January 29th, 2011 - 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 it's time I purged it in writing and laid 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 crawls back out of it's own coffin.
This all started sometime back in 1995, as I remember. 
You tend to push the traumatic events deeply into your subconscious as time goes on, so as to best avoid post-traumatic-stress-disorder. It's just your brain's natural self-preservation reaction.
At the time, I was working for a Minneapolis company called "NORD Photographic Engineering", a.k.a. to insiders as NERD, along with one disgruntled client suggesting it was an acronym for "Not Of Right Design"). 
We manufactured a fleet of "High-Speed Multi-Image Photographic Printers," such as those found in the school-picture, wedding photography, and ID badge printing dog & pony shows, er I mean, Industrial Production Facilities.
This was in the period before the true dawn of digital photography, before low-cost inkjet printing, before the digital mini-lab and phone-cam revolutions. Back when "professional" pictures were shot on rolls of wide photographic film, and large prints containing many images sizes and formats were created by projecting light behind a film negative through a bazillion lenses onto the same sheet of photographic paper, which was eventually processed in the large vats of scary machines resembling farm machinery full of very stinky chemistry.
It started innocuously enough. A Romanian gentleman from Plainview, NY, we'll call him "Alex", short for Alexandreau, arranged to buy what was known as our 'Wedding Printer' from one of our smarmy salespeople at a trade show earlier that year. 
The perky-sounding "Wedding Printer" was in actuality a 600+ pound steel and aluminum behemoth, standing well over six feet high and four feet wide, driven by pneumatics, hydraulics, chains, 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, 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 aboard, and walk everyone in town though the train in an attempt to convince them they 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 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 Iron Age, 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 very large refrigerator on wheels. Inside were racks of optics precisely aligned (by us cursing technicians at the factory) in geared lens trays driven by pneumatic cylinders and a chain drive system, with a rotating turntable driven by huge cylinders to orient the film over a light source that would fry your eyes if you looked at it too long, and well, you get the idea.
One major stipulation of this device was that you HAD to have an compressed air supply connected to it BEFORE you turned on the power switch, as most of 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 in random locations at the wrong times resulting in 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 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 "pre-installation contract" to make sure these and other requirements were met before showing up to do the installation. 
Alex signed off on my document the same day it was sent out, faxed it back, phoned me directly and said, "Teem, ven you can come to install eet?" 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. I vowed to do my best.
After finishing construction of his machine at our plant (as each machine was set up with custom options chosen by the customer for their type of film and image sizes) we calibrated it, did the Happy Dance, blessed it with a recently slaughtered chicken, and about two weeks before Christmas 1995, it shipped it off to Alex's place in the heartwarmingly lovely borough of Plainview, NY, just outside of Queens.
At this point, I should have begun to prepare an excuse as to why I couldn't go, or just skipped the country for Mexico or the like, but, had I failed to recognize the omens.
I called Alex and asked where the best hotel was to stay in around his place of business, and after he answered, "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 upstairs of some guy's shop whom I've never met, in the New York boroughs, which I had never seen, and which would leave me without an escape route from 24 hour days at the installation site.
Next, he says that I "probably wouldn't want to stay 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 every day, 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..? 
"Da. 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 toolbox.
As I fly out of Minneapolis it's a bright, sunny, optimistic morning, and as I approach NYC, it's the middle of the day, but 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."
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 I am to go to, (which looks like any other storefront, having no sign) I feel like I have a target on my back with my toolbox and garment bag 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 wander through 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 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 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. And I'm thinking about 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.
"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 at the top of the street like a gray jungle canopy closing in. 
We get into Alex's car, a (mostly) faded blue 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 the diner and I am opening the passenger door, staring down at an empty crack baggie lying in the gutter outside of 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 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, they bring it back. I don't know why they say this check or cash only. 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...?" I ask.
"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 finish the last bite.
"You look like John Lennon," he says as he gets up from the table.