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10 Secrets Of Chicago's Brave Window Washers

By Kelly Bauer | September 23, 2016 5:29am
 What does it take to be a Chicago window washer?
Window Washers
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DOWNTOWN — Window washers have a pretty cool gig — for those who don't mind hanging hundreds of feet off the ground.

As it turns out, some of them do mind the heights, but they also get benefits that no one else gets, including stunt roles in movies and beautiful views of the city.

Just don't ask them about the spiders. Or falcons.

Here are 10 secrets we learned from Chicago's window washers:

1. Yes, they're afraid of heights

Window washers need a healthy fear of heights to keep safe, said Jeff Spino, safety director at Corporate Cleaning Services, the largest window-washing business in the city.

"Oh, yeah, for sure. It's scary," said window washer Luis Garcia, of Portage Park.

Kelly Bauer talks about her day learning from window washers.

But it's not too scary, Garcia said, or he wouldn't be able to do the job. Window washer Jorge Arizaga, of Stone Park, is also afraid of heights.

"I had to really get used to the heights out here ... just by doing it," Arizaga said. "Say a quick prayer and just remember that I do it for my family, put food on the table."

The first time, Arizaga said, he was "scared and nervous" and thought he would fall "for no reason." He still gets nervous when working on some buildings, he said, but usually only when it's windy. And when it gets too windy, Corporate Cleaning Services stops work for the day.

 

2. The falcons are even scarier.

How can a bunch of cute, fuzzy birds be scarier than being 500 feet off the ground?

Well, the city's falcons aren't particularly friendly to the window washers who get close to their nests. In fact, a few months back, a guy got pecked by a falcon while working, Arizaga said. When that happens, the window washers move somewhere else and avoid the area.

"They can attack you. It's dangerous, the falcons," Garcia said.

One building in the city is home to three or four falcons, Spino said, and its roof is covered in dead birds. Some of them have been eaten by the falcons, Spino said — but others look like they were killed just for fun.

Plus, the Peregrine falcons that call Chicago home have special notched beaks that they use to sever the spinal column of their prey.

No wonder the falcons are freakier than heights.

3. Yuck, spiders

Apparently, it doesn't matter if you're 5 feet up or 500 — you're going to run into spiders. The only difference is they're a bit trickier to deal with when you're dangling from a rooftop, trying to wash windows.

And if the idea of running into a spider while you're hundreds of feet off the ground doesn't shake you, wrap your mind around this: They like to jump on your face and into your shirt, Garcia said.

Maybe they're just trying to hitch a ride down?

"They jump at your face. Sometimes you have [them] in your shirt, too," Garcia said.

But the washers make sure to clean them out, and Spino said his company can apply a special insecticide to windows to keep insects away for longer.

4. Nudity? Not a problem

Window washers do see the occasional person in the buff, but it's not as common as movies would make you think.

And when they do spot someone in their birthday suit, the washers are respectful, don't react and move on, said Spino and CEO Neal Zucker. They are professionals, after all.

'We keep to ourselves, really. If they're in their house, they can do whatever they want," Arizaga said. "Most of the time we can't even see inside because of the reflection. We just see ourselves. It's like a mirror."

 

5. It's not a one-day job

Many buildings will have all of their windows washed two to three times per year, Zucker and Spino said. There will usually be two to four window washers working on each building, and it can take several days or weeks.

At the city's tallest buildings, like the Hancock, the large number of windows and the need to juggle scheduling means the buildings are a near-constant "work in progress."

Jeff Spino (from left) and actor Dan Aykroyd. [Courtesy Jeff Spino]

6. They're movie stars

Window washers are perfectly suited to play, well, window washers on the big screen.

Spino, who was a window washer for years before he became a safety director, got his 15 minutes of fame when he was a stunt double for Peter Sarsgaard in "Unconditional Love." He was shown dangling from a building.

And, yes, he does look for himself when he's watching the movie, and he loves to tell people about it.

 

7. You MUST obey the 6-foot rule

It might be tempting, but you can't just look over the edge of a building.

If you want to look over an edge where you could fall more than 6 feet, you'll need to get your gear on, including a harness that's carefully tethered to the building.

Otherwise, you have to stay 6 feet away from the edge. That helps ensure you'll be safe even if you trip on the roof.

 

8. How are they hanging?

Some window washers hang from ropes that go through large, thick hooks attached to the tops of the buildings.

Before new jobs, Spino will review the roof of the building to determine how to best tackle the building and set up the ropes the washers will use to lower themselves down.

Some of the city's oldest buildings don't have the setup needed for window washers to operate safely. When that happens, Spino said Corporate Cleaning Services works with the building's owners to create a setup that will work, and they share responsibility for that — it's not just on the washing company.

That commitment to safety is a special priority for Corporate Cleaning Services, Spino and Zucker said.

Spino, the first full-time safety director at a Chicago window-washing biz, regularly does safety checks at various work sites. He goes through a list of items to check. Has the equipment been inspected? Are cones in place on the ground?  Then he shares the report's results with others at the company through his cellphone.

 

9. Even a little wind can be a problem

A little wind can be a big problem for window washers — but probably not for the reasons you think.

Winds as low as 6 mph can mean Corporate Cleaning Services packs up for the day, Spino said, especially if window washers are working on the side of a building that's not protected from the elements.

But it's not really a safety issue when winds are that low: It's a cleanliness problem. The winds will whip soapy water over windows that have already been cleaned. Ideally, the water should be falling straight down and evaporating before it hits the ground, Spino said, and not splashing onto clean window panes.

Of course, higher winds can pose a safety issue. Corporate Cleaning Services monitors the wind and weather through cellphone apps, Spino said.

 

10. Yeah, the views are pretty nice

You might think your photos from the Sears Tower's Skydeck are cool — but window washers definitely get the best views of anyone:

[DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]

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