One Square Mile: What it’s like to wash the windows of Atlanta’s tallest buildings

The job is dangerous—sometimes deadly—but for Ed Torres, a 28-year veteran, it’s worth it for the flexible hours and pay

Window washingWindow Washing | Buckhead | 6 miles north of downtown
Ed Torres was installing hardwood floors in an Atlanta high-rise when he saw a window cleaner drop into view and said, “Oh, I want to do that.” Ed (pictured above) had always loved heights, but he was petrified for the first three months on the job, knowing he’d be tying ropes to the city’s tallest towers, clipping himself to a small seat, dropping over the edge, and hanging for hours. Now, 28 years later, Ed has lost two friends in the industry to falls, and each morning his wife still begs, “Be careful.” But he enjoys the flexible hours and pay—about $40 per hour, the higher the job the bigger the rate—so much that he enlisted his younger brother, Daniel, into Atlanta’s oldest high-rise window-washing company. Nationwide Window Cleaning branched out of Baltimore in 1968 specifically to clean the rotating Polaris restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency, and the company grew alongside Atlanta’s skyline, as motorized swing stages (multiperson platforms) were swapped out for more economical boatswain chairs, which require workers to rappel. “We’ve been on every building in this city,” says third-generation owner Jeff Boyar, who describes the truly monumental jobs—imagine the Westin Peachtree Plaza—as occupational adventures, sort of mountain climbs in reverse. Beyond the obvious, hazards can include swarms of bees, tricky geometry that requires swinging and then suction-cupping yourself to windows, enraged raptors (a hawk once ripped off Ed’s hat), lightning, and winds over 15 miles an hour, which can whip workers around buildings like tetherballs. And Atlanta is apparently full of high-rise exhibitionists. “You get to see a lot,” says Daniel Torres. “They don’t care.” Unlike his brother, Daniel keeps his job a secret from his children, and his wife never asks how his day went, or how far he dropped. Thinking too much about upcoming jobs can still cost him sleep, but on a breezy day atop Cathedral Towers in Buckhead, Daniel quadruple-tied off to a staircase and steel beam; loaded up his squeegee, mops, cleaning solution, descent device, and suction cups; gazed out upon the rumpled topography; and proudly listed the towers he’d conquered, from Cobb Galleria to Midtown. Then he leaned straight back, 14 stories over sidewalk and asphalt, saying, “You only live once.”

This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.