Clean sweeps: Seattle’s window cleaners have seen it all
With squeegees and guts, they keep our views clear.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TRAVIS SEERA is sitting on the sun-drenched rooftop of a high-rise in Belltown, enjoying the last few bites of his lunch until it’s time to climb off the edge.
To the uninitiated who peer over the parapet to see where he’s headed, it feels like this could be Seera’s last meal.
It’s a stomach-churning drop, one that has turned his safety cones, parked on the sidewalk 26 stories below, into puny orange dots not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.
But Seera is unfazed. A high-rise window cleaner in Seattle, he’s gone over the edge hundreds of times and always comes back for more.
So does Ben Cruzat, a married father of three boys with another on the way. Now 36, he’s rappelled down Seattle high-rises with a bucket and a squeegee for 15 years.
“I didn’t have any plans of being a window cleaner this long, and every winter I have a different plan,” says Cruzat. He’s smiling, but not laughing.
Remember the subfreezing temperatures during the Super Bowl parade? Cruzat and Seera worked nine hours that day, hanging off ropes attached to the roof of a high-rise on Second Avenue; it was so cold they put methanol in their buckets to keep the soapy water from freezing.
Seera, 31, wore four layers of clothing that day, including two beanies and gloves that did nothing to stop his fingers from freezing to the point of immobility. He cried that day. Everyone on the job did.
“In the winter, I look inside and I’m jealous,” Seera says.
But then there are glorious days like this when light bounces everywhere, and the city admires itself in sheets of newly cleaned glass. Days when people tethered to their desks on the other side of the glass look out at Seera with envy.
Unlike most of us who spend our lives on the ground, Seera experiences the city from every angle imaginable: Up close, panoramic, cubist, upside down, outside in and spinning around.
His is a world of stunning visuals, an ocular onslaught of ever-shifting perspectives. Whether he’s cleaning the green-glass dome of the Second and Seneca building downtown, or eyeballing lichen growing on cornices, his view is relentlessly novel.
Seera has dangled over parapets on some of the city’s tallest high-rises and climbed hidden stairwells with keys to places even the building inhabitants can’t access. He’s been divebombed by nesting seagulls while turning the corner of a building on a rope. He is more than familiar with his own face.
Seera sees how we live and work, how fog looks when it crawls from the mountains into the Sound. He knows how petty we can get when our cars get dribbled with water.
He finds the city at its grimiest and makes it sparkle. Seeing the results of his labor matters to him.
“A desk job is not for me,’’ says Seera, a Tennessee native who had one after he graduated from college. “I’ve got to use my hands. I’m proud of them.” He turns his palms up to show off the calluses he’s acquired working for Puget Sound Window Maintenancethe past six years.
It’s a well-paying job with good benefits — medical insurance, a 401(k), three weeks paid vacation, mileage reimbursement and a hefty Christmas bonus.
The average high-rise window washer makes about $17 an hour, Seera says. He makes considerably more. How much more? You can ask him when you see him.
“So many people ask me what I make,’’ he says. “They’ll say, ‘I hope you get a lot to do that.’ They see it as crazy risky and kind of like, ‘Why in the world are you doing that?!’ ”
WHY? IT’S NOT an unreasonable question.
Hanging midair, Seera looks as though he’s riding the swings at the county fair.
If he’s feeling playful, he’ll draw a smiley face in the suds. Or a heart, which usually draws a smile from the woman on the other side of the glass.
“I’m all bluster,’’ he says. “I only have the guts to do that because there’s a pane of glass between us.”
Glass is a tease that way: It simultaneously connects us and keeps us apart, which can make for some odd interactions.
Some people pretend not to see Seera, even when he’s dangling right in front of them. Occasionally someone will open a window to say hi. Some wave or take photos. Mostly, they’ll do an eye check, then go back to work or playing solitaire or watching YouTube.
Glass can give people a false feeling of privacy. Building managers routinely post notices alerting their tenants that window cleaners will be on the premises. Still, some forget or ignore the alerts.
Seera recalls the mortifying moment when he was cleaning a medical tower and dropped down to a room where a woman was undergoing a gynecological exam.
“She and the doctor saw me and started laughing,’’ he says, shaking his head at the memory. Now, he fights to clean the pediatric side. “The kids are so much fun. They’re terrified when you kick out and do a 360.”
One day he finished a drop, only to find himself standing a few feet from two sleeping women in a company nap room. He prayed they wouldn’t wake to see him standing there.
Seera can get lost in his head, too. He puzzles over people in condos with million-dollar views who cover their windows with cardboard or close their drapes year-round. He listens to books on tape through a Bluetooth ear set or talks to his momma. Sometimes he ponders the future.
IT MAY COME as a surprise, but even in this high-tech age, the human hand remains the only viable option for cleaning windows. No one has figured out how to mass produce a self-cleaning window at a reasonable cost, and without cleaning, windows — and views — become permanently marred.
Most homes can be cleaned with an extension ladder. Some high-rises, such as downtown Seattle’s Columbia Tower with its 8,816 windows, have built-in scaffolding systems. But most high-rises are cleaned by a person hanging from a rope using a boatswain, or boatswain’s chair, originally developed by the maritime industry to inspect ship hulls and perform other work aloft. The chair is basically a plank with straps; it’s attached to a rope that is secured to an anchor on the building’s roof. The chair allows cleaners to work while sitting down, and gives them a place to hang their equipment.
Looking around Seattle’s skyline, you could get the idea that architects have it in for window cleaners. Some buildings have huge overhangs that make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach the windows without taking great risks or using customized equipment. Others are built without anchors on the roof, forcing the workers to attach their ropes to whatever stable object is there: a steel stairway, an air-conditioning system . . .
Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries has begun to address the issue, mostly by citing and fining companies that use “unapproved” objects for anchors.
(Oddly, Seattle’s building code doesn’t require anchors on high-rises. Instead, the city leaves it up to the market to decide when and whether to install them, said Bryan Stevens, a manager at the city’s Department of Planning and Development.)
Seattle hasn’t had a window-cleaning fatality since 1998, when a 15-year-old worker was killed in a scaffolding accident at Northgate Mall. But there are injuries. Last year, L&I received 61 reports ranging from scratches to back sprains, rope burns and broken bones.
Nationally, scores of injuries and fatalities have been reported to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration since 1994, most of them involving ladders.
Seera, the high-rise cleaner, said he trusts his equipment — and himself, so the job doesn’t feel dangerous, even though he knows a fall would likely be fatal. One of his newer co-workers, however, recalled a scare when he leaned past his center of gravity and swung upside down. He got tangled up, and his hand was trapped under a rope against a railing
“I had to yank it out,’’ says Dan Warner, 31, of West Seattle, who has been practicing the trade for less than three months. His wife hasn’t come out to see him work yet, he says: “When I tell her stories, she’ll be the one getting a little nauseous.”
Still, “contrary to popular belief, it’s very safe, and it’s gotten much safer,’’ says Emmanuel “Manny” Ochsenreiter, owner of Windows 101 of Seattle, one of a handful of companies that sell specialized products to the window-cleaning industry.
Ochsenreiter, who has worked in the industry for 20 years, describes it as “a growing profession. Glass is becoming a big factor in building because it’s cheaper, so there’s a lot more windows to clean.”
Statewide, 282 full-time workers were classified as window cleaners in reports to the state. That doesn’t include part-time workers, companies that don’t have to report to L&I, and people working off the grid, which appears to be quite a few.
“It’s an easy business to start because the investment is so low,’’ Ochsenreiter says. “A bucket and a squeegee, and you’re on your way. You’re selling your labor.”
Hundreds of people start every year, and hundreds of people leave it, he says.
The ones who stay tend to like the freedom.
Mitch Jacobsen, 35, and Colin Ray, 30, fell into the residential cleaning business eight years ago. “We started with $3,000 and a car,’’ says Ray.
It felt like a transitional thing — something to pay the bills and give them freedom to travel. It still does that, only now, their company, Better Window Cleaning Seattle, is licensed, bonded and insured, and employs their friend, Tai Koenig.
They run larger crews in the summer and pare down in the winter. Periodically, they’ll take a few weeks off to give their bodies a rest from the physically demanding job.
“This has been good for us,” Ray says. They’ve met interesting people, worked inside and outside architectural wonders, and learned how to run a small business.
“On a sunny day,’’ says Jacobsen, “our phone doesn’t stop ringing.”
RALPH “R.D.” Swalwell is, by his own count, the oldest window cleaner in Seattle.
“When you’re on the street doing windows, you are really on the front lines of life,’’ he says. He’s sitting in Alfie’s Food and Deli, an old-school haunt in the Denny Triangle that’s become his go-to place for pastrami sandwiches.
Swalwell is 81, but looks a decade younger in a sensible blue windbreaker and black-and-white Hawaiian shirt.
He’s been working a squeegee in Seattle since 1962 when his uncle hired him as a janitor on the opening day of the World’s Fair. Soon after, Swalwell started his own cleaning service, calling it “A 2001 Space Cleaners” until his wife, Patricia, suggested he rename it “Lift-Off.”
“My wife is a genius,’’ Swalwell says of the women he fell in love with when she was a widow with nine children. “I’m a lucky man.”
Initially, windows were only part of Swalwell’s custodial gig. But he tired of the night and weekend hours. He wanted a home life, a job he could control. He cast his eyes toward windows.
“I was too old for high-rises, and I didn’t want to do homes,’’ he says, noting that tiptoeing around furniture and knickknacks made him feel clumsy. “What’s left? Storefronts.”
He’s got about 300 customers.
“It’s a stress-free operation,’’ he says. “You don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder.”
Swalwell has kept one storefront on Lower Queen Anne shining for more than 50 years. “Same windows, same tile, same sills, same door, same everything,’’ he says. “It’s like a time capsule.”
In his heyday, Swalwell could make a storefront gleam in 10 minutes. He’d work his way down the block, charging $10 a storefront. Now he charges $15 a storefront.
Swalwell still works 4½ days a week. He rises at 6 a.m., hooks up with his “crew” of one at about 7, breaks for lunch at 11:30, and heads home to catch the 5 o’clock news with his wife.
His sole employee, Tyrone Edwards, does the physical labor. Stalwell helps keep things moving: he drops off the portable cleaning carts he designed, and circles the block in his van until Edwards is ready for the next string of storefronts.
Swalwell’s wife runs the business, and even launders four dozen blackened towels each week.
“There was a time I worked to keep the business alive,’’ he says. “Now it’s the other way around. Now the business keeps us alive.” He’s not talking financial.
Cleaning windows gives you all the time in the world to think, and Swalwell lets his mind wander wherever it wants.
“I want to be part of the 1 percent, not in terms of wealth but in terms of leaving a footprint,’’ he says. “Most of us: Poof! What did we leave that was delible, something tangible?”
He dreams of selling his business to someone who will do for window cleaning what Howard Schultz did for Starbucks.
“That’s what I want to do, leave a footprint, something that will be here when I’m gone.”
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.