To clean in the air with the greatest of ease

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September 29, 2003 // UPDATED 11:05 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Despite the occasional falcon attack, Downtown's window washers are treated to spectacular views while improving the views of others

Mark Raschick and Keith Pearl share what is arguably the best view of Downtown -- and they don't pay for it.

As high-rise window washers, the men have been trained to ascend the city's tallest buildings and make them sparkle. From their vantage point at the top of the cityscape, the panoramic view is breathtaking.

"The view in the morning, especially the view of the river, is just awesome," said Pearl, 39, of Blaine. "The best thing about the job is that nobody gets to see anything like we do just about every morning. In the spring and summer, [the view] is excellent. That's the greatest part of the job."

Raschick and Pearl, members of Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union, have recently begun their days atop the AT&T Tower -- known as the artichoke building for its sprouting angles at the top. The 34-story tower at 901 Marquette Ave. stands 464 feet tall.

On a recent morning, the window washers agreed to entertain the curiosities of a Skyway News reporter and photographer who asked to get a closer look at their work.

View from the top From the rooftop of the AT&T Tower, the Foshay Tower hovers below -- a building that once dominated the city's skyline. The shiny faade of the IDS building serves as a giant mirror -- reflecting a large swatch of Downtown. The building lacks a parapet wall -- a barrier most skyscrapers have to prevent thrill seekers from flirting with the building's edge -- that makes watching the scene especially nerve-racking.

Raschick and Pearl's work begins around 8 a.m. when they climb into a giant oblong bucket, known as a "swing stage." The bucket is controlled by a motor and attached to the top of the roof.

Raschick, 39, of Brooklyn Center, calls it the "Cadillac" of high-rise window washing gear because it slowly and quietly descends the side of the building without making abrupt movements.

They say it feels safer than the chair they use to rappel down the Fifth Street Towers.

The artichoke building presents a few challenges, though. Its top juts out at angles. To stay tight to the windows, the pair place T-shaped pins with ball bearings that lock into holes in the side of the building. The pins are attached to a cable line that allows the pair to descend the side of the tower and hug tight to the windows.

When they meet another point with new outward angles, they push the "swing stage" bucket away from the building and reset their pins. They reset the pins the whole way down -- about every three stories.

It takes about a half a day to reach the bottom of the building. The pair is a part of a window washing crew that has spent weeks polishing the AT&T Tower -- both inside and out. It takes about four weeks to complete the job.

Mary Marsden, vice president of Marsden Building Maintenance Co., who contracts the window washers for a number of Twin Cities buildings, said most buildings they work on get wiped down twice a year. Pearl said many of the washers use Dawn dish soap because it comes off nice with the squeegee.

The washing can get tedious, the pair admit, so they listen to KQRS to pass the time.

"It gets repetitious," Pearl said. "You can kind of daydream from time to time. You get plenty of time to think -- that's for sure."

They both said they felt the job deserved higher pay than their $18 an hour -- given that general contractors can earn more than $20 an hour at ground level. Pearl said the work requires a mastery of a lot of equipment and demands physical stamina.

The work on the "swing stage" isn't as labor intensive as the chair work, Pearl said.

"Your back has to be strong. You have to push yourself down with your feet. There's a lot of stretching involved," he said.

He said he suspects the pay turns off a number of laborers, given the job's scary nature. "They think it's just crazy."

The risks Both men dismiss the fear factor that accompanies a job requiring one to dangle hundreds of feet in the air for hours at a time. They don't have experience climbing mountains.

"We're just average Joes," said Raschick, who applied for the job after he heard about it from a friend. He previously worked as a janitor, as did Pearl.

He said he felt sort of nervous the first few times he started his job, but he doesn't think about it anymore.

The pair has been lucky. They haven't had any mishaps or accidents on the job.

The last time a window washer died on the job in the Twin Cities was 1995, according to news accounts. The washer died after falling from a five-story building in Brooklyn Center.

One time Pearl was in a "swing stage" bucket that stalled. The motor stopped and he had to crank the bucket down by hand at a snail's pace by operating an older, backup motor.

Birds can also prove perilous.

Peregrin falcons sometimes swoop at them, as the falcons attend their high-rise nests, Pearl said.

If trends continue, the window washers, not the birds, will be the endangered species. Window washers are among a "dying breed," says Mary Marsden.

Marsden has about 22 window washers. All told, she estimated that the city has about 50 window washers. Most of the workers are unionized.

"It's getting harder to find people who have been trained," she said.

Marsden's high-rise window washers learn the trade on the job, through a yearlong apprenticeship. It takes two years to achieve the status of a journeyman window cleaner, Pearl said. The rank signifies the high-rise washer has mastered the tools of the trade and the requisite window-washing techniques.

It takes most washers about six months to feel comfortable with the heights, he said.

Pearl, a 14-year veteran, doesn't plan on giving up the craft anytime soon. "You don't have anyone over your head, telling you what to do. That's what's nice about it," he said.

Marsden said the company doesn't advertise for window washers. Sometimes the job attracts thrill seekers who don't have the patience to go through the training, she said.

Besides a smaller pool of applicants, there are many window-washing tools for high-rises that can be operated electronically without workers dangling outside the windows. Some resemble giant sponges.

But the equipment can't do what a window washer with a squeegee can do, Pearl said: "We get it crystal clear."