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January 31st, 2011 - Escape From Plainview - Based on a True Story - Chapter Two

Escape From Plainview - Based on a True Story - Chapter Two
Well, I did have long hair and round glasses back then, but I don't think I looked much like John Lennon.

Before I go on, I have to reiterate that I don't personally have anything against New York City, but as I've said previously, it seems to have something against me.
We just don't get along.

Granted I've only been there twice; this, the Queens time, and another time when I was sent to midtown Manhattan to do some repair work for my same employer at the time. 

The uptown Manhattan work part sorta sucked, but it was during a nice October when I stayed near Central Park. I could walk to the lab in the morning and work with the nice Irish guy that didn't have his green card yet. After work he would invite me over and his Italian girlfriend-dance-instructor would make us antipasto in their tiny apartment, then he'd take me out to his favorite Irish pubs. Nice. 

He DID get his Green Card on my second to last day there, and we partied in congratulatory fashion. Originally being from small-town Wisconsin, I began to realize he knew more about the United States than I did.

On that trip however, I was stationed in the hotel then known as "The New Yorker" which was - strange. At that time it was owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with it's architecture being sort of a run-down Art Deco.  

My room was somewhere up around the 85th floor. Now I'm wondering if since old elevators rarely had a button for the 13th floor, if this building actually had one for the 113th floor. Hmm, I should have looked for a button. But then again, just because there isn't a button doesn't mean there isn't actually a 13th floor, ...right?
That's an intense concept. 

I was once in a building in Santa Monica that had 13 floors, but the elevator button for the 13th floor was labeled 14. The thing was, no matter WHICH button you pressed, it ALWAYS took you to the 14/13th floor, first.
Also really weird.

To get to my room in The New Yorker, I had to take one elevator up to the 50th floor, get out, cross the hallway, and take a different elevator up into the nosebleed-numbered floors.

My room was this tiny tall Deco rectangle about the width of the bed, with one narrow but tall rectangular window that perfectly framed the Empire State Building and nothing else, which was very cool, but also extremely surreal.

At this point you could be thinking, "Well, it's not the city that's the problem, it's just you that has the problem with New York." And you could be right. I felt like a fish swimming upstream the whole time I was there. 

In New York I've seen people take cabs to go a block down the street. There seems to always be a lot of yelling, for seemingly no reason. To me it's like this huge hive of humanity that is always noisily thrumming and swelling like a plutonium core about to go critical. 
It's just not my style, but hey, some people thrive on it. I just prefer not to associate with those people.

There is of course the stereotype about "A New York Minute" and "pushy New Yorkers." Maybe it's just a stereotype, but I felt like it's not without at least some basis in fact. 

It's true that not everyone in the city is an "I'll step on the back of whoever is in my way to get ahead" type asshole, but, that town is without a doubt, one hell of a competitive arena. 

So far what I've described could apply to any big city, anywhere; but when I'm in New York City, for me there is "a feeling." A sort of squeezing, choking, suffocating feeling. 

Then again, in New York there's somehow just enough cool stuff thrown in to be the carrot at the end of the stick. Which always seems to lead me unsuspectingly down into the tunnel of doom. 

And now, back to our story...

So I told Alex to get an air compressor at Sears, and gave him the specifications he needed to get the right one. 
He got his official-looking cashiers check ready for the UPS delivery person, and I prayed that it was for the right amount. He called the prick paper-processor rep, who again said he couldn't come by for a couple days. 

I wasn't sure what we would be doing while we waited for this all to happen, or how long Bupka could stay out of school without the state child labor bureau shutting us down, or how long it would take her to learn the theme to The Flintstones, and if I would still be sane by then.

This, as in all "field-technician situations" I have ever been in, was "winging it." 
It is, as they say, "The Nature Of The Business."

To initiate me for the the first field installation I did for this company, they sent me to Oklahoma with a machine that wasn't finished yet.

It was long past the promised ship date, and the customer was desperate for the machine. However, a part of their order hadn't really been, um, "designed" yet.
So they shipped the machine anyway, sent me there to meet it, and said, "Just start installing it, and we'll send you the attachment after you get things running." 

On the plane trip there I'm thinking, "This is a suicide mission."
It's "the New Guy Syndrome": send the new guy in as a human sacrifice, he can take all the heat for your corporate problems.

They had never installed this new part on anything. What were the odds it would work? Slim to none. I half-joked they should send me with a Sawz-all and a Dremel. They considered this, and did not laugh.

On the next job, and the next job after that, and the next, what I found was that they are ALL suicide missions. So at this stage I was good at rolling my eyes and shaking my head.

After the restaurant, Alex dropped me off at the Ramada by the airport. 
It, like most buildings in any big city, was "a little lived in." 

Jet engines incessantly shook the building, taxis honked, and through the walls people chattered in every language of the globe, around the clock. 

The weird thing about that neighborhood, though, was "The Church". 
Out by the airport you expect to see maybe an Air Force Training Facility, which was there, and the ubiquitous "Hotel Row," which was there, and an occasional Denny's, which was there, and maybe even a Tennis Center (which was down the highway a bit.

From my hotel window I noticed this oddly-shaped building, from which I couldn't figure out the purpose by the architecture. So having the time, I decided to take a stroll down "The Road." The only road. The airport road. 

The road with no sidewalks or trees, nothing except raw pavement around the airport with what turned out to be a church surrounded by a chain-link fence with coils of razor-wire on top. 

People drove by in rental cars looking at me like I had wandered off the runway while looking for my gate. 

I don't remember what denomination the church/prison/church was, but it had an auto-locking chain-link entry gate that rolled open and closed, and was set back from The Road a good thirty yards, I guess so that the eggs, spray paint, and hand-grenades couldn't make it to the building. 

Just another architectural feature lending flavor to the mystique of Gotham. Not the most inviting parish that I have ever come across.

The next morning, Alex chugged up to the front of the hotel to pick me up in his Aries, and we drove off to his "studio" while he cursed the traffic and I talked about the plan for the day.

"Did you get your air-compressor, Alex?" I prompted.
"I get today. You know how to put together..." Alex replied, more of a statement than a question.

Pregnant pause. I'm grinding my teeth, realizing that if I don't hook his air compressor up, it's just going to delay things further, but really, dammit, it's NOT MY JOB.

"You know Alex, I'm not supposed to be doing any of this prep work. But just to speed things along, I'll see what I can do." I say, as one long flat sigh.

"You do fine." Alex says, like a father teaching his kid to drive for the first time.
I scowl and stare at the side of his face. He pretends to focus on the road.

Arriving at the lab, we walk in and quickly lock the door behind us. Annetta is already there, playing the theme from the Flintstones. Alex leaves to get the air-compressor and I begin fiddling with the printer.

I ask Annetta if she has ever worked with a computer before - she says, "Yes, a little, in school." I try to start up some small talk, but she's not biting. She likes music in school, and that's about it. Flintstones, meeeet the Flintstones....

After futzing with the printer for a while and doing about everything I can think of to prep it for hookup, I have a horrifying realization: This machine is what is known as a "darkroom" printer and is designed to be in a DARK ROOM for the operator to be able to change the paper, as it has no light-tight paper magazines to take out and load in a separate changing room. You load it by taking the light-sensitive paper out of a dark-bag and putting it on a big spool while the doors of the machine are open. 
So, the machine needs to be in total darkness while this is being done. Right now the machine is sitting in what amounts to an alcove, or vestibule in the large main room of the studio, with no doors, curtains, covers, or any way to block out the room light while changing the paper. Groan.

Alex comes back with an air compressor in a sealed cardboard box, and thankfully it looks adequate for the job.

"I have tools!" Alex bellows, and suddenly after much clanking from some unseen dark corner in a previously unknown part of the room, two arms are thrust from the shadows with one hand holding a vise-grip and the other a pair of pliers with one of the plastic grips missing.

"Um, no, that's okay." I say, "I have mine." Good thing too, because Alex neglected to get any thread-sealing tape for the air fittings, and was just about to go after the soft brass with his vise-grip before I intervened and pried the tool out of his hands.

"First, let's get it down into the basement, and then maybe you have some ideas for lunch...?" I add hastily to distract him.

Out the back door and down the steps we go. We set the compressor down on the ancient floor and I straighten up and look around.

It's not so much of a basement, but sort of a root-cellar with an overhang that opens out into a large, square, long-overgrown courtyard connecting the backs of all the adjacent buildings. I can see my breath from the cold, and the light has sort of a dreamlike haze to it.

Three floors up, a frowning, weathered old woman is hanging brightly colored wash out to dry on clotheslines. Ramshackle lean-to's, pieces of corrugated tin, and weathered canvas awnings are nailed in every configuration over the porches and outcroppings of what must have been tenement housing in the 1920's or earlier.

Clotheslines are strung everywhere and it looks like it hasn't changed much in the last 75 years, if at all. I get a shudder of déjà vu and think of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William S. Burroughs at the same time. 

The light filtering down through the courtyard is surreal and I long to have a good camera in my hands right then. A few snowflakes drift down onto my toolbox and melt quickly.

As I watch them melt, it snaps the effect. I shake it off eerily and begin to trace electrical conduits to find a place to plug in the compressor. 

After finding something that looks like an outlet, I plug in the compressor thinking, "Come on baby, don't blow the fuse, DO NOT blow the fuse," because I will NEVER EVER find the fusebox in this place.

It fires up and starts to pump air with a reassuring hiss, and I shut the petcock valve on the bottom of the tank triumphantly.

Above me the door jerks open and Alex clambers down the stairs after hearing the noise. 

"It works...! Genius, John Lennon!" he squeaks with glee. He is looking at it like it's a chrome custom engine in a car show, with eyes glazed.

Before I can get, "Don't..." out of my mouth, he grabs the shiniest part with his bare hand, which happens to be the copper tubing connecting the tank to the compressor head, which is probably about 300 degrees F because of the high-pressure air travelling through it.

"Ouch! (followed by unspellable Romanian expletives) Why you not tell me not to touch that...!!!" he shouts and recoils, hopping around cradling his fingers in his armpit.

"ICE...! Bupka...!! ICE...!!!" he yells as he turns and trips up the stairs. 

I look at the shiny new air-compressor and shake my head. I take one more glance at the layers of tenement porches expecting to see men with shoe-polish hair and chickens running though the lot, but the washer-lady is gone, and it's disturbingly quiet. The sky has turned dark gray again.

After snaking the air hose up through the ancient walls of the building and explaining the problem about the printer needing to be in a light-tight space, (to which Alex is saying, "Why I not know this...? Why I not know this...?" and coddling his hand with an ice bag tied to it with an Ace bandage), he says he will come up with some black curtain to frame the printer into the alcove and "shut the lights off in the room" when the paper needs to be changed. Right.

I'm visualizing him shooting a portrait session with three crying babies when Bupka interrupts to say that she has to shut the lights off for a few minutes so she can change the paper in the machine. I say nothing, and look at my boots. Hunh. I don't remember getting that scuff by the toe...

"Bupka! What ees better for lunch, Chinky or Slav...?" Alex blurts out.
"I don't know, Papa." Annetta mumbles, pushing buttons on her keyboard, going from a Samba to a 4/4 Rock beat rather rapidly. "McDonalds."

"No McDonald's! You would eat there every day if I let you. Auk, you kids. I get Slav."

More of the same goes on. Minutes blur to hours, hours to days. Flintstones to well, more Flintstones. After running extension cords from God knows where, probably the neighbor's apartment, the printer is plugged in and aired up, and amazingly, working, mostly.

I try to teach Alex the rudimentary computer commands and the basics of the floppy drive system, but he keeps Annetta front and center and keeps asking her if she is "gettink all this?" She seems pretty good with it, really.

Days turn into more days, and still the paper-processor remains empty. The boxes of chemistry are stacked on the floor next to the machine forlornly.

Alex tells me he won't be coming to pick me up the next day, as the paper processor guy will finally be coming in to set up his machine. I stay in the hotel and try to avoid listening to the businessmen having nooners with their hookers, but I make the mistake of going out with the ice bucket right as the um, couple, in the next room are leaving after their "session." A big smarmy guy in a cheap black suit strides down the hallway with a bemused and slightly superior smirk on his face, while an aging, slightly-embarrassed dark-haired woman with smeared make-up struggles to catch up to him as she adjusts her bra from the front. "Hi...!" I say as I pass, much too loudly. He scowls, she blushes.

Another phone call, another day told not to come in. The paper processor is "not working quite right yet." I rot and fester in the Ramada Inn. I watch the planes, the TV, and crack cans of beer until I can't take it anymore. VERY ironically, "Groundhog Day" is on, and I can SO relate.

I wish I was home, or had someone to talk to. I check in with administration back at the home offices sporadically, and appraise the situation. It's getting to be the 21st of December. Christmas looms beyond the edge of some formless bubble. The days are as gray as my concrete neighborhood. My boss tells me there is a big storm on the way. So what else is new? I think.

The next day I wake to a couple inches of snow on The City. Being from Minnesota, it looks like any other day, but out on the streets of New York, it's like a madhouse demolition derby. Traffic crawls down "The Expressway." Several cars are in the ditch and up on the median with their doors open with their former drivers kicking them and yelling. You can hear them from inside our car as we drive by... "Ya Bastud...! Ya stoopid piece a crap!"

I look over at Alex. He's got a white-knuckle death-grip on his blue suede steering wheel and a furrowed brow that goes down to his nose. "I... can't ...pick you up... tomorrow..." he squeezes out between clenched teeth, "dees car got no good tires... can't drive like diss... will call cab."

Just as I'm picturing what that cab will actually be looking like, we begin to skid to a stop, just missing the bumper of the car in front of us by inches, then turn and creep down Alex's street.
We sort of park and Alex deflates like a hissing balloon.

Inside the studio, we get through the day actually seeing some real prints off of the machine for the first time. The processor's running and needs some tweaks, but things are actually working, comparatively, anyway. 

Then Alex storms up to me with a sheet of mini-wallet photos hot off of the processor, thrusts it up to my nose and says, "You see this?! This print here (pointing at one of about sixteen images through the back of the paper that are so close to my face I haven't even been able to focus on them yet. Print ees too light..!!! I can't sell that! Not acceptable! I back up and scrutinize the paper. I look at it under a different light. It is BARELY, I mean, scientifically imperceptibly lighter than the surrounding images.

I measure it on his densitometer. It is off by the smallest of fractions from the surrounding images, all of which show the light-haired and light-complexioned sheepishly smiling Annette in front of a totally white backdrop. She still has her keyboard in her lap. 

I'm thinking, "Geez, the guy as densitometers for eyeballs."

"The difference is within the optical specifications of the printer," I tell him, quoting something I think I heard my boss say once. "The calibration department wouldn't have certified it if it wasn't. There's not much we can do. We can put a piece of filter material over all the other lenses and try to match them to that one... but that will slow down the printing speed. It's within our specifications, which you agreed to before the purchase. Besides that, the wallet prints are cut up individually by the time you give them to the customer, aren't they...? They won't notice something like that." I say, looking around for a print cutter to back me up and not finding one.

"Oy, I mortgage my house to buy thees thing and this is what I get...!" bemoans Alex, slathering an extra dab of guilt-seeking in his tone.
"Okay, okay... we done for today. I call cab to take you back to hotel" he sighs, back of his hand to his forehead for extra effect.

Some uncomfortable amount of time later, the Spanish-only speaking cab driver finally arrives to pick me up outside of Alex's front door, and after some creative hand-gesturing and head-nodding, drops me off at my semi-private dungeon back at the Lambada.

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