Life on the Top - a photo, video and written essay about my experience working as a highrise window cleaner

The author sitting on the roof of the Woodwards Building (Vancouver, B.C)

The fastest elevator in the city feels like the longest ride of my life as we hurtle toward the 61st floor at two floors per second. The padded maintenance elevator doors open to ornate light fixtures, marquetry-style carpet and bamboo grove themed hallway. Roaring 20s meets Tibetan kingdom fantasy. We pile out juggling rain gear, harnesses, hoses and squeegees. We’ve reached base camp and prepare to make our final ascend two stories above the highest penthouses in the city onto the roof of the Shangri-La Hotel. As we summit, the vacuum-sealed door opens to the capricious howling wind. The roof is empty and lifeless but for the hotel’s giant rotating fans. No finely dressed concierges in purple robes welcoming their arms when people walk in. There are no water features, rooftop gardens or bamboo themed walls, only giant security cameras, a floor of crushed gravel, and the unsavoury smell of sewage gas vents. The North Shore Mountains hug the city like a giant horseshoe. We can see Simon Fraser University and, across the American border, Mount Baker, the barns of Southlands to the bistros of downtown. Oil tankers rotate in English Bay - like a painting, their profiles are a distinctive part of Vancouver’s Gateway into the Burrard inlet. I look over the edge of the vertical glass and steel precipice. The noise of sirens and jackhammers rise from below, so muted the sounds accentuate the isolation. 

    “You’ll learn to cope with the height after two weeks,” Mark grins, reading my false confidence. Mark is the lead electrician on this building and under his tutelage, greenhorns like myself learn in one hour how to “fly” the crane-operated swing stage - a platform the size of a large shopping cart.

I  feel like a fraud as I wrestle into my fall protection harness, and climb into our Swing Stage. 

Mark casually presses the remote controller with the serenity of a man riding the children’s ferris wheel. The crane lifts us above the roof, over the gravel platform, over the private swimming pool below.

“You ready?” he asks.

“Sure.” My voice cracks as I stiffly grasp the safety bar with white knuckles. Just looking at those old black and white photographs of iron workers dangling from girders, casually eating their lunch, made my palm sweat. 

The turret of the crane swings outward. Our shopping cart sways sickeningly over the edge.

“It’s pretty simple” Mark explains. “You go up, you go down.”

“This erection looking button makes the boom extend, this turns the crane.” Mark’s sexual innuendo rings hollow: I’m just trying to focus on something stable and familiar, less exposed and vulnerable. As the stage swings out the boom squeaks, a new sound that puts every one of my senses on edge. My mind careens into the violent imagination of my body skewered on a fence pole 700 feet below. I think about earthquakes, fires and the competence of an engineer in Germany who designed this machine. But then ‘Where to Pee’ looms as the most complex issue. 

“Do you have any questions?” Mark asks. “No? ... Well, you’re an expert now!” 

In that moment I miss the irony of such a sophisticated design for a trade which only uses water and dish soap. 

I spent part of my summer cleaning windows in a neighbourhood where socks can sell for $40.00 a pair, whose inhabitants’ tastes for luxury have been cultivated over the years with purchases of sports cars and patronage of expensive restaurants and boutique groceries where square watermelons sell for $200.00.

I feel like a zoo keeper,  momentarily peering into the lives of Vancouver’s exotic wealthiest while cleaning seagull shit off their windows. Mostly I witness empty and lifeless rooms, or offices exhibiting the tedium of cubicle life. These are not all fat bejewelled developers whose sole existence is to eat the world, mostly typical life is on display through these windows - unmade beds, recreational drugs on coffee tables, Apple computers. 

There’s no subculture to this job, no window washers’ lore. It’s actually a pretty lonely profession, performed in isolation 700 feet up a glass and steel wall.