Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; Photononstop
For Craig Taylor’s latest book New Yorker (modeled after 2011’s Londoners), the author spent over six years interviewing 180 of us, 75 of whom were part of this little volume: private tutor, cop, doctor, lice consultant, injury lawyer , a gay rights activist and Salvation Army bell ringer among them. During these 400 hours of interviews, writes Taylor in the introduction, New Yorkers “did their self-mythology on the go… They looked at their lives, told their lives, made sure that it was. already a story, almost before the moment has passed. “Throughout the week, we’ll be highlighting a few particularly interesting characters he’s met. On Monday, we heard an elevator repairer, Tuesday we met a healer which specializes in “space clearance” apartments in New York, and today it is Marvin Abram, who worked as a window cleaner in the city for 28 years. “Abram is also a preacher at a Brooklyn Baptist church,” Taylor says. “He described his favorite views from the heights of New York with a voice so reverent it looked like he was giving a sermon.
I was really tough for a job. I was working in the Garment District, bringing home about $ 90 a week and it didn’t. My uncle, who was a second generation window cleaner, I kept asking him for a job. Finally I got one. He introduced me to a few people, I was sworn in to the union, and I went to clean the windows. I’ve been cleaning windows since – twenty-eight years later.
I’ve done everything from ladder work, stick work, sash work – where you hang the window on a sash – and scaffolding. I am a well-rounded person when it comes to window cleaning. Ground work and all the rest. I wouldn’t clean windows anywhere else in the world.
My first day was in the old national building in Hanover near Wall Street. They were showing me how to use a squeegee, how to clean the front doors, stuff of that nature. The belt was there for when I got there, I was a size 34 at the time, and they took me to the eighth floor and opened the window, showing me how to put on the belt, how to reach out and plug in and how to get out of the window. I did it without a problem, because I wanted a job. I wasn’t going to be afraid of heights. They said to me, “Do as we tell you and don’t fall.” So that’s the only advice I got. Short and sweet.
They taught me to inspect the belt, even if it was brand new. You should always inspect it, because the belt is mostly fiberglass, and make sure the runners are intact, the springs are working on the clips, make sure it is not dry rotten, make sure make sure that it has not been kept in a dry place that has a lot of heat or a place that might have too much humidity.
When you are working on the belt it becomes your responsibility to protect your belt, to protect your tool. Because it’s something you physically take home or keep in your locker. Your life really depends on it. Most of the time, the scaffolders, they are saved. There are very few deaths on scaffolding. But when you work on the belt, it’s just the opposite. Because if you haven’t taken good care of your belt then do the right things to be well taken care of, when it comes to your belt you don’t have a second chance. This is history. You are supposed to surrender a belt every four years. They break down, are rebuilt or destroyed and the company buys a new belt.
That first day, I went out on the eighth floor. The ledges could be about two inches wide. I wanted to end it. I just wanted to get out and close the window, stay out for a few seconds, come back and be done. But over time it has become second nature to just step out of a window and do what I have to do. It has become second nature.
Some people take raclette to me and say, “I can do that”, and it comes out just awful. It’s not like you’re cleaning a glass table, or a mirror at home, or anything like that. There was a raclette when I started, now they have a bunch of different brands of raclettes. I use Ettore, I’m an old school guy. I stick to the same raclette. Ettore squeegees have been around since the 1930s. An Ettore handle, a brass handle, will last ten years. They have Sorbos and Ninjas, and all that. But one could be brass, the other could be a plastic handle. Regardless, I can clean a window with any squeegee you give me.
I was taught to never take a squeegee off the window unless it is completely clean. I start from the left corner, I go to the right corner. Do not remove the squeegee from the window until it is clean. With experience, I might take it off and know how to put it back on. And don’t leave a line, you know. When you start out you step away from the window, you don’t see the line. But when it dries up and the sun hits it and you’re like, Wow. Here it is. And this is also what the customer says.
Window cleaners see some interesting things when we are there. Sometimes you might be in a commercial building, part of which is residential, and therefore you come across things. People don’t expect to see you there so early in the morning, you know? People can walk around naked or have sex or things of that nature. This surprises window cleaners.
We are always listening to strange sounds on the scaffold. When we inspect it, we don’t take the scaffolding apart but we check the cables, you know. At least the cable that we can see is out. We could lift the scaffolding four or five feet to look underneath to make sure there are no loose parts. Then there are things internally in a scaffolding that we cannot access. But we know what we’re supposed to hear and what we’re not supposed to hear. We listen to sounds that might be abnormal. Grinding, chipped cables, or something like that.
I worked with people where you could actually see. . . They are climbing the ladder and you can feel the ladder shaking because their legs are shaking. You wonder like, What is happening? What’s wrong with you up there? You see people, really hesitant, come out the window. People have to come back because they are afraid. They are afraid to lean back out of a window. You have to lean on the belt. You can’t stand up on a window to clean a window, you know. You have to lean back. You have people who say, “Ah, no, I don’t want to lean back, no!” Funny, you laugh at it. It was not funny at the time. But you say to yourself, “Go and do it, we have to do our job. Lean back. “
Extract of New Yorkers: a city and its people in our time by Craig Taylor. Copyright © 2021 by Craig Taylor. With the permission of the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form whatsoever by any means whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher.