Hearing the splatter of water on the sidewalk, I looked up to see three window washers hanging from the side of the Clift Building on the northwest corner of Third South and Main. A fourth was just swinging out precariously from an overhang on the seventh floor and adjusting to swing into a window below him at an awkward level.
They worked fast: a couple of passes with water, a sweeping, squared-gestured move with a wide squeegee, and then on to the next floor down. It wasn't long until four rows of windows from roof to street level were done, and one by one the window washers were settling onto the sidewalk as gracefully as swans on a lake.This might be a good opportunity, I thought, to find out all that I ever wanted to know about skyscraper window washing.
The foreman's name was George Whitehead, a thin, sinewy guy, probably in his 30s. George came to Utah from Spokane about 10 years ago and has been here ever since.
He'd never have dreamed he'd ever be a window washer when he first moved here. For a while he worked for Coca Cola until a guy he knew named Ken Bolinder, who owned Majestic Window Cleaning, asked him if he wanted a job, which George accepted.
For a while he only wanted to do the low stuff. That worked out fine for a while, but then one day Ken told him if he wanted to do any more he had to work on the high jobs, too.
His first time out over the window sill was a bad experience. He got his signals crossed and dropped a few feet before the rope caught him, which, needless to say, shook him up a bit. But he recovered, and before long he was dropping down walls like a spider on a web.
Somewhere down the road, Majestic merged with a firm named Buena Vista, which is the company George works for now. They do all the high work in Salt Lake City with the exception of a few like the LDS Church office building; it was designed so that the windows all swing inward and are washed from the inside.
George is manager of the high crews in downtown. They always work four to seven men together on a team. A job like the Clift Building will usually take about a half a day to complete by the time everything is set up and taken down. On the Clift, for example, which is eight stories high, they will come out, not off the top of the building, but from the eighth-story windows.
The Triad Center usually takes about three and a half days.
They try to make the rounds about three or four times a year. It is important to wash the windows that often because the film that builds up can actually pit the surface of the glass over time, and Utah's climate is particularly hard on windows.
The Utah Division of Wildlife has worked out a deal with Buena Vista to have them pick up any dead birds they come across on high ledges. The crews bag up what they find and turn them in for study.
Over time, the members of George's crew have become very experienced. Most of them participate in mountain rescue and industrial rope work and have trained with Doug Hansen, who owns Hansen Mountaineering in Orem and was team leader of the "Utahns on Mount Everest" expedition in 1992.
As we completed our conversation, George began coiling up his ropes for one last drop off the Clift Building. But he wouldn't let me go without a parting shot.
"Be sure," he said, "to explain to people that when we're washing windows, we don't ever notice what's going on inside. I've had people come out and swear that I saw them naked inside their window. But that hasn't happened yet. We're so busy washing that unless you come right up to the glass and pull a face, we'd never see you."
I took George at his word. He seemed like an honest enough sort of guy.