Just squeegeeing by

The windshield washing is free, but if you want to leave a tip he won't turn you down.

By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2007

TAMPA - An icon of urban decay appeared downtown Tuesday afternoon. He spoke softly, and he carried a squeegee.

This Squeegee Man stood under the young oaks in the median at Ashley Drive and Tyler Street and when the light turned red he walked into traffic and began to scrub windshields. It was, as he pointed out, a free service.

The Squeegee Man did his work with a delicate mix of aggression and decorum. He touched other people's property without permission, of course, but when they waved him off, he retreated.

The Squeegee Man drew attention for two reasons. Men of his profession are rare in Tampa, where the needy are more likely to hold poignant signs and wait for donations. And in the 1990s, as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cracked down on small-time crime, the Squeegee Men became symbols for what was wrong with New York.

This Squeegee Man wore ripped jeans and a peach-colored T-shirt one size too big. He said he had learned his trade in Houston. He said he was a carnival worker, on his way from Miami back to Houston, and he was trying to earn enough cash for a room and a bus ticket.

He said his name was Brian, but he wouldn't give his last name.

He said he'd been to prison, but he wouldn't say why.

When asked where he'd gotten the squeegee, he said this:

"Gimme 10 bucks and I'll tell you."

The light turned red and he stepped into the street. A young man in a black BMW waved him off. An older woman in a white Ford Explorer gave him a blank stare, which he took to mean continue, and he gave her windshield a series of vigorous strokes until it glistened in the sun. She rolled down her window and gave him a $5 bill.

"Hell," he said, "I just appreciate what people do give me.

"I don't care if it's a quarter. A penny."

The Squeegee Man did not ask for money, and because of that, according to Cpl. Jared Douds of the Tampa Police Department, his enterprise may not have been illegal. But Douds said he'd have to see the operation himself to be sure.

A red Porsche convertible rolled to the light.

"I wouldn't touch her car," he said. "Rich people."

After a while the Squeegee Man stopped to count his money. He had made $30 in 47 minutes. It was time for a beer.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or 813-226-3416.