Free in the Air

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hector hidalgo's workday begins at 3 a.m. with a moment of prayer in the company truck.

"every morning, i sit in my truck and thank god for new light, a new day," he said.

then he drives into manhattan from his home in clifton, n.j., as he has for 40 years, to clean skyscraper windows while the rest of us slumber and dream.

"i like window cleaning," he said, in accented english. "i like to feel free outside, y' know? hanging up there in the air."

born in argentina, hidalgo came to the united states at age 22. over the course of his career he has cleaned windows at rockefeller center, the hearst building and world trade center. the highest floor he has ever cleaned was the 80th floor of the empire state building, back in the day when cleaners used terry-cloth rags and a brush.

current tools of the trade are the "wand, squeegee, brush, chamois and sponge-and don't forget the soap!" regular joy or dawn dish soaps are commonly used, but ammonia cuts the grease.

there are many potential dangers for window cleaners in new york city: faulty equipment, fear of heights, wind, freezing temperatures, shortcuts-like trying to reach farther than you should or unhooking your safety belt too soon-and hawks.

"a hawk can rip your skin apart," said andrew horton, hidalgo's partner of eight years at palladium window solutions. one day a hawk swooped at horton on the scaffolding the two shared 300 feet up. horton crouched under the tripod, the steel structure that holds the wire rope to the winch drum. meanwhile, hidalgo stood on the other end, laughing.

"he chases us," hidalgo said of the hawk. "he has little kids. he brought his wife. i am waving my wand."

the wand is a t-bar with a cloth on top used to wet the window. this is the kind of partner you want in a hawk battle, horton stressed, one who doesn't overreact and loosen his end of the scaffold in a panic, causing it to tilt.

hidalgo has had only two close calls in his long career. once the mullion guide that holds the scaffolding against the building snapped and the wind nearly caused the scaffolding to flip. another time he unhooked his belt a tad too soon as he climbed inside a window and he started to fall back. he managed to catch himself "with my nails almost," and he did not fall.

but cleaning outside windows using belts is something he leaves to others now.

"my age does not permit that anymore," the 63-year-old hidalgo said.

in 2004 he had quintuple bypass surgery and got a pacemaker. next year, he will "hang up my squeegee and my brush." but he still adores soccer and has worked as a referee in professional leagues. when he returns to his wife after work, he ends his day much as it began: "i thank god for what he did for me during the day and ask him for a good night's rest."

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