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10.12.2005

A Different Kind Of WTC Story

There is a sunny-day painting I work on nearly directly under the Queensboro Bridge, on the east side of Manhattan. My painting spot is next to the service entrance of a tall condominium tower, so I usually interact with the building's more infirm residents, and with the small army of Hispanic and Polish support staff required to keep fifteen floors of rich people happy. Three weeks ago, though, the super himself came out to have a chat with me.

He was a gruff, fortysomething white guy named John, one of those people full of natural authority whose speaking voice transitions effortlessly into loud yelling. He stormed out of the building, shook my hand, and by way of hello pointed out the various hidden cameras that had been tracking my presence since the first time I came to paint, and did I know that within five minutes of my setting up he had had two calls from the police, red laser dots trained on my chest, asking whether to take me out or arrest me or just start cudgeling, and that he had called them off so that I could work unmolested, because he was a friend of the arts.

I had not known.

Apparently my new acquaintance enjoyed following my progress on closed circuit TV, and we talked for a while about a possible commission (painting the most visually unappealing condominium tower in Midtown). Then he called over one of the loading dock workers to guard my easel ("You don't take your eyes off this, Marco, and you make sure no one FUCKS with his SHIT, you hear me?") and we went up to take a look at the city from the co-op roof.

If you've ever seen a movie, you can pretty much imagine what New York looks like from a 59th street roof. It looks fantastic. All three airports are visible in the distance, various ships and boats and helicopters are moving in all directions, and all around you are skyscrapers. Five stories below us was the Queensboro Bridge, wrapped up in a white canvas shroud so its lead paint could be stripped in relative safety. "We're putting our own lead detectors on the roof, orders of the co-op board. So much as a flake lands here and we'll sue the living crap out of them."

It was pretty obvious what was going on through my mind up there, but my new friend was quick to disabuse me of any false hopes. "Friend of mine lives upstate, he's a painter. We go hunting together. I brought him down here once for a visit and of course he wants to paint from the roof. So I ask the co-op board, can he paint, and they say the only way he can do it is if someone from the building stays up there with him the whole time. So I say 'fuck that, you're my friend, but I'm not going to sit on the roof all day watching you paint, you know what I'm saying? You want to paint it so bad, paint it from memory.'"

Ah well.

Down to the south I could see a row of elegant town houses, conspicuous for being the only low-rise buildings for many blocks. "That's Kofi Annan's house down there. Whenever he has a dinner party, they send these snipers up here with fifty-caliber rifles, big guys all in black Kevlar, with helmets. Those guys are insane. Last time I saw them doing their firing test, they take out the cartridge and put in an electronic beam, and the guy is aiming at his partner way down there in the street, from three hundred yards away. The guy just squeezes the trigger - THWAP THWAP THWAP - and the partner will radio back up that he's hit twice in the chest and once in the face, they have a sensor that reports this. Right in the chest, way down at that corner, at three hundred yards! I'm a hunter, I hunt upstate, right? And I ask the guy, what kind of recoil does that thing have, the fifty-caliber? Get this - he says it's spring-loaded, he can fire that thing all day long and not even break a sweat. And from three hundred yards he just gets you - THWAP - in the face!"

"I guess I had better not attack Kofi Annan," is all I can think to say.

"You better not attack anyone!"

Back out in the street by the easel again, the conversation turns to the World Trade Center, which used to be visible (like everything else) from the co-op roof. Apparently when the towers were being built, they had allowed landscapetpainters up on the empty top floors to work while the interior wiring and decoration were finished. I wish I knew who they were - it was certainly an uncharacteristically imaginative gesture by the Port Authority, not known for its flights of fancy.

My new friend, it turns out, had worked on the towers as an electrician's apprentice.

As people remember from the collapse, the WTC was built as an outside shell of thin girders, with the floors bolted on later from the inside. As the towers went up, the outer iron skeleton rose ahead of the topmost finished floor by a couple of dozen stories. My friend's job was to stand suspended in a bucket barely wide enough to fit him, strung up from the top of the ironwork, and thread metal pipe conduits for electrical cables. The bucket was clamped to a girder about twenty stories above the highest inside platform, and the Mohawk Indian ironworkers who run all high-rise construction in New York told him to be damned sure and not thread too fast. The last thing they wanted was to lose precious overtime and high-rise pay because of some overeager punk kid. So he spent most of his time just hanging in the bucket, earning $19/hr plus $26/hr bonus pay for working at altitude, smoking and looking at the New York City skyline.

On one of these golden days, my friend was working around the sixtieth floor, hanging from an attachment point on the 89th, when the clamp holding his bucket against a girder sprung open. The bucket started a slow pendulum swing away from the wall, almost reached the far wall on the oposite side, and then swung very slowly back. There was nothing to reach or grab hold of. After a couple more oscillations, the bucket caught a gust of wind that pulled it right between two of the outer girders, out into the open air, where the strong winds blew him away from the building and kept him twirling out there at an angle, like a worm on a hook. His first reaction was to try and winch himself up to his attachment point, but the pulley, which wasn't designed to handle loads so far from the vertical, jammed stuck. His next reaction was to wet his pants.

People working above and below had seen the accident, and they had immediately called the fire department. Unfortunately, the first thing the firefighters did was cut all power to the site, so that instead of taking a powered lift to the top of the building they had to start hoisting themselves by hand, winching upwards in their trademark combination of ineptitude and courage.

While the firefighters winched, one of the Mohawk ironworkers watching from above clapped his harness to a safety line, lowered himself thirty stories along a girder to roughly the same altitude as the bucket, and leaned out, trying to yell something that got swallowed by the wind. Several times he tried to throw a line to my stranded friend, but the bucket was swinging too far for the line to reach. (Put me in this situation and I don't think I could have grabbed a line laid gently across my wrists, let alone tried to catch one thrown from many feet across an air gap. Medical professionals would have had trouble separating my fingers from the steel cable on that bucket even after I was safely on the ground).

Unperturbed, the ironworker reeled himself back up to the eighty-ninth floor, attached the safety line to his ankles, and slid headfirst down the thin steel wire that was supporting the stranded bucket. When he got down to the end, hanging upside-down just above the bucket and the ground far, far below it, he looked into my friend's eyes and said:

"Relax. Just relax."

Then he righted himself into the bucket, attached the two of them to his safety line, and used it to reel the now-heavier bucket within grabbing distance of the building's outer girders. From there it was a simple matter of sliding down to a temporary platform, where a bucket hoist took them down to the blessed ground. On their way down in the hoist, the two passed a crew of firefighters going in the other direction, still winching and sweating. They decided it was better to let the moment pass.

The angry firefighters found my friend much later, sitting in the bar trailer (they had a bar trailer!) drinking a scotch, and insisted that he go to the hospital in an ambulance, but he vehemently refused. The only thing damaged in the whole incident had been his pants, he said, which he'd already had time to change, and in the end the FDNY had to leave empty handed, having done nothing but cut a circuit breaker and work up a sweat. My friend took the rest of the day off, but kept on working that job, smoking his $44/hr cigarettes at higher and higher elevations, until the towers were complete.

--

If anyone knows who these mystery World Trade Center painters were, I would love to hear about it. It seems like a great use of unfinished space from my (very biased) perspective. Similarly, if you have a great view of the city you're not making full use of, and if your co-op board will allow it, consider letting me up there to do some painting this fall. I am very quiet and add the perfect Bohemian touch to your Park Avenue penthouse.

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