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Job Safety
Beaux Arts

Job Safety.
by John Young

It had never crossed my mind that you could be killed for being an architect, but that was before I had practiced in New York City.

The first time I learned of a mortal threat against me was when I read a sworn depostion of a worker on my first multi-million dollar job. He said they had several times plotted to throw me out a ten-story window for making tough inspections, but also because they hated my long hair and jeans -- he said reputable architects were not supposed to look like hippies. This was during the Vietnam War when hippies were being assaulted by construction workers. And a few times, he swore, they almost got me, that they had a pool to reward the guy who did it.

I read this two years later during the suit and countersuit between the building owner and the contractor.

Since then I've heard of other architects and engineers being murdered at job sites, by arranged accidents, by fires in offices. Occasionally, there are news stories of allegations, but no convictions that I know of. The deaths feed the rumors.

A few years ago, the wife of a world-famous architect and baby in a stroller were crossing the street when a car ran them down, missing the woman but killing the infant. There was talk around town about a murder of revenge against his family to get at him, to warn him to ease up on his well-known high construction standards.

Last year, a young architect was thrown out a third-story window on Madison Avenue, allegedly during a minority labor dispute and gang fight. He was severely crippled but not killed. Some thought that the fight may have been a cover for the murderous attack, but maybe it was just bad timing for a site visit.

I've been hit several times with "falling" objects, sprayed with concreting and sandblasting guns, barely missed by fast moving machinery. The workers bare teeth and say, "Sorry, didn't see you, watch yourself, it's dangerous, accidents happen."

But the worst for me was when I was confronted by a huge black man in Central Park during a run in its lonely northern section adjoining Harlem. He stepped in front of me from roadside shrubbery, stood there in my way, silently. He handed me a shotgun shell and stepped back to cover. Nothing said.

Panting, and annoyed, I looked at the shell. A piece of white tape on it had some scribbling. I looked closely and recognized my son's initials and birthdate. Jesus, I jerked and ran up the hill, looking around for the man.

At home I called my son upstate and said get the fuck out there, go somewhere and call me, I think you're in danger. He did and we arranged for him to stay elsewhere.

That night I got a call from an unknown man who told me to run every day at noon to the spot where the big man gave me the shell. To wait there until the man approached me. That was all.

I did as told the next day. He gave me a shell like the first with the initials and birthdate of my oldest daughter and walked into the woods. That happened for two more days with shells marked for my second and third daughters. The night of the last I got a call from the man who said for me to run every day and pause at that same spot. The big man will check on me but may or may not appear.

I was scared out of my wits. I got my daughters relocated with puff stories so they would not be scared. Then, with my attorney, went to the police.

They stared at me, and shook their heads when they heard I was an architect.

"Yeah," the captain said, "this is a common means of terrorism in construction. It comes up several times a year -- architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, building officials, all kinds. The purpose is to scare you, warn you to lighten up, get with it. It's all business, warning you to play by the rules. Most of the time nothing happens."

That phrase "most of the time" really shook me, and he knew it.

He said, "We can't assure you that there is no danger. Murders do happen. It's a tough business. We'll assign someone to watch you for a while, but you're not the only one, we've got over fifteen this year alone, and that's just in construction. And we don't have the manpower to cover everyone who gets a threat in the city's industries, there're just too many."

"Watch out for your children, Mr. Young. Think about it, is your business worth that? This is New York," he smiled grimly, "watch yourself, it's dangerous, accidents happen."

I ran every day for two months and waited at the spot but never saw the big man again.

That was three years ago. We're all okay, for now. I look at the shells and wonder if it was a bluff, laugh weakly at the threat's effectiveness, and even now feel cold chills of fear cross my shoulders. I am very careful at job sites, very courteous. The workers seem to like that, but "accidents happen," more than any other industry in the country.

March 2, 1995

by John Young

Loping mid-summer into a deadend of highway construction under the anchorage of George Washington Bridge, I leaped a divider and dashed across the racing traffic to a wooded copse of debris and mayhem. There, a gang of young men was stripping luxury autos, and cutting the bodies with acetylene torches. Latino music was blaring and women were dancing among the metallic tumult.

When I ambled into the scene in jacket, shorts and Adidas, the melee paused, with looks of suspicion at whitey, maybe a cop. The women melted into the woods, the men surrounded me, tools cocked like weapons. I stood still, panting.

The men, about ten, were silent, sweating and filthy, the music loud, the closeby traffic swishing. Their weapons, the lit torches, hissed yellowly. They moved slowly toward me, came very close and one held a flaming torch six inches my face. I remained still. He darted the flame closer, pressed the handle and a blue shaft leapt to singe my cheek and hair. I jerked aside and kicked at his groin, missed, fell to my knees, one hand on my cheek the other in my jacket pocket. He laughed and stabbed the tip of the torch into my wet hair which smoldered and stank. He turned to his compadres and hissed muerto el gringo in spanish. From my pocket I shot him in the kidney, pulled the pistol and fired at the others as they fled. Turned, bent over him and shot through his right eye. His head bounced and sprayed muck.

I jogged over to emergency at Columbia Presbyterian for repairs and went home by subway, head bandaged. The Ecuadorian doorman glanced up from tv, said, elegante sombrero Senor Juan.

March 19, 1995

by John Young

Dorothy Rodgers answered Mary Cowell's rap, saying, "Mary, glad you came down, the smell is simply awful, I've put a towel under all my doors but it seems to be seeping through the walls."

Mrs. Cowell said, "Dorothy, this is Mr. Young, our architect, who is just the gentleman to solve your problem, he has been superb with intractables."

"Oh, wonderful, delighted to meet you, Mr. Young. Do you smell it?"

"Umm," I said, "whew."

"Come with me, down there, stand near his door. Smell it? It's simply nauseating, who are these people, how did they get in the building, are the approval committee insane?"

"Dorothy, don't excite yourself," Mrs. Cowell murmured, "let Mr. Young investigate and report to the board, that's the procedure. No need for you to get involved, it must be done in a professional manner, with lawyers. You remember the last case."

"Oh my, do I. The assessment was stunning, what do we pay those people to defend us, should we replace them, I know a wonderful firm, my brother's, I'm sure they'd take us."

"No need, dear, the board is certain that it was a biased decision by the court and it will be overturned on appeal and we'll get our escrow returned. The new approval committee was very thorough in checking your neighbor, impeccable background, very solid affairs. Our dear Mr. Young will see to it, I assure you."

After telexing the owner's agent for permission, Security opened the entrance to the flat. The stench was almost unbearable.

The house cop said, "nope, not me, you go ahead, I'll wait out here."

I went in and followed the odor to the master bedroom, then to a closet, which I opened to see several dogs and cats and squirrels and rats hanging from a metal rack, all of them gutted with fillets cut away, flies buzzing, dried blood and entrails on the floor. Butcher and surgical tools were on a shelf, covered with gore.

I opened windows, turned on the kitchen and bath fans. Took photos, made some notes, closed the door, left the flat.

Dr. Murtzman, the board chairman, met with Mrs. Cowell and me, heard my report, asked what I recommended, and said, "fine, let's set it in motion. I'll poll the board, but it's certain they will affirm, so go ahead Mr. Young, I'll fax you a confirming letter. Mary, give me a note on your chat with Dorothy, she's the only one who may sick the dogs on us, but we'll deal with that when it comes up."

I got the crew into the flat late that night and we bagged and tagged the remains, then swabbed and sanitized and deodorized the closet, dusted it with lye. We removed the closet door assembly, blocked in the opening, installed gypsum board and base trim and painted. The closet disappeared.

We then blocked the inside of the bedroom windows, spread lye, infilled the door. The bedroom disappeared. Working from room to room, we sealed windows, doors, vents, fans, plumbing and electrical penetrations. One by one, we spread caustic lye, sealed them and the rooms disappeared as we moved toward the entrance. By daylight we had sealed the main entrance and the flat had vanished.

I was told that when the owner flew in a week later and asked to be taken up to his floor, the elevator operator said that that was not allowed. Only owners and approved guests to the upper floors.

He was indignant, "I am an owner, how dare you."

"Very sorry, sir, she said, let me call the manager."

The manager said, "excuse me, but you must be mistaken, I do not know you, sir. Please do not shout, we will request the authorities. Very well, as you wish, sir, Marie, call security, have them escort this gentleman to the street. He seems to have lost his way, mistaken The Pierre for another, odd, isn't it, that it's become so common."

The lawsuit commenced within days. I was called, presented certified drawings of the building, showing that the alleged flat did not exist. A site visit was made to verify it. The case was dismissed.

I learned that Mrs. Rodgers sued to reopen the ghost flat, to expand her own. She was refused on the grounds that it did not legally exist. She said, "don't be ridiculous, I was there many times in the twenty years the Jeffersons owned it. You snookered that disgusting Rastafarian, and I'm appreciative, but not me."

"Patience, Dorothy," Dr. Murtzman pleaded, "hold off five years, the statute of limitations on fraud, then you can buy it."

Mrs. Rodgers never got it, she died a year later, from the plague. Her flat was sanitized and sealed, the floor disappeared. We continue to fight the spread, floor by floor, decontaminating, sealing, keeping up appearances, protecting the value of the remaining units as long as possible, hoping to unload the doomed hulk on the New Orientals before word hits the Hong Kong market.

May 21, 1995

by John Young

Les came down to the locker room mumbling Latvian lullabies, grinning at the lunchtime gathering, saying as he threw off his toolbelt, "damn people, they're weird, guess they've got nothing better to do than torture themselves silly."

"What's up this time, Les," someone yelled, "what'd you see?"

"On Twenty, I was above the ceiling tracing the terrace leak on Twenty-one and crawled over Twenty's main bath suite. I could see in through the vent. There they were, the four of them, naked as babies, covered with something yellow- looking, twisting and rubbing and slicking and gabbling that noise they make."

"Covered with what? All of them, the kids too?"

"Something, I don't know. "They were slicking it, yeah, the girl and boy, the woman and man. None of them had hair, though, nothing on them. Just skin, dripping with that jelly, and each had a watergun, the kind with pumps, with a rubber tip, squirting the stuff, on each other, on the whole suite, baths, toilets, sauna, steam, massage, medical. I saw their two nurses in wet suits at the door, one holding some tools, the other aiming a tv-cam, to clanking music."

"So, what else?"

"Weird, they'd take turns bending over getting squirted in their backsides, man and boy, girl and woman, and changing sides. Like enemas, you know, the stuff would come back, making a rocket sound, spraying the squirter and the others. Amazing, they'd do four, hold it, then back up in a circle and let fire, braaaat, the jelly and dung going every which way."

"Then they'd neigh and bleat and grunt like donkeys, or goats, or sheep, or pigs, like an animal farm, I'm telling you, like the mocking parents and the kids at the petting zoo across 5th Avenue, except on Twenty they got wet-suit nurses instead of civil servants."

"Wonder who sees that video back in Saudi?"

June 5, 1995

by John Young

Latina's glistening quadriceps shifted as the road dipped and looped 180, gravity easing the strain. Her eyes stayed level sweeping the twilit greenery of upper Central Park, close by dark Harlem where blood-up ferals prowl for prey among the circling joggers from out of town unaware of the danger.

She was exhilirated by the afterwork run, conference over, paper applauded, the trip to New York nearly finished, bags hotel-packed at the other end of the park, night flight back through DFW to San Antonio's meandering riverine park.

Ten yards before a sparkling stream she saw with delight at the bottom of the hill, a monster pounced from the shrubbery and viciously smashed Latina in the mouth.

She tumbled to the lacerating pavement, stunned but rolling gymnast-agile. She rose running, terrified, alone, racing away from the grunting beast, outrunning it, gaining speed, passing over the scenic bridge.

Abruptly another beast rose from the dark abutment, clubbed her. She crumpled.

The Times reported the discovery by early morning runners, Latina lying in the stream, crimson shorts at ankles, four dollars and door passcard in yellow jacket. Lips ruptured, front teeth shattered, lithe body scraped, skull-factured dead.

Name withheld pending a heart-shatterer to adoring familia in dusty westside San Antone, who long-believed there was no catching their scholarship-400-meter Latina who raced invincibly, burbling bilingual, through Trinity University and honors at UT Law.

September 18, 1995

Beaux Arts.
by John Young

Mr and Mrs Rockefeller suggested a visit to the Whitney after lunch.

Louise and I could not believe it. We had been in service for some fifteen years and no familiarity had been tolerated, at least from us to them. They gave us simple gifts on our birthdays, paid for our dinner out on Christmas, that was it.

They high in their wondrous halcyonic world, we serving them from below.

Still, the Whitney was our passion, they knew it, and gave us our first membership, easily arranged by their service on the board, free, as appropriate to their station, and ours below.

But, as far as we knew, they had never gone there except on private tours, at openings, at special events where their presence would raise the tone to the highest level. Why now, with us?

They said they would meet us there, second floor, would go by car to the side entrance to minimize the commotion, to avoid the press and curious. Mr. Rockefeller had a phobia of public exposure, said it made him feel naked. Second floor, at the northwest exit stair, fine, we nodded.

We went, they arrived, with a clutch of murmuring curators in tow. Mr and Mrs asked the curators to wait by the stair door, they wished to amble with us, more discreet that way, Mrs whispered.

Off we went, he and she slim and tall and ruddy with white manes aglow, us dowdy and plump and sallow and squat, below.

Mr and Mrs passed the famous works without pausing. Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, the others, they told us at lunch, had been included to mask the shocking works of the unknowns, which is what they most wanted to see with us, to hear our views, to learn if they had been deceived by the curators in underwriting the cost of this always controversial show.

We four examined the loathsome array, the vulgar, the obscene, the sordid, the grotesque, the crudely offensive, displaying peculiar sex acts, distorted genitals, bodily mutilations, foul excrescences, hyperdermic needles, a grease slathered hearse, ceiling-hung clouds of pillows coated with rotting pastries, and on and on.

Mr and Mrs leaned, and peered, and put fingers to lips, and whispered hmmm's. They watched us to see our reactions but did not ask our thoughts. We carefully studied the work, suppressed our revulsion and horror, and maintained placid faces.

As Louise and I commiserated afterwards, this was the worst ever, in fifteen years it had never been this bad. We knew from our predecessors that Mr and Mrs insisted on getting ordinary views of the work they supported, it was part of our jobs. This horrid mess, though, must really worry them.

We well knew the jittery curators, for they knew of the role of the servants in reassuring Mr and Mrs. We were treated royally at the Whitney, served meals and wine in the dining room, invited to dinner parties at curators swell flats, as peasant Rockefeller surrogates.

So, yet again, biennially, we did our duty to cutting-edge culture, we praised the work, not overly so, just enough to convince Mr and Mrs that it was conventon-shatteringly acceptable. They beamed with relief, thanked the curators and made their gracious way back to the upper penthouse aerie of Fifth Avenue.

We returned to our basement apartment below, and vomited, listened to Wagner, threw up again, and again, nacht alles.

March 24, 1995

by John Young

A Derrida scholar asks for theoretical references on the topic of shit, other than those of Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Sartre, Irigaray ... a long list of philosophers of excreta. This reminds of a formative experience.

Six of us were sent up to Paris from Kaiserslautern in 1954 to search the sewers for stolen military equipment and learned of salons constructed along the fetid drains to accommodate the "connoisseurs des merde."

We were allowed to inspect them -- about twenty -- to see that none of them held the stolen goods. Paneled and carpeted, they were long-inhabited, we were told, even during wars, maintained in perfect condition, stocked with food and wine.

For members only, to relax, escape the privation above, relish the musty atmosphere, stroll beneath the dripping vaults. We observed men and women who were, to our amazement, all nude under loose capes similar to those worn by police. Wearing well brushed boots, again so much like those of motorcycle police, including their helmets.

When we noted this, our host said, mais oui, all are in fact policemen; that is the qualification for membership. I am myself one, retired.

But why, we asked, why are police fond of sewers, find them congenial?

Merde, the gentleman laughed, it is the ever-flowing rich rivers of merde, of piss, saliva, phlegm, blood, garbage, swill, the discharged effluvia of our gastronomic culture, which we are proud to affirm here below, in tranquillity.

He went on: We embrace our duty to police the excreta of the republic; it is the most challenging and privileged role. I remind you, he said, that the exalted police of civilized culture are philosophers, and they are our most distinguished members. Indeed, our salons were designed for speculation and colloquy.

Inspired by this experience we six arranged to study philosophy, with French emphasis, fondly remembering its salons de architecture de haute superiere sewage.

April, 1996


Web Architecture Magazine, Issue 03, November-December 1996. All rights reserved