Clear Window

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

When asked about the nature of his profession, Marty Tuzmanlikes 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 Hotelin Sparks, Nev., where the 13th annual International Window Cleaners Association Conventionis 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.

The January-February 2000 cover of American Window Cleaner.
Ben Craner
The January-February 2000 cover of American Window Cleaner.

"It's a profession that draws a wide variety of people -- families, artists, students, individualists," explains Fabry, who still publishes American Window Cleanerout 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 Cleanerreflects Fabry's poetic nature, which is likely the reason that David Lettermanhas, 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.

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