Sturm und Drang

Today’s post was written live and direct.

~o~

I am on an airplane, on my way to Florida. I am helping my friend Clem, a steel sculptor like myself, install some large scale pieces. We have 48 hours to accomplish this task. I think we started drinking as soon as we hit the airport but we may have waited until after checking our bags.

The plane is paid for, my meals are paid for, my own motel room is paid for and we’re heading to the beach just in time to intercept a major tropical storm. So far so good.

But let’s back up a second here. Maybe we should begin this story at the beginning.

Clem, John Clement, is my excellent friend and studio mate of over a dozen years. Whether or not it is true, I consider myself instrumental in getting him and his girlfriend on the same page that led to their successful and wonderfully good looking marriage. I did this by providing an outstanding example with my own ultra-groovy marriage as well as offering advice to both parties that may not have been stellar, but at least it wasn’t poisonous.

One of the sculptures that we are installing is Clem’s. Two of the sculptures that we’re installing are not Clem’s. One of these two sold for 450 thousand dollars. This is by no means your ordinary installation. Somehow, all three sculptures are arriving on the same truck and the other galleries involved are piggybacking our installation services. I am the go to person for this installation because I owe Clem a bunch of money and I don’t have it, so this way I am able to work off my debt. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m ten years older than Clem this trip would have none of that ever so tasty embarrassment factor attached to it at all. The other reason I might be here is because I have over twenty years experience at rigging and I can operate machinery and tools accurately and efficiently.

Clem has other people that he can use for this sort of job but they are young and prone to recklessness. I, on the other hand, am more moderate, more considered in my actions. It wasn’t always so but it is now. I may not have grown up but I have definitely slowed down and on a big job like this, where other peoples property and money are on the line, it pays to go with a more experienced hand. The more so when that hand is free of course, but still.

~o~

The trip starts where all these kinds of trips start; at the airport bar. Two rounds of beers, two shots of tequila. Did I mention moderation? Not my fault or my doing. I’m only along for the ride and this ride starts at the bar. I’m traveling with a bar owner; it’s only to be expected. By total and complete coincidence we have just run into one of Clem’s ex-bartenders. This ex and his girlfriend buy us a round, we buy them a round and it’s time to head to the gate. The plane is delayed. Back to the bar. This developing drunk seems inevitable and the fact is, I don’t like to tamper with the inevitable.

~o~

I have only just learned that our destination is Sarasota and that Sarasota is on the west coast of Florida. I like to think of every experience as a potential learning experience so I’m already way ahead of the game and I haven’t even finished my drink. This should be good.

~o~

The delay is never officially explained though I do see a lot of arm waving by the weather guy up on the flat screen. There is a hurricane passing through our destination. But never mind our destination; after more shots and beers I do believe the hurricane has made landfall at our point of origin right here at LaGuardia Airport.

~o~

We’re now in flight and I have Coltrane on the iPad; Equinox. Cool happened a long time ago now. So much music has happened; so much time; so many ears but this one song is such a concentrated dose of perfection that it overwhelms the before and after of popular music. I divide music as before and after this one song. You may not agree but that just makes you a putz.

~o~

The airline has blessed me with a free in flight snack. It isn’t just me, its everyone. It’s amazing what we’ve become accustomed to eat. A moderately salted chip made of crushed popcorn, it immediately reminds me of the coarse compressed paper of old fashioned egg cartons. My guess is that after extracting the corn syrup and fermenting the remainder to make ethanol the refiner gave the desiccated remains to a waste contractor who’s pals with a cattleman. The cattle refused to eat it and, left with tons of the stuff, he figured there was nothing else to be done but make it into a salty snack, put it in snappy packaging and tout the health benefits.

~o~

We land on the late side. We rent the car and find that no one is available to bring it around from the lot. We have 2 fifty pound bags of tools as well as duffels full of clothes and rigging so it’s actually a small problem, but there is a reasonable excuse for the poor service. The wind is blowing a steady 60 miles an hour outside the door and it’s raining horrendously. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but wouldn’t you think that this is exactly the circumstance in which providing the car at the door service would really be a ……. what’s a good word to use here….. Ah yes… Service?

~o~

If it wasn’t for the palm trees you could be anywhere in America that is prone to hurricanes. I say that because we have passed through miles of franchised businesses before we found something local to eat and there is a tropical storm thrashing around a few feet away from our outdoor table at Walt’s Seafood shack. Walt’s has kind of a grass covered tiki hut porch so we’re sitting here drinking Longboard Beer and eating alligator bites. Nothing happens without a beer or cocktail or shot in some peoples world. I am in the company of one of those people. It is both refreshing and disorienting. Very much like alcohol itself when I am able to think about it.

The wind is thick with moisture. Humidity has to be hovering around 110% as the sports radio guy would doubtless report it, because, you know, everything is bigger than life in professional sports. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe professional sports are smaller than life and need to be exaggerated in order to bring them up to life size. Just a thought.

The wind keeps changing directions as the storm revolves around its quiet eye. We are obviously nowhere near that eye. The lights at the bar flick off for a fraction of a second along with all the other lights as far as I can see and it is absolutely black until someone’s Plan B trips into effect and all is bright again. Still, everyone seems made nervous by it. The fry cook kid who so lovingly dipped our alligator into a bath of hot oil comes out from the kitchen and tells us where the alligator comes from. “Out in the country”, as he calls central Florida, “or from over in Louisiana.” He has a slight look of distaste when he says Louisiana. It has always been my observation that in tall states like California, the north and south hate each other; in wide states like Pennsylvania, the east and west hate each other. A map of Florida looks tall and wide so maybe that means they hate everyone. I don’t know but it seems like everyone needs someone to hate and the go to first choice is bound to be your neighbor.

~o~

After a short drive through bands of blinding rain and flooded streets we end up at our motel. It is on a street of motels that all have similar names, mixing and matching words like Bay, Cove, Beach, Harbor, Key, Pointe, Grove, View, Club and Lagoon. Every motel complex runs into the next and they all look alike so it’s best to come here if you already live here. Otherwise, like us, you will need to pay careful attention to the bogus directions the front desk guy is giving us over the phone, guiding us in like a plane lost in a storm. None of this helped by the fact that the pilot and navigator are full of fried ‘gator and beer.

~o~

Up early. Let’s get this thing started. We stopped at the 7-11 for weak coffee and something claiming to be an apple doughnut. It has no apple in it and it is not a doughnut. First off its missing a hole. Secondly, doughnuts are supposed to be fried in oil, right?; not just soaked in it. On the upside it seems to have been submerged in sugar paste for 36 hours so “Apple Donut” it is.

~o~

 

We’re driving out to the house where we will be installing the work. The road is thigh deep in water that smells of sewerage. Our brand new GMC Equinox is not loving the water and starts flashing lighted little icons across the dashboard. The on board diagnostics don’t know what to make of seawater up the tailpipe but clearly this is exceeding some kind of warranty fine-print.

~o~

We get to the house, make introductions and I leave the group and walk the thirty paces to the beach. I want to assess the tide because the wind is going to be driving the next several cycles. I have already checked the tide tables and we are near high water. As the tide peaks, rolling waves pour over the dunes; the water running in widening channels down the driveway into the lagoon that used to be the front lawn. The howling winds try to strip foliage and siding and the rains overflow swimming pools up and down the Key. Talk turns to what’s playing at the local movie theater. We need to reassess our situation and the wisdom of proceeding with a plan that didn’t include a variety of elements trying to kill us.

~o~

We have no choice but to go to breakfast. We head to the local shopping center diner. It is huge, full service and utterly empty. We walk in and ask if they have a table available. There is something about a life threatening situation that brings out the best in people and the two waitresses are as friendly as can be. If time and desire allowed for it, I think we could arrange poached eggs and grits with a happy ending. Diner chatter usually revolves around the weather but in this case the lack of customers and the rising water in the parking lot makes weather talk a little more urgent. We finish up and leave a nice tip. I think our waitress may have four and possibly as many as eight extra teeth in her head but it gives her an exceptionally large smile.

~o~

I’m watching Clem closely for signs of our direction. I don’t have anything hanging in the balance here but I know he does and I’m game for anything; a matinee, a sculpture installation or ransacking evacuated beach houses; it’s all the same to me. I see his knit brow and I know he’s as sober as we’re going to be today. Out comes the phone and I know that he is calling in the experts. His sister and her husband live on the east coast of Florida and they are both exceptionally good looking. They are also world renowned oceanographers and climate experts but in this family everyone is noteworthy for there beauty. Their surpassing intelligence is a given.

The only question is “What is it going to be like tomorrow?” Clem’s brother-in-law, Kenny, is just finishing up a helicopter lesson. Kenny  says that if we’re going to do it, today is the day because no matter how bad it is today, even with the most advanced gadgets in the world, they can’t tell us what it’s going to be like tomorrow. Words to live by no doubt. Kenny is the National Geographic Explorer of the Year because he does insane things everywhere he goes but the fact is, we’re looking for an excuse to do this job and, as the saying goes, “Any excuse in a storm.” Time to call the truck.

~o~

The truck is parked twenty miles away because the driver has more common sense than we do. I am listening to Clem’s end of the phone conversation. “Yeah man, it’s not too bad, we’re gonna do the job. Yeah, yeah, just pull into the parking area just past the guard booth. Yeah, you’ll see the booth as soon as you make the turn unless it’s floated away. No man, the parking area is high and dry. Ok maybe not dry but not nearly as submerged as the rest of Siesta Key.”

~o~

We make our way back out to the house and the sewage smell has pretty much abated. The lagoon and the street are a single body of water with a very pleasant current running through it freshening everything in its path. The wind is blowing hard out of the Gulf and by this time it is clear that the tide will not be ebbing, therefore the next high tide will be the one to worry about as it overruns itself.

~o~

The owner is happy happy happy that we are going to do the job. He hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about the weather. I think it must be typical of very successful people. You and I are always weighing the worst case scenario against the best possible outcome. For people like our client, best outcomes seem to be a given. One of us is clearly unbalanced but given that he owns two beach houses right next door to each other and that these are by no means his only properties; that he collects art and toys, and that we work for him and not the other way around I have to think that maybe it’s he who is tapped into the light fantastic. We’re all excited by the prospect of getting underway and the real possibility that we are going to regret this but it also has the prospect of a heroic adventure.

Oddly enough, now that we’ve decided to go ahead with this venture, it seems like a shame this raging tempest has been designated a tropical storm. I mean, if we’re gonna do this I want to do it in the teeth of a hurricane. Life is full of these little disappointments and there is nothing to do but turn into the torrential rains and the massive, locomotive winds and carry on. Oh well, you work with the hand you’re dealt.

~o~

We’re ready to begin and I climb into the driver’s seat of the reach-lift. A reach-lift is kind of like a fork lift with a telescoping boom, big balloon tires and a single, caged in operator’s seat. I’ve operated these in the past so it only takes a quick run through and I’m ready to go. Clem confirms the truck is en route, finds a nonlethal spot on the machine to sit, and we make our way back to the beach club parking area through a shower of waves crashing over a makeshift sea wall of rocks that are all that remains of the sandy beach. Throughout the day and into tomorrow we will be subject to repeated soakings from bands of circulating rain but the winds are so high that our clothes dry within minutes and the temperature is so tropical that there is never a threat of even a chill. Today I’m working in shorts and a T-shirt; tomorrow I think I’ll work in a bathing suit and a smile. There’s always room for fine tuning, you know what I mean?

~o~

Once committed to our course of action we are all business. And now that we have the tractor trailer here, we are eager to get it unloaded and back on the road before the sea carries the rest of the seawall into the Siesta Key Beach Club parking lot that is our staging area. Judging from the handsome beach club, tidy cabanas and palm shaded tennis court I have to believe that the beach here was pretty nice. It’s all angry water now.

Common sense dictates that we start with Clem’s sculpture. Get the learning curve out of the way on something we can at least replace should the need be. Nevertheless, we are starting with the biggest, heaviest and most fragile sculpture; sale price $450,000. If your gonna go down, go down big, right? Everyone, including the client, his house manager and the gallery director, has an opinion about how to carry out the transfer from truck to house, over a mile away. None of them agree with us. Well, we’re either gonna look real good or real bad. We decide, against the naysayers and take the piece in backwards. We’ll figure out how to turn it around when we get there. The advantage in our method is that we’re less likely to tip over. That seems like it’s important. Clem and I discuss the options but it’s only a formality. Communication between us is easy and neither one of us needs to be schooled. It’s very slow going as the roadway is invisible beneath a few feet of water. I don’t steer the reach lift so much as aim it through the overhanging palms and florals. The disappearing fire hydrants and mail boxes have pushed this whole outing to the point of epic.

~o~

The concrete pad for the $450,000 sculpture is about 60 feet from the crest of this dune. Maybe 50 feet. We’re getting splashed by wind driven surf. While we’re getting the piece rotated and into its final position there is a wobbly metallic sound. Everyone is looking at each other when I see the eaves fly off the house and head towards the mainland. Ok, so that answers that question.

~o~

During one of my trips back to the beach club to get a packing crate full of tools I end up nose to nose with a drowned 2012 Mercedes Benz SUV. The owner, a woman in her 40’s, was trying to make it out to her beach house to check on some landscaping she’s having done. Why she feels compelled to do that, in this storm, is anyone’s guess but my guess is that she’s an idiot. I had met the landscaper in the parking lot earlier and his high clearance truck was able to make the trip through the flood waters by taking it nice and slow. Aside from blowing smoke up the clients ass I cannot imagine what he hopes to accomplish today. The SUV on the other hand was being driven as if it were a Boston Whaler. The landscaper tells me she was leaving a deep wake in her tracks and when she slowed down, all that water converged on her. She is asking me to move the car with my machine. “Sorry lady but this machine will tear that car to pieces.” I think maybe I can tow her out of my way but she has fried the computer. The electronics won’t even allow her to put the car in neutral. The landscaper thanks me for even considering it. He says the car is five months old and this is the second time she’s done something like this. She seems nice enough but she is thoughtless in the way that only the wealthy can afford to be.

~o~

All good things must come to an end, of course, and as we finish placing the last piece on its concrete slab, that feeling of exhilaration and focus ebbs and we are able to take in the scene. The lagoon is in the street, the ocean is in the pool and the beach is in my underwear. No doubt about it, things get misplaced in a storm like this. I’m looking around and there are broken things everywhere. But not the things that are supposed to be here. Palm trees have shed a few fronds but that’s about all. The Mangroves, Saw Palmetto, Inkberry, Blanketflower, Salt Grass, Beach Verbena, Matchweed, Sea Lavender, and all the other salt resistant shrubs and ground cover look fine; healthy even. The rest of the landscaping is a landscapers wet dream. And I do mean wet. Ferns, lawn grass, Olive trees, northern perennials, decorative flowers and anything else that needs to be near a sprinkler are either stripped bare, knocked over (too much wind resistance I would guess) or wilted and burnt from the salt. Calm throughout it all are the birds. And not little birds either. Big lanky things, Herons, Egrets and Ibis that have been sitting in low mangroves as if nothing is happening at all and for them I suppose nothing is happening. Occasionally they poke at the fish swimming across the submerged lawns but, as a long time observer of birds, I’ve noticed that birds don’t seem to reflect on their situation very much. Sure they’re driven by the same anxiety to survive that the rest of us are but they don’t seem to sweat the details. Rain or shine, wind or calm, they really seem to be in the moment. It’s an enviable quality.

~o~

I parked the machine and we’re all piling back into the gallery directors SUV. I don’t know what this beast of a vehicle is but every idiot light on the dashboard is blinking it’s disapproval as we sputter along just barely keeping water out of the intake. Bubbles are coming out of the subaqueous tailpipe. With proper cropping and an overhead view, a picture of this vehicle could be mistaken for a fat man in a bathtub.

~o~

We’re back at the motel. I have water coming in under my door. I’ll bet Clem doesn’t have that happening up in his second floor room but if the roof blows off tonight I’ll have the last laugh.

The motel is ultra-standard. Two floors, outward facing box rooms, one big window with blackout shades and a huge air conditioner that does everything but cool and dehumidify. The bathroom is a study in mold.

~o~

We shower and change and go looking for dinner. All the high rise hotels around us have hurricane shutters drawn on every floor. They are sealed tight against the elements. It turns out that dinner is immediately next door in the form of a Gilligan’s Island themed establishment. In fact, most of the restaurants are open. It defies my expectations but the tourists are out and they’re hungry and thirsty and in need of a scruffy middle aged guy playing a guitar and singing along with an iPad karaoke app. He is the paid entertainment. The waitresses are pretty, the food is practically tolerable and the beer is beer. We are so tired that we quickly fall silent and relax into crowd watching.

~o~

Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I feel like I’m an anthropologist observing the primitive rituals of a culture that I barely recognize as my own. I live my days among these people but I share so little of their interests.

Everyone here is interacting in the way that humans typically do but it seems foreign to me. A few feet away, through a wall that is inches thick, there is a howling, shuddering storm. We have only just come in and I want to go back outside again. I want to soak it in; open my eyes as wide as I can. The wind is thick as water; I want it to pick me up. I want it to but it won’t. I am too earthbound. I don’t understand why no one else sees what is going on out there. But really, I do understand; it is feeding time and my species, like all species, is obsessed with feeding time.

~o~

We finished up at the house this morning, parked the reach-lift, toasted the whole affair with a beer and we are on our way. Its close enough to lunch time that we are able to find a reasonably good Mexican restaurant to renew ourselves at. Renew is shorthand for wolf down some heavy food and get on with the business of drinking Margaritas.

~o~

We’re walking around Sarasota Harbor, killing time before our afternoon flight. There are a dozen or more boats washed up onto the sidewalks and beaches, gently rocking in the shallow surf, waiting for an insurance adjuster. All the nice boats have weathered the storm, attached to their moorings by braided Samson lines. Every beached vessel is a once proud possession that has passed through too many hands and has, finally, fallen on hard times. I remember reading that, in the old days, elderly Eskimos, so as not to be a burden, would wander out onto the ice when they felt their time had come. Sometimes they even had a little help from the family if food was scarce or if Grandad was particularly annoying. The same rule applies here but the idea seems to be that when you are done with your boat, you wait for a big storm and then tie it to its mooring with dental floss or a medium quality shoelace.

~o~

The morning has been a lot like yesterday weather-wise but now, as the afternoon wears on there are occasional breaks in the clouds and the sun comes out for a few minutes of absolutely brutal heat and humidity. It is immediately apparent why this town is empty in the summer. When we first arrived Clem told me that this is a favorite destination for snow birds; elderly northerners who come here in the winter months to escape the cold. The winters here are lovely, so I’m told. A five minute burst of summer is grotesque. I finally understand that the shuttered buildings and lack of people is less about the bad weather then it is about the good weather. A sunny summer day here is a curse. It’s time to head to the climate controlled airport.

~o~

 

The airport is empty, and I don’t mean lightly peopled. Our flight was cancelled and we are awaiting the next one; the last flight of the day. We are the only ones at the bar and have been for hours. I’m drinking rum. We close the bar. I haven’t done that in 25 years. We go to the boarding area where the last bar is closing. More rum. Time to get on the plane. Clem says “No. Wait.” The final call is announced. A few stragglers wander on; the attendants are getting ready to close the gate. Clem nods his approval and we board. We haven’t looked at our tickets. We don’t even bother looking for our seats. We each pull into an empty row and spread out. Done.

~o~

That was awesome.

Advertisements

The Dream Job

I had a strange dream last night. It may have been the take-out food, laying heavy in my stomach or it may have been the election season, weighing heavy on my soul.

In the dream, I was driving along a road. It was not a new road; it was rough but it was serviceable. The road was running by the side of a vast construction project; the beginnings of a bridge I thought to myself. The project lay in the middle of a rolling sandy riverbed with a small but growing stream meandering down the middle. It had been the dry season but now it was raining and the stream had turned to a river and the river was building towards a serpentine flood.

The site was abandoned except for two guys in waders working under a pile cap; the thick concrete slab sitting on top of the driven piles that together provide the structural support required for any building that’s meant to last. They were bracing the formwork and getting ready to pump concrete. The one was supporting a heavy timber with his shoulder while the other was securing it with hammer and spike. They were chest deep in water that was swirling with sand; as if they were standing in the middle of a concrete pour themselves. The spot they were working was tight; their bodies were hunched but they were getting the job done.

They couldn’t see that waves of water were heading towards them but I knew they didn’t care. The job had to be finished. I know that feeling. I’ve been in that moment. I’ve been on that kind of job. It is a situation where pride and necessity and sacrifice are braided together.

This is who we are. This is what we do. There is no time for later.

My friend and fellow Dockbuilder, John McCrudden, has just finished burying his father after a years long illness. It wasn’t easy. His father was a time traveler. John texted me not long ago and our exchange went like this.

John- “My dad is reading the paper to me but I think he’s making it up.”

Me-  “What makes you think so?”

John- “Germany just annexed the Sudetenland.”

Me- “Again?”

John- “No, this is the first time according to him,”

Me- “I see. Still, I was a believer right up until that “First Time” thing.”

John- “Germany just invaded Poland. More to come.”

Within days of his father’s funeral, his father-in-law became gravely ill. His sister was recently diagnosed with cancer.

As John might say: “My plate is full but there’s nothing good to eat.”

John has met this wall of abrasive water. It has been relentless and wearing but his resolve is firm. He has waded in, taken hold of the bucking, angry python that is a concrete hose, and done what needed to be done. He is driven by need and guilt and faith and responsibility and honor. All the things that drive the best in us.

John has been a great support to me as I deal with my own father’s infirmities. I can only hope that my friendship is of a comparable quality. I think it is. I think we are together under that pile cap and its threatening load. That is why, in this business, we never work alone. We always work together because to build this bridge, to make this crossing successfully, requires more hands than any one person has and more skills than any one person can master.

This Old House

Good morning deviants. This post is going to be a short one. I’m having house problems.

Last week I noticed that my porch roof looked rather….soft. A slight gap here, a small twist there and all of it leading to a sense of unease. I decide to take a day off from work, tear down a few boards and look to see what the problem was. In an old house like ours, that’s how this stuff starts. You pick at a crack in the wall and suddenly, so it seems, there is a gaping hole and a pile of plaster at your feet. There are no small jobs in old houses.

You always hear the lament that things aren’t built the way they used to be. That’s true. There is no horse hair embedded in the plaster, over the rough coat, over the wooden lath, past the uninsulated gap to the brick. But once I removed the porch ceiling I could see that this house was built before building codes or basic common sense. There is a general sense of know how with a strong sense of “Git ‘er done!”

My 90% deaf friend Vinnie was doing some work in his old house. He was shouting the details of his discovery at me even though I was standing right next to him. He was redoing some plumbing and found that there were no pipes in the walls. All the water was being moved around the house through garden hoses. I think the sense that craftsmanship has slipped away is mostly based on a reduced amount of building ornamentation. Buildings just don’t look so grand anymore. Houses are startlingly efficient but not visually impressive. And unless your wealthy, I guess that’s always going to be the trade off. Me? Two weeks into it and I’m just trying to finish this damn thing.

Now, I could describe the problems that I found when I took down the ceiling and I could lay out my plan of action because, after all, I am a man of action. I could do a “This Old House” point by point reconstruction complete with product endorsements but no. First off, there are people better equipped to do that than I. Lots and lots of people. And, in fact, they already do. And while I may bring a certain slant to the writing end of this project I don’t bring any actual skill on the construction end. Yes, I am a Dockbuilder. A tradesmen in heavy timber, concrete form work, pile driving and all the other gentlemanly arts. But house carpentry? No. Dockbuilders refer to carpenters as “termites”.

There is no “wood” where I work. Where I work, there is only timber. No 2″ x 4″s. No plywood. The smallest piece of wood I work with is a 4″ x 12″ and, except for tying a patch into the middle of a repair, we use the timber full length; 20 feet is our shortest. The larger stuff, the backbone of our work, is 12″ x 12″ x 24′. All our timber is Greenheart (clorocardium rodiei) an extremely dense, strong, weather and pest resistant hardwood from the rainforests of Guyana.  All the timber is handled with the crane.

At my job, there are no nails or screws or adhesives. No paint. No table saw. No chop saw. No dinky claw hammers.

At my job, timber is cut with a chainsaw, pounded in place with a sledge hammer, drilled with a pneumatic drill, and bolted together. The shorter bolts weigh about 8 pounds each.

I have a mind that can wrap itself around the problems of large projects, because large projects are fundamentally about tearing out bad and bolting in good, in a pattern that will resist the piloting errors of ship’s captains. But there is something small and precious about house carpentry that kind of eludes me. For instance “fit” seems to be important. I’m going to have to pay attention to that. In Dockbuilding fit is less important than overall mass.

And all these little tools and screws and plastic widgets and batteries. Everywhere I look I have rechargers winking their lights at me accusatorially. And every year there are hundreds of improved products. It’s like being a doctor. You have to keep up with every development.

Or not. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Well, not decided. I’m doing it the only way I know how.

Git ‘er done!

Adoption a.k.a. I Want to Hold Your Hand

Adoption requires, among other things, a background check. A background check requires, among other things, finger prints. To get your fingers printed you need to go to a precinct house. And so our story begins.

I left work a bit before lunch anticipating a noontime rush for fingerprinting at the police station. I no longer know why that made sense to me but at the time it seemed as obvious as the line at the deli counter. I was working in the Bronx and the 50th Precinct was within walking distance just beyond the bank. That was fortuitous as you need to have a certified check to pay for fingerprinting, at least if you haven’t been caught doing something illegal. I’m not certain but I do believe if you’ve been caught engaging in law breaking activities, fingerprinting is offered free of charge.

I arrived just before twelve, self satisfied with the accuracy of my prediction. There was no one ahead of me needing fingerprinting. “Great, I beat the rush” I thought. As it turns out, police stations share very little in common with retail establishments and the crowd never did materialize. I walked to the desk. It is not exactly like a hotel check in and it is not so much like a grocery checkout but it does suggest these things. I explain that I need my fingers printed and the desk…. Sergeant? tells me that I need to call in advance to see if anyone is available to do that. I explain casually, so as not to alarm anyone, that my wife called and was told that I could stop by between ten and two and it wouldn’t be a problem. Of course even as I am saying this I know it is futile to disagree with a cop. They don’t give an inch and frankly I don’t think they can afford to. Part of an officer’s job is the projection of power which is achieved through control and confidence. Haggling is not the big stick in the police repertoire.

The officer responds that I will have to call. I maintain my pleasantness, which is no chore as I like cops anyway, and say “OK, can I borrow a pen and do you know the number off hand?” She is a not unpleasant looking blonde with a medium large frame and strong breasts. She has a mole in the left crease of her nose and I am having a little trouble maintaining my friendly face while trying not to stare at it. Ordinarily I am not given to staring but for some reason, in her case, I am willing to make an exception.  Rather then give me a pen (a show of weakness?) she takes the manila envelope I’m holding, with the fingerprinting sheets inside and begins to write the phone number on it.

Somehow the envelope is right side up and as she finishes writing the phone number I see something subtle happen. It is ever so slight but I see it before she speaks. It is a relaxation of the muscles in her shoulders and arms and I know she has seen the return address. Of course she has, because these kinds of details are fascinating to everyone but especially to those who make there living gathering clues. She looks up at me and says “Is this for adoption?” I respond that it is and she tells me to wait a moment and she’ll get her partner to fingerprint me. She goes over to his desk and leans over and says a few words in his ear. He looks up and gives me a friendly nod. She returns and tells me that he’ll take care of it but it might take him a little while because he’s in the middle of something.

It doesn’t. Within a very few minutes he’s processing the papers, taking the check for seventeen dollars (fifteen for the first set and a buck for each of the following two) and rolling out the ink as if he were going to print a wood block. He tells me that there are automatic fingerprinting machines or scanners or some such thing but they have not made it up to the Bronx yet. We chat amiably and I am aware of the intimacy of all this. Fingerprinting is choreographed hand holding and since this is not the first step toward incarceration it is relaxed and friendly and instructive.

While he is fingerprinting me I hear someone talking to the desk sergeant. She is back at the desk and no more than eight feet away. It is a man and he has come to get his fingers printed. It is obviously for immigration reasons and she tells him that he will need to call in advance to make sure that someone is available. There is no one available today. I am reminded once again that it is good to be me. We finish up and they let me go into the officers bathroom to wash up, unescorted. When I return my cop has finished filling out the forms and I thank him and he shakes my hand and wishes me good luck. I return to the desk sergeant and thank her very much and she says she hopes it works out. I assure her that it will. Her tone is both respectful and genuine; her look is caring. I think she must be a mother. As I walk back to work I feel like a different person inside and I admit to myself that their approval feels good. Not just good but that in some way my wife and I are undertaking a thing which they approve of and that we are good in their eyes and that we are in some way bonded in their company; the company of do gooders.

A Thought for Your Penny

Memory is a funny thing and for pretty much all the reasons that everyone says. It’s selective and subjective, cherished and requisite for a good liar.

My father, a photographer, once or probably twice since he never thinks I listen the first time, told me that we remember colors in reverse. The color we remember an object being, is likely to have been its compliment. Which is to say we remember colors by their contrast. An interesting idea since it suggests that memory is as much about remembering what a thing is not, as much as by what it is.

I remember three of my father’s photo studios. The earliest was over an appliance store called Nate Ben’s Reliable. I was very young, no more than three or four years old, and as I recall the place had no ceiling. Every surface had been painted black for better light control. The walls seemed to rise on up and disappeared into the night sky; into outer space but without the stars. In that studio it was always nighttime. It was always a moment before the big bang. All potential.

A visit to my father’s studio meant play time in the prop racks; trying on clothes and looking for treasures. There was one prop, a giant horse-shoe magnet, that was too large for the prop area. The magnet, in reality just plywood and paint, was left over from a Smith-Kline Pharmaceuticals shot for a children’s iron supplement. This was back when vitamins were pitched to parents instead of directly to kids via cartoon character shaped pills. The giant magnet was always around but never in the same place twice. Slowly orbiting the studio it was, I imagine, a force of creation; emitting invisible fields of attraction and repulsion.

The studio was a place where time moved in uneven intervals. Eons would pass; nothing would happen. And then, without warning, all the lights would go out. You were suddenly alone, afloat in the blackness. The strobe lights would flash, POP, and you’d be blind for a moment from the whiteness of it all and that meant a new universe had been recorded on film.

After everyone’s vision cleared, my father would jockey people and props around; darkness and then, POP, another new universe would appear on film. He always said that being a photographer was a lot like being a salmon. You shoot frame after frame, roll after roll like a salmon laying it’s thousand eggs in the hope that one survives the jaws of the art director.

Things were always getting lost in my father’s studio. Lenses, props, bills, wardrobe items; nothing got lost as much as the prints themselves but nothing got lost forever. Eventually a finished print would show up, sometimes weeks later, and the key thing was that you had to grab it when you saw it. Even if you didn’t need it at that very moment. A mental note of its last known location was not enough. These sightings were random and fleeting. Like some rare and endangered sea mammal it would surface for a breath and then disappear. You captured it right then and right there or it would be gone again and for how long nobody could say, submerged as it was in the chaos and clutter of a busy studio and a creative mind.

My job in heavy construction shares some of those qualities. There is always a lot of old stuff where I work. When you are doing excavations and building foundations you necessarily have to dig up the past. Old building foundations, old piers and sea walls; a reminder of the shifting contours of this island and the evolution of land usage. In an old city like New York the past is always getting in the way of the future and while sometimes it can be worked around or even incorporated into new designs, more often than not it has to be removed and sent to the dump.

Not so long ago I was working in a hole in the ground burning a pipe pile. The pile, full of reinforced concrete, was for a new building foundation. It was a 48 inch wide pile with 3/4 inch thick steel walls. We were burning the last dozen feet off to bring it to proper grade for the pile cap; the part that ties the piles to the building itself. 48 inches might not sound like much but that’s the diameter. The circumference is near 13 feet so we work in pairs. My buddy Matt was burning from one side and I was burning from the other. Whenever I’m asked if I can burn I always say I’m adequate. In reality I am very competitive and proud of my burning. I’m not always the best but I’m always in the running.

Burning, like a lot of things, is actually several events encompassing a wide range of skills. You don’t always cut flat plate and you don’t always cut flat. You cut rust, which is not only time consuming but painful because rust doesn’t melt. The good steel melts and the rust causes the red-hot slag to spray back at you. In burning, as in working out of doors, it helps to know how to dress and also to have a fairly high tolerance for pain. But it’s okay. It reminds you that you’re alive.

There is also burning an object at or under the water line, which is either fun or incredibly irritating depending on tidal issues. And then there is burning a non-hollow object. In this case a steel pile full of reinforced concrete, as I’ve said. I’m pretty good at this type of cutting and was well ahead of Matt when I looked up to change positions. If you’re not comfortable, you aren’t going to burn well so you should be changing hand or body position almost constantly.

There was a pool of muddy water to my right and a wet embankment in my face. To my left was the pile. I had put a piece of lumber in the water and was leaning into the pile while balancing my toe on the slightly submerged scrap timber. When I looked up there was a disk on a little outcrop in the embankment. I picked it up and figured it was a washer but then there was no hole in the center so I slipped it into my pocket. As I was standing with the pipe drillers a short time later I took it out to have a closer look. It turns out to be a coin of some sort. I scratch it clean with my wet fingernail and it looks like it says…. let’s see.. ONE …uh..C*NT. ONE C*NT. Well how do you like that? It must be an old token from a Times Square peep show. Even so, that seems a little harsh.

Then I turn it over and there is a lady’s head with a banner on her brow, which reads LIBERTY. Wait a minute! That’s not ONE C*NT, it’s ONE CENT. ONE CENT and this thing is old! It’s scraped on one side where the back hoe bucket must have caught it but only three of the original thirteen stars are missing and it says 1883 or is that 33? My eyes are too gone to tell. But yes I’m sure it’s 1833. One of the crane operators says his brother collects coins and proceeds to call his brother who takes the info and says he’ll call back. He calls right back and tells us that it’s worth between 5 and 25 dollars depending on condition.

At home I get out a photographers magnifying loop, a souvenir of my father’s studio, and sure enough it’s 1833. When I showed Matt the next day, he said “Hey look! That head is the Statue of Liberty” which of course would not exist for another 50 years. I, of course, told him. It’s rare that I can correct Matt without his wanting to kill me but I know it’s all affection so I don’t normally worry too much. I just suffer the arm punches with as much good humor as I can muster and a very modest amount of internal bleeding. A couple of days later I showed the coin to my German friends. In 1833, Germany as a state would not exist for almost another forty years. My German friends didn’t think that was particularly amusing.

And here it lay, not only at the tip of Manhattan but in the landfill behind the crib wall that formed the southern seawall in the 19th century. Not only that but I found it in this triangular pit about 60 feet on a side. It is the confluence of the old 1/9 subway line turn-around, the FDR to West Side Highway tunnel and the N and R trains. And water mains. And gas lines. And air shafts. How had it not been found before? This tiny parcel of land has been turned over like a fertile field dozens if not hundreds of times. This is made land. Nothing of it exists except by the hand of men. And I do mean men. As the guys like to say “If it was easy they’d have the ladies doing it.” Sexist yes but fundamentally true. There are no girls out here although I have heard of some with the termites; the carpenters. The lone female is the sister of my foreman and on the job friend, Alex. Alex and I would never meet socially; he’s devout catholic with all that implies, and I am lost cause. Third generation Dockbuilders; she’s the exception that proves the rule. Or disproves it. Your call.

But anyway, you get the idea, it was old and here. Right here in the dirt. And always had been. Or had it? Was it picked up from somewhere else? Part of a ground up building or excavated soil recycled into landfill? The past becomes the present becomes the past. You know there is a market for landfill just as there is a market for land. What do you think landfill is? It’s land!

And how did it get here? At the end of a concrete pour you will often see a laborer toss some money into the wet mass. An offering to god. Thanks for not letting the form blow out. Was that it? Or did it fall out through a hole in someone’s pocket; the better part of an hourly wage, all that time ago. Who’s hand did it touch last? How did it get here?

How? I’ll tell you how. It was dumped by circumstance.

So, is that the meaning of it all? Is that all that it means? This penny?! This penny had evaded capture for over one hundred and seventy years to get to my hand. It is why I prefer used books. It seems like you don’t find them, they find you or better yet you find each other. Forces of attraction guiding small changes in direction toward an ultimate goal. Like all the history of the world has led up to this meeting. This utterly meaningless meeting.

This singular moment, this pointless event, will probably not echo in eternity but it does remind me that the ball is rolling. That weak forces as well as strong ones are at work and that seemingly unrelated events tie it all together. And the penny? I don’t know where it is right at this moment but sooner or later it will surface, like a lost photo in my father’s studio.

Call Me Irresponsible

Illustration by Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

Are you an Eccentric? A Rugged Individualist? A Sententious Crank? How about a nut job. Are you a nut job? Maybe a Whacko? A Fruitcake? A Head Case? An Oddball? I’m none of those things but it seems to me that everyone else is. I mean, think about it. Children appear to be a bunch of lunatics. Teenagers are incomprehensibly deranged. Old people are chronically demented and everyone else is non compos mentis. It’s a little strange how nobody notices their own peculiarities and hypocrisies. And absolutely nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions. We often describe people as suffering from delusions but the reality is quite the opposite. It’s not them, it’s us. We’re all suffering from each other’s delusions. From one another’s common, yet persistent, disorderly editing of reality.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

I’m sitting here on the front stoop watching the kids pick on each other. It’s like a microcosm of every regional conflict in the world.

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against my neighbor.

Me, my brother and my neighbor against that kid over yonder.

If they were old enough to cross the street, I fear they would make a foray into the next block (after waiting for the light and looking both ways) in search of plunder. A half pint raiding party with plastic light sabers picking up conscripts and kicking over the Lego castles of the weak along the way to pillaging the local candy shop. When the parents show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

And of course that behavior doesn’t really abate when people get older. The grabbing and the bickering, the cheating and the name calling. The only difference with grown- ups is the scope of the undertaking and often times not even that. Adults are just big children. And you know what that means?  It means that when the lawyers show up there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing.

The nice thing about kids is that while kids are as averse as adults to taking responsibility for their actions, at least kids aren’t pretending to be doing you any favors. As cruel as kids can be, their convictions are as short as their attention spans. With kids you can see the knife coming. And the knife is flimsy and plastic with a glow in the dark blade. Not so with adults.

It’s been said that every possible universe is possible and so I imagine there must be a universe where everyone takes responsibility. And not just responsibility for themselves but for everything. The cheese goes bad on the plate and the person standing closest points it out and apologizes. All the other people in the room say ” That’s ok Mork, it wasn’t you, it was me.” or ” Nope, nope, I did it!” or “Ok, if you think so but still, I feel just awful about it.” Then everyone chimes in together “We’ll try better next time.”

Neurotic? Sure! Unbelievable? Not so fast!

I worked in an environment like that once; where everyone was happy to take responsibility. It was my first job in heavy construction and it was a pier renovation. A dive job. I learned the responsibility ploy from my mentor, a commercial diver and whacked out Vietnam vet named Scotty. Scotty used to say “I’m the second best diver in the business. Everyone else is the best; just ask them.” Whenever something fell overboard, and on water jobs things fall overboard all the time, Scotty would say he lost it. No one bothered with recriminations because it was widely understood that this kind of thing happens and that Scotty could kill you with less effort than it takes to blink and in about as much time. Also, Scotty hadn’t lost anything. Everybody knew that Scotty was just happy to take the blame. And everyone else, when not eagerly grabbing the blame for themselves, was glad to have such a convenient place to put it. Scotty understood that assigning blame doesn’t move the job forward, it’s just divisive. But almost everyone else on this particular job was of the same mind. When asked where a missing tool was, guys would generously offer up a  “Gee, the last time I saw it, it was in my garage” or “Yeah, I think I sold that to my brother-in-law.”

Neurotic? Sure! But these are the tradeoffs we make. And there are advantages.

Everyone taking responsibility creates a rock bottom level of tension between people. And it takes the time consuming task of assigning blame right off the table. Assigning blame is so rarely of any benefit. I’ve listened to so many stories of love gone wrong. He was mean, she was demanding. I always give the same advice. Assigning blame is pointless. You didn’t get along. You weren’t compatible. That’s all.

All that time listening to the lovelorn, lost to me because of my own willingness and because I guess I look like the kind of person people can trust. Alas, they’re wrong. When people ask me if I can keep a secret I always say “No.” That kind of honesty inevitably has people telling me things I have no business knowing. Counterintuitive I know but that’s practically a definition of human nature. The truth is I can’t keep a secret any better than I can keep a cookie. If I have it, it’s a goner. It might be me or it might be hereditary; it’s hard to say. For generations our family motto has been,

 “Your Secret Will Die With Me.”

 

A nice double entendre, no? It’s on our family crest in the original Norwegian.

 

Din Hemmelige Vil Dø Med Meg.”

And while I do understand that we are Ukrainian peasants without land, title or crest, I also understand that the reason my clan has blonde hair and blue eyes is that footloose Viking dandies were galavanting around the Ukrainian countryside looking for soul food and a little snuggle. Therefore we claim our birthright as Vikings. And Jews too. We’re not trying to dodge an investigation regarding our whereabouts on the morning of 1 day B.C. Plain and simple we are Viking Jews. Yes we pillage. Yes we destroy. Yes we leave our dirty clothes on the floor and empty milk containers in the fridge. But our ambitions are fueled by good intentions. We’re genuinely sorry about any inconvenience our ransacking may have caused. We feel just awful about it. Honest, we’ll try better next time.

A Day in the Life, Part 2

To say the police took a keen interest in the skull would be a mild exaggeration. I would say it was more like a professional interest but I like the sound and grab of keen so lets go with that.

The police took a keen interest in the skull. Everyone in construction knows that if you find a body, no matter how old, there is an agency somewhere that will want to shut the job down and put you out of work for a week while the paperwork clears. In an extreme incident downtown an entire office-building project was cancelled because the archeologists determined that the site had been, and in all fairness I suppose it still was, an old “Negro Cemetery”, as the sign said. Which is to say that the cemetery was old and had what were then known as Negroes buried in it and not that the cemetery was exclusively the final resting place of old Negroes. Language is funny that way.

My own brother was on a water job that saw several floaters come in. The job was only a mile or two downriver from a bridge that was popular with jumpers of the suicidal type. When the first one floated in they called the cops. The job was shut down for several hours while they investigated the “flounder” as I’ve heard the coroners call them. The same thing happened a few weeks later. Now, this business is no different from any other; time is money. The idea that the tides could somehow offer up a clue is so far fetched that even the boss must have noticed. From that point on, any body that came sailing onto the job was pushed back out into the current.

I myself found a foot on the job one day. It was so unlikely looking, so gray, that I thought it was a manikin foot until one of the guys picked it up, turned it over in his hands and stated, very matter-of-factly, “yup, it’s a real foot.” My foreman and I took the foot to the office trailer. His name was Robbie but he died and so he’s now referred to as Dead Robbie. When we walked into the super’s trailer Dead Robbie told the super that he couldn’t lend him a hand but he could give him a foot and tossed it on the desk. The super told us to get rid of it before the cops found out and shut us down. Robbie tossed it back in the drink but it got caught up in an eddy next to the pier and spun around in slow circles for the rest of the day. Take a moment to picture that in your mind; the water, the foot, the slow turning. It’s more than just the foot separated from the body above. It’s also the foot separated from the earth below. Isolated from the two things it must have thought were a given and yet still wandering in endless circles. It makes you think that although a foot can do what it does in a hundred different ways, still it can only be a foot.

I exit the subway at 5:32, same as every morning, to connect to the cross-town bus that would take me to work except that it departed about 90 seconds ago. Same as every morning. I can walk the mile or more before the next bus will come and so I do. As soon as I made it up to the street from the subway my cell phone chirped at me like my brothers childhood pet guinea pig, Spot. We called him Spotchalism for short. A sweeter more pleasant natured animal you’d be hard pressed to find but like many of the pets of our youth, short lived. Too soon consigned to a shoebox in the back yard.

I see that sometime during my subway ride of 21 minutes my foreman has called me. Usually this would mean that I am being redirected to another job. In this company redirection, not to mention misdirection, is a common occurrence and in the past I have spent hours being redirected multiple times before ever making it to work. My foreman is a great guy, talented in his work and amiable in his demeanor though subject to momentary bursts of uncontrollable rage. His three great loves are his wife, model railroading and marijuana.

As with many in this business you wouldn’t necessarily know from the way he talks that he loves his wife but when she suddenly took ill one day he looked ashen, hung up his cell phone, said “I’m gone” got in his van and left. Not a word to the super or any of the gang. If I hadn’t been there we would have gone looking for him at lunch and assumed he fell in the river.

The model-railroading thing is purely a sickness. I was warned by a mutual friend not to bring it up so of course I had to. He was so excited that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was only teasing. I had to draw the line when he brought me an article about how to create realistic looking miniature pond scum. I think I’ll leave it at that.

The marijuana thing is of no surprise except as a matter of frequency. Half a joint on the way in, at coffee and lunch if the opportunity arises and it almost always does, and one on the way home. I say it’s of no surprise because if you took away the smokers, the drinkers and the jesus freaks who are, to a man, former substance abusers, you would seriously depopulate the industry. Let me retract that part about former substance abusers. Once an addict, always an addict. It’s a personality thing. They are as obsessive with their Christ, as they were with drink or drugs or women or food or whatever else it is that they claim to be cleansed of. The only difference is that with religion they lose their sense of humor. I’m ok with that though because they’re fun to torture.

As far as the substance abuse thing goes, I am absolutely sure that it is no different with us than it is in any other industry and it explains the whole margin of error factor in building projects. They say that if everything was built exactly to spec a two hundred story building would be viable notwithstanding that no one in their right mind would want to live or work that high. The point is that we over-design buildings because there is a factor that can only be counted on to degrade the best-laid plans. And that factor is human nature.

So my foreman called and the call went roughly like this:

Me: Hey, you rang?

Foreman: Good morning, where’s the skull?

Me: Why?

F: The police are here. I couldn’t find it. I told them that you may have taken it home or it may still be here somewhere.

Me: Who told them? Is the boss trying to relocate us? He is isn’t he.

F: Is it here?

Me: Maybe. What do they want with it?

F: They want to see if this is a crime scene.

Me: Tell them it isn’t and I want the damn thing back when they’re done with it.

F: I don’t know man, they seem pretty serious.

Me: Oh for christ sake. It’s on the shelf under the bag with my spare socks. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.

When I arrived I put on my tool belt and hardhat and made my way down to the work area. It had been raining and snowing off and on for two weeks and the mud is shin high. It’s still dark out. Everyone is standing around waiting for me and I get a little surge of celebrity. I’m smiling and shaking hands like a game show host. There are four cops, three male and a female. The detective looking one is in his early forties, the rest are fresh faced. He seems a bit serious, the other three are a little goofy and all are tired. It’s the end of their shift and they ask me to show them where I found the skull. Damn it! The game is over already and I’ve barely begun to turn the screws.

I walk them between a dump truck and an excavator through some deep mud. Let’s see how serious they really are. We get about twenty feet when the detective says “You know what? Just tell my about where you found it”. That was way too easy. Where’s the sport? I tell him I found it after we removed five feet of old concrete and 8 feet of mud. He says he isn’t interested in solving a murder from 1932. I point out the saw marks on the skull and suggest that it was an autopsy. He says “Look, if I call this in the archeologists will come and it’ll be a week before the paperwork clears and you’ll be out of work for a week. You don’t want that and we don’t want that for you. You know what this is and so do we, so why don’t we all pretend that this didn’t happen. You guys go back to work and we’ll go home. Just one thing. If this gets out we’ll be in a lot of trouble so keep this to yourselves and get rid of this thing. Get it off the site.” Then he tossed me the skull cap and said” Keep it for a souvenir.” That’s French for “I don’t want it and so I make a gift of it to you.”