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Life of Panes

Reflections on 20 Years of Clean Windows

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By Cheryl Ross

Jimmy King's strokes are quick and precise as his pole-handled brush glides up and down the storefront window. He's making good time, but as far as he's concerned he's two days behind schedule.

"Much to my disgust I had to stay home Saturday," he says.

Saturday's weather was horrible. Today is Monday.

Jimmy walks with a slight stoop, taking measured but quick steps as he totes his pole and bucket from store to store along North Sheridan Road. That's Jimmy's work address. Has been for 61 years. He comes up from the south side to wash these windows. "I average about two days of work a week," he says, "which is more than enough."

He walks into Flatts and Sharpe Music Co. at 6749 N. Sheridan. He and Ed Mooney, the owner, have known each other for close to 20 years.

"What did you end up doing Saturday?" Ed asks.

"Clean the home, vacuum. I cleaned the house for my wife from one end to the other," Jimmy says in a gravelly voice. "There's no rest for me ever."

He heads for the washroom to fill his bucket with water. He says when he began washing windows in this place it was an undertaker's parlor. The washroom was the embalming room.

Ed comes in. "You ready, boss?" Jimmy gives the OK. Ed picks up the bucket and takes it to the front windows. He likes to follow Jimmy around and chew the fat. "He walks down the street and people will stop their cars and say, 'Hi, Jimmy. Remember me?' He is an inspirational guy."

As Jimmy works on the windows, Ed mentions he just had a birthday.

"How old are you?" Jimmy asks.

"You know how old I am."

"Thirty-six?"

"Get out of here. Like you're 65, right?"

"No, I forget."

"Fifty-three," Ed says. He's a marathon runner and doesn't look his age. He says, "Jimmy doesn't look bad for 65, does he?"

"For 50," I say, playing along. "No, he doesn't look bad for 50."

Jimmy lets the nonsense go on for a while, then regally pronounces, "I am 84."

He crawls backward on his knees, dragging a rag across the windows to dry them off. When he's done, he takes a break in the back room. He sips water for a while, then announces, "One more minute."

It's 11:40 AM.

"Everything is a matter of minutes. You cannot do this kind of work and not work by time," Jimmy says. "I'm 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I told my wife I'd be home by four o'clock and I think I can just make it. We're going to have a financial meeting at Saint Anselm Church at six o'clock to discuss the fiscal year."

Then he's up. "Let's go, girl," he says. "We're going to hit the road."

He washes the outside of Ed's windows, then walks a few paces over to the Kung Fu Academy and does the same job there. Then he goes back to Ed's. He puts a rag on the end of his pole and blots the water between Ed's window frames. Then he walks to the corner and does the windows at a barbershop called In the Cut.

At noon, he crosses the street and heads for Vibes Music.

"I asked Ed if he had a guy who took care of windows and he suggested Jimmy right off the bat," says Mark Butler, the manager of Vibes. "Reliable, dependable. He doesn't play any games with you. He hasn't missed a day here in three years."

"He shows up like clockwork," Ed says. "In 20 years he has missed one day. And that was a day it was 28 degrees below zero and the windchill was minus 56."

"I'm like the mail," Jimmy says. "I have a contract with these people. I do their windows once a week. If I don't do it on Saturday I do it on Monday. I don't skip. If you deal with me you pay me every week."

He's paid as little as $5 and as much as $20.

It's now 12:35 PM. Jimmy's at Carmen's Pizzeria. He takes a coffee break at a table near the front. An itinerant window washer peeps his head through the door.

"You're not the owner?" asks the man, who looks to be half Jimmy's age.

"I'm the window washer," Jimmy says authoritatively.

"Oh, you're the window washer. OK. I'm just checking it out, bro." The man ducks out of the store.

"I told him I'm the window washer; that took care of that," Jimmy says. "He gets these stores that are fly-by-nights. Most of them I've tried but they're too damn cheap. I don't go and knock on the door and say, 'Do you want your windows washed today?' I say, 'Do you want them washed every two weeks?' They say, 'I'll let you know.' I say, 'No, you won't let me know because I won't be coming back.' No, I don't fool with that. I ask you once. I don't ever ask you again. You see me go past, you call me if you want to. And if I've got the time, I'll wash them for you."

Jimmy gets up and walks to the pizzeria's front windows. With some difficulty he pulls off a sign that's taped to the glass. "I've got a pet peeve," he says. "These people, they come here and stick a sign on my window with adhesive tape. They put the sign on the window without permission and expect you to take it off. I can't wait fast enough to get them off." He washes the inside of the windows. When he's finished, he puts the sign back. He spots a dirty trash-can top and runs his rag around it.

1:17 PM: Jimmy washes windows at the City Slickers hair salon next door.

1:21 PM: He's doing the same at the Sharpe Eye down the street. The windows here are at least ten feet tall. Jimmy is about five foot eight and 158 pounds.

1:28 PM: He's back at Carmen's, washing the outside of the windows.

1:51 PM: He orders a pizza, which he eats in the back of the dining room. There are no patrons sitting back here; it's quiet.

The first time I met Jimmy was at Ed's. When I said I wanted to watch him work, he told me, "I can't work and talk at the same time. Got to take care of business." Then he said I could meet him at Carmen's for his regular 2 PM pizza break.

He sat in the back of the restaurant, and launched into his life story.

His mother died when he was 17 months old, and he was reared by two aunts. As an adult he lived for a while in Los Angeles but disliked the city's poor public transportation. A friend in Chicago offered him a place to stay, so he came here in 1935. He was offered a window-washing job at a Rogers Park barbershop in January 1936.

"The Jewish people and the Irish people took a liking to me and all the old ladies liked me. In those days they would hire a maid for $5 a week. They wanted their windows washed, their clothes scrubbed, so I learned how to do all that. 'You want to wash windows?' I said sure. Picked up a couple of stores and I began to work and mingle with the people and everyone liked me. So I've been here, on and off, ever since then."

Jimmy said he didn't have much until he married in 1958. "From the day I met my wife, Joyce King, my fortunes went up." She owns a six-flat at 61st and Indiana, where they live.

Jimmy takes the el up to Rogers Park on Saturdays. He leaves his Cadillac at home. "I've got a beautiful deluxe--what do they call it?--high-performance white Cadillac with a gold key," he says, laughing. "It's a '93 and I've got 5,000 miles on it.

"I do my stores on Saturday. And I'm very active in Saint Anselm Catholic Church. I'm the head usher and a member of the financial committee, a minister of the Eucharist. I help run the church. It keeps me busy. And I work around the six-flat that my wife owns. If something goes wrong, you fix it. You maintain the building. It's home. Between the building and my wife, who hasn't been feeling very well lately, it keeps me very busy. I belong to the big Y on Stony Island. I work out every day."

How many hours?

"No, no, 15 to 20 minutes is enough. I'm not an athlete. I don't want big muscles, I just want to keep moving," he says. "I'm not setting records or anything."

Jimmy's been in semiretirement for the last six years.

"I dealt with people in the buildings here, but there was a turnover. Old Jewish people and the Irish people, they always wanted something done. Everything began to change and then different nationalities moved in. The new generation, like you, you don't get any windows or walls washed. It's not important to you."

I asked if I could chat with some of the people who've known him over the years.

"There's no one who knows me anymore. That's the whole trouble! They're all gone."

These are all new customers, except for Ed?

"Yeah, he's the oldest one. There isn't anyone left here, honey, who was out here when I started. This is a new breed, a new era."

So why does he keep coming out?

Jimmy laughs. "One time I didn't work for three months. I still did everything I wanted to do. If I never worked another day I would still do the same things, buy the same things, go to the same places, and get a new car if I wanted to. But I like to come out and work. I like to meet the people. I like the money. I give it to my church. I give it to my son. I buy this and that. I am a part of something. It's a part of my life." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jimmy King photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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