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Jan. 02, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
Fear and Loafing
PANE AND SUFFERING
Window-washing stint has reporter yearning for terra firma
photos to enlarge...|
Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan washes the windows on
the outside of the Stratosphere, in the first of a weekly
series of adventures that will see him immerse himself in
offbeat jobs that challenge his fears, stereotypes and
Photos by Gary
scales the 10-foot fence encircling the Stratosphere
observation deck. There is no opening in the fence, so
window-washers must climb over and grab onto a 4-foot-wide
Levitan, top left, descends a seven-story vertical
window-washing rig that revolves around the top of the
Stratosphere at an average of one-quarter turn every three
feet above Las Vegas Boulevard, reaches for a smudge as rig
operator Will Meneses looks on.
strapped into a safety harness by fellow window washers Trevor
"T.J." Carter, center, and Maurice Horne, right.
My trembling right foot slips off the rung as I descend
the ladder backward. The ground, where so many of my fondest
memories have occurred, lies 921 feet straight down.
I don't want to say I'm afraid of heights, but I talk to God
whenever the ski lift goes over those roller things. Yet here I am,
hanging outside the observation tower at the Stratosphere, washing
the windows. Yes, the ones at the tippy top.
And I've lost my footing. My ass is glass.
When I report for work at 6 a.m., I'm warned that sneakers aren't
appropriate footwear. But this crew goes up only once every three
months, and I don't want to miss the chance.
There's no better place than the Stratosphere to launch a series
of Las Vegas adventures. The tallest structure west of the
Mississippi, this giant monument to the modern air traffic control
tower has become the city's architectural emblem. Visible from
everywhere in the valley, it's more popular than the compass as a
navigation tool. (Especially to me, since I haven't yet figured out
why U.S. 95 claims to go south while heading east.)
Once I step out onto the 109th floor observation deck, however,
the idea sounds better on paper.
The Stratosphere isn't in the actual stratosphere, by the way.
That doesn't begin until 10 miles up. But I suppose the Lower
Troposphere Hotel & Casino doesn't have quite the same ring.
Anyway, the misnomer is fine by me today, because the actual
stratosphere contains less than 0.01 percent of the earth's
breathable air, and I'm hyperventilating as it is.
If you view the Stratosphere from the correct side, you can make
out a thin metallic band stretching from the top to the bottom of
the crown, like the tuning indicator on a transistor radio. That's
the window-washing rig, a metal cage about 4 feet wide and seven
stories long. (A horizontal scaffold won't work because the
Stratosphere's windows curve inward as they drop.)
There is no direct access to this rig, I'm disturbed to discover.
Window-washers must scale a 10-foot fence, the same one scaled by
the three distraught individuals who committed suicide since the
tower opened in 1996. On the other side of that fence waits either a
tiny landing platform, or air.
Sure, I'm wearing a harness clamped to the fence. But dangling
back and forth in the sky, like a wrecking ball leaking urine, is
not the way I like to begin my Thursday mornings.
I aim really, really well.
"Ooh, look, IHOP!" says Trevor "T.J." Carter, the washer below
me, as he points out a building that lies a shrieking, 45-second
drop below him. "I could go for some Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity
right about now!"
I try looking up instead. It's worse. The windows above extend
outward, so taking them in requires teetering backward. Next, I try
focusing on the elegantly set tables inside the Top of the World
restaurant in front of me. The cost to dine here and watch the
fireworks on New Year's Eve: $350.
I would pay double that to sit there right now.
To give you a feel for how high 921 feet is, it's 331 feet below
the Empire State Building that's not on the Strip, 276 feet above
what will soon be the tallest hotel in Las Vegas, and the same
height as the ego of that hotel's owner: Donald Trump.
"I used to be scared, too," says Carter, a 19-year-old Anaheim,
Calif., transplant. "And then I looked at my first paycheck."
Carter, who worked at M&M's World down the Strip before a
window-washing crony brought him into the business four months ago,
reports earning $28 an hour.
Actually, it's not heights that scare me so much as plunges to my
death. So far, the company we're working for, Executive Window
Cleaning, which also scrubs panes at The Orleans and Riviera, hasn't
lost a soul. But two Boston window washers died in 2003 when their
rigging broke. And in November, two narrowly escaped with their
lives in Denver.
I've obviously written this article, so I'm not a new statistic.
However, this information is not available to me in the moment. In
fact, even the Stratosphere doesn't consider my safety a good bet.
It required a $1 million insurance policy just to let me up here.
This does not serve to make me feel safer, only more frustrated,
since I'm only worth that kind of money as a lethal projectile, not
a stationary journalist.
"Let's go!" shouts my other co-washer, 31-year-old Las Vegas
resident Maurice Horne, who is situated above me.
We're behind schedule because I arrived 15 minutes late, a victim
Horne, a former telemarketer who relocated from Detroit last
year, says I'm slowing things down further because of my technique.
He shows me again.
First I take my mop and tie it to my wrist so it doesn't fall and
bore a hole straight to the earth's mantle. Then I dunk it in my
bucket of sudsy water and slop it on the window. Then I squeegee it
"Haven't you ever cleaned a window before?" Horne asks.
Sure I have, I tell him, in the various apartments I've rented.
(This is not true at all. One time, a bird flew into my sliding
patio door and I moved out.)
A steady stream of used suds has been leaking from Horne's bucket
all over me since we began. This isn't so bad until Horne reveals
that one of the stains he removed was vomit from an overexcited
customer of Insanity -- the Ride, the latest of several spinning
amusement machines up top.
But the immediate problem posed by Horne's suds is more serious:
My sneakers are now as tractionless as a new downtown high-rise
"Are you all right?" Horne calls down after he hears me slip.
My desperate clutch on the ladder supports my weight as the movie
of my life flashes before my eyes. (Turns out, it's a bad comedy
starring my middle-school guidance counselor, Mr. Bashner, who
warned me I would do something stupid later in life, if I didn't
A honking spot of sludge remains on the outside edge of one of my
windows. My knees are now buckling too much to reach it. Horne
descends to do it for me.
"These windows have to be clean whether you're doing an article
or not," he says, annoyed but now also sympathetic. He explains that
the hotel's director and president both inspect the glass from
"Hang on!" Carter shouts.
Every 15 minutes, the rig revolves, hydraulically, around to the
right, to the next row of panes we're required to wash. As it moves,
it wobbles. Forget the ride up top (which I'm probably not tall
enough to sample anyway.) This is Insanity -- the Ride.
After 45 minutes, I'm ready to de-rig. I mean really
ready. Unfortunately, window-washers are not allowed off until they
make a full quarter revolution around the Stratosphere.
This takes three hours.
"Oh come on!" Carter responds to my whining. "Where else can you
get a view like this?"
I inform him of a view that I know happens to be identical.
It's from inside the top of the Stratosphere.
adventures are viewable at
Fear and Loafing appears in the Living section every Monday.
If there's a story you can help Levitan make happen, e-mail him at