Sunday, November 3, 2013
Now You See It, Now You Don't
I've never seen anybody work harder or faster in my life than the guys who have shown up twice now in our neighborhood to demolish old buildings where the property owners suddenly had new ideas about what should be occupying the space.
The first time was right next door, and we could watch them through our bedroom window. Now a bigger structure is being taken down directly between us and the ocean, so we track their progress from almost every room in the house without getting up from our seats.
In both cases the workers have done virtually the whole job with hand tools, nothing else but muscle and bone against thick pads and pillars of steel-reinforced concrete and walls of brick.
The work begins on the roof. They chisel the mortar away on the balustrades and dismantle them row by row, chipping the used bricks clean, stacking them and manhandling them to street level to be hauled away for reuse somewhere else.
Then they start swinging heavy sledges down on the concrete roof. Not much seems to happen with the first thumping blows. But then the chunks and dust begin to fly. You go away to run some errands and when you come back there's a yawning rectangle of exposed rebar with the floor underneath visible through the rusty steel grid.
Hour by hour, the hammers keep swinging and the chips keep flying. Soon the men are balancing on the concrete beams, the only place left to stand while they deliver the last licks before there's nothing left but the rebar to cut away.
You can see that other workers have already pulled down and carried away the walls on the floor below, where the sledges will be swinging again the next day.
It is incredibly brutal work, the kind that makes you stronger when you're young but starts wearing you down when you hit middle age, as many of the laborers on these jobs have done. They start early in the morning, and they keep going until it gets dark. Then sometimes they drape an extension cord and a naked light bulb over a beam and go on for several more hours.
But as crude and mindless as the work appears, there's a striking delicacy about it. No wrecking ball. No explosives. Just sledgehammers, chisels, shovels and wheelbarrows. Now and then a small jackhammer to loosen the concrete on the thickest pillars and beams. It's as if the building is being nibbled away in tiny bites.
Anybody who imagines that Mexico is the country of the three-hour siesta where everybody sings "Mañana" ought to come have a look.
One day as I stood at the bedroom window marveling at the discipline and stamina of the crew at work on the building next door I had the idea of going out to buy a case of cold Coronas and delivering them to the foreman at quitting time.
When I mentioned this to Pam her jaw dropped. Had I forgotten, she wondered aloud, that this work was a prelude to new construction that would soon close forever the window through which I was observing it?
Well, yes, for a little while I had forgotten all about that.