The first time my father took me on a ride to the top floor, he reminded me of the many rules: Don’t touch any buttons. Don’t make eye contact through the window. Don’t shift your weight too quickly.
“But most important of all,” he said, his deep voice rumbling over the piercing city winds, “don’t lose your lunch. No one wants your mother’s roast beef sandwich sliding down their front window.”
I nodded and bit my tongue – hard. The roast beef was probably a mistake, but mother had insisted. It was a big day, after all. I’d spent weeks learning how to properly wash the sponges, how to mix the right cleaners, how to handle the poles just right so they wouldn’t clang too loudly. Father would ride up, alone, and I would watch from the ground, the bottom of the platform getting smaller and smaller as it cranked high above the cars, above the street signs and above the city’s never-ending roars.
Normally the sounds would swallow me up whole, the honks and the sirens and the yells, as I waited for the platform to come back down and to hear about the mysteries atop the city’s tallest skyscrapers.
“Could you see the Willis Tower? How many feet were you up? Does the river look greener from above?”
Smiling, father always rustled the top of my head and put a finger to his lips. “You’ll learn soon, my boy. Very soon.”
And so I waited, tantalizing my daydreams of a world above where manmade steel met God’s heavenly clouds. Where powerful people passed money that could be only passed two hundred floors in the air. Where the city was quiet enough for you to hear the wind whisper its secrets as it tickled your ear.
At the time, we were living in the basement of my uncle’s butcher shop, where there was no sky to be seen or windows to be washed. Instead of the tickling wind, I felt the thick stench of rotting beef waft down the stairs whenever the door opened. But when my Father came home each night, I would run over to him, burry my nose in his jacket and smell the crisp breeze from the city’s skyline.
“When can I go up?” I always asked. Normally my father would just rustle my hair, put that finger to his lips and head silently to his bedroom. But one night when I ran over to smell the breeze and to ask about the city and to dream aloud about that top floor, he didn’t rustle my hair, but instead reached out his hand to shake mine.
“Tomorrow,” he promised. “Tomorrow you’ll see.”
Since that first morning, I’ve been on many platform rides and on many solo jobs. For the most part, many of those days have been like any other. I’ll take the platform up, get a good view from the top floor and then scrub my way back down to the city. But some days – the peculiar ones – stick out. Or more specifically, the lives – the peculiar ones – on the other side of the window stick out indelibly in my mind.
When I was about 20 and first taking over the business, I came across an old woman who had fallen asleep in the nude and forgot to close the blinds. I remember finishing that window as quickly as I could and later advised the building manager to warn his guests the next time I came.
A few years later I spotted a dog in labor to an empty apartment. Without a number to call its owner, I climbed through the window and spent the next two hours wrangling a full litter of puppies.
And in one of my most recent jobs for a family friend, I accidently caught the husband on the toilet, deep into a copy of “Reader’s Digest.” I wasn’t sure if he noticed until he handed me a cash tip afterwards and said, “Don’t worry, I washed my hands.”
It’s been 40 years of washing windows, climbing above the Chicago skyline and delivering a litter of puppies now and again. Even still, nothing has compared to that first ride to the top floor.
“Can I push the button?” I asked, hoping he’d say yes but knowing he never would.
“Maybe not this time,” he replied.
“Do you think I’ll be able to see the butcher shop?”
“Does mother know which building to look up at?”
“You told her three times over breakfast.”
I wasn’t sure if the taste in my mouth was blood from biting my tongue so hard or the lunch I was about to throw up in pure excitement. I was going to touch the clouds and hear the wind and see the men passing their money. I was going to the top. Little did I know that while the top floor would be all that I dreamed of, the ride up would be much more.
My father cranked the platform to the building’s penthouse, owned by one Mr. Scott Andrews. Mr. Andrews was a good tipper – actually a very good tipper – and I probably had him to thank for many a birthday gift through the years. For now, my ‘thank you’ would be this. I prepped the sponges like I was taught, soaked them in the cleaning solution and passed the first pole to my father.
His strokes were strong, coating the glass in a frothy film with each brush. It was exactly like how I had dreamed – quiet, save for the whisper of the wind and the squeak of the sponge. I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sweet silence.
But then all too quickly, the moment passed.
“I know she’s here, Scott – just let me through the door!” A woman inside the apartment, whom I assumed to be Mrs. Andrews, hurled a porcelain vase across the room. It hit the opposite wall and immediately shattered into tiny pieces along the floor.
“Honey, you’re acting crazy,” a red-faced Mr. Andrews stammered, his back firmly pressed to the bedroom door. He reached a hand to Mrs. Andrews’ face but she quickly swatted it away.
This was not the top floor that I was expecting with the pretty clouds and the stack of money and the playful wind. I peered up at my father in surprise, wondering if this is what he’d meant when he said, “you’ll see.”
“Focus on the work,” he said quietly. “It’s none of our business.”
The couple inside raged on, Mrs. Andrews throwing more expensive things and screaming more loudly by the minute. First was the vase, then a fancy-looking ashtray, then a framed wedding photo. Shards of glass and cut crystal flew through the air like flakes in a snow globe.
“Virginia, not the steak knives!”
My father’s brush strokes grew faster. Instead of rechecking the window for streak marks, he immediately moved on to the next.
“More soap,” he whispered. I moved the bucket closer to his pole and tried with all my might to do as he said and focus on the work. I counted the tiny bubbles racing down the glass. I refilled the soap bucket twice. I tried to listen for the wind, which was now too faint to drown out the Andrews on the other side.
“So you’re telling me there’s no one in there, huh?” Mrs. Andrews screamed. “Not some stupid little (she said a word I didn’t know back then) you’ve been letting come here for months? In our home, really? For God’s sake, Scott.”
“Sweetie, okay, you’re right – is that what you want to hear? You’re right. You’re right about all of it. But there’s no need to get crazy like this.”
“Oh I get to be crazy, Scott.” Mrs. Andrews lunged for the door again and again Mr. Andrews blocked her.
Father’s strokes were at lightening speed now. At first, I was grateful. Soon, we’d be out of this mess and back into the quiet clouds. But when we moved to the apartment’s last window, I realized what room we had left: the master bedroom.
I prayed that the blinds would be closed or curtains maybe. Rich folks have curtains, right? But as the platform moved towards the window, there were no curtains and no blinds – just a clear view of the half-naked woman pacing around the room.
I’d never seen a woman in her underwear before. Mom always flipped past the trashy TV channels before I saw anything good. Now I had a front row view, but I was too freaked to even notice.
The woman scampered from corner to corner, her eyes frozen so wide that I could make out their color through the window. She checked under the bed, in the sheets and behind the dresser until she found a pair of pants and quickly stepped into them.
“Let me in or I swear I’ll kick the door down myself!” Mrs. Andrews shrieked from the next room. “You think I’m kidding, Scott but your little (she used that word again) for sure knows I mean it.”
With this final threat, the now-dressed woman went ballistic. She tried to fit under the bed, but to no avail. She tried squeezing in the closet, which was full of Mrs. Andrews’ latest purchases. Finally, she collapsed onto the room’s oversized Persian rug. Big, sloppy, mascara tears streamed down her cheeks and fell into the rug’s fine fur. This couldn’t end well, I thought, and almost felt bad for the poor woman. What else could she do? But suddenly, as if the wind had told her, she glanced through the window and I swear jumped three feet in the air at the sight of Father and I cleaning from the other side.
Father just kept on washing. Up and down, up and down. I could tell it was taking every bit of strength he had not to look through the window but instead just at the glass in front of him. He did such a good job in fact, that he didn’t notice the woman had unlatched the window from inside. She slid the glass across, swung her bag over her shoulder, hopped onto the platform and placed a finger to my father’s own lips.
I knew the rules. Don’t touch any buttons. Don’t make eye contact through the window. Don’t shift your weight too quickly. Don’t lose your lunch.
But with the woman’s added weight, the platform jutted out from under my feet. I fell backwards, my elbow landed on the control dock and the platform lurched all the way back to the living room window. The woman, not accustomed to the platform, lost her balance and slammed into the glass, her skin smudging my father’s careful masterpiece. The wife, not expecting to see her husband’s mistress squashed to the window, shrieked in horror. The husband, not expecting any of the day’s events, stepped back as his once red face went white.
As for me, I looked up at my father, looked down at the pavement, and then watched the roast beef slide down the Andrews’ apartment window.
“I think we’ll be going now,” my father said, his hand already pressed to the control dock’s button.
“Not without me!” Mr. Andrews jumped over the shattered glass, flung open the latch and toppled through the beef-covered window. With the extra 200 pounds, the platform lurched forward, dropped a floor down and titled toward the street.
“Oh yes, I think we’ll be going down right now,” my father said.
His tip that day wasn’t enough to buy the penthouse, but definitely a few floors up.