Secrets of the Trade: Chicago Window Washers Share Stories on Spiders, Heights and What's Inside Those Fancy Apartments

Four Chicago window washers, who shared stories about the tallest buildings they've scaled, how to get over a fear of heights and the weirdest things they've seen inside some of the city's most expensive high-rise homes.

Imagine starting your work day climbing over the top of a building and dangling hundreds of feet above the streets of Chicago.

That's exactly what these four Chicago window washers do for a living, through cold winters and hot summer months.

NBC 5 sat down with four window washers, who shared stories about the tallest buildings they've scaled, how to get over a fear of heights and the weirdest things they've seen inside some of the city's most expensive high-rise homes.

And then there's the whole spider and falcon dilemma ...

The below Q&A has been edited for clarity.


Is it possible to do this job and be afraid of heights? 

Cruz Guzman: 

"Starting [a job], that’s the only time you’re afraid of heights. But you gotta have the mind-set that if you’re going to keep working here, you’ve got to get over the fact that you’re on the side of a building. Because if you don’t get over the fact that you’re hanging hundreds of feet in the air, might as well find another job because this is not for you."

"At the end of the day, this is what we live for. There’s only so many window washers in Chicago."

Michael Kelly:

“I would say 90 percent of the time you still get that feeling like you’re going down a roller coaster, like your stomach shoots back into your chest.”

"They’re everywhere, they’re in your clothes, they’re in your shirt. They’re in your hair," Michael Kelly, a Chicago window-washer, tells NBC 5 about encountering spiders on buildings.

What’s it like being a window washer in Chicago?

Michael Kelly: 

“Can be terrifying, can actually be relaxing. All the equipment we use, we could lower a truck down off the building if we wanted to, but it’s only holding us.

“Sometimes it feels like paradise, and you can’t hear the taxis honking, you can’t hear the people yelling and screaming at each other, and all you hear is just a slight wind, and you have the best view in the city.”

How did you get started?

Cruz Guzman:

“Since I was a kid, my dad washed windows for 40 years, so I was always part of the trade. Every time we were having a barbecue, my uncles and my cousins, they were all talking about it. … A couple of times my dad would take me to rooftops when I was a kid, so it’s something I grew up on.”

“The very first time that I did it, I wasn’t scared, but once I finally stepped over the side of a building, reality hit me. My feet are dangling, and I had to make up my mind. My dad told me, you either become good at washing windows or you’re going back to school.” 

What’s the highest you’ve gone? 

Cruz Guzman:

“On a scaffold the highest building has to be Trump Tower. It’s 91 floors. From the rooftop to the ground, it’s 1,100 feet. On the Boatswain's chair, it’s the Legacy building, which is 84 floors. There’s a huge difference because on the Boatswain's chair, you’re literally sitting on a little wooden board so you can see your feet dangling." 

Gonzalo Guzman: 

“My first time I got a little scared. I remember I didn’t want to do it, but I had to do it. … My father told me, ‘You want to go to Chicago to wash windows?’ That’s why I come here. So it’s my job. For me there are no more jobs, so I had to do this, because all my family do it.

"For the first year, every single day, every minute, I got scared---I was scared.”

What's the best way to wash your windows? Take it from a couple professional window washers in Chicago: There's a right and wrong way to do it.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen? 

Cruz Guzman:

“You occasionally see people making love, but we’re professionals---you know, we just go about our business.” 

“Our company, we respect people’s privacy. And it’s definitely something that, you know, I don’t even bother looking at. … They’re in their homes, so of course they’re going to be walking around naked and in hotels and stuff like that.” 

They only have a few seconds per window, but Chicago window-washers definitely have seen some things inside the city's high-rise buildings.

“You know, talk about millions of dollars, thousands of dollars to rent out or even live in downtown, and you see their apartment and it looks disgusting. You know, they’ve got newspapers from the 70s, the 80s … clothes all over the floor, boxes and stuff, you can’t even walk. And it’s not just one apartment, one building, you see that a lot.” 

“I think ‘mess’ is an understatement. That old TV show where you go see hoarders….that’s the kind of stuff you see a lot in Chicago. … All the time, I see that more than I see naked people.” 

Michael Kelly: 

“Some people that have newspapers from like the last 40 years, stacked on top from floor to ceiling, and the only place you can walk is just a little path in their apartment.” 

“Statues they have and water features and animals and pythons. … Yeah, I’ve seen all kinds of pets that you probably are not allowed to have.”

“You’re not there long enough to really see much. Usually each window takes like 30 seconds, and there’s soap on everything so you can’t really see in, only for a split second and then on to the next one.”

Gonzalo Guzman:

"You can’t put your feet nowhere because … the [dog] poop is all over [the balcony]! … How does this happen, how can these people live like that?” 

“I’ve seen what the other guys said, naked people. Clothes, garbage, people eat pizza whatever, throw the boxes in there. All the people you see on the street [look] all nice, normal. But I’m saying, see this apartment, how it looks.”

Which is worse, if it’s really hot or really cold?

Francisco Guzman:

“For me the cold is the worst, because my hands can get [frozen] and it’s too much pain. 

Cruz Guzman:

“Primarily for me, the winter sucks, it’s the worst. … You’ve gotta bundle up, so since we use our hands to grab tools, you can’t really bundle up your hands. The only thing that works is just, sucking it up.” 

“We’ve got to put methanol with our water as we mix it, and that keeps it from freezing. By the end of the day, our overalls, you know, they’re full of ice.”

Do you ever see spiders?

Michael Kelly: 

“I would be happy if I spent my entire life and never saw a spider again. When you break one of those nests, all the spiders come out, and they go all over you. I’ve been bitten … a hundred thousand times.” 

“They’re everywhere, they’re in your clothes, they’re in your shirt. They’re in your hair.” 

Gonzalo Guzman:

“There are a lot of spiders outside, every single building here. … It’s a part of the job, because all the time we’re washing windows, just every single windows, so now for me it’s normal. Big spiders.” 

Cruz Guzman:

“I cringe when I see them because, you know, they crawl inside your shirt, around your neck. The most disturbed part is you’re washing a window and you see your reflection and you see a spider like going up on your hat.”

“The higher floors, that’s where you see more spiders, and it’s just disgusting, you know.… You’ve got to work with them, we’re literally, we’re in their turf really.”

“I don’t understand how spiders get up there in the first place. But they’re always in like the top five floors. It’s infested with spiders. … And then you see them on your pants, your shirts.” 

You’ve had experiences with falcons?

Michael Kelly: 

“I’ve been attacked a couple of times, and they’re scary. They will protect their nests and they will dive-bomb you. We actually had to cancel a couple of jobs … because they were just circling around and attacking us nonstop, and we just had to go home, wait for the eggs to hatch, and they left.”

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