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January 29th, 2011 - Escape From Plainview - Based on a True Story - Chapter One

Escape From Plainview - Based on a True Story - Chapter One
A few posts back I was ruminating about the personalities of large cities, and this brought back memories of a business trip I took to New York during the 1990's, which could unquestionably be filed under "Tales of Travelling Hell."
I suppose the time has come to purge it in writing and lay it to a proper rest. Presumably to avoid waking in a cold sweat some night and needing to drive a stake through it's heart after it again crawls back out of it's own coffin.

If I remember correctly, this all started sometime back in 1995. 
You tend to push these traumatic events so deeply into your subconscious as time goes on, you begin to wonder if they actually happened. It's just your brain's natural self-preservation reaction. The thing is, in this case I remember actually asking myself that question at the time.
During that period in my vocational life I was working for a Minneapolis company called "NORD", which was known to insiders as "NERD," and to one disgruntled client that suggested it was an acronym for
"Not Of Right Design." 

At the time, we manufactured a fleet of "High-Speed Multi-Image Photographic Printers," such as those used in the school-picture and wedding photo printing industries, and similar dog & pony shows. 

This was the period before the "true dawn of digital photography," before low-cost inkjet printing, before digital mini-labs, and before the phone-cam revolution,
back when "professional" pictures were shot on rolls of wide, light-sensitive, and expensive photographic film during an epoch when large rolls of photo paper were exposed with images ranging in size from a postage stamp to an 11 x 14 inch print by somehow projecting carefully balanced light through a film negative and then into a bazillion lenses which projected all those image sizes onto one sheet of paper in perfect alignment. Once exposed, this miracle 
was eventually pulled through large vats full of very stinky chemicals in scary machines resembling farm machinery by a myriad of conveyors, pulleys, and belts which ran ceaselessly in the basement of some dank photo lab. The "lab" part being a very subjunctive term.

This particular odyssey started off innocuously enough. A Romanian gentleman living in Plainview, NY, we'll call him "Alex," (short for Alexandreau) arranged to buy what was then known as the "NORD MIC-1000 Wedding Printer" as a demo model from one of our smarmy salespeople at some trade show earlier that year. 

Though perky-sounding, the "Wedding Printer" was in actuality a 600+ pound steel and aluminum behemoth, standing well over six feet high and four feet wide, driven by chains, gears, pneumatics, hydraulics, solenoids, whipped slaves, and a double-slot 5 & 1/4" floppy-disk controller.

The Wedding Printer had been around since the inception of the company, which was back when the sole owner of the business would pull into YOUR town on his own RAILROAD TRAIN, complete with monstrous printer and photo developing laboratory also aboard the train, and walk everyone in town though the train in an attempt to convince them they just couldn't live without a high-speed multi-image photographic printer, ala "The Music Man" gone horribly wrong. Evidently he was quite convincing, because the company took off like a rocket - but then failed to make a profit every year since he sold it to the clamoring throng grasping at his coattails.

The main body and design of this battleship printer hadn't changed much since the invention of cast iron, and our company just kept hanging more "accessories" on it in an attempt to justify the price increases, cobbling on a (then) State-Of-The-Art! 386 PC computer until it resembled a cross between the family truck in "Grapes of Wrath" and an extremely large refrigerator on wheels. 

Inside the machine were rows of precise optics (tediously aligned by us cursing technicians back at the factory) housed in thick metal racks and driven into place by a chain drive and huge pneumatic cylinders. Add a powerful air-driven rotating turntable which oriented the film over a light source that would fry your eyes if you looked at it a second too long (and was also handy for launching that can of nuts & bolts that you forgot you left next to it all over the room) and well, you get the idea.

One major FAULT, er, that is, "stipulation" of this device was that you IMPERATIVELY HAD to have a compressed air supply connected to it BEFORE you turned on the power switch, as the air cylinders required air pressure to return to them to their "home" or starting positions, and it you didn't, things would smash and crash together with lenses being driven into each other at the wrong times, air-cylinders not retracting before chain-drives engaged, along with general mechanical chaos and the ensuing clattering cacophony of cogs and camshafts.

So with that requirement, and the fact that the lab or studio owner purchasing the equipment needed an operating paper processor so that we could actually develop and see the images that we were getting off of the thing, we insisted that the customer sign a carefully-worded "pre-installation contract" to make sure these and other requirements were met before someone like me would show up to do the installation. 

Alex signed off on my document the same day it was sent out, faxed it back, phoned me minutes later and said, "Teem, ven you can come to install dis macheen?" Alex always sounded EXACTLY like Boris Badenov from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show, and this made it difficult to communicate with him: 1. with a straight face, and 2. without responding like Natasha Faltale. After the first call, I vowed to do my best.

After our team of manufacturing professionals finished the construction of his machine at our plant, (as each machine was built and set up with custom options chosen by the customer for their type of film and image sizes) we spent the minimum of a week completing the calibrations, finally doing the Happy Dance and blessing it with a recently slaughtered chicken as it shipped off to Alex's place in the heartwarmingly lovely borough of Plainview, NY, just outside Queens, about two weeks before Christmas 1995.

At this point, I should have begun to prepare an excuse as to why I couldn't go and do the installation, or have just skipped the country for Mexico or the like, but evidently I had failed to recognize the impending omens.

I called Alex and asked where the best hotel was to stay in around his place of business, and after he answered with, "You can stay in room upstairs - we have extra room, we make room up for you..." I should have just thrown down the phone and ran. But no, I had a job to do. 

However, there was no way in hell I was staying in the upstairs of some guy's shop whom I've never met, in the New York boroughs, which I had never seen, and more importantly which would leave me without an escape route from what he could then turn into 24 hour days at his installation site.

Next, he adds that I "probably wouldn't want to stay at a hotel in his neighborhood" (DING DING DING alarm bells failed to go off) but that I could stay at the Ramada by the airport, (JFK) and he would come by and pick me in his car up everyday, instead of paying for a cab. Hmmm. Okay. I guess. It was the customer's responsibility to pay for lodging and travel for the tech on these installation trips, so I thought, I'll take it easy on him. We didn't usually use rental cars in New York City anyway because parking was always such a pain, and it was difficult to get them back in one piece, if at all.

So Alex, are you ready to have me install this thing..? 
"I mean, yes." 
Have you read the manual so you have an idea as to how you want it programmed...? 
"Oh, yes."
Okay. So I naively hop on a plane for New York City with three days of clothes and my overlaiden toolbox.

As I fly out of Minneapolis, it's a bright, sunny, optimistic morning, but somehow as I approach NYC, it's the middle of the day, but now strangely beginning to get dark, foreboding, and grim. 

Even the Statue of Liberty has a scowl and is waving me away. Turn back... she whispers in French, but I don't understand. 

On the ground in NYC I get my bags and head for the cab line behind all the commuters from Connecticut in suits. When I get up to a Yellow Cab, I tell the cabbie where I want to go, and he says, "Unh unh. Yellow cab don't go there. Try another cab." And thumbs me down the line.
I'm thinking, "You're shitting me" as the next customer drives off with him. 
Finally I persuade some Off-Broadway Independent cab company to leave the airport with me, and he takes me to downtown Plainview without saying a word, possibly because he doesn't speak English. 
The street scene in Plainview is like something out of West Side Story gone 21st century. As we drive by the New York stoop-front apartments, people hang out on the steps, lean out of the windows, yelling at each other up and down the street. Horns honk and sirens wail as the dark clouds seem to thicken.
Standing in front of the "Photo Studio" at the address to which I am to go, (which also looks like any other storefront, having no sign) I feel like I have a target for muggers on my back, with my toolbox and garment bag sitting at my feet. 

I grab the doorknob and prepare to go in, but it's locked. Uh? It's 2 PM on a Wednesday afternoon, and the place is closed? 
I bang on the door and try to ring the bell that doesn't work, and just before my life begins flashing before my eyes, a short, stocky, hairy except for a bald spot guy comes and unlocks the door. He just about pulls me in along with my luggage, slams the door and double-locks it in one motion.

"I'm..." I was about to say.
"Teem! Teem! You are Teem here to build my machine! The NORD guy!"
"Um, yeah."
"You lock the door DURING the DAY?" I ask.
"Yes, yes, is bad neighborhood. Can't trust no one. They steal your stuff and want to use your phone." He snaps.
"Un hunh..." I say, as he is pulling me into the room.
"Dees ees Boupka, I mean Annetta, my daughter. She is home from school to learn how to use printer."
What? I'm thinking, as my eyes try to decipher the dark clutter of studio lighting, backdrops, cords, and bric-a-brac, stopping on an attractive teenage blond girl sitting on an extremely tacky couch, playing, or slowly trying to play, "The Theme from the Flintstones" on a synthesizer keyboard on her lap.
"Um, Hi Annetta," I say.
"Hullo," she says, glancing up and smiling, muffing a note on the keyboard, and focusing back in on it again.
Doot doooo, deeet doo doot dooooooo...
"I gave her Chreesmas presink early, since she had to stay home... er, sick. I show you lab," Alex says quickly. We put your stuff over here. Are you sure you don't want to stay upstairs...?"
"No, um thanks..." I say glancing around, expecting some other life form that I haven't noticed yet to materialize out of the piles of junk and clutter.
"There is your preenter!" Alex says proudly, pointing to our printer, still shrink-wrapped and standing in an alcove barely big enough to fit it. 
"Here is new paper pro-cessor."
I look at the paper processor, indeed brand new, built into the wall, and completely void of fluids and electrical power.
"There's no chemistry in it." I say.
"Yes." He says. "Yes. The UPS man is dropping it off today, you know about mixing chemistry, yes...?"
An audible deflationary sound comes out of my lungs. 
"No." I feign. "It was part of your pre-installation agreement to have the processor loaded and ready before I..." 
As I'm saying this, there is a banging at the door, and right on cue is the UPS man balancing a two-wheeler full of boxes while juggling his logging computer and glancing around disapprovingly.

I shake my head and move over to look at "my printer" while Alex deals with UPS and Annetta continues to struggle through the Flintstones.
As I begin to unwrap the printer, I notice there is no air hose, no air hose fitting, and no electrical outlet wired anywhere near the printer. I sag visibly. I should just call my boss, find a cab (yeah, right) and hightail it back to the airport at this point.
I'm definitely considering it. But, I'm here. I do not want to have to come back. And it will be me that has to come back. We can deal with a couple minor setbacks. Right? Ugh.

As I'm pondering my fate and wondering how long it's going to take to get this lab to the point of even developing a photo for us to begin testing the printer, Alex comes rushing up to me.

"Teem! Teem! How much money do you have with you..???!!!"
"What..?" I say ponderously.
"The UPS man says I need cash or cashier's check for $600 or he will take chemistry back on truck!... I no have cashier's check here!"
I laugh.
"Alex, I've been in the lab for twenty minutes and you are asking me to pay for your chemistry, mix it, and balance your processor..???!!!  Forget it!"
"Teem, you've got to help me!"
"No way."
Alex throws up his hands and races back to the UPS man who is trundling the boxes back onto the truck after having set them down in the studio, and is visibly irked.
Flint-stones, meet... the... Flint... stone... sss...
Alex slams the door and locks it harshly.
I stare.
"Boupka, we go to eat something. You don't open the door for nobody until we get back," Alex bellows.
"K, papa." The words sound off of Annetta's lips like a slight breeze over the mouth of a pop bottle. She stares transfixed at her fingers moving on the keyboard.

Alex leads me through the door and locks it from the outside as we amble down the busy sidewalk. Snow begins to fall through a cold wind. The city is taking on a monochromatic hue and the buildings seem to come together over the street like a gray jungle canopy closing in. 

We get into Alex's car, a  faded blue (mostly) 1980something Dodge Aries that is a bit rounded off on all the edges and slightly worse for wear. 

The next thing I know, we're parking near a diner and I am opening the creaking passenger door, staring down at what looks like an empty crack baggie lying in the gutter outside a decrepit mission-like restaurant in Queens.
"Crap", I think to myself.

Inside, I'm overpowered by smells of curry, garlic, clove cigarettes, human B.O. and cologne. Over a bowl of amazingly good hot matzo-ball soup, I confront Alex with my issues so far.

"So what's the deal with the chemistry, Alex?" I say, tentatively.
"Tomorrow I get cashiers check from bank, then they bring it back. I don't know why they say this cashiers check or cash only thing. Piss me off."
"I can't mix that chemistry for you. If something goes wrong, I don't want to be responsible. Doesn't the processor manufacturer have a rep that is supposed to do it when they install the machine...? It's brand new!" I plead.
"Yeah... he always busy, never wants to come. Prick. I call him when we get the chemistry." Alex says tersely.
"Well, I can unpack the printer and make sure it works, and program in your packages, I say. Where is your air compressor?"
"Ahh... Don't have air compressor yet... where I can get one? I don't know."
I roll my eyes and end up back on his. "Alex you know we can't even turn that machine ON until we get air supplied to it... it was all in the pre-installation contract. Did you even read it?" I ask, trying not to sound incredulous.
"My daughter helped me with it."
"Have you ever used a computer before, Alex...?"
"Um, no. Boupka will learn it. I'm no good with that."
"Oh god help me," I'm thinking to myself as I slurp my last bite.
"You look like John Lennon," he says as he gets up from the table.


buthidae said...

We await, with bated breath, the conclusion. This is pretty amusing, so far.

dignature said...

Hey, good to hear from you. I thought you may have been carried off by scorpions.
I'm working on it, but it's a sordid tale to tell, and gets more intense as we reach the end of the line. Tune in to see if the hero survives...