|Thinking of Jimmy the window washer at Christmas.
When I was ten years old I used to put the New York Times Sunday newspaper together at a small store on Union Street where I grew up. My mother would get up at 4 a.m. and drive me there. It seemed like an endless amount of sections that I had to piece together. I would put up a small table that was about six feet long and line up everything and then started hammering away. It was a lot of work for $10 and it took me about three hours to get it all done. When I was done, I’d have breakfast with the owner of the store and then walk to meet my parents at church.
One day I noticed some guy washing windows outside at a diner that opened at 6 a.m. He had a bucket of water, a sponge and a squeegee. I didn’t pay much attention to it until I kept seeing him every Sunday washing the same windows. I wondered why anyone would need their store-front windows washed so much. It wasn’t like we lived in a dust bowl. Then, one weekday afternoon after school, I was going to the diner to get their three bean soup. It was the best soup I ever had. I asked Charlie, the owner, what the guy was doing washing his windows all of the time. He replied, “That’s Jimmy. He lives on the street and I give him meals for washing the windows.” It was the first time I heard of a trade out and the first time I ever heard of someone giving a damn about someone on the streets. Trying to understand it all when you’re a ten-year-old from a good home and has a bed to sleep in is difficult.
People talk about Christmas as a time for being thoughtful and giving but that’s just once a year. I have friends that refuse to celebrate it because they think the whole concept of caring about people once every twelve months is bogus. As I get older, and in looking back, I can understand their argument. After midnight on Christmas all of the poor people that we act like we care about suddenly turn back into pumpkins. It just doesn’t seem right.
One Sunday in the winter, I saw Jimmy mixing rubbing alcohol with the water in the bucket. I thought he was going freeze as he sat outside the diner on a ladder trying to reach the tippy-top of the big window that was on the right side of the restaurant. He knew me from my family and I stopped to ask him why he put rubbing alcohol in with the water. He explained that it was to make sure the water wouldn’t freeze. It was a trick he learned from another window washer who actually made a living at doing it.
I was done early that day and had time to kill before church, so I went into the diner to get a breakfast sandwich. They used to make theirs with scrambled eggs, provolone cheese and roasted peppers. It was 75 cents and delicious. I sat at the counter and told Charlie to make another one for Jimmy for when he was done. He told me that he already got free food for doing the windows. I asked him to pay Jimmy some cash so he could have a meal for later as well. After all, I had a ten spot in my pocket. When you’re a little kid it’s a great feeling and I always thought money was a dumb concept anyway. I left before Jimmy finished and said goodbye to him on my way out.
The next Sunday, I didn’t see the window washer when I was done. I didn’t think much of it and went on my way. The Sunday after that I didn’t see him again and this time walked into the diner to ask Charlie what happened to him. Charlie said that Jimmy just didn’t show up anymore. I thought he moved onto another town. I always thought to myself, “If you’re going to be homeless why not be homeless somewhere where it’s warm?” Why do homeless people stay in cold cities in the winter? I never understood it and I still don’t.
Later on I found out, through the usual newspaper stand gossip, that Jimmy died of pneumonia at the local hospital. He never made it out of the city and the whole thing made me feel pretty damn bad. I was upset that I didn’t try and do more, I was mad that he had to sit in the freezing weather and wash windows in order to eat, but most of all, I was just sad at the fact that I would no longer be able to say hello to him on my way to church. Life is funny like that. We get so used to our routines that, when they suddenly have a wrench thrown into the works, we feel lost.
To this day I think about him around the holidays. I really don’t know why. Maybe Christmas, more than anything, isn’t so much a time for gifts, but a time to reminisce about what’s important in our own lives. It’s an occasion to be humble, gracious and most of all, thankful for the friends and family we have and the memories and experiences that have made us who we are.
I think Jimmy stated it best and made a good analogy for life when he said, “You have to keep stirring the bucket or it’ll start to freeze up and then it’s useless.”