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I Do Windows: Part 2

For more about cleaning windows please see I Do Windows: Part 1 (Excerpt from my book)


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


My parents had a habit of taking in people that have nowhere else to go, and then my mother would try to better their lives through personally educating them in whatever way she saw fit. It led to a string of odd houseguests, many of whom were resentful rather than grateful.

One of the better of these, and the one with the most egalitarian context, was Marvin the Merry Macrobiotic. 

Marvin lived with us for eight months. He helped my parents transition to a Macrobiotic diet to lose weight and improve their health in exchange for room and board. Marvin was an Irish lad in his thirties who had grown up rough and tumble as a drunk Dublin gutter punk. He discovered Macrobiotics and yoga and became this ageless hippie elf that traveled the world helping people, before settling, as so many extreme freaks do, in Ithaca, New York.

For my sixteenth New Years Eve, Marvin was tasked with overseeing my party, held in our ten thousand square foot, four-story mansion inhabited by a family of three – and Marvin. By this point we had a fine, trusting relationship, so he left for a few hours to attend a party of his own. During this time, my boyfriend and best friend went about creating a fiery New Years display using acetone. I asked them to stop, but they continued behind my back, lighting my kitchen on fire. I was alerted to this by the fire alarm and came to the rescue, putting out the blaze with a fire extinguisher.

The room is now covered in fire extinguisher residue. We’re about to begin the cleaning process, including cleaning windows, and Marvin arrives home, and takes over. He stands in front of the cleaning supply cabinet to block it, and addresses a dozen of us.

“Okay now. I want everyone to understand this. This wee yellow stuff here” he says pointing to the fire extinguisher propellant “is YANG.” A group of teenagers stare at him with blank faces. 

“And as you all know, the universe works on a balance of yin and yang, as do all of us individually. So, we are going to clean this using this wee lovely baking soda, which is yang, and if you need any yin, a bit of this wee rice vinegar, which is YIN, but not too much”

For years we told stories about the cleaning job that took three hours because we used vinegar and baking soda instead of commercial cleaning supplies. I and my friends thought it some hippie alchemy that we were adhering to for no reason. We were unable to read the twinkle in his eye as wisdom. It’s only now, as I learn why, chemically, one should never mix bleach with ammonia, that I realize he saved our lives by not allowing us to use chemicals that would react with each other. And that indeed – there’s little conceptual difference between yin and yang and acid and base.

Thankfully the end of the day comes soon, and The Landlady doesn’t leave after lunch so when she sees me done with the task and it done well she rewards me by driving me home early and leaving Juan, Jose, and Tomas to take the bus. I wave to them on the way out. They don’t wave back.

When we get in the car The Landlady opens the glove box and removes a wad of cash wrapped in a brown paper bag. I say nothing. She hands me a hundred and twenty dollars in twenties. 

“Thank you.” I say, and fold the money and stuff it into the pocket of my jeans. They’re scuffed and dirty from the day and though she told me to wear work clothes in the worst condition I had I’m wondering what I will wear tomorrow. Most jobs give me anxiety about what to wear doing them, and in this way I miss the last two.

“Do you mind if I put on NPR?” she asks as she turns it on before I give her an answer.

“No, go ahead, my parents listen to NPR in the car all the time so it’s familiar to me.” The second part of that is true, but it drives me nuts. I’d rather listen to almost anything else. Especially after a day of conjunto and local ads in Spanish. I’m glad that we’re on the Westside and within fifteen minutes of home. The radio drones on about the wars.

“Thanks, see you tomorrow morning, I have to run an errand!” I say as I hope out of her car and into my own bucket, which she knows can’t make it more than a few miles at a time due to its shot transmission. This is the last time I use it, soon after I begin riding the bus.

I drive to the Medicine Man’s place and buy weed banana bread and an eighth of weed for one hundred and twenty dollars. Then I go home and eat the bread and play video games and watch the last quarter of a basketball game where the Lakers beat the Mets, switch off the TV when it starts informing me about the US bombs falling in Iraq, and then pass out. I wake up feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck. 

This is the day I learn how to properly do windows. I like cleaning windows. These windows slide horizontally to open. I slide them into the fully open position and remove all of the screens in the apartment. These I take out to the lawn or cement and hose down. I use a wire brush to clean the rims, and the screens themselves if they are robust enough to take it. Otherwise I use a softer brush. I hose the screens down, flip them, and repeat the process. I leave these out to dry.

With a toothbrush I clean the grooves of the window track thoroughly. I use a spray bottle to create a well and rinse the dirt away. I have rags on hand on both sides to prevent the dirty water from dripping down the wall, which will be painted anyway. The windows themselves I spray liberally with a solution of water, ammonia, and a few drops of vinegar. This is the Landlady’s prize recipe, and indeed, it leaves them with a sheen. I use the classic trick of newspaper to wipe them clean.

It’s something in the ink that leaves the streak free finish. It has to be black and white.

I then replace the screens and close the windows and give everything a final shine. Cleaning windows is incredibly satisfying work. There’s a distinct before and after. There’s no wondering if it was a job well enough done. The measurable results are, literally, crystal clear.

My joy in cleaning windows aside, that night I am already scouring the want ads for something new. My body hurts, I’m drained, and there is dirt under my nails. I know I can’t sustain doing this kind of work and I feel the need to have my brain engaged by something.

I end up doing nothing but cleaning windows for a week. The Landlady sees I’m good at it. I’m rotated around to property after property, cleaning window after window, screen after screen. It’s during this week that I meet The Mad Scientist, through a friend. He’s brilliant, has a doctorate in physics, is successful, and reminds me that I too have these qualities, yet am slumming it. 

He is gangly yet elegant, all limbs and odd proportions which work together in a dance that is graceful and efficient yet clumsy.

His bald head is covered in cross hatches from where he bumps it, yet he dances with abandon and perfect proprioception. He is wildly unique and dangerously irreverent, and I react like iron to a magnet. 

We start hanging out. He lives just blocks away, and I can take a bicycle and be there in six minutes. He hasn’t had many close friends and none that are female. Though we are platonic we are already thick as thieves.

When I see the anxiety and stress he gets from his high paid coding job, I am reminded why I’m cleaning windows. I feel filthy when I come home from work. Steeped in the dirt and dead skin cells of countless years of strangers living in a space, but I don’t have to think about it at all. It all swirls away and down the drain with a hot shower. The only thing that sticks with me is the stigma.

I like the mindlessness of the work. But I also am ashamed to say what it is I do for a living…

To be continued…


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


Part One of “I Do Windows”:

An excerpt from my work in progress, “Travel Ban, A Geopolitical Love Story”: Istanbul

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