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Direct Quote: The Heights of Cleanliness

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Austin Stone
Jen Reel
Austin Stone

Austin Stone rappels tall buildings in the name of transparency. Since the age of 22 he’s been running his own window-washing service, cleaning glass all over Austin, from the windows of the iconic UT Tower to the mundane panes of residential homes, with hotels, high-rises and condominiums in between.

 

“I started rock climbing from a young age, about 10 years old, and I really liked it a lot. My dad would take me to a local outdoor store in Roanoke [Virginia] and the rock wall is what got my attention. We’d go on these long trips, take our packs and our shoes and we’d climb. It was just a really fun thing to do.

“College never interested me and I needed a job, and here was a family friend who had a window-cleaning business. He asked if I wanted a job in the high-rise aspect so I said, ‘Sure, that’s right up my alley,’ and I’ve been doing it ever since. This industry actually attracts rock climbers and people who like outdoors and recreational stuff like that.

“My first high-rise experience was back in Virginia. There was a tower in this small town … it was only about a 20-story building, but it had arches on either side of it and we had to rig ourselves on the arches. There was a ladder that spanned the arches and a steel arm shooting out over the very top of the arch. We were using scaffolds at the time, so we dropped a steel cable down and had it tied back to the top. It needed to be hooked into that beam, so somebody had to shimmy out on the beam to attach it. Everyone looked over at me, so I said, ‘All right, harness me up.’ I was pretty much just free-hanging 22 stories in the air.

“Doing it for six years, you still get the butterflies every time you go over. If it’s not a flat roof it’s pretty precarious at times, and especially around here in Austin, the architects are trying to be creative with the buildings. If it takes an extra hour to rig your things in, just do it because it’s ultimately going to save you time in the long run and you’ll be safe.

“Any wet weather is a no-go, and high winds, too. Thunderstorms, obviously. I had worked for a company that was out of Atlanta and they had an account with Ritz-Carlton hotels all over the world. We had a new hotel going up in Detroit that we got the contract for and we got there and it was cold. I remember coming down and we literally had icicles hanging off us, and we dumped all this rubbing alcohol into our mixture so our water wouldn’t freeze. That was miserable.

“Last month I was doing a condominium here in Austin and the general manager said, ‘I’ve sent out emails, so everyone should know, but you’re probably still going to get somebody who ignored it.’ Sure enough, I’m rappelling down and a lady walks out of her bathroom with nothing but a towel on her head, and she screams bloody murder and then just ran back in. Then, I’m on the opposite side of the same building and I saw someone with an iPhone recording me. I didn’t know who it was, it was just a hand with a phone in it. It was very weird.

“When I first came down here it was probably 10 percent commercial and the rest was residential. It really fluctuates. When the economy goes down, I’m the first one to go, because window cleaning is a luxury.

“I’m loving this right now, but obviously I can’t do it forever. There are days when you get home, you’re just whipped. I’d like to do it for another maybe four years, until I’m 30, and either sell the business or give it to someone younger. That’s pretty much my game plan for now.”

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor. She received a Masters in Journalism with a concentration in Photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was co-chair for the student chapter of the National Press Photographers Association. She has worked in the non-profit sector for the Peruvian-American Medical Society and has been published in Utne Reader magazine, the Village Voice and Pitchfork Music.