Thursday, March 7, 2013
Thomas Skeens’ signature look – a tattered and weathered cowboy hat adorned with tons of feathers and doodads – is so classic around Monterey County he got picked as an extra in a Clint Eastwood movie in the 1970s.
Skeens is also well known for his self-given nickname, “Vampire,” and his rather visible gig: He’s often found washing windows around Oldtown Salinas.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Skeens and his wife Shirley Ann drove to Monterey County from Oregon in 1966, because she wanted to see California before she died. (She was battling health issues.) He started working as a dishwasher at Sambo’s Cafe in North Salinas, doing any janitorial work the restaurant needed, which included washing the windows. He continued with the windows on his own after he left his other duties at the cafe.
“It looks really good when I’m done, really clear,” Skeens says. “All the dirt and dust is off and man, they shine! If you have dirty windows, I’ll be at your place, knocking on your door, asking if you need them cleaned.”
Skeens talks with a clear but wavering vibrato. His slight drawl pronounces “washing windows” as “warshing win-duhs.” He laughs often.
“If you see my buckets and my hat, go ahead and take my picture,” he says. “I don’t mind.”
His outward appearance looks a little like Yosemite Sam. He used to wear cut-off jean shorts. Though he abandoned that in favor of rolled up jeans, he still rides Monterey-Salinas Transit buses with his squeegees and rags.
He says the nickname came when he started doing windows on his own.
“Everybody calls me ‘Vamp’,” he says. “I wanted ‘Vampire in the Night’ for my janitorial business, because I wanted people to remember me.”
Today his business card reads “Vampire in the Night Janitorial Services,” with his real name, and word he also cleans home rain gutters. It lists a P.O. box, but no phone number.
Many Oldtown business owners know Skeens, but as the Cherry Bean Coffee House owner Todd Williams says, they don’t know much about him.
“He’s been around a long time. I remember him from when I went to North Salinas High School,” says Williams. “What do you think of someone who lives in a red, mid-’70s Chevy Nova with Vampire in the Night printed on the side? He had stuff crammed to the hilt in that car!”
When Skeens came to Salinas, he and his wife used to live out of a camper trailer they moved around town. His wife died nearly 30 years ago, but he keeps a good attitude about life.
“I’d rather have him come through my line than some of the other folks,” says Cathy Venuti, manager of Old Town Deli and Cafe across from Cherry Bean on South Main Street. “I talk to him when I can. I think he is a bit confused about life now that his wife is gone. His mouth wanders and so does his mind.”
Venuti thinks he copes by living in a fantasy world. This has gotten him in trouble with people, including Williams.
“We’ve had problems with him before,” he says. “He used to come in and try to negotiate a cup of coffee. He would slap a dollar and say that it’s how much he should pay.”
Venuti takes a bigger-picture approach.
“Whether he is a pest or not, he is a human being,” she says. “You have to take him with a grain of salt. That’s just Thomas and I know he’s dependable.”
Venuti says she will give him lunch as payment for washing windows. Aside from her deli, Skeens washes the windows of Beverly’s Fabrics.
“He’s a hard worker and very punctual,” says Marilyn Harder, Beverly’s manager. “Sometimes he’ll purchase things at Beverley’s that are stolen from his cart by teenagers.”
David Federico, co-owner of Federico’s Drive-In Shoe Service in Monterey, agrees.
“He just came in one day a few years ago and asked if he could wash the windows. He does a good job for a fair price.”
For the last eight years, Skeens has lived in a shoddy room in the transient hotel near Soledad Street in Salinas. He pays for it with his social security.
He says one of his greatest joys is sitting under the warm Salinas sun when he is not beautifying windows, usually on a city bench with a cup of his favorite drink: coffee.
“I’ll go and go and go and go, but sometimes I’m off,” he says. “Usually on Sundays, I’ll sit and drink all the coffee I can and then piss like a dang dog!”
With that, Skeens cackles loudly and turns his attention back to the sun.