A Working Man in My Prime

Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows” has always been one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, and Van Morrison may well be my favorite singer:

Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street
Got in my nose
As we carried our ladders down the street
With the wrought-iron gate rows
I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers in my lunch-break
Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner
And went straight back to work.
Oh, Sam was up on top
And I was on the bottom with the v
We went for lemonade and Paris buns
At the shop and broke for tea
I collected from the lady
And I cleaned the fanlight inside-out
I was blowing saxophone on the weekend
In that down joint.
What's my line?
I'm happy cleaning windows
Take my time
I'll see you when my love grows
Baby don't let it slide
I'm a working man in my prime
Cleaning windows (number a hundred and thirty-six)
I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon
On the street where I was born
Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee,
Muddy Waters singin' "I'm A Rolling Stone"
I went home and read my Christmas Humphreys' book on Zen
Curiosity killed the cat
Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" and "On The Road"
What's my line?
I'm happy cleaning windows
Take my time
I'll see you when my love grows
Baby don't let it slide
I'm a working man in my prime
Cleaning windows...

Until recently I was never entirely clear why I liked this song so much, but recent nostalgic lapses have helped to refresh my memory.

I put myself through college in the ‘60’s by doing janitorial work; I was “ a working man in my prime.” Occasionally that included washing windows, but the company also hired a professional window washer because I did such a pitiful job on them. Equipped with the latest high-tech cleaners and cleaning clothes, I spent hours cleaning the windows, only to find them smeared and streaked when I finished.

He, on the other hand, used a little ammonia in a bucket of water, a squeegee, and old newspapers to complete the job and came out with sparkling clean windows. How could I not admire his work? It was simple, required few supplies, and did the job to perfection.

More importantly, though, this self-educated black man could more than keep up with any of my discussions about what I was learning in college. He educated himself purely for his own edification. He had no desire to be anything other than what he was, a window washer. He was self-employed and totally independent. I didn’t realize then how special he was. I do now.

Looking back at those years, I suspect that, except for the wages, I had found the perfect job. I enjoyed working alone at night with no disruptions. If I did my job right, and I took pride in doing it right, no one ever told me what to do or when to do it. I set my own schedule and did things the way I wanted to do them. I spent most of the time while I was working thinking out papers that I was writing for my classes. (It doesn’t, after all, require great concentration to sweep and dust.) If I had realized that this would be the only time in my life when I would have this kind of freedom I would have enjoyed it more.

On the other hand, this was also the only time in my life, except for the last few years, that I had time to learn simply for the sake of learning. I didn’t yet have a career in mind and was simply learning what I wanted to learn. I was exploring modern poetry and philosophy in an attempt to find the meaning of life, an endeavor I too soon abandoned for making a living and supporting a family, but that, too, may be part of what the meaning of life is.

I was also beginning to listen to blues music, though I began with John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland and Ray Charles, not the earlier bluesmen mentioned in the song. They came later. And yes, I even read "Christmas Humphreys' book on Zen," though it took me another thirty five years to read Kerouac'sOn the Road.

It's only looking back that I realize how much societal expectations determined what I was to do with my life and who I was to become.

One thought on “A Working Man in My Prime

  1. Hey you,I love Cleaning Windows too. He is the greatest singer ever. I connect with that song too because i have always been a working man or woman that is.

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