By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Warren Cook was at rock bottom when he arrived in New York City from Alabama several years ago.
His marriage had just dissolved and he was living on the streets in the grips of a drug addiction. And then he ran into Sylvester Onuorah who owns a UPS Store on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Cook, 53, asked for some money for food. Onuorah purchased a meal for the stranger, but also invited him to stop by the store and earn the meal by doing odd jobs.
"I had to change my lifestyle. I was with the lowest of the low. I couldn't get any lower," Cook said, his voice heavy with a southern twang.
Soon Cook, a former mechanic and car detailer, was a regular at the store, handing out fliers and doing whatever needed doing.
One afternoon Cook noticed that the windows of the UPS store were a little hazy. Cleaning windows was a skill a one-eyed fellow homeless man taught him as a way to hustle up enough money for a meal or a room.
"I brought some squeegees and cleaning equipment and noticed that he cleaned the windows really well," said Onuorah. "I suggested he talk to some of the other small business owners in the area and do the same for them."
Today, it's not hard to catch Cook as he frenetically traverses Harlem with his cart, bucket of water and assortment of squeegees. He launched the company WC Window Cleaners, and now cleans between 30 to 40 storefronts per day.
He's so busy, some days he has to start as early as 4:30 a.m.
His clients range from the famous, like Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem, to the neighborhood locals, like All Eyes on Us, an eyeglass store on 125th Street. Cook says every window he cleans is part of the process of him piecing his life back together.
At the same time, he's doing his part to keep his adopted home clean. The evidence is in the string of streak-free windows Cook leaves in his wake. If you see your reflection in the window of a Harlem storefront, chances are you have Cook to thank.
"It's like being in the world for something good. People now depend on me. The work I do makes people see Harlem on the bright side," Cook said.
John Kandel, owner of Bad Horse Pizza at Frederick Douglas Boulevard at West 120th Street, says he saw Cook cleaning a window down the block and recruited his services.
"I said we are opening a place and we've got a lot of windows. Now, he comes once a week like clockwork," said Kandel. "He cleans the best buildings on the boulevard and he's like my brother from another mother."
Cook can't spend five minutes outdoors without stopping to chat with someone he has met while cleaning windows. Every store owner he doesn't know presents an opportunity to pick up a new client. Every new grand opening sign is another appointment to add to his dozens of other clients.
While cleaning Bad Horse Pizza's windows, he ran into 36-year-old Shelton Seeley.
"When I was younger he used to try to get me to work with him," said Seeley. "He's got a lot of hustle, that's why he's doing his thing."
After moving down a few storefronts to clean the window of a newly-opened beauty shop, Cook stopped in the UPS store to check on his mentor.
"What I noticed about you was that you believed in yourself and had a can-do attitude," said Onuorah. "You are proof that there is dignity in labor."
"Today, you get your windows cleaned for free," Cook laughed.
Listening in the background was Valerie Jo Bradley, co-founder of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, who had stopped in to mail a package. She was looking for someone to clean her brownstone's 18 windows. Cook was quick to point out that he has the tools to clean a third-story window from the ground.
"I get these window washers and then they just disappear," Bradley said.
"Not me," said Cook. "You can ask around about me, I'm reliable."
"If you're good, I give a lot of referrals," Bradley added while trying to renegotiate the price.
"I'm so low, everybody can afford me," said Cook.
With a new client in hand, Cook turned down West 119th Street toward St. Nicholas Avenue. There he saw a new French bistro opening and arranged to clean their windows. From there he crossed the street to the newly-renovated Honey Salon for his weekly visit.
"He's all over the place," said Imani Thomas, 20, who greeted Cook with a smile and a hug. She met Cook when he came to clean windows at a restaurant she worked at further uptown.
"I like the way he does things. He's just very consistent," said Honey Salon's owner LaToya Boothe.
Cook says he has no choice but to be consistent given the lows he's risen from.
"I'd work eight days a week if I could. Some days, I show up at a place and I'm not even supposed to be there," said Cook, whose girlfriend helps keep the business in order.
He sees his story as a testament to his religious faith. His goal is to one day eventually be able to hire other homeless people and share with them the opportunities he feels he's been given.
"They say miracles don't happen but if you'd seen me before you'd know I'm a miracle," said Cook. "It's my testimony to let other people know, especially homeless people, that there's hope."