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The 13th annual International Window Cleaners Association Convention is transparently entertaining

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002
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When asked about the nature of his profession, Marty Tuzman likes to raise an eyebrow or a glass and bumptiously announce that if the eyes are the windows to the soul, windows are the soul of the city. If he's feeling really comfortable, he might add, "And I'm the clergy," but like any good cosmopolite, he knows exactly how much his audience will bear. Tuzman looks at me, checks himself, and laughs. He has the physical presence and mental acuity of a ship captain, a horse wrangler, or a soldier of fortune; he's the sort of man you might picture in the company of Papa Hemingway, if Hemingway could bear his own sort of company. You would never guess Tuzman is a window-washing mogul from Wyncote, Penn., but Richard Fabry might.

"You'll notice that window cleaners are really comfortable in their own skin," says Fabry, scanning the upper atrium of John Ascuaga's Nugget Hotel in Sparks, Nev., where the 13th annual International Window Cleaners Association Convention is in full swing. "They stand straight and move with a certain grace; they're completely at ease with their own bodies. They laugh a lot. Tell stories. The salt of the earth."

Longtime publisher of American Window Cleaner, the "voice of the professional window cleaner," Fabry has had ample opportunity to make such observations. During the last 15 years, the publication has grown from an eight-page newsletter to a 40-page glossy, and, in that time, Fabry's chronicled the birth of the window cleaners' association; attended the first national convention for the group; and, most recently, marked the approval of national safety standards, which legitimizes his community among tradesmen. Friends outside the business sometimes giggle at his pursuits; still, Fabry's eyes gleam like a freshly squeegeed high-rise.

"It's a profession that draws a wide variety of people -- families, artists, students, individualists," explains Fabry, who still publishes American Window Cleaner out of his Point Richmond home. "People who like to be their own boss and keep moving. People who like sun and wind and new faces."

It may be a trade magazine, but American Window Cleaner reflects Fabry's poetic nature, which is likely the reason that David Letterman has, on two separate occasions, singled it out for ridicule. The interviews and industry ads are what you might expect (roof-riggers, scaffolding, extension poles, gutter-scrapers, cleaning concentrates, window-cleaner accounting software, and, of course, squeegees), but some of the features might be considered a little too thoughtful -- a scientific journey into the nature of glass; a history of window cleaning, from invention of the horse-sweat squeegee in fifth-century Greece to the rise of a window-cleaning association formed by the National Socialist Party and beyond; a piece of satire titled "Terror at 20 Feet"; a near-disaster story about Jan Demczur, the window cleaner who saved five people using his brass squeegee to escape from an elevator during the Sept. 11 tragedy; a health-and-well-being article offering the warning signs of window-cleaning burnout -- and the cover art is, perhaps, excessively artful. For one issue, a little boy dressed as a cowboy pushes his nose up against a Norman Rockwell storefront being cleaned by a man with a comforting smile; in another, a fleet of squeegees swarms over the arid city of San Antonio, prepared to defend it from a 1950s invasion from Mars. It's difficult to choose a favorite for my office wall, and Fabry is pleased. He hires a different artist for nearly every issue, usually an art school student to whom he gives wide rein, so long as there is a squeegee involved. Sometimes, there are tributes or messages to friends worked into the cover designs.

"Of course, not all window cleaners care about art," says Fabry, "but you might be surprised."

Forgoing the "Ladies Tea," I attend a lecture gravely titled "Glass: A Closer Look," which offers visual evidence of the genius of Pilkington Brothers Ltd., the company that invented "float glass" (the smooth sheets we are accustomed to) in 1959. Videos depicting silvery ribbons of molten glass floating over massive lakes of cooling tin are impressive, but the promised "fireworks" between glass manufacturers and glass cleaners never explode -- even when someone mentions Pilkington's latest development: self-cleaning glass.

In the Rose Ballroom, preliminaries have begun for the International Window Cleaning Contest. Window cleaners from around the world stand in line with buckets and squeegees, waiting for the chance to prove their mettle on three large windows fixed on a freestanding competition rack. Three judges, qualified to assign penalties and add seconds for each infinitesimal smear, droplet of water, or speck of soap, sit between the windows and a low table glimmering with much-coveted "golden squeegee" trophies.

"This is my first convention," says 28-year-old Shawn Kascak, a six-year veteran window-cleaner from Atlanta who also plays bass for Cauldron Born, a progressive metal band that has three albums out on the Italian label Underground Symphony. "There's a lot to learn here."

Immediately, I am impressed by the agility and concentration of Japan's titleholder, 23-year-old Atushi Shimizu, but his speed pales next to that of San Luis Obispo's Jeremiah Hickey, who, like many of the window cleaners, is attending the convention with his entire family, including 15-month-old son and squeegee connoisseur Connor Hickey. But a soft-shouldered Texan named Jim Willingham is the crowd favorite. Willingham's approach is offhanded and somehow gracious: Tipping back his cowboy hat and spreading his feet just a little, he blocks out the window with a soapy strip-washer in one hand, followed by a squeegee in the other; no overlap, no unnecessary movements, no worries. His time isn't exceptional, but he places easily, and a few folks in the swelling crowd applaud.

Willingham organized the first window cleaners' convention in 1988. He remembers "straight-pulling" his first window back in 1975, at a Sambo's Restaurant, as he recalls. Now, he employs 10. Still, every once in a while he gets the itch.

"I like those high-rise buildings with the all-glass facades," chuckles Willingham between swigs of beer and drags off a cigarette. "A few of us will be up there, and a couple of the guys will decide to try to beat the old man -- you know, taking every safety precaution, of course -- but they still can't do it. They just can't do it.

"The IWCA competition is just a good time. I don't really care about the competition. The French guys always win anyway. They practice. I don't practice; I just work. But they win. It's funny."

The French guys. They sit in a row, seven of them, three competing, three documenting, and one maintaining a stern countenance at all times. None speaks English, but everyone agrees they practice. At 14.81 seconds and no mistakes, Franck Lauret has held the title for three consecutive years.

"They take it pretty seriously," agrees Fabry as Hugo Bordet garners a hearty round of applause.

With the preliminaries complete and most of the 300-plus conventioneers in attendance, a local Reno newscaster decides to try out a squeegee. IWCA President Bob Zeola says the bar will open once she completes the panes, and the hall erupts with cajoling.

"Get that squeegee off the frame!"

"Watch your nails!"

"Nice curves!"

"Relax that wrist!"

"Is she moving?"

"I'm dying of thirst!"

No one bothers to time the reporter's progress, but everyone claps when she's done.

"I remember this job where I had to clean the mildew off a fountain," says Holly Chute, a sweet-faced woman who cooks for the governor of Georgia when she's not operating the family business alongside her husband. "I didn't have any waders, so I had to pull garbage bags up to my waist. It was really cold, but they were really good clients. I've set ladders up in pools to reach windows. Once, I blew myself into the pool while I was pressure-washing the deck. You do what you have to."

"Window cleaning is still a family business," says Anchorage, Alaska's Daniel Stevens, who, along with his brothers, is a second-generation window cleaner. "Husbands and wives, kids, brothers. It's one of the few businesses that's still passed on." As with his siblings, Stevens holds several college degrees, including theology, prospecting, and business administration, but he came back to window cleaning.

"It's the best view in town," says Stevens as his twin nods in accord. "I've watched icebergs floating by at 20 knots. Being a window cleaner is like being a gypsy. You move from office to office, from home to home. It's hard to settle into an office job after that. It gets in your blood.

"I was over the edge once, during an earthquake, and saw the buildings in front of me move 18 inches," continues Stevens, "but risk is something you plan for. I was probably safer there than anywhere else. You take more risks walking down the street."

As the speed competition comes to a close, with France's Richard Moreau placing first out of 27, Lauret placing second, Hickey third, Willingham fourth, and Shimizu a distant seventh, attention is turned toward the slower "medley" contest, a competition of precision executed over the course of six panes of differing sizes. Perhaps because of the medley's slower pace, booze and stories begin to flow more freely, mostly stories about women in high-rise apartment buildings who can't resist putting on a strip show every time a window cleaner comes in sight.

"I think they like the stroke of the squeegee," suggests Marty Tuzman, adding to an abundance of off-color squeegee gags that is humored by the female cleaners. It is almost as a joke that Laura Scott of Wausau, Wis., decides to compete in the medley contest, especially while wearing a short skirt and high heels, and suffering from a serious beer headache. Even her husband, and window-cleaning partner of 23 years, has to chuckle as she struggles to reach the edges of the mullions without bending over or falling off her shoes. Amazingly, Scott finishes the gauntlet without incurring a single penalty! According to everyone in the hall, it's unheard of. Women, while integral parts of almost every window-cleaning business, rarely compete, much less rank, and it's a hot topic of conversation as the hotel is evacuated during a fire alarm falsely set off during Franck Lauret's medley run.

In the end, even though Lauret walks away with yet another first-place trophy, Laura Scott of Brite-Way Services stands at the vanguard of American window cleaning, and Richard Fabry has another triumphant story for his "Women in Window Cleaning" issue.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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