I still remember my first day as a window cleaning rookie – it was more than seven years ago, and I had no idea what I was doing. My instructor was a greasy old veteran with almost fifteen years on the job with a rasp sense of humour and a golden heart. He told me: “Look now, Georgie boy, there are only two rules on the job. Don’t break the window…”, he growled with laughter, throwing his head back while he was routinely polishing a storefront with a squeegee, “and always look to the next challenge. Do not become stagnant, learn and try new stuff, that’s the way to go places in the business, youngster!”
I took his advice to heart. Two years later, I was the highest-rated Reach & Wash window cleaner in the company. In another 18 months, I got the SK1 Window Cleaning Skills Certificate from the British Window Cleaning Academy. If there was a particularly challenging job or a new tool my boss wanted to try, I was his first call.
Still, there was one field, one final frontier that seemed beyond my reach – the challenging realm of high-rise window cleaning. Among professionals, the difference between polishing a street-level window display and working on a skyscraper is like hiking in the Scottish highlands and climbing the Himalayas. I was drawn to the challenge like a moth to a flame. And sooner or later, I told myself, I would mount my Everest.
They say luck is the crossing point of skill and preparation. I have been preparing myself for the opportunity for more than two years. Believe it or not, I even took climbing lessons and went paragliding to get used to heights. I knew I had the window washing part under control; I just had to learn the basics of abseiling rope systems and safety protocols. Once I had covered that, I just had to wait for the right situation.
Three weeks ago, one of our high-rise cleaning teams got depleted – one of the guys cut his hand pretty deeply in a domestic accident, and another took a leave for his sister’s wedding. I got a call from my boss with the news, asking me if I was up to the task – all he received was a one-syllable “yes”. My opening had just arrived.
No matter how many years you have been in the business, you cannot just take on a high-rise window cleaning job. You have to go through safety and technical training, and you must pass several rehearsal drills on the ground before you are good to go. Remember what I said about luck? My climbing lessons proved very handy, indeed. Instead of the prolonged preparation and mind-numbing repetitions of the safety manual, I went through something of a crash course in vertical window cleaning a couple of hundred feet above ground level. The more I learned and read, the more I felt equal to the task. There was really nothing new in terms of window washing – after all, glass is all the same, whether you polish it on the ground, with a water-fed pole, or hanging from a rope on the side of a skyscraper. So when the big day came, I was neither nervous nor antsy – it was just another day on the job.
It is time for another quote – my mom used to say: “I don’t know what is wrong with you, George, but you always want to jump in the deepest water.” She was right, of course, and things did not change as I grew older. If I were going to have my first high-rise window cleaning job, it would be the real deal, not some 10th-floor disappointment.
As it turned out, the job was the monthly polish of the windows on the 29th floor of the Empress State Building (Empress Approach, Lillie Road, West Brompton, London, SW6 1TR). It is one of the iconic skyscrapers in South West London, and I’ve passed along the building numerous times on my way home.
When our 4-man team arrived on site on a sunny Saturday, I was thankful the weather was not rainy or windy. As if reading my mind, one of my colleagues tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Feels pretty calm, doesn’t it? It is windy up there for sure.”
No matter how confident you may feel, no matter how many climbing lessons you take – when you look up the side of the behemoth, you can feel your stomach tighten up. But I was not going to let my nerves stand in the way of my next goal.
I know this is supposed to be the grand finale of the story, the crescendo of my Mount Everest climb. I am sorry, but I will have to disappoint you. It was actually a pretty ordinary job, and it was over in little more than two hours. Sure, I had a moment of doubt when I had to step over the edge, grabbing my rope line. But once my training kicked in, and I felt the reassuring security of the abseiling, I got to what I do best – quickly and effectively polishing a window. Moreover, I had an excellent team with me, and they did not give me the usual rookie hard time – I guess the environment changes your perspective.
But that is not really the point. The fact of the matter was that I had taken the next step and crossed the final frontier… Sort of. Who knows, maybe a window cleaning job on the Shard will be the next challenge!