You, sir. Down on terra firma. Think you got macho? Take a gander at Dave Aronow, the window washer, atop a 10-story building, crawling backward toward the edge of the roof, in a howling wind. • Inches from the void, he clips the harness to his rappelling rope and edges closer. He knows a window washer who was slow to clip, lost his balance and fell a dozen stories. The ropeless soul tumbled through an awning, broke bones by the score and retired from high-rise work forever. • Dave the Window Washer — that's how he answers his cell phone — is in his 21st year of playing Spider-Man. At 44, he is an old man in a young man's game. Sometimes he feels beat up after a long day in the sky, but never mind. He has no plans to quit what may be the most dangerous job anywhere. • On the top of the roof, he extends his legs over the abyss. • Ten stories below the roof of Sand Castle condominium, traffic crawls along Gulf Boulevard. He braces himself for a moment, says "See you on the ground" and disappears over the side. • The rope straightens with a snap, then starts swinging.
"It takes a special breed of man to do this work,'' says Richard Hodge, Dave's boss at Bay Area Window Cleaning. "It's absolutely brutally physical work, not to mention dangerous.''
Hodge broke a leg before he became a manager. Dave the Window Washer snapped an arm bone above his elbow when a rope slipped and he swung into a marble wall like a flying squirrel. He thrives on live-life-to-the-fullest experiences and the stories they generate.
"So why do I do this?'' he asks. "I do this because it's fun. Every day is different. I like adventure.'' Also there's the pay: $50,000 or more, in addition to high-risk insurance, for a workweek over in fewer than 40 hours.
"It gives me time for my other interests,'' he says. He skis in Colorado and drives dog sleds in Canada. One time he paid for a flight in a World War II vintage stunt plane; the pilot flew loop-de-loops over the Atlantic Ocean.
He enjoys cooking. His specialties are lasagna, mushroom-barley soup and sushi he makes out of the grouper he spears while scuba diving in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I tried golf for a couple years, but it drove me nuts. It takes too long to be good right away at golf, and whatever I do I want to be good right away.''
He enjoys exploring the Loxahatchee, Ocklawaha and Alafia rivers in kayaks he builds by hand.
Every night he reads himself to sleep. "Mostly histories. I really loved Undaunted Courage about Lewis and Clark by Stephen Ambrose. I just got Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson but I haven't started it yet.''
For a while he was addicted to Texas hold'em poker and made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas, where he remembers winning enough to pay for the trip. "I also saw a lot of cool buildings,'' he says, returning to his favorite topic. He especially admired the Stratosphere tower (1,149 feet) and the Palazzo (642 feet).
"When I travel, I look more up than straight ahead. I'm always trying to figure out how I'd clean those buildings if I had the job.''
• • •
West-central Florida's skyline will never be mistaken for a big city's. Chicago boasts the 1,450-foot Sears Tower and New York has the 1,250-foot Empire State Building. One day Dave the Window Washer may save enough for a Middle East vacation. The Dubai Tower, still under construction, has passed 2,684 feet. The desert sand will do a job on the windows of the world's tallest building.
We do have a few edifices that scrape the sky around here.
In Hillsborough County, the building known as 100 North Tampa reaches a cool 579 feet into the nimbostratus. Dave has washed the windows. In St. Petersburg, he climbed to the top of the Bank of America Tower and rappelled 386 feet, washing the windows on the way to the parking lot.
"Once you're above 20 floors, it doesn't matter that much how high you are. You're high enough. All the cars look like ants.''
• • •
He grew up in Tampa as one of those boys who enjoyed taking apart his parents' appliances. Favorite playthings included Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs.
In high school, he picked up a guitar.
He told his parents, "I'm going to be a rock star.''
He almost got there. He played bass in Midnight, a hair band — every member's tresses fell below the shoulder — that had bookings throughout America. Another band, Naked Schoolgirls, provided heavy metal drama, beer and the company of amorous young women.
"A musician is almost always poor. You had to have a day job. Window washing paid my bills.''
When he was 28, burned out by the rock scene, he decided to become a doctor. He clung to his window-washing job while taking classes at USF, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology. "I like science. I like calculus. I like learning. My problem is I like everything. I decided it would take too long to be a doctor.''
Back to window washing. Back to the music scene. Right now he plays bass in a band that backs a country artist named Adrian Ray. Dave the Window Washer is taking violin lessons, just in case he is asked to pick up the fiddle.
• • •
"I am not afraid of heights,'' he says, looking down at Gulf Boulevard. "But I have butterflies in my stomach when I am about to drop off the edge of a roof. I think those butterflies are what keep me alive. They make me careful.''
Up there he is a rock star. Up there, he is the king of the world.
Rappelling toward the earth, he gazes through windows at men wearing white collars and neckties. He wonders if they are as happy in their work as he is in his.
Occasionally, as he cleans a window, his big muscles undulating beneath his T-shirt like a crazed python, a woman walks to her side of the glass, smiles and displays her breasts. Sometimes, when he reaches the ground, she is waiting.
He has never been married. He has come close at least twice. "I haven't found the perfect woman,'' he says. "At this point I'm not sure she exists. I want both a girly girl who is also smart and independent, and who will allow me to do my thing. I have been in some miserable relationships.''
She will also have to love his three cats.
During his career as a window washer he has dated a Hooters girl. Or maybe more than one. Though not all at the same time.
• • •
The view from the top of the world is always interesting. He often notices dolphins, stingrays and even sharks cruising among oblivious bathers below the waterfront condos and hotels he maintains. Pelicans pass beneath him. Often he rappels through clouds of wasps near building tops. He doesn't know why, but they never sting him.
He plays the wind. He uses his feet. He shifts his weight to swing one way or the other. He reaches into the soapy bucket hanging from the rope, dips a rag, swipes it across the glass. Finally, the coup de grace. He employs his industrial squeegee, turning his wrist this way and that way like a tai chi master.
"You don't learn this overnight,'' he tells overconfident people who think the art of cleaning windows is easily mastered. "It takes six months to three years to learn how to wash windows high up because of the fear factor.''
Some never get over their fear. Some never learn proper squeegee technique. Some have weak bladders.
"You don't want to drink a lot of coffee or tea before you go up,'' he says. "I was working with this guy once, he tells me, 'Man, I really got to pee,' and I tell him, 'Man, you can't' and he says 'I can't hold it anymore' and he swings over to this corner and lets loose against the building.
"He comes back and says, 'Man, that's a relief.' I say 'Look behind you, man. There are buildings right behind you with people in those buildings. People saw you.'
"In this line of work, you always have to be, you know, a professional.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.