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Sonny Says Tip Your Cleaning Lady

The Pony Soldier Motel on Route 66 was just around the bend to East Flag—as in Flagstaff, Arizona, called Kinlani in Navajo. There are a lot of rooms in that place.

There was a woman, a cleaning woman who would work her way around those rooms cleaning up after sometimes messy people, picking up beer cans and stale pizza. Some rooms needed more time than others.

She wasn't too tall. She was a Native, and she was used to working to make the showers and tubs shine. “Go get me the vacuum, Sonny,” she would say. He would go and get it. “Plug it in, Sonny,” and he would do it while she stripped the sheets.

An old guy, the manager, used to come and check on her work. “Make sure you clean it all up,” he would say. She would nod her head and go about her cleaning.

She wore white shoes, the kind nurses wore and she wore a plain dress. Her hair was tied in a bun, and she would go from room to room. Tile and toilet bowls got the brush, and she cleaned the hair from the tub.

The carpet was green, and there was a TV in each room, they were old Zeniths. When she got done, she would go wait by the manager's office and he would check the rooms and then come back and pay fifty cents a room.

Her walk home to old town in Flag, Arizona, was called Indian Village on the west side and it took some time to get there. There was no car. Usually, she would stop by the post office, and then continue on down Frisco Street.

Some folks from the night before would be standing outside Club 66, asking for ten cents. She would walk on the edge of the sidewalk and go past. Honkytonk music would be blaring when the door opened. It was dark inside. She just kept going, walking on by.

There was Food Town. Soup bones to buy, and some flour.

“Take this, Sonny,” she would say, and they would walk down the street a ways until the paper bags got heavy and she took a break, sitting on a rock wall. She looked tired, worn from kneeling on the floor at work, sometimes she talked about how important it is to go to school.

The houses that they walked by were nice.

She shifted the bags to the other arm to ease the load. “Stand close,” she told him when they crossed Route 66 going by the Lumberjack Cafe. The traffic would be going by and she would say, “You have to look both ways, Sonny.” Then they would run across the road.

Sometimes they stopped by the Little Brown Jug and she bought a candy bar and in those days the pine trees were still there behind the store and they would cut through them to Tombstone Street--Indian Village, it was called---an old time motor lodge of single rooms surrounding a court yard.

The plaster was falling off, and there was no yard---just dirt. The screen door to her room had no handle, but she went in and put the bags down. Then she put the heavy metal frying pan on the stove. She took the potatoes and sat down and started to peel them.

“Whatcha looking at?” she would ask him. “Oh, nothing, Shima.” Her hands were soft and at the same time hard, working that peeler around the potatoes, gouging out the eyes, and after they were peeled she sliced them up one, two, three and they were done.

Rex Pure Lard, the kind that came in a red box, went into the frying pan and it sizzled.

Sitting down again, she mixed the flour, baking powder, and water. Mixing and kneading that dough. It looked easy the way she did it. Sometimes a piece of dough ended up in his mouth. A little while later, the potatoes were done. The frying pan would sizzle with frybread grease and the smoke would go up and she would stand there until they were all made.

“Aren't you tired, Shima?” Her eyes looked that way. She would say, “We have to eat so somebody has to cook.” The kitchen was just big enough for the little boy and her to stand in, just a cleaning woman and her boy, working day to day.

One time, when the boy sold newspapers for a dime each (he got a nickel for each one), when he made enough he wanted to surprise her as she was coming home. He met her and they went to Food Town, and next door he took her to Chicken Delight and he bought a boxed chicken meal.

It was a plain white box with wax paper and half a chicken. He told her to sit down on the curb outside the place and to watch the cars go by on Leroux Street, and she did. He gave her a piece of chicken. He would later say that they ate like they were rich.

She just laughed and they shared the fries as they sat there enjoying that chicken. People looked at them as they drove by. Just a woman and her son.

Time goes by and things change. Children get older and move away. But sometimes when it is quiet--like today these things come to mind when the woman can no longer move like she used to.

She is now bent with age and still talks about the importance of going to school, taking care of family, and having to do what you have to do to make ends meet.

She worked hard for her husband and kids.

I guess all mothers go about it in different ways. This one cleaned rooms. Maybe that is why I make sure I leave a tip for the cleaning lady.

When they walk away. I can still see her just like she was back then. I think maybe she has kids, maybe a son she calls “Sonny” waiting for her to get home.

That’s why I try to leave a little something extra when I stay somewhere for the cleaning woman just in case she wants a candy bar or maybe a boxed chicken.

Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.