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Sky High : Boy, Do They Do Windows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Afloat in the soupy fog that enveloped downtown Los Angeles one recent morning, Jose Sanchez beheld a sorry sight: the carcasses of several small birds scattered on a ledge above the 72nd floor of downtown Los Angeles’ tallest skyscraper.

“They did not see the building. Squick!” he said, flattening the palm of his hand against an imaginary wall to illustrate how the birds met their fate.

The view might give people a chill, but not Sanchez. That’s good, considering his job.

Sanchez cleans high-rise windows for a living. Every day for the past month, he and a partner have filled a couple of five-gallon buckets with soapy water, picked up their squeegees and rags, and climbed aboard a huge motorized stage that swings them over the top of the 73-story First Interstate World Center.

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While high-priced CPAs and lawyers huddle with clients in plush, art-bedecked offices, the window washers glide silently down the tower’s granite exterior, maneuvering their platform with practiced ease over balconies and around angled edges, defying gravity and fears of awesome heights, hundreds of feet above the street.

They are real urban cowboys, risking their lives to tame the ills of dust, smog and bird leavings--for about $15 an hour.

“A lot of people think we use drugs to do these things,” said Oscar Sanchez, Jose’s cousin and co-worker. “It’s not true. We don’t use drugs. Not even a beer.”

Some people are lured to the work by the promise of high adventure. According to Jacinda Willingham, an official with the 10,000-member International Window Cleaning Assn., those who tackle towering office buildings are the type who “might tend to do sky-diving as opposed to golf. They like excitement.”

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Occasionally, the job has tragic consequences. Last October in the high-rise capital of the United States, New York City, a window cleaner plunged to his death from a scaffold outside the 12th floor of a midtown hotel.

About two years ago, a window washer at the First Interstate World Center died after falling 48 floors from a balcony.

The Sanchezes do not regard themselves as particularly daring or gutsy. To them, the fate-tempting work is just a job--in their view, a pretty safe one.

“I know that people say we are crazy,” said Oscar Sanchez, who has been in the business about four years. “But we make good money.”

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He added: “It’s a lot of fun up here.”

Descending the exterior of a 73-story building on a mechanical platform--even at the stately pace of 35 feet per minute--is an experience that can galvanize the senses.

For the uninitiated, it makes the heart thump, the stomach knot and the knees weaken. A signal goes out from the brain: Don’t look down.

But, oh, what a view--of things both ugly and sublime.

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On a late July morning, as the cleaning men began their descent of the Bunker Hill office tower, Jose Sanchez pointed to what looked like clods of dirt on the top ledge. They were actually dead birds in various stages of decomposition.

Then, prettier sights: A red balloon drifting above the cars that crawled the Harbor Freeway; the tops of neighboring high-rises, ringed in mist.

A few months ago, in the middle of a night shift, Jose Sanchez said, he and a partner heard a pop. Turning, they saw a parachutist sail off the top of the California Plaza II office building, a few blocks away.

“We took a look and saw a guy flying . . . coming this way,” Jose Sanchez said. “We say, ‘Hey, look--he’s crazy too! More crazy than window washers.’ ”

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On a recent Tuesday, three Sanchezes were assigned to work at the First Interstate World Center: Jose, 23; his cousin, Oscar, 21, and Jose’s brother, Carlos, 22. A fourth relative, Ramon Sanchez, 31, was on hand briefly to supervise. All are employees of HSG Professional Window Cleaners, a 12-year-old Los Angeles company.

Their day began, as usual, at 4:30 a.m. They entered the high-rise from a loading dock off Grand Avenue, disappeared through a door behind the gleaming, marble-tiled lobby and rode two service elevators 1,017 feet to the roof.

Window maintenance on a high-rise is a continuous activity. Ramon Sanchez said it takes a month to clean the 7,500 panes of glass in the First Interstate building. After a few weeks, the crew begins the process again.

Their first 15 minutes on the roof were spent preparing the buckets and testing the equipment. The high-rise boasts a custom-made, $1-million, state-of-the-art “swing stage” system. It consists of a rectangular 1,800-pound steel scaffold or stage, about 36 feet long, with chest-high walls. It can bend in the middle to fit around the building’s angled edges. The whole contraption hangs from cables attached to a 65-foot boom that moves along a circular track around the top of the high-rise. With a push of a button, the window washers can hoist the stage up, down, in and out.

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A southwest breeze was blowing, but it was so gentle that the weather vane on top of the swing stage barely turned. Had it been stronger than 15 m.p.h., Ramon Sanchez said, the work would have been canceled for the day. Rain stops work too.

So do earthquakes. During the 5.8-magnitude Sierra Madre earthquake June 28, the swing stage jumped about three feet, causing its occupants--Jose and Oscar--to cling for dear life outside the 48th floor. They were not hurt, but they got off the platform as soon as they could.

“We were lucky,” said Oscar, who would admit to feeling only a little scared.

On this morning, there were no quakes, just fog. Jose and Oscar buckled themselves into safety harnesses, which they hooked to a cable inside the swing stage. Carlos stayed on the roof with a walkie-talkie.

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Slowly and almost noiselessly, the platform with the two men inside swung over the top of the cylindrical tower. When unbuffeted by wind or seismic forces, it gives a remarkably smooth ride. On days when the wind kicks up, Jose said, “we’re holding the walls,” trying to keep the stage from crashing against the glass or granite face of the building.

First stop, the 72nd floor. Jose and Oscar briskly applied their squeegees and sponge wands to a layer of smoggy soot and bird droppings, using their pinkies to push water off the bottom edge and rags to wipe up drips.

On the other side of the glass, a small crowd gathered. A woman in a tailored suit pointed at the washers and mouthed the words “very crazy.” Jose and Oscar just smiled.

Sometimes, tenants come out on the balconies and offer them coffee. Once, an office worker snapped Ramon Sanchez’s picture and handed it to him when he reached the bottom.

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The washers said they have never observed anything through the windows that was particularly interesting--no romantic encounters or heated arguments.

That’s fine with them. A certain serenity resides above the ever-blaring sirens, the clanging construction sites and the maddening rush of downtown traffic--even on a platform suspended 1,000 feet in the air.

“A lot of things are wrong on the street,” said Oscar, who lives near Hollywood. “There are gang members. . . . In the schools, you see drugs. You can’t have any nice car, (because thieves) break the glass and take the stereo. It happened to me about three times.”

Nothing bad has ever happened to him on the job, however. “I like everything in this job,” he said. “I feel very safe.”

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By about 1:30 p.m., Oscar and Jose are riding back to the roof. They will empty their buckets, rinse off the squeegees and oil the motor that powers the swing stage.

One more day and they will be done. But they will be back soon, ready to start all over again.


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