, all “Oh that one’s big” and “Does that one look smart to you?” and I am reminded of a slave auction and want to bolt from her Nazi car instead of laying down towels on the backseat for her to protect the leather from her hired help,  but I am also broke and know that this is my only chance at paying my rent.

I take on the subservient role and reply quietly, something like “Ma’am I’m afraid I wouldn’t know anything about that.” 

I fully support her hiring undocumented people and immediately feel guilty for taking one of their jobs away. When we arrive the first day I tell her that, and she tells me she always has one white person on the crew anyway, so I can just let her feel guilty via transference. If I don’t want it, she will give it to someone else. I still feel guilty.

On this first day she picks me up at about ten in the morning and oversells the job I already took by pointing out how late I get to start. I’ve been up since eight anyway and don’t see these two hours of missed work as an opportunity.

 “But, I’m paid by the hour, right?” I say.

“Yes, but you’ll definitely make six hundred in a month.” She knows this is my rent because she is my Landlady.

That she doesn’t think I need more than that to live on is so shocking that I have no response. She pays me in cash at the end of each day, and I pay my roommate with that cash. 

We pull up to a classic Los Angeles apartment building, two stories, units wrapped in a U-shape around a courtyard with a few slim palms. It has a name, like they all do, Hollywood Villa or Crescent Palms or Vista Buena. When I accepted this job I didn’t really know what “turnaround” meant. Now I see that the apartment is empty. That we are to clean every inch of it, in an OCD fury. 

Empty apartments are odd places. The imprints of former residents and the ghosts of the ones yet to come haunt the spaces. Yet for that moment, between occupants, it is a public space.

Unlocked and accessed by many.

It’s on the second floor, and it’s a two bedroom apartment. There’s an open floor plan, the living room and kitchen are connected. When we walk in I see three Mexican men, all who stop working to stare at me. Two of them are leaning over a counter looking at a set of instructions. One of them shakes his head and goes back to unscrewing light fixtures. I soon see that the men will all be doing handymannery, painting, repairing, refinishing. My job is to clean and prep. Ostensibly.

My real job is to oversee the illegals and that is abundantly clear to me when I am handed a few razor blades and some carpet knives in various configurations, and told to scrape paint off the floor.

I’m not a few days out from working my driving job and my body is locked into the position of a professional driver. Now more quickly than my posture has had time to adapt to I am sitting and kneeling on a hard surface, some sort of finish on concrete. I’m using the blades to scrape splatters of paint off the floor that seem to have come from a recent ceiling painting.

Before The Landlady leaves she introduces me to Juan, Jose, and Tomas. I promptly forget which one is Juan and which one Jose, which makes me too embarrassed to speak to either of them, and unfortunately Tomas speaks no English. Other than our introduction and one line from Juan or Jose to me just after the Landlady leaves, we don’t speak. They have a small radio with a telescoping antenna and they play conjunto off of some local radio station. The accordions annoy me, but it’s better than many alternatives. The sound is small, but tinny and the echoes muffle it in the empty apartment with no furniture or belongings to baffle.

Once she leaves, Juan or Jose drives home his knowledge that I’m unnecessary by walking over to me and crouching down near me.

“You don’t even need to get the paint off for the tile to adhere. She’s just loco.” He says to me, with pity.

“Thanks. At least it pays, right?” I look up at him, blade in hand, trying to seem innocent and not like a horrible white racist sent in to oversee him. Or worse, the Jewish spy.

He nods, shrugs, and goes back to work. Thus ends the interaction. 

I scrape. And scrape. And scrape. The floor becomes endless. I think of Sisyphus. Wonder if there is a Mexican Sisyphus. I think of a beautiful art piece I saw once with a man in a business suit cleaning the desert with a toothbrush. I scrape. And scrape. And scrape.

I soon learn what pressure is needed to most efficiently release a specific thickness of paint. There are two kinds of paint on the floor, one white, one green. Probably one came from the previous time the ceiling was painted.

I wonder why there is no dropcloth put down. There was a dropcloth put down near the walls. I suppose that it’s an extra step, and unnecessary. Then again, so is what I am doing. I wonder about the cost efficiency of fear and racism. I wonder why one would choose to take on that much stress and mistrust around a job situation. Then I think of my farm and my babies, long dead, and how the grief feels so much better than the constant clench of anxiety. And I guess that I relate, I too, have taken work situations that cause me anxiety, and made stupid, expensive choices because of it. And I scrape, and scrape, and scrape.

Lunchtime comes, more than two thirds into the day. I am finally relieved of scraping, as I’ve gone over the entire floor space once if not more. The Landlady comes to take all of our lunch orders, apologizing for not having done so earlier. She is going to Subway. I order a cheese sandwich. Everyone else gets hot sandwiches, with lots of meat. She drops off beer for us. I have a Corona. Tomas opens it for me with his lighter. 

“Gracias.” I smile. He smiles back.

I don’t see any animosity, just curiosity. We wait for her to return while drinking beer and sitting outside in the courtyard of the apartment building.

Tomas talks on the phone in Spanish. I can’t understand much. He seems worried. He has a flip-phone, and closes it with a slam at the end of his call. I finish my lunch. I’m sore from head to toe. It’s still good to be active, and I’m curious about my next task. I go upstairs, back into the apartment we are working on. The door is wide open. I guess there’s nothing to steal. And no one lives here.

The Landlady is there unloading supplies. She hands me some sort of caulk or spackle in a bucket and directs me to a wall. I note that she knows how to do all of the things that she is having us do – from cleaning to handywomannery. It’s impressive. She’s no-nonsense. My job is now to fill in holes in the wall to plug up leaks. I do so, with this spackle-clay. 

I learn much about cleaning and the chemistry thereof over the next few weeks. Learn of solvents of all kinds. I learn of acid and base as it relates to cleaning. Ammonia and bleach.

I learn never to mix these, and I think of the first time I learned this lesson, at age sixteen from Marvin the Merry Macrobiotic…

…to be continued

(If you liked “I Do Windows”, remember it is an excerpt from my book. please buy a copy of my first book, Down and Out in California, or support me on Patreon for a free copy)

Other Excerpts from “Down and Out in California”:

Magic Bob:

The Most Interesting Client in the World:

Hold For Sound:


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