A Look at Window Washers ~ ‘some old memories’ rŌbert

PAST TENSE

Danger and dedication high above the city

The vast expanse of the United Nations Secretariat Building getting a spring cleaning. April 17, 1953. Credit Ernie Sisto/The New York Times

 

By Jeff Giles

 

When he died on Sept. 11, 2001, Roko Camaj became the patron saint of window cleaners.

You can see him in this image from The New York Times archive, a squeegee in his right hand, a sponge in his left. The wind is messing with his hair. The southern tip of Manhattan lies beneath him.

Outside the observation deck on the 107th floor, Roko Camaj cleaning the only windows on the World Trade Center that still required hands. All the others were done by a machine. Aug. 15, 1994Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

Mr. Camaj and his wife, Katrina, immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1969. Ms. Camaj was terrified of heights, so when Mr. Camaj got a job cleaning the glass on the uppermost reaches of the World Trade Center in the mid-1970s, he didn’t tell her the part about how he was cleaning it from the outside.

On 9/11, Mr. Camaj was at the South Tower when the plane struck the building beneath him. He called Ms. Camaj at 9:14 a.m., urging her not to panic. He died when the tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Something that Mr. Camaj had said in a children’s book about his job served as his last words: “It’s just me and the sky. I don’t bother anybody and nobody bothers me.”

Entrepreneurs have been trying to train robots to clean skyscrapers for years and, if the technology ever gets good enough, it will be a hard day for the men and women who wield the squeegees. For decades, they’ve been risking their lives just so we can look out a clean window when we’re daydreaming — and they love it.

James Hanley working on the 17th floor window of a downtown office building. March 4, 1969. Credit Eddie Hausner/The New York Times
The Woolworth Building is visible over his shoulder. Credit Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

 

“Window cleaners are a very, very passionate bunch,” said David Knowlton, president of the International Window Cleaning Association. He cites the views, the variety of people you meet, the ever-changing job sites. “Most of all, in the high-rise industry,” he adds, “it’s the allure of hanging off a building.”

Preparing for the descent at the Bankers Trust Company office at 280 Park Avenue. Credit Wagner International Photos

Tony Natoli, who owns Tony’s Window Cleaning Service in Glendale, N.Y., took up the trade not despite 9/11 but because of it. He wanted, suddenly and viscerally, to be part of the skyline somehow. Heights didn’t bother Mr. Natoli because he’d been a union stage hand for years, climbing rigs at concerts. Even his earliest window-washing jobs gave him a rush.

 

“First, the buildings were maybe five, seven, 10 stories,” he said. “And then I remember going up to, like, 22 stories, where they had these big 10’ x 10’ windows that pivoted open. Those windows used to get my blood going.”

Asked if there’s anyone in his life who worries that his chosen occupation is perilous, Natoli laughed. “That would be everybody,” he said. “But they respect me and I appreciate that.”

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