Friday, 25 May 2012

Portland Panes Shine Come Rain Or Shine

Portland high-rise window washer Carlos Welsh, 28, makes sure not to miss a spot outside the luxury apartments of Pearl District's Metropolitan building. The Beaverton father of four took the job to support his family, and discovered a talent for dangling from rooftops. Click to enlarge.
Portland high-rise window washer makes panes shine, come rain or shine: When Carlos Welsh was laid off six years ago, he worried how he would support his four young children. He took the first job he was offered, cleaning the exterior windows of Portland's tallest buildings. He was terrified, but feeding a family trumped his fears. Fortunately for Welsh, he discovered a knack for hanging from a rope several stories above the pavement. By now, the 28-year-old is so used to dangling with nothing below him but a bucket of suds and a few stories of atmosphere, he answers cellphone calls in midair. "I've been cleaning long enough that I don't drop stuff," he says. "The new guys tie their phones to their clothes."

Welsh, of Beaverton, was working as an indoor window cleaner when the boss cut his position. He turned to the newspaper classifieds, where Clean Services Northwest had this advertisement: High-rise window washer needed.  Welsh was afraid of heights but applied anyway. When asked if he had any experience with high-rises, he lied. His first job was on the tallest building on Clean Services Northwest's account, the 35-story Koin Center. He nearly fainted with fear. "I didn't see myself, but I'm sure I was white and shaky," he says. "I was terrified." Welsh made it through that first descent with the help of an experienced trainer. Within a few weeks, the fear diminished. Instead, his thoughts during a "jump" involved tailoring his window-cleaning strategy to the building's architecture. "Each one is a little bit tricky," he says. "You have to know what you're doing." Now, Welsh is the supervisor working alongside fear-stricken new trainees. He teaches them the ropes while they avoid looking down.

Armed with a squeegee and a bucket of soapy water, Carlos Welsh has rappelled from dozens of Portland's highest buildings as a window washer for Clean Services Northwest. Click to enlarge.
On a recent Tuesday, Welsh and a partner begin a two-week project at The Metropolitan building on Northwest 10th Avenue and Lovejoy Street. At 225 feet, the luxury apartment building is the Pearl District's tallest. His meticulous hands rarely miss a spot. Leave a streak on a window in those expensive penthouses, Welsh says, and you're bound to get complaints. "We call it drip, when the water from your squeegee gets on the window," he says. "If your window doesn't look really good, you have to do it again." After dropping a rope containing his bucket and a small stick of wood to sit on, he climbs over the edge and doesn't stop working until he reaches the ground.

Left to right, down, zigzag back up to the top left corner, then X marks the spot. One window down, countless more to go. He swings over to the neighboring window and affixes a suction cup to the glass, using it to hold himself in place while he cleans. Right, down, zigzag, zigzag, X. It's the same routine all the way down. Drop a few feet of rope, refasten your carabiner, dip your squeegee in the dish soap, and swipe. Eight hours of this is taxing, Welsh says, but it beats sitting at a desk all day. "I don't like feeling trapped in four walls," he says. "With this job, you're a few days on one building, then you're jumping another one. You're always moving around, and you get to enjoy the weather."

Building managers are required to notify tenants a few days before window cleaners arrive, but Welsh still occasionally catches people off guard when he drops into view. Office workers, in particular, are easy to startle when they're absorbed in a task. Other washers have caught people in the throes of passion, but Welsh's most extreme encounter was with a naked woman who promptly bolted from the room. She returned in a robe a moment later and opened the window to say hello and laugh about the incident. "Some people are really nice and give you a tip," he says. "Others shut the blinds in front of you. They think you're looking in, but really you're just looking at the window." Passing pedestrians often ask questions or shout salutations and words of encouragement. Children, in particular, get excited when they spot Welsh hanging high above. "They're too little to understand how you're doing it," he says.

Cleaning windows requires more than a head for heights. Today, for instance, Welsh has to contend with exterior beams that jut several yards from the building. To reach the windows, he'll have to swing in, then cling to the suction cup with one arm while the other reaches overhead to clean. It's not easy on the arm muscles. "Rock climbers have applied before, thinking it will be kind of like a sport," he says. "But it isn't as easy or fun as it looks to them." His only protection is a breathable waterproof coat and pants, a baseball cap and a white beanie. No amount of padding would save him if he fell anyway, and accidents are extremely uncommon. Clean Services Northwest has never had one.

The Metropolitan project begins on a rainy, windy and frigid morning at the outset of a particularly wet week. Window washers squeegee through the elements. "We try to work on the opposite side of the building so we're shielded from the wind," he says. They cancel gigs only when the weather is unbearably bad. For all the job hazards, Welsh is paid $20 an hour. At home, he cleans the windows only on nice days, about four times each year. "I have little kids, so right after I clean the windows the handprints are all over anyway," he says.

Carlos Welsh's tips for gleaming glass: Don't worry about the solution. Welsh fills his bucket with dish soap and water. Anything that effectively removes the grime will do. Instead of investing in more expensive glass cleaner, buy a squeegee. It won't leave streaks the way spray cleaners and cloth sometimes do. Start from the top, so anything that drips won't ruin the work you've already done. Keep a towel handy to wipe your squeegee in between swipes.

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