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.

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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!

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 1

Part 1: A Day In The Life

I had a pretty interesting day at work today. It involved digging around in the dirt.

When I was a kid I went to summer camp in New Mexico and while there I spent a few days on an archeological dig. We sifted through a bunch of material and although we found nothing of interest, at least nothing of interest to me, it was a taste of treasure hunting that I was never to lose. It was also an introduction to anthropology and eventually, when I went on to college, I majored in it.

My first year in higher education was at Northern Arizona University. With its large native population and long history of habitation it’s a pretty good place to do anthropology. To tell the truth I chose NAU for its proximity to good backpacking but I never would have been able to sell that to my parents as a good reason to move 2200 miles away for school. I transferred after a year to the University of New Hampshire and I continued in the field there for at least the one semester and probably both though I can no longer remember for sure.

I think the second semester I duel majored in anthropology and sociology, the idea being that if you’re a major in something, the teachers tend to cut you a little more slack in an effort to keep you in the department. I would have majored in everything but it would have required a visit to my student advisor and that was out of the question. All I had to do to endear myself to the archeology professor was to boil his road kill. He was trying to build a skeleton collection of indigenous fauna.

Of course I dropped out after that year but my interest never really went away. I always maintained that I gave it up because there really are no jobs after you get an anthropology degree. There is nothing much to apply that knowledge to unless you want to teach but in looking at the question right now I realize that the subject, like so many before and since, simply was unable to hold my attention. Having said that, I never really lost interest, it just became another one of my many interests. I suspect a lot of people are like this and it probably could be considered a syndrome which means it deserves its own name, something like Highly Ordered Attention Deficit: H.O.A.D. “Poor dear”, they’ll say “he’s kind of HOADy.

One of the very first things you learn in archeology is that wherever there has been human occupation, there you will find a trash pit. I was thinking about that recently and naturally enough it got me thinking about my job. Going over it in my mind I realized that I’ve worked on a good variety of jobs this year. I’ve had a hand in a high rise apartment building, a junior high school, two waterfront recreation areas, a water treatment plant, a ferry terminal, a museum and a hospital. The last one, the hospital, is the subject of this story.

We have been removing material from the hole that will be the basement of the hospital for about three weeks. It’s been slow going; we have to reinforce the pit so surrounding buildings will not start sinking or shifting on their own foundations. The backhoe has been pulling up an old concrete slab and we finally got down to the muddy fill just the other day.

We are two blocks away from the river but it became apparent pretty quickly that we were digging up an old solid filled pier. This type of pier was common in the 19th century and consisted of timber piles stacked like Lincoln Logs in a grid and then filled with large stone. As a point of interest the stone is said to have come from abroad as ship ballast. I think that’s probably incorrect since it’s bluestone, the same as that used for sidewalks before the use of concrete for that purpose. It is abundant locally and the use of local materials or materials at hand would be standard for the time period.

As the hole got deeper and filled with ground water we put in pumps and that is about when the bottles started showing up. They were here and there without any order and were obviously washed into their present positions. The first one I retrieved was a ceramic bottle in perfect condition. I’ve seen these before and my guess is early to mid nineteenth century, before glass came into common use. Who knows what was in it but whenever there is no imprint to the contrary I assume all bottles are beer. That’s not so far fetched as it may sound. It’s been said that there were about 140 breweries in New York at this time. After that came some heavy glass bottles that were also probably beer and then some medicine bottles with the imprint of the druggists, complete with addresses.

The thing about a waterfront is that people work there and eat there and stand and look at the river traffic there. And when they stand there sipping their beverage and pondering the comings and goings of the world they are swept away by their imaginations to distant ports. Ports of the mind. And the time slips away and the bottle is empty. It’s time to get back to work or go home and the bottle slips from the fingers to join the barques and barges, schooners and ferries. It hits the water on this, its maiden voyage, and bobs once or twice as it fills with water. Each bob it swallows a mouth full like a drowning man and then with a last gasp of bubbles it slips beneath the surface, settles to the bottom and relaxes into the soft silt. You can tell where the best spot to stand was, either because of view or venue, by the piles of bottles that accumulate in a location. In fifteen years of pier work, most of it with the divers, I can say that an overhead view of a pier, minus the pier is like a solar eclipse of bottles. The perimeter is clearly marked out, with more bottles by the waterfront where there is the greatest activity and thinning towards the end yet the whole thing still clearly outlined.

Now the medicine bottles didn’t jive with this scenario. Also, the glass is thinner; the casting more refined and so they must have been from a later date. The waterfront was gone having moved east and the old hospital was erected on made land. Landfill. As soon as I saw the medicine bottles I knew there was a trash pit on the site and that we were digging around it if not yet fully in it. Every scoop of the bucket was bringing up yards of material and a bottle or two. At the end of the day everyone cleaned up and left except for me. I was energized and excited to begin the hunt. I had a pretty good idea where to start looking and climbed down the steep mud embankment to have a look around.

With my boots sinking in I was looking at a wall of silt and stones and bits of glass and porcelain. Broken plates and bowls and cups are common in fill all over this area. Often they are covered in elaborate blue patterns. They are from China I suppose and even a small fragment can be quite astounding in the complexity of the pattern and the beauty of the brushwork.

I was digging away only a short time when I pulled up a ginger ale bottle. The cork was intact as was the cork of the next bottle I pulled up. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything as even a cork will eventually allow water to leach in but it does give one hope of finding a full bottle. I don’t suppose a full bottle is worth any more than an empty one; in fact none of these bottles is worth more than a couple of dollars, but I like the idea of this thing having weathered a century and more as if waiting for just this moment to deliver its goods.

By this time my gloves were heavy with mud and soaked through and I grabbed a likely looking scoop from the muck to dig with. I turned up several more items including a nice dark blue medicine bottle and a large cattle bone. Back in those days dead horses and cattle were legally and routinely disposed of by being left out with the trash and so in turn were used as land fill. I had as much as I could carry back to our shanty and so quit my labors. I tossed my scoop aside but even before leaving my fingers it occurred to me that it might be something. It didn’t feel like wood or stone and the weight was odd for the size. It was encrusted with mud but I thought it might just be a more or less intact bowl, which would be a great find. Then I thought it seemed more like a gourd and I thought it might be a colonial era artifact. I retrieved it and with an armful of stuff went up the hill to wash off my finds.

The GINGER ALE bottle, from MORGAN & BRO 232 west 47th St NEW YORK was indeed full and still had a curl of ginger in it. The other corked bottle was probably beer and bore an imprint of the brewer, JOHN HECHT BROOKLYN NY and the year, 1862. A nice find. The blue medicine bottle was from TARRANT & Co DRUGGISTS NEW YORK. And the bowl when washed clean turned out to be a human skullcap. The saw marks suggest it was an autopsy.