If there’s such a thing as an average window washer, Hilary Mullins isn’t it. She waxes poetic about her job in a way that might seem out of character for someone who “just cleans windows.”
But she’s not just cleaning windows — she’s letting the light in. Mullins’ tagline for her business is: “It’s a whole new world through clean windows.” And there’s good reason for her philosophical approach to her work. Mullins, 47, is also a preacher, a teacher and an award-winning author. She’s a graduate of a prestigious boarding school, a top-flight liberal arts college and a well-respected MFA program. And, coincidentally, she loves to wash windows.
For the past three years, Mullins has been squeegeeing her way around Vermont — from her home in Bethel all the way to Chittenden County and beyond — and building a reputation as a thorough, meticulous worker. She’s cleaned windows in huge houses, big universities and ski lodges. Once, while cleaning the windows at the Grand Resort Hotel at Killington, she ran into a classmate of hers from the Hotchkiss School who was staying there. The classmate couldn’t hide her surprise at the path her fellow prep-school grad had taken, but that didn’t bother Mullins. She invited the woman to dinner.
Seven Days caught up with Mullins between windows to ask about being a glutton for pane.
SEVEN DAYS: The big question is, how did you get into window washing?
HILARY MULLINS: I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a proofreader, an administrative assistant, a college professor, a lay preacher. I went to seminary for a while, I have an MFA, and I also write. None of these things, if you may have noticed, makes much money. A guy I was spending time with had a brother who cleaned windows, and he asked me if I wanted to window clean with him.
I grew up doing work around the house and the yard. I grew up climbing trees and old barn beams. I didn’t know I was training for window cleaning. As a writer, I always thought it would make sense to have a trade. But I knew I’d make a miserable carpenter, I’d kill myself if I was an electrician, and I’m not particularly interested in plumbing. So I thought trades weren’t an option. Then window cleaning was suggested, and it would have never crossed my mind. And as it turns out, I enjoy it.
SD: How do you meld these different parts of yourself?
HM: I have this very cerebral part and this very physical part of myself. I have to work both sides … If I’m working a commercial job and there are other guys working in the trades there, they don’t get that I teach English. And when I teach English, they’re like, “You clean windows?” I clean CCV down in White River Junction, and this is a place [where] I’ve taught. One of the administrators said, “Wow, we’ve never had one of our faculty clean our windows before.” It’s cool. I cut across class lines. I like that.
SD: What made you say yes to window cleaning three years ago?
HM: You have to understand that there are just no job options in Bethel. And I tried conventional jobs and I’ve never been happy with them. I have an artist’s brain. I like to have a variety of things to work on. I have a physical job that gets me outside. I love to be outside. It keeps me fit. I have a teaching job that keeps me smart. I’m writing sermons. I’m writing essays. This way, I’m never doing the same thing all the time. And I don’t have to clean windows in the winter.
SD: Why do you like cleaning windows?
HM: When you’re a kid, you get in trouble for climbing on people’s roofs; now I get paid to. I like ladders, I like going up and down, I like climbing, I like being outside. I like being project oriented. You come in, people want their windows cleaned, you figure out a fair price, you proceed to clean the windows, and you’re done. And you make the [customers] really happy in the process. When you’re done, the quality of the light through clean glass is amazing. It never ceases to please me.
Once the glass is clean, you can look out and see the sheep in the fields or the blazing yellow trees in the autumn and it’s just gorgeous. I don’t know what it is. There are these little things about it that please me.
SD: I would imagine that, for most people, clean windows are an afterthought. You notice when they’re dirty, but not when they’re clean.
HM: It’s like feng shui. You don’t notice feng shui when you walk in a room, but you feel the effects. I come in, the windows are filthy, and the people are thrilled when I leave because when they look out through the glass, they know it’s different. People may not notice it, but I’m sure it affects them.
SD: What if someone doesn’t like ladders? Can they still wash windows?
HM: You can’t do this if you don’t like ladders. There’s this dance you do with the ladders. There’s this wonderful choreography. I love all the high work, I love the ladder work, I love getting up on the roof.
SD: When you decided to be a window washer, what were some of the first things you had to learn?
HM: How to squeegee properly. Draw from the top and, when you’re finished with one stroke, you dry the blade. Another thing you have to remember is that you don’t want rubber going down dry glass. That’s what causes smudges.
SD: What else did you have to learn?
HM: I had to learn how to use a ladder. I had never done any trade work. I didn’t grow up banging a hammer and nails. You have to learn how different storm windows work. Some of them can really frustrate you. Some of them are old, they’re rickety, they don’t come out easily.
SD: What are the most challenging windows to wash?
HM: Really, really high glass outside on a hill. Or 12 over 12s. You’re doing 12 little panes over 12 little panes.
SD: How often should homeowners wash their windows, or have them washed?
HM: I clean my windows twice a year. But very few people do it twice a year. There’s no “should” on that, because it’s not a maintenance issue. It doesn’t ruin your glass. It’s all personal preference.