Hangin' With a High-Rise Window Washer

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Drive past just about any big building in the Washington area, and there's a good chance that Hernando Melendez has washed its windows. Supreme Court? Yup. The Capitol? Yes. Dulles and Reagan airports? Indeed. And hundreds of others as well, most of which fall into the generic office building category.

Since 1988, the 40-year-old Salvadoran immigrant has dropped over roofs and down the sides of these buildings to wash away grime and goop and return the windows to their gleaming, confident selves. In blistering heat, bone-numbing cold and -- worst of all for window washers -- devilishly unpredictable wind, Melendez and his co-workers perform work that combines a relatively mundane custodial task with breathtaking daredevilry. After all, how many people start their workday by attaching two safety clips to a harness and rappelling down the side of a 20-story building?

We caught up with Melendez, a Greenbelt resident, on a recent chilly morning in Arlington's Crystal City, where he and his team from Kevco Building Services Inc. of Gaithersburg were hard at work.

Tell me about the first time you went out on a rope to clean windows.

Oh, man, my heart it was pumping, pumping. And when I looked down the first time, I thought, wow, the rope is going to break. People look up, and some think it looks easy, but it's not.

So you've been doing this for 19 years. Are you still scared when you're up there?

If you don't feel scared doing this job, you can make a mistake. We trust what we are doing, but we also have all of the respect in the world for this job. This is one of the most dangerous jobs, and you always have to be really awake. So far I haven't had any accidents. [Knocks on the wood table.] Safety is our number one concern.

Is this a job that you thought you would have as a kid?

Never in my life was I thinking this is what I'd be doing. No way, man. But when I moved here, my cous in was cleaning windows and he got me a job doing it, and so now I'm cleaning windows nearly 20 years.

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