High over the city, 315 feet up, where the wind chills bones and the view pounds the gut like a sledge, Mike Bollinger III hangs on a rope near a ladder, nailing shingles to the roof.
"It's no different working here than at 100 feet," Bollinger said yesterday during a tower-top interview at the old Post Office building. "You might scream once more on the way down, but you're just as dead when you get there."
Bollinger, 24, and his crew of five work for the Michael J. Bollinger Co., a Baltimore firm that has a contract with the U.S. government to repair the slate roof on the tower of the building.
The 1899 granite structure, a melange of arches, pointed dormers, turrets and columns at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, is being renovated by the National Capital Planning Commission as part of a plan to rejuvenate the Pennsylvania Avenue area.
To his men, Bollinger is more than the boss's son. He's the star -- a high-rise artist in a high-rise world who works without props or nets.
On the roof, he leans on a pole at the top of the top, a place where even pigeons don't fly, and he talks as if he were resting at home, drinking a beer, watching the fights and leading a normal life.
"I'm here because this is where they told me to work," he said. "It had to be done, so I'm doing it. . . . They're not really worried about losing me. I got a lot of brothers and sisters, so if I die, one of them could always take over.
"But I don't really think about it much," Bollinger said, nailing a 10- by 20-inch slate shingle on the roof.
He gets $11 an hour to dangle over the city. "It's really pretty safe up here, but the work is slow."
Bollinger said there are 150 square feet of tower to cover, more than 250 shingles to tack down with copper nails and determination. He has worked there for two weeks and expects to be there at least one week more.
"They say not to look down, but it don't bother me. It's one helluva view."
One helluva view. It lasts for days. It enraptures, fills you up and knocks you out. Makes you feel alive.
There at the top, Washington is peaceful, slow and silent -- a checkerboard of old and new, wealth and decay, worked in glass and steel, brick and stone.
There's the Post Ofice building's roof to the south, a glass ocean, hollow and solid at once, and the musical shapes of the red-roofed office buildings basking in the sun on the Federal Triangle.
Beyond is the white Monument reaching for the sky, and the basin and the rivers, shimmering and intense, snaking for miles under a blue December sky.
Behind on a hill stands Georgetown University, grey stone and stately. A patchwork of houses lie to the east, out to the west are Rosslyn's towers.
And there is Bollinger, 15 stories up in harness and hard hat, talking of slate.
"This stuff is sturdy and won't burn. What's left on the roof has been here for 80 years. It's the closest to permanent you can get."
Despite its superiority as a roofing material, Bollinger said the demand for slate and roofers trained to work with it is declining.
"At $3 for one 10- by 20-inch tile, people just aren't using slate that much any more," he said.
Bollinger, who lives in Bel Air, Md., has a degree in business he earned at night from Towson State College. His face is slightly pudgy, covered with a thin brown beard and black wire glasses. Friendly, at ease. Soft-spoken.
His days begin at 4:30 a.m. After stopping at the shop, he arrives with his crew at the site by 7 a.m.
They walk up the 10 flights, carrying gear in the dust around a winding stairway littered with pigeon droppings and McDonald's wrappers, through doorways with no doors and windows with no glass and holes with no walls.
Up they climb, past red and yellow and green scaffolds.
At the tenth floor, they pass through to the tower. A winding iron staircase leads to the clock room, three stories high, where the four glass faces of the giant Roman clock stare dumbly at the view.
Two iron ladders, two more stories, and they're in the crow's nest and its passage to the world.
"There's something about working up here, though," he said, helping a visitor hook a safety line on a girder. "It makes you feel good to work up here, gives you the kind of confidence you need to know you can do any damn thing you damn well please.
"It's better than working inside," he says.