Olive Street, Jonestown, San Diego black activists, Sherley Williams, the blind, the fat, the author's family
Jangchup Phelgyal 8:30 a.m., May 26
My cousin, his wife and two kids live in a five-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath McMansion in Carmel Valley. In his neighborhood, everything’s clean, everything’s new and there’s never anyone or anything on the streets. Not even cars. It’s as if everyone frickin’ morphs to and from work and school every day. My cousin’s house, like his neighborhood, is pleasant, I guess, but boring as hell.1
I can only wish I had such problems – I live in City Heights. Along with my wife and our two children (one eleven-year-old, one newborn) I live in a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath condo at the dead-end of a zig-zagging, jam-packed little street that seems to stay cluttered 24 hours per day with cars, kids, old ladies, dogs, those annoying ice cream cart guys, moving vans, UPS trucks, the occasional dead armadillo or skunk, telephone poles, electrical poles, ‘Restricted Parking’ signs, and sometimes, discarded household items (sofas with the cushion-stuffing falling out, desks missing legs and drawers, busted-up computer monitors, stereo systems, televisions, you name it).2
Our condo’s biggest redeeming feature is that it overlooks a cactus-, flower- and tree-filled canyon. Sometimes when I’m stressed out – which is often – I go over to the sliding door that leads to our balcony and I just stand there looking at the canyon and the flowers and the trees until I feel alright again. Without that canyon I’m not sure I’d have lasted here as long as I have.
One thing I do like about our small corner of City Heights is the wacky neighbors. There are a bunch of them and each has their own bizarre little story. But the wackiest of all of them – by far – is a girl named Rosie. I met her a year or so ago when we first moved in. If you live in one of our buildings you can’t help meeting her because she’s outside washing her car everyday. And by ‘everyday’ I mean, EVERY day. And sometimes, more than once. Per day.
The car in question is a royal blue, late-Eighties Chevy Monte Carlo or something else big, loud and American-made like that. Enter our parking lot just about anytime the sun’s out and there you’ll find Rosie: washing, drying, compounding, waxing, shining, touching up or otherwise coddling her giant blue monster of a car. Honestly, it seems like she cleans the thing more than she drives it, almost as if her definition of 'car' is, 'a complex piece of machinery designed to be cleaned.'
The near-constant car-washing is strange enough, but then there’s her physical appearance. Almost everyday she’s dressed the same: a baggy pair of grey Dickies, unbuttoned plaid button-down shirt layered over a white T-shirt, Chuck Taylor sneakers and Ray-Ban sunglasses (which she wears even in the dark). Sometimes she tops off the look with a bandana. Recently, she gave herself a buzzcut. She speaks 'chulo.' Most notably, however, she cleans things. Which is why I’ve taken to calling her Cleaning Girl, or sometimes just The Cleaner.
She cleans her car, as I’ve already mentioned. She also cleans her garage. She cleans up around the dumpster. She cleans the area in front of the garages. Several times a day she can be seen sweeping the sidewalk that leads to her front door.
"I like to clean things," she tells me. "It relaxes my mind."
She even cleans the shared driveway. Why would anyone in their right mind clean a semi-public driveway?
Me: “Say, um…. Can I ask you something? Rosie: “Yeah.” Me: “Wasn’t that you cleaning the driveway the other day?” Rosie: “Yeah.” Me: “Why?” Rosie: “I don’t like to get my tires dirty.” Me: [Stunned silence.]
She cleans so much I’m not sure she has time for a job. Actually, as I think about it, it’s virtually impossible that she works – unless it's the nightshift – because even though I work really irregular hours, every time I'm home, she is too.
I'm convinced she's a lesbian. And a former gangster. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The lesbian part, I mean.) It wasn’t long after we moved in that she offered to clean my wife’s Toyota Corolla. Of course, Beth (my wife) said "Yes!" Frankly, I've been hoping Cleaning Girl offers to clean my car next. I'm too lazy to get either my own or Beth’s car washed.
Did I mention Cleaning Girl even cleans the canyon? That’s right, she goes into the canyon to collect litter and groom the plants. I know there’s nothing necessarily crazy about grooming plants but these are wild plants. It’s not landscaping – it's just a frickin’ canyon. You can't groom wild plants, can you? And then, when she’s done collecting the litter and clipping the plants, she sweeps down there. Yes, she actually sweeps dirt.3 There's a psychological mystery there, but since I know nothing about psychology, I'll have to settle for saying she's one weird, weird individual.
I try to imagine being her. I try to imagine what it must be like to live in a world where everything looks unclean all the time, and more to the point, where one feels compelled to do something about it. In her mind, I imagine, every inanimate object she sees can (and must) fit into one of two categories: 1) Things which need cleaning or 2) Things which have been cleaned recently. VERY recently.
A couple months after Cleaning Girl started cleaning my wife’s Corolla, she (meaning The Cleaner, not Beth) went out and bought a touch-up pen in order fix all the specks and chips and scratches that had previously marred the car’s finish. She also used some sort of touch-up product to improve the appearance of the rubber (or plastic or whatever it is windshield wipers are made of) on the Corolla’s windshield wipers.
After several weeks of Cleaning Girl lavishing this spa-like treatment on a car that wasn’t even her own, Beth felt obligated to at least partially compensate the girl for her services. So she offered Cleaning Girl twenty bucks. The girl declined. She said she was cleaning the car not for money but because she wanted to. She then proceeded to apologize for not ‘fixing’ the roof – which has white spots and peeling paint due to over-exposure to the sun – saying, "I need to do some research."
Am I bothered by any of this? Since I’m thinking the girl’s probably a lesbian, am I worried the girl is coming on to Beth? Maybe I would have been bothered eventually, but before I could get around to concerning myself with that possibility, I found out Cleaning Girl actually has a boyfriend.
The wife and I arrived home one day to find the girl standing around outside. (Probably trying to decide what she was going to clean next.) So Beth went over to say hi, which, I suppose, is the least you can do when your neighbor has voluntarily become your own personal one-woman detail shop. The girl told my wife that she was about to head over to Auto Zone. When Beth asked why, the girl said her boyfriend was coming over later and she was going to wash his car.
Ooh! ANOTHER dirty car. Unbelievable, right?
I left them talking outside and went in with the baby. A few minutes later, Beth hadn’t come in so I went back out to see what was going on. My wife was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking towards her car with a bemused expression on her face. Cleaning Girl? She was laying out the car’s floormats in a neat row beside the stairs.
“What the hell is she doing?" I asked Beth under my breath.
She answered, "Shampooing my car mats."
-Mtume Salaam, City Heights, San Diego.
Postscript for the curious: Almost every word of this story is true. However, not long after the above-described events, Rosie, her blue Monte Carlo and her cleaning products where asked to leave. I don’t know why. … And, BTW, my wife’s car is – as I type these words – absolutely filthy.
1 Who am I kidding? Pleasant, boring, whatever. I’d move in an in instant if I could afford it. As it is, I probably couldn’t afford his garage. Which is why I live in City Heights.
2 Not to mention the sidewalks are so skinny that one day we were out running and my wife ran face first into a ‘No Parking’ sign. Which begs a question: where do they put all the telephone and electrical poles and street signs in places like Carmel Valley?
3 Here’s my question. When sweeping dirt, how do you know when you’re done?