THE NEW YORK TIMES
The City Section
Published: January 23, 2000
By Ivor Hanson
I AM poised on a narrow ledge that angles downward to the street below. Drops of water fall from the mop in my left hand and form a momentary trail before scattering in the breeze. My right hand grips a cold metal frame while a squeegee dangles from my waist. I am 55 stories up and set to clean a window. At that height, wind is a factor, so I hug the building close. I look down to get my bearings; looking up can induce vertigo. Because I am on a postwar high-rise, there are no hooks to which I can secure my window cleaner’s belt. I can only rely on my fingertips and sense of balance. Still, I take advantage of my perch for a moment to admire the Chrysler Building a few blocks north. I feel a part of the skyline.
I trust myself with my life out on the ledge. This trust lets me know that I am in sync, combining absolute awareness with controlled fear, and allows me to do my job. It keeps my feet in place and my head clear. I know how far my body can lean out, how far I can reach with my squeegee.
Window cleaning has honed my concentration, and in close calls, this focus helps me hold on. I experience a rush, equal parts exhilaration and relief. I know the danger involved, but can also play down my derring-do. I can joke about where I would splat if I fell. I can even laugh — now — about dropping an air-conditioner out a Park Avenue apartment window.
Whoever installed that air-conditioner did his best to make it appear that it would stay in place when the window was opened. It didn’t. I’m lucky I didn’t kill someone that morning, specifically the building porter who had been sweeping below the window a minute before the thing fell two stories. Rightfully, he chewed me out when my boss and I ran down to the street and chucked the Freon-spewing unit into a nearby Dumpster. There was a dent in the pavement.
I’m still leery of opening that window, despite the steel bar that holds the new air-conditioner in place. The least observed law in New York City? Article 9, Section 27/313 of the city Building Code, which states that an air-conditioner cannot extend more than 10 inches from a window frame when the unit is more than 10 feet from the ground, or more than 4 inches when it is less than 10 feet. These units routinely stick out much farther, putting a great strain on the window frame. That’s why when I walk down the sidewalk, I stick close to the curb.
Window cleaning offers an appealing mix of personal challenge — dangerous windows — with sights I shouldn’t have seen along the way. Combining these with my squeegee’s low-tech charm and an O.K. wage helps to explain why, at the age of 36, I have kept at this dirty and demanding job for nearly nine years. It allowed me to pursue music in the past and makes possible my writing now. As for my own windows, they aren’t as clean as you might think; I clean the three but twice a year.
I learn a lot about life as I attach myself to a window frame’s belt hook, after first testing the hook and checking for a hairpin or paper clip, what we cleaners leave behind to mark an unsafe window. Self-reliance comes to mind, as does knowing when to walk away from a job that’s too dangerous. Some people climb mountains simply because they are there, and spend lots of money to do so. I climb out on a ledge simply because some windows are dirty. And I get paid to do so.
It’s funny. Many people tell me that they wouldn’t do what I do for a million dollars. And yet I do it for $10 a window ($11 if they’re cut up into smaller panes). It’s not often you know the exact worth of your life.
Fortunately, a lot of what I see is priceless. Allow me a confession: voyeurism is one of the perks of this job.
I have watched the sun rise over the East River from what was once Irving Berlin’s bedroom terrace — the Sutton Place building now houses Luxembourg’s United Nations Mission — and wished that the diplomats there could find space for a piano.
After washing a picture window in a Harlem housing project that the customer demanded be perfectly clean, the view did not turn out to be. As the customer and I looked out the window, a drug deal went down in the vacant lot across the street. Neither of us said a word.
I was with a first-time customer when she learned she had six months to live. As she broke down and cried, I sat at her side and did my best to comfort her.
”Hey, don’t worry about me,” she said. ”You’re the one hanging off the sides of buildings.”
She died of cancer the next spring.
I’ve worn surgical booties to avoid scuffing Tom Hanks’s living-room floor. I have secretly held F. Murray Abraham’s Oscar. I have seen the set list of songs John Lennon wrote out for his album ”Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.” For that matter, I once came across pornographic playing cards in a drainpipe of the Dakota.
Voyeurism, after all, does have its seamier side.
I’ve seen people having sex from afar, interrupted couples having sex and been asked if I wanted to have sex. I’ve been invited to stay and have a drink. I’ve been asked to hang out and get high. I’ve come across XXX videos and books, drugs, guns, handcuffs and love letters, all left out in the open, no prying necessary.
A private investigator whose windows I used to do took a more activist approach by surreptitiously videotaping a housewife across the street who liked to clean her apartment with very little on. He played the tapes between cases when he was bored.
As I watched them, a truth emerged: people just don’t think they can be seen. And the higher the window I am cleaning, the likelier it is I will see someone naked in a neighboring building. Not surprisingly, high-floor apartments usually have binoculars or telescopes at the ready, along with the owners’ claim of using them only to watch boats on the Hudson.
Once, a customer in a Murray Hill high-rise readily admitted that he regularly scoped out a building two blocks away where a lot of young people lived. I chuckled because I had lived in that building a few years earlier, without curtains. Unfortunately, the client remarked, he never saw anything exciting.
I understood. I find watching a couple making love across the way often just makes sex look silly. It’s not like a movie, with the lighting and the lingerie just so, the actors taut and lean. Instead, it’s a bit of a letdown: two exposed and unspectacular bodies moving this way and that in silence; they’re usually out of earshot.
WHILE I have never considered my squeegee an aphrodisiac, Tomas, the window-cleaning character from Milan Kundera’s novel ”The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was quite a Don Juan. But I believe him to be the exception. After all, innocent Curious George was a window cleaner too.
As for myself, I once cleaned the windows of a lower Broadway loft for a young European woman spending her first summer in New York. There was a heat wave, and I worked up quite a sweat removing the thick dirt from the oversized windows. When I finished, she walked over to me, touched my arm and wondered if I wanted to take a shower; her boyfriend wouldn’t be back for hours. I told her I was running late (I actually was). When I returned to clean the windows that fall, the boyfriend was home — it was a Saturday — but she was not. A new girlfriend had replaced her.
Another attraction: I have the privilege of working where the very privileged live. It really is a different world, one of huge rooms, perfect locations and breathtaking views. One of my favorites is an Art Deco bathroom with its own terrace overlooking Central Park, in the Century building on Central Park West. It’s almost decadent, but what a space!
Not surprisingly, such surroundings can be intoxicating. I find myself making silly observations, like deciding never to live on Park Avenue: it’s overrated. Most apartments don’t have great views, and tenants must tolerate a lot of traffic noise.
But nonetheless, I am struck by just how far removed these people and places are from the everyday world. A prominent doctor has a few Picassos in his living room and a de Kooning in his dining room. I admire these paintings every time I visit, for beyond their beauty and genius they reveal to me why people collect art. It’s not just owning masterpieces, it’s having them in your home. He can view these paintings at 6 in the morning in his bathrobe, coffee in hand. They are his. How amazing that must be.
As a maid in an Upper East Side duplex once remarked to me when she had finished dusting the lady of the house’s vanity, crammed with perfume bottles: All these, for one person.
Our smiles reflected both disbelief and acceptance.
Though window cleaning is a respectable profession, at times I must confront its low status. I am not, after all, a lawyer or a doctor or even a rock star. This is a job I feel I must regularly explain away.
But that’s not always possible. Once when I simply wanted to kill time between jobs at my parents’ apartment in the Beresford on Central Park West, the doorman made me use the back entrance. ”Sorry, Ivor,” Yakov said, pointing at my bucket. ”You’ve got to go around.”
The class system is alive and well in New York City. Service entrances and penthouses bracket this hierarchy, and I have to use one to get to the other. This is just a fact of life, and an unremarkable one at that, for, usually, I am quite comfortable in both worlds. Building workers, contractors, housekeepers and I all know we are in the business of taking care of the customer. We share a certain empathy, an understanding of our roles.
Upon entering the apartment, though, I am also at ease, for I have a lot in common with most of my clients. I, too, have an upper-middle-class background. I went to college and graduate school. I have the credentials to be one of them.
Unfortunately, with some customers it seems I have to let them know that I am ”acceptable” before they can be at ease with me in their homes. This behavior is understandable — I am a stranger, after all — but it also irks me. None of this should matter, but it does. There was the very proper Upper East Sider who acted quite indifferent to me until I spotted a Century Club directory in his den and mentioned that my father was a member. The chap was suddenly quite chatty. I sometimes wonder if I should just wear my T-shirts from Vassar and Columbia, but I don’t. Black T-shirts hide dirt better.
Most customers, however, appreciate the sacrifices artists have to make to pursue their passions. It’s a different sort of empathy and understanding, one that has them wishing me good luck and giving me a tip. They are helping me out.
More often than not, I am treated warmly. When I am not, it can be quite unpleasant.
Once at the apartment of a particularly cold client, as I was going out on a ledge and pulling myself up and out of the window, this customer suddenly yelled, ”Be careful!” Her outburst of humanity surprised me. Until she finished her sentence: ”. . . of the drapes!” They were new; raw silk. I hadn’t brought out the worst in her, just the truth.
It’s not that I am treated like dirt in those moments, it’s that I am merely treated like the hired help that I am. This can mean being looked down upon, or at least ignored, expected only to provide the service I am there for. Ultimately, I can’t knock such attitudes too much, for the affluent make my livelihood possible. And, in the end, I am just their window cleaner.
Still, I do veer between believing myself to be better and no better than my occupation. But a day job is like that. For while it is essentially a means to an end, it is also what I spend a good amount of my time doing. And doing well. Apart from pride, I do want to keep my job. Besides, if I were lazy or sloppy, I could easily crack a window, stain a rug, or lose my life.
When I first moved to New York, I drummed in a band and needed a job. In other words, I didn’t truly consider the risk of window cleaning, just the cash. Being broke does that. Now I both respect and crave risk.
Over the years, I have thought I was experiencing my death fall, realized I really did need to buy new shoes when I started slipping off a window ledge, come across the belt of a window cleaner who had plunged to his death. While the risk I encounter daily could certainly kill me, the thrill it provides makes for the fact that I am, ultimately, just cleaning a window. It’s different from a good view balancing out a long job. Because even though the spectacular sight of the Central Park Reservoir from a 21st-story apartment in the Eldorado at Central Park West and 90th Street does ease the drudgery of cleaning that building’s cut-up casements – 24 panes of class per window – such a view is really just a magnificent distraction.
Risk is something else. Washing ”tricky” windows (as I call them, as much out of modesty as denial) affords me both a sense of accomplishment and a surge of adrenalin. Besting a dangerous window is just more satisfying than cleaning a merely difficult one. Tricky windows, after all, involve cheating death.
IF I am low enough to the ground, I like watching those aforementioned drops from my mop fall gracefully through the air until they suddenly splat on the sidewalk. Sometimes I go out of my way to picture myself as such a splotch. I usually do this at my first job of the day, particularly if I didn’t get much sleep the night before. The image wakes me up.
It also crosses my mind when people down on the street look up at me. I clean windows in an apartment house at Madison and 75th Street, across from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Visitors outside the building invariably catch sight of me. The nice ones wave, but the idiots yell ”Jump!”
But I ignore them, as I have something better to do. For once I’m hooked in, there’s the moment when I let go of the belt hook and lean back, knowing that my belt will catch me.
I love that moment. I am free, defying gravity, breaking the rules. I should be splattered on the pavement below. But I’m not, so I savor the view: the Carlyle’s up the street, the Whitney’s just over my shoulder.
Belt windows, however, are the only windows that afford me such leisurely interludes, for I am at least attached to the hooks. Plenty of buildings don’t have hooks. Instead they have windows like casements, which open out, like doors; ”tilt-ins,” which open downward, like a truck’s tailgate; ”sliders,” which pop out to be cleaned, and ”switchers,” so called because the upper window comes down and the lower window goes up, allowing me to clean the panes by reaching over and underneath the window frames. But since all these windows are designed to be cleaned from the inside, or place me only partly outside, their risks are usually reasonable.
”Nonswitchers” are something else, since with these windows the upper frame cannot come down. So to clean the window entirely I must close it completely and stand out on a ledge that can be less than a foot wide. Nothing but my hands to save me. Simply holding on requires a certain sang-froid; I have to know exactly what I am doing. Everything must go right for nothing to go wrong. People are always telling me to take care, but this is when it really sinks in.
I make certain that whichever hand holds onto the building stays put and dig my fingers into whatever groove, bump or notch the window frame offers up. This hand I regard as a vise grip, and the rest of my body abides by it, doing whatever needs to be done to keep that hand strongly clamped down. The other holds the squeegee. One hand for the window, one hand for me.
As in a car accident, time slows down.
This is partly due to that I simply cannot clean such a window quickly. Out on the ledge, haste makes waste of my life. So I look forward to my squeegee’s reaching the end of a window pane that feels impossibly wide. I am quite happy when I’m finished; I am no longer afraid.
Risk has made me quite friendly with fear. It’s simple: fear keeps me aware; awareness keeps me alive. Surprisingly, the first time I experienced a close call, wry resentment flashed through me: so this is how it ends, dropping off a damn window ledge. But then pure appreciation quickly followed. I relished touching the belt hook.
There’s a famous Life magazine photograph from the 40’s of a woman who fell to her death from the Empire State Building. She landed on an automobile. The sedan’s roof is crumpled, a mangled mess. But the woman, strangely, is not. She looks quite peaceful lying on her back, a forever sleeping beauty at 33rd and Fifth. That’s how I’d like to look should a window ever best me.