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Cameron MacSween: Keeping Melbourne’s windows clean

Cameron MacSween

Window cleaner and owner of Cam’s Window Cleaning Services

"Every two weeks we head into the city and do what we call the ‘shop run’ where we run around cleaning the windows of different bars and restaurants in Melbourne."

Cameron MacSween gives the glass door one last expert swipe with the squeegee and then steps back to inspect his flawless work. The small audience on his outdoor deck breaks into applause. He turns around with a slightly sheepish grin.

“Haven’t done that in a while. I’m feeling a bit puffed!”

The owner of one of Melbourne's oldest window cleaning businesses hasn’t professionally cleaned a window in 10 years to be exact.

But to watch him at his trade is to almost believe that it was only yesterday that he got off the tools. His window cleaning technique is akin to a well-choreographed dance complete with rhythm, confidence and precision.

“No, I haven’t lost my touch,” Cam laughs. “It’s like riding a bicycle. But as you can see, it does take a certain level of fitness to clean windows."

"Sometimes you have to get through five houses a day, and you just get in there, cracking do it and knock through it. The shoulders take the brunt of it, and you build up a little in the forearms. And you do find yourself puffing a little bit.”

What’s kept you in this business for 20 years?

I used to be a motorcycle courier in the city many years ago but I eventually realised that it wasn’t my future. At the time, I was also doing some window cleaning on the side; it was something I had learnt to do as a kid.

The idea was to build up that side business. When it started overtaking the courier work, I was happy to get rid of the motorbike. I kicked this business off in late 1997 and worked alone for about two years before I brought in a mate to help me. And it just grew from there.

Now we have nearly 7,000 clients on our books, both commercial and domestic, although the former has outstripped the latter by 70 per cent. Five years ago, we started doing abseil window cleaning for the new high-rises in the city. I’ve never done the ropes myself, though.

So what’s the highest you’ve been off the ground, then?

I’ve used high ladders - in ways you couldn’t get away with in today’s OHS climate. Back then they had what was called three-stage ladders that went as high up as 40 feet or four storeys. It was pretty hairy stuff. Today, the maximum height for ladders is 30 feet. All the rules have changed.

Can you remember the very first windows you cleaned? What building did they belong to?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ll have to go back 30 years or so for that. (Long pause) Sorry, I can’t remember! But I can tell you which was the scariest. It was Trinity College in Kew.

I was up on a big ladder working by myself after hours when the ladder suddenly sank into the grass and tilted backwards. My heart went with that ladder. It only dropped a little but when you’re three and a half storeys up, you don’t expect anything like that to happen!

Is window cleaning subject to seasonal cycles? And is the cycle different for domestic and commercial jobs?

It's very seasonal especially in domestic. People might plan to get their windows done once or twice a year but if it looks like bad weather, they change their minds.

The domestic market fluctuates especially around winter and picks up in summer. Now we’re running seven ground crew and 10 abseilers. In summer, we’ll have 10 ground crew and 15 abseilers. We get a lot of tourists wanting to work for as long as their visa will allow, and students who are looking for work over the summer holidays.

Most of the apartment buildings in the city, on the other hand, are slated for a three or six monthly rotation so the windows definitely have to be done. And every two weeks we head into the city to do what we call the ‘shop run’ where we run around cleaning the windows of different bars and restaurants in Melbourne.

We’ve built up a big run in Melbourne Central and have also done many established places like The European Restaurant on Spring Street, Georg Jensen and Alexandra Club on Collins Street, the Australian Club on Williams Street and the Great Western Hotel. The work ebbs and flows in the city.

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When you work in residential homes, are you strictly focused on the job or do you also allow yourself a look around or have a chat?

I’m focused on what I’m doing. We’re inside a lot of Melbourne homes, including those of the rich and famous, and you don’t want to be nosing around. But you do get to see into people’s lives a little bit. The house design, how people dig their houses out and how they live.

And yea, we talk to people if they want a chat. As you get more experienced, you learn to chat while doing your job. Some of the older people especially, look forward to something like that. And you want to be on time for these people because they’ll be sitting by the front door fretting that you haven’t arrived right on the dot.

Do you find yourself getting asked to do extras at the domestic jobs?

In some ways we end up being handymen as well. We get people asking us to change burnt out light globes that they can’t reach, remove birds’ nests, unfurl flags, unclog gutters and pull down things hanging off the roof.

How difficult is it really to clean a window and what skills do you need?

Years ago, anyone could pick up a squeegee and go off to clean windows. It’s become more of a trade now. It takes about three months before you get the hang of using the squeegee, and six months to a year before you’re actually proficient at it.

There’s an art to it and it’s so much more technical these days with the different sorts of glasses, different styles of windows and architectural designs that don't take building maintenance into consideration.

Some of the trickier windows to clean are those over pools. Back in the day, you wouldn’t mind accidentally falling into the pool if it was summer and you were on your last job of the day.

Tell us a favourite memory on the job.

One of my fondest stories is about a guy from India. I have tremendous respect for him because he left his two-year-old son and wife back in India to work here. He worked his butt off for five years, and by the time he returned to India he was doing seven days a week in summer. Now he owns multiple properties in Mumbai.

Another good story is about one of our window cleaners, Peter. I used to call him Peter Perfect. He was quite a handsome bloke and really well-built so we would get quite a few women calling to ask if they could get Peter to clean their windows again!

Throw us a random but fascinating fact about window cleaning.

I always say spiders are my best friends because you can clean windows and within a couple of weeks the spiders would have put their webs up again and you get called back!

In A Snap:

Best part about your job: Walking into a place with really dirty windows and transforming it. Clean windows brighten a whole house. Some people are even surprised to see that they have a garden out there.

Worst part about your job: Dust, grime and a filthy house

Most frequently asked question: Is that the best price you can do?

Most interesting part about your job: Dealing with the different nationalities

The building you’d most love to clean: Any of the classic, early Victorian houses

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