Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Construction Update: I’m Confused
I mostly work with facts and figures, and to a lesser extent, with people and organizations. I don’t work much with tangible things. That’s usually fine but sometimes, you know, I miss things. Things can be cool and straightforward. They can have satisfying heft and textures, and can perform functions anyone can appreciate, such as digging and scooping and such. I’ll even admit to an occasional spate of “thing envy,” when I see folk working with things in a regular sort of way.
That’s probably why, a couple times at least each workday, I find myself staring out the windows by the copier. From there I can observe the construction of the new transit center across the street. There are lots of cranes and excavators and I-beams and piledrivers, all manner of things and stuff of the very sort I never get to use in my own daily life. I find the work and its progress endlessly fascinating, But it’s just as well that I’m upstairs and inside, a watcher instead of a do-er - because I’ve had no freaking idea for more than a year what they were even up to out there.
For a long while they were just knocking down the old building. That was easy enough to figure out, even with my limited understanding of civil engineering. Once the wrecking balls were carted away and the rubbledozers had returned the huge site to something like a state of nature, they brought in cranes with massive pincher-grabbers and pulled hundreds of century-old tree-trunk piers out of the ground, unearthing the occasional shard or middenheap from life on that site in the 19th century, when Mission and Beale intersected in a lagoon and popular clamming spot. (Those artifacts later appeared in a little exhibit in an office tower next door.) The old pilings were carted away in due course, and the soil was reconfigured once more to fill in the holes.
At the same time, they started ramming long I-beams straight down deep into the ground all around the edges of the site, to shore up adjacent plots. This task made sense to me. I figured the digging was coming next, but that’s one more proof that I don’t belong out there.
Next, in fact, came massive hole-drillers that stood six stories tall. They gouged deeply into the flummoxed earth, a couple-three of them working at once. I tried to figure out a pattern but I just couldn’t see it. First they’d dig a deep-ass hole, maybe lower some tubing into it, and then… they’d cover it all up again. And this kept happening, again and again, for months. I watched from my spot by the copier as the boring (fascinating) drill rolled on its treads to a new spot and then did its thing there for a while.... then an 800-foot crane would start dropping a 15-foot-tall pincher-digger into the hole, hoisting it high, dropping it suddenly, and then closing its jaws at the bottom of the hole so it could haul out a bucketload of watery mud. They’d dump the mud with a huge splash into debris haulers that were kept busy all day disposing of whatever they were pulling out of those mysterious shafts that, once dug, just seemed to disappear into the featureless blankness of the construction site.
At some point they started hoisting enormously long tubes, or sometimes cylindrical cages of welded rebar, up over the holes they’d dug, hanging them from cranes. The tubes soared up to a height even with my view five (technically, six) stories high, and then were lowered down into the ground until they disappeared from view. Sometimes they were then lifted right back up and out again; sometimes they stayed down in their hideyholes as more cranes were used to poise a siphon attached to a cement mixer right over the top of the pit. The end of the siphon was jammed down a big pipe that they’d lowered into the hole, that was still dangling from a towering overhead winch. Cement was then pumped into the siphon, as the whole assembly was slowly hoisted up out of the hole again. When they finished one hole, they moved over and did it again somewhere else. They left no evidence to my eyes of all the work they’d done.
At another point they started welding together a huge piece of superstructure. Having drilled-and-filled holes to create a series of low broad posts at an ancillary plot across the street, heavy beams were laid across them and welded into a long, wide… something. I couldn’t tell what it was, really. Its size and shape seemed to have nothing to do with any part of the building I could imagine. And anyway, why would they build superstructure, when the foundations aren’t even poured yet? Then one weekend they closed the street on the east border of the construction site, next to where this huge metal structure had been crafted. They removed the roadbed and installed the superstructure in its place, a bridge undergirding Beale where the construction would eventually slice beneath four lanes of traffic. So, not a part of the building at all. Just part of the job. Fooled by things again.
I realized a few weeks ago that the far end of the site, four long blocks from my window, was now suddenly a full-excavated pit with a sturdy street-level trestle bridge over its length. Giant excavators had rolled out onto this bridge and were reaching down as far as they could - which is pretty far - to scoop out the dirt. But my side of the site looked increasingly like a vacant lot, flat and featureless after more than a year of work. They were done with their drilling and filling. I was ready to see how they went about putting up this damn building, already. Let’s get those things to work on something I could understand, already.
Well, I finally think I know what they’re doing over there now, but they had to make it pretty obvious and I still might be wrong. But once they stopped drilling at the east end of the construction site where I hang out, things started making a little more sense. A bunch of girders and long thick wooden beams were delivered and stacked up, and dozers showed up to push dirt away from a couple of spots to reveal the tops of some cemented-in holes. A crane placed girders along these cement posts, end-to-end in two rows. Then they started laying more girders across these rows, cross-wise, touching. All the girders were welded into place, and then cranes laid a level of heavy wooden beams across it all to create a safe working surface. Within a few weeks they had completed an extremely sturdy platform, flush with the ground, held up by cement posts stretching six stories down into the dirt.
Then the digging actually, finally, obviously began, excavators reaching down over the edge of the bridge to unearth and expose its own trestles, finally opening the space under Beale Street and under itself as well.
So, two years into the project, after I spent countless hours wondering what the hell was going on out there and how it was contributing to building a train station, I think I have my answer: They haven’t even started to build a train station. They’ve just been setting up. For someone like me, used to working with infinitely malleable words, inchoate figures, and pure information in all its manifestations, for whom a new task can be begun as easily as clicking for a new window on my desktop screen, this is all very sobering. I’m happy to watch things at work from a safe distance, but I guess I hadn’t internalized that there could be so damn much work before anything like a thing even started to emerge from their labors. I still find things and stuff and all that fascinating, don’t get me wrong - but I am markedly less envious about them now.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
A Proper Cup of Coffee
I set a fresh pot dripping and grabbed a rag to wipe down the counter, just to keep myself focused on something. I’d only picked up a couple of bucks in tips all day, and then some bastard had swiped it when my back was turned. Some old dude was sleeping in the easy chair in the back, but he’s a paying customer so I cut him some slack. It was good not to be totally alone but it’s not like he was keeping me company. That’s what the coffee was for.
The door swung open and some homeless dude walked in. He seemed to be keeping his shit together but it was obvious that he was not a paying customer. I balled my fist in my dishrag and waited for it.
“Hey man, what’s your name?”
“I’m Chet.” (I’m not Chet.)
“Hey Chet, I’m, um, Robert.” I didn’t think he was Robert. He waited for me to acknowledge him but I wasn’t falling for that. Too many dudes come through here. Chet’s not giving no Robert the time of day.
“Okay.” Robert was no dummy. “So, I can’t pay you.”
“NO-kay. Coffee shop. Not coffee give-away-free place. Move on.”
“Man, I know you hear this stuff all the time but I think you got a minute to kill here. Let me just tell you a little bit about myself, and then you can decide if you got a spare cup of coffee for me. That’s all I’m asking you for, just one cup. Worst case: I bore you for a minute. But come on man, just hear me out. One minute, man. I’m a human being.”
That last one was a low blow and he knew it. I hesitated and he started right in with his whole rap: Kind parents, loving family, army reserve scholarship, got called up and sent out, didn’t deal too good after he got back, parents died, situation became “untenable” (he explained that but I knew already) - then one case of shingles and he’s out on the streets.
I looked him over and I could see that he was doing his best. He smelled like washroom soap, his clothes were on right, his fingernails were okay and his story made sense. He even knew “untenable.” The pot behind me was just dripping its last fresh drops and most of it was going to go to waste anyway. The place was a graveyard.
“One cup,” I told him. “No refill. And you can drink it here, but - there.” I pointed down the counter to a seat further away from the register. I might not be able to turn him away completely, but I wasn’t about to hang with him either.
He settled on a stool and I put a mug in front of him, full-to-top of strong straight joe, properly roasted, ground and brewed. I may not have much to say about much but I can fix a proper cup of coffee. “Black, right?”
“Samoan. It’s a common mistake.” There was a pause. The corner of my mouth twitched toward my ear. Dammit, I’d smiled. He’d gotten me. “Naw, cream and sugar. But you’re doing me a favor so I won’t abuse your condiments.”
“See that you don’t,” I told him, wishing I sounded more like someone you take seriously. He nodded and opened his mouth - but suddenly the door banged open. A paying customer. Business first.
“What can I do ya for?”
“You can start by dumping the swill in that pot and brew me some fresh coffee.”
His clothes were casual but everything about him looked like it cost too much. I took a breath and let it go. “I promise you, this pot just now finished dripping - “
“LIAR! You’re pathetic, my god how lazy, would it have killed you to scrap that sludge that’s obviously been sitting around for hours so you could serve me something that won’t make me want to puke?
Robert spoke up. “Sir, beg pardon, I watched that pot brew just now, like he - “
“Who the fuck are you to even speak to me? Oh god, don’t even try to tell me - you want to tell me about coffee? You? God, you’re… you’re like a roach. Fuck you. He turned to me. “Fuck you.” And out he walked again, backhanding a plastic pitcher of drinking water along the way for emphasis.
The door jangled in its jamb and then the place seemed very quiet. The dude way in the back woke up. “What?”
“Nothing, man. Go home.”
“Oh. Okay.” So he got up and shuffled out. The door closed gently this time. Silence fell. I stepped out from behind the counter and mopped up the water. There was an echo in the empty room when I dropped my dishrag in the puddle. Once I was done I went back to my station. There wasn’t much else for me to do.
Robert took a sip, stretched his arms over his head, looked at me. He opened his mouth and inhaled sharply. The phone rang. Robert closed his mouth.
It was my boss. She and I haven’t been on the best terms lately but I needed to ask a favor. I tried to keep it out of my voice. I really didn’t want to have this conversation in front of Robert but that’s just how things were going to go down.
“Hey, no, it’s cool. Yeah, kinda normal, kinda slow. Just cleaning. Yeah, so - eh? Oh, what? (....) Oh. Man. So, wow, okay, listen: you know how my girlfriend is like five months pregnant? Yeah, so, she’s totally feeling sick right now, like puking and stuff. I need to get home and help her out, like, seriously. I was gonna call you up so I could get out of here a little early tonight. She’s - no, wait - no, I was gonna ask you, but like I couldn’t imagine you’d say no, it’s super important, she needs me there so I was gonna ask you. No, yeah, your decision, of course. But co- (.....) But (....).”
The phone went back on its cradle. I noticed that I had squeezed my dishrag dry. I sort of wanted to wipe down the counter but my arm wasn’t moving. I tried to relax my neck, let my head hang loose for a moment. I closed my eyes.
Robert sipped his coffee.
The door opened: two drunk women, past their prime. One was really drunk. Like, warning-flag drunk. But they were managing okay in their high spiky heels, so I figured they could hold their own. The really drunk one stomped up to the counter. “You got ice cream?” The other one stepped in behind her, pointing over my head. “The menu, Luz, it’s all coffee and muffins and shit. I bet they don’t even have a freezer. Yo, you even got a freezer?”
That was a question for me, so I answered it. “Yeah, but it’s only got ice in it. For iced coffee, and ice water. And iced tea.”
This last reference must have been pure comic genius. Both women collapsed to the floor, literally rolling around and laughing their asses off. I didn’t get it, but it was pretty clear that they weren’t paying customers. I was ready for them to move on. “Can I get you something?” I said it loud, so they’d hear me.
Luz stopped rolling around and lay on her back, panting. “Ice cream.”
“I don’t have any.”
“I’m gonna hurl.”
This was not unexpected. I was already in full action mode, popping the pass-through before she was done talking. She was not going to mess my floor up. I came to one knee by her side, hooked her arm with mine and hauled her toward the street. Her gut was starting to buck by the time I got the door open and pulled her to the sidewalk by her feet. At least she had the presence of mind to roll on her side by herself. Her friend came out to watch, fumbling with her cell phone.
I left them on the sidewalk and walked back inside, reset a couple of chairs that got knocked over during the excitement as I made my way back to my station. I picked up my dishrag, wiped my hands. The door clicked shut again.
That surprised me. The shop is small so I usually notice anything that happens, but Robert had gotten all the way to the front door and I hadn’t even realized he’d moved. Maybe it was his army training, his survival skills, but I wouldn’t have expected anyone to be able to sneak around on me like that.
My heart dropped and my eyes automatically pivoted to the tip cup. I was just remembering that it was already empty when I registered that it was stuffed with cash. Mostly ones, but a couple of larger bills too, all filthy and felty but stacked up neat in the dusty pint glass by the register. I counted it up: $37, plus a note in pencil on an old page-a-day calendar page:
“Here’s what I’ve got; you need it more. R.”
I read it three times. Then I poured myself a cup of of coffee, read the note again, and added a lump of sugar. Before I took my first sip I raised my mug to Robert, and then I just stood there and drank it all down at my leisure, not even moving my feet. The coffee was delicious. I do know how to brew it properly. Then I closed up shop, hit a grocery, and brought home two full gallons of ice cream. I think Robert would have approved.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Photos for a Change: Giant Sculpture and Wackadoodle Grab-Bag
I’ve abused your patience with enough words for the nonce, so here’s some sweet, sweet photos for your trouble. It’s mostly a bunch of massive girder-based sculptures that are being hoisted on Crissy Field; we had a field day there a week or so ago. I’m guessing it has something to do with the ‘Murkas Cup, which is somehow succeeding in making both yachting and Larry Ellison seem bad-ass. That’s a serious accomplishment, and well-worth some massive sculpture that looks like it was made out of old bridges. And while I’m at it, why not also share a couple other photos of a nearby example of industrial art, a not-nearby example of historical recognition, and something that just makes me giggle?
Hearing no objection, we shall start with the fine arts, writ large across the lushness of seaside lawns. Since Crissy was for so long a ruined wasteland, it’s more than fitting to have these hulking artworks dotting it, hewn from what could only have been salvaged girders and other pieces of our crumbling national infrastructure (as always, click to embiggen):
Our children are art lovers. Here they are, doing that.
Across the street from this massive lawn and these enormous artworks, there’s a long row of historic military buildings, some with cannon still on display in front of them (also historic). For example, in front of Stillman Hall (I think that’s what it’s called), are lovely 18th century Spanish muzzle-loaders, 18 feet of heavy iron with elaborate decorative engravings. My favorite part of all, though, was this bit, just at the hinge where it would rest on a carriage - apparently the price tag?
Across several other streets and numerous blocks to the east is downtown San Francisco, where a few weeks ago I noticed this sign on the side-wall of a tall late-20th-century bank building that seemed to have no use for it whatsoever:
Turns out, this is a pretty meaningful commemorative plaque, especially for the uncounted (likely thousands) of people lynched by the 6,000 or so members of the Committee of Vigilance, without trial or due process. They operated out of a warehouse that had been reinforced with sandbags, hence the amusing nomenclature. Amusing to me, now. Back in the day, General William Sherman himself thought these guys set a dangerous precedent. Now, I’d be surprised if anybody on the block even noticed this sign, much less knew what it meant
And finally, I went out and exchanged some running shoes today - I’d gotten a pair way out in the City of Richmond, a rough industrial town, at a very beautiful factory showroom. However, the 9.5 US size sneakers I got were a 42.5 in European sizing, and it turns out I’m a 43, and that 0.5 EuroSmidgen actually made a big difference, so I made the critical switch to the next size up. Then, on the way home, I also got the long-sought chance to capture an image of this, one of my favorite signs:
# 2 indeed, and regardless of who’s denying it we know where it is being supplied. And that’s all from me for now. Here’s hoping you find something to inspire you, to make you think back, and to make you feel like an 8-year-old for a while at least. Next up, another bucketful of dependent clauses and made-up words. You knew it was coming, but it’ll be fun, I promise!