Ken Follett: How to Survive Your Work Environment

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It has been suggested that we add a bit of how-to into our discussion, or maybe talk about upcoming events. On the upcoming events thread we have been way too busy this season to think much about anything upcoming other than what we will need to get together and get done next week. The upcoming will have to wait.

As to how-to – for the last 30 or so years I have worked in restoration in the NYC environment. I want to talk about how to survive in our own unique work environments. I know it is different in NYC than some other places, like Maine or Oregon, and Rudy comes into town from Ohio once in a while to do stuff. I know he always finds it quirky and adventuresome.

I have helped a few folks at various times come in from outside of NYC in their need to get acclimated to the place. Over decades I have noticed that of those from more rural places who come into the city –, at one time I was one of them – that they either adapt real well and stick around for a while, or they go stir crazy nuts, babble at the mouth and then run off into the wilderness (that vast unknown region West of the Hudson).

Ken Follett on the job in NYC, guarding the truck and the parking place. Photo: Zach Watson Rice, architect

Ken Follett on the job in NYC, guarding the truck and the parking place. Photo: Zach Watson Rice, architect

The photo that I include here is me doing real serious work. My assigned job is to make sure that we do not have to move our truck that has the tools and equipment in it. We are parked right outside the door of an historic shul where we are doing probes. This is our staging area. Also that our tools and equipment are not stolen.

This was a double-shift project, by that I mean that we had already worked a day in the field and this was a gig that we had to fit into our schedule. We are parked in the bicycle lane, which also means that I need to look just industrious enough that we don’t get any bicycle evangelists irritated in our using up their designated space. The hazard flashers are on. Now, if we were used to work in the boonies of America it would not necessarily occur to us that this is a task that needs to be figured in to the means and methods plan.

When we worked at Sing Sing I was told to figure up what we thought it would cost and then triple it. Thankful that we only worked there once and it was a small educational loss. I will talk about toilets later, but I won't talk this time around about the toilets at Sing Sing.

We had a slate roofer friend come in to Brooklyn one time from Monticello, NY, to do a job for us as a subcontractor. He picked up a kid off the street to hire for day labor. He then drove to a hardware store to get some materials. He left the kid in the truck with the keys. His idea that the kid would watch the truck while he went to shop. Reasonable request. The kid sure did watch the truck, all the way to wherever he drove it off to. So, the how-to part here is how to not lose your truck and tools on the first day on the job.

Parking a truck in NYC is often problematic. We were recently on a project where the street cleaner comes through on our side of the street either on Monday or Thursday between 11am and 12:30. If you are sharp you can make use of this short span of time when vehicles are rushing around playing musical chairs to either not get a ticket, or to get parked once again.

On a Tuesday a kid from Arizona came into town with a really fine welding truck that was his own. He had earned his welder chops in the oil fields of the Dakotas. This day his job was to remove and re-install an iron area-way fence.

It was the first day he had ever been in NYC. He was perplexed that he did not know how he was going to be able to get his truck with the welder machine close to the work area. I, the elder sage with the big bushy beard, pointed at the street parking sign and told him, “You need to read the signs.”

I had read the sign myself on several occasions in an attempt to make sure I actually understood what it said. When I pointed at the sign I did not think about there being a tree in the way between us and the sign and at first I think the poor kid was impressed that I was trying to tell him to learn to read the trees. But reading trees is a whole other issue in NYC.

I was down at the Department of Transportation and while waiting for my number to be up I read a whole page of paper on what you need to do to get a permit to touch a tree. I found out that you can get in a whole mess of trouble if you knock a branch off of a tree. Having done that a few times I have often wondered what the consequence could be. Not pretty for a dumb sap, if you get my drift.

One rule of survival at work in NYC is that you do whatever you can to move the work forward until someone comes along and tells you that you are doing it all wrong. Usually this is my son and business partner.

To park the truck in a garage down the street costs $40 each time. They would never accept a welding truck, no way. So on the hottest day of the summer I worked alone on the façade of the building, half-work in the area-way, half on the sidewalk with people with dogs and baby carriages and octogenarians that walk through all day long.

In the heat I had lost attention about the street cleaner. I got a ticket. It was so hot, particularly with the full sun radiated off the masonry front of the building that... it was hot... oh, yeah... hot, yes, it was hot and I nearly fell over a few times when I stood up too fast. Despite the irritation of a ticket, it was super convenient for me to go sit in the truck, read emails and run the air conditioner for a bit.

The ticket cost $65. So, for $25 I got more relief for the money than if I had gone to a movie theater, plus once I got cooled a bit I got to keep at work for a pay check. I had brought my own lunch which, in that neighborhood, would have cost me half the $25. But then I was told by the superintendent from the building across the street, a neighborly fellow originally from Malta, and who has just as much fun with his parking situation as mine, he told me that you can get a ticket if you sit in a vehicle with the air conditioner on. So I relax with the door open and my feet stuck out.

A lady in the high-rise building across the street from where we are at work comes over at least once a week and complains about the noise. So I went over with my smart phone with the sound meter app and in front of her building it is 78 dB and when I walk down to the far corner to 2nd Ave. where they have been at work on the new subway for years now it is 74 dB. This is without ambulances, fire trucks, or an ambulatory bus to honk their horns at a double parker.

When I use the vacuum cleaner at home it is 80 dB. But in NYC one needs to take rational science into small account as once you find a nut case they do not go away easy. I had a project where an elderly person with nothing better to do every single day sat up in the window videotaping the crew. It can be nerve wracking.

I also had a project on a 20-story building where a woman would occasionally run out onto the terrace, grab up a quarry tile and throw it over the parapet. I saw her do it one time, but much later I did not tell the lawyers at her claim of leaky roof drains deposition about it.

Flying flower pots are bad news as well. Or there was the time we got an angry fax letter complaint that the work crew had sat on their terrace furniture at lunch break and needlessly reduced the lifespan of the seats, which notice we got as a perspective on the day of 9/11.

The how-to here is how-to not go nuts and still get the restoration work done.

We had a job at a private Boy’s School on the Upper East Side where we were told that we could not use the bathrooms and had to put a porta-toilet out in the street at the curb. This was OK except that with the pressure on parking the local residents would shove the John with their bumpers. Imagine, Mercedes, Land Rovers and Jaguars putting the portable into toilet. Every few weeks I got a call that neighbors down the street were upset that the toilet was again in front of their building. It was my task to go out and supervise the relocation of the small structure.

We were asked to put together a proposal to work in someone’s trophy house, by that I mean that they collect houses like some folks with old coins, postage stamps or postcards. Not houses to be lived in, but talked about and if one is lucky get to walk through. This was a house where some famous photographer that we had never heard of had lived.

In the proposal, as was standard in all of our proposals at that time, we included a clause that the building owner was to provide access to a toilet. We made sure to say that we would be clean about it. Their project manager, from California, not used to work in NYC, or simply upset at just how crass and insensitive us Easterners can be, felt that this clause was outlandishly rude on our part. I am glad we did not get that job.

As to bathrooms, Starbucks is the best thing that ever came along for those who do in-out spot work in NYC. They always have a pretty clean maintenance facility, you don’t have to ask or buy any java, and they don’t ask questions. Though a builder type all dirty and so in boots with a hard hat you may have to stand in line and act half-ways human. For their service at Starbucks I don’t care how much the coffee costs.