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.

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.

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.”