A Seat In The Sky
As somewhat of a homebody, I enjoy relaxing on my couch with the AC on high, watching 30 Rock on Netflix, and snacking. Meanwhile, Dino Pertzoff, rockstar president of World Wide Window Cleaning, dangles over the sides of 30-plus-story buildings in central Honolulu. As the largest window-cleaning business in Honolulu, World Wide Window Cleaning has dozens of hands helping with more than 300 of the tallest buildings in the state. Press coverage of Pertzoff’s team has ranged from the local news to a featured spot on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs.
I sat down with Pertzoff and one of his associates, Chris Kim, to talk about their experiences above the city.
I first heard about you guys in that episode of Dirty Jobs; I was completely blown away by what you two do. How was it to film that episode?
[Host Mike Rowe] was cool. We were supposed to train the day before and the two cameramen showed up. They got trained in our office about how to reppel, but we didn’t get to meet Mike until the day of the shoot. What struck me the most about Mike was that he was the same person off-camera as he was on TV.
He seems like a really down-to-earth kind of guy.
We got to do some R & R with him and the crew the next day and took some jet skis to Ke'ehi Lagoon. He got very quiet and seemed to just be releasing and relaxing. Mike was very respectable—I mean, when you go around and everybody worships you all day, it’s got to be pressure. Publicity-wise, we also did the Larry King show. Howie Mandel took over for that one. There’s two different people: Mike Rowe, who makes a living making people look good, and then Howie Mandel who makes a living making people look like fools. He did a really good job with me.
[laughs] What’s the window-washing business in Hawai‘i like?
When we first started [in 1998], window cleaning had always been something that you did until you found something better to do. It wasn’t a career choice. So one of our goals when we started out was to turn it into something similar to plumbing, or [being an] electrician, et cetera. It takes just as long to learn and it’s a legitimate profession. There was an ongoing joke that we were these ‘high rise janitors’ and the pay reflected that at the time. Across the country, same thing. Now Chris here, he’s chosen to do this for a period of time to get himself into law school.
(Chris) I’ve got a college degree, I’m going to law school, and I clean windows. I have no shame, because it’s not something everybody can do.
If you can go up there, you can pretty much do anything I think.
You’d be surprised at how many people—CEOs and presidents of major corporations—start off cleaning windows. Traditionally in the past, the only ones who stayed with it as a profession were ‘second chancers,’ or those who had erased all of their other options. Part of that was the pay—we’re trying to change that. And getting all the buildings on board, [recognizing] that window washers are out there every day doing a job that most people won’t do. It takes two years to learn how to do this properly, depending on the individual. And high-rise window cleaning is equally dangerous, if not more, than any plumbers or electricians.
It looks pretty dangerous. Especially for me, I’m terrified of heights.
Well, our insurance rates reflect that it’s not really that dangerous. But it is a profession for athletes. You don’t want to not be in shape and do this; it’ll wear on your body really quickly. It’s a young man’s profession, but if you’ve been doing it since you were younger, it keeps you in pretty good shape. I know guys well in their 50s and 60s doing this.
So did this job turn you into a thrill seeker?
[Laughs] No, that comes first!
More like risk taking, I guess. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I like riding big waves, and bungee jumping—anything that can give me that rush. When I go to the amusement parks, I’m looking for that one ride that’s going to put my stomach way up here [gestures to throat]. That’s how I judge it.
(Chris) I feel the same way, absolutely. When I was in college, my buddies and I would ride our bicycles from Seattle to Mexico. This is the type of people that this profession attracts.
One of our guys moved to the mainland—he used to go every summer to the New York trails with a backpack. He’d hike all summer doing something like 1,300 miles in total.
You guys must have tons of stories.
What’s funny is when you get a bunch of guys who’ve been doing it a few months or a few years and they’re all having beers, and all they want to talk about is window cleaning. After 20 or 30 years, you kind of want to talk about something else.
I’m sure you get asked about horror stories on the job—are there any scary moments that you’d like to share?
Well, Chip [another window washer] has fallen. Maybe twice or three times.
Fallen off the buildings? How far did he fall?
It wasn’t more than 4 or 5 stories. Chip was using a rolling hook and his mount popped off the wall. He hit the ground, the hook fell on top of him, and Chip immediately popped up from the adrenaline. He stood right up, and looked down. Both of his legs were broken, one arm was the size of a football, and he fell back down instantly. Now, both his ankles are fused. He’s one of the only other guys who have been doing it longer than I have. I’ve never fallen though, can’t even say any close calls. We had another guy in Waikiki and the outside elevator had gotten his rope. [The elevator] was supposed to be turned off but the wind picked it up and snapped the rope like a piece of yarn. And these are strong ropes, they could carry a 747. Luckily, our guy only happened to be a floor and a half up when it happened and it was a 35-story building.
That’s lucky, but the possibility of falling must be terrifying.
They took him to the hospital and he walked out of there with some bruised wrists. We’ve had hooks fall off the wall, where the safety wasn’t tied directly back and someone would fall a couple stories before it catches them. That always leaves you shaking a bit and then you take the rest of the day off.
You just want to double-check everything.
If you check the insurance rates, you’ll see there are not many accidents. What I’ve been trying to do is educate the hotel owners and managers on the standards. Traditionally, window cleaners would get up on a roof, kick a surface to test it, and if it doesn’t move, they tie off on it. That’s the biggest reason people die in this industry: they’re tied to something that’s not designed to hold and it breaks. A dozen people in the U.S. alone die every year from cleaning windows. So we’re educating, we’re installing anchors. We used to pride ourselves in what we’d call ‘creative rigging.’ It’s not like that anymore.
In many ways, World Wide Window Cleaning is ‘anchoring’ everything about the window cleaning business—from safety to opening up the communication channels with the businesses they deal with to helping make sure that tourists and locals alike can call Hawai‘i paradise. They’re the ones out there, every day, beautifying our skyline.
The respect that Dino and Chris have for each other and for their industry is clear. For the washers hundreds of feet above the ground, it’s not making a living, it’s a way of life that binds them as a family.
And like any good family, their reunions are scary as hell.