GUESTWORDS: My Scaffold Story

By Hy Abady

    If you’re looking for a job you would do well to contact the companies that install scaffolding. Scaffolds are everywhere in Manhattan (even at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during this holiday season), and every time scaffolding goes up, there seem to be dozens of people involved in the installation. Men, almost exclusively — this is dirty work, lining up metal rods, affixing corrugated aluminum ceilings, putting up lighting fixtures, and often fencing and mesh sheathings are involved . . . and this really gets me: those small, square blocks of wood propping up the rods to accommodate the slopes of sidewalks.
    In an age when you can talk into an iPhone and ask, “Where can I find boobs?” and a message comes instantly back to you as to where the nearest strip clubs are from right where you’re standing, you’d think there would be a higher-tech way — hydraulics? pneumatics? telescoping rods? — than those small, square blocks of wood, sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes three or even more of them underneath those rods to compensate for sidewalk height differentials. Look closely at those blocks of wood next time you walk under some scaffolding and I’m sure you’ll agree with their low-techness.
    The building where I live on lower Fifth Avenue has been swathed in scaffolding for two and a half years now, and these scaffolds are destined to remain indefinitely, blocking out the sun, killing the circular drive landscaping. But more about my building later; this is a Hamptons piece — wait a minute, isn’t that iconic windmill just as you pass the heart of East Hampton headed toward where I also live in Amagansett also shrouded in mesh and scaffolds and repair, with that cute, miniature replica of a windmill alongside? My partner, David, says that miniature is there so they can have something to decorate for Christmas.
    My building, the semi-iconic 2 Fifth Avenue, at the foothills, as it were, and as it is, of Washington Square Park, toward which Occupy Wall Streeters, this sloppy, uneven, stock market rise and fall autumn, marched in protest of . . . what? And then returned Zuccotti Park and now . . . where? One weekend they passed my place on their way to Union Square while David and I were in the Hamptons. If I had to put myself in the 99 percent or the 1 percent I would have to say it’s the latter, but you don’t feel it much of the time. My house in Amagansett could have fetched a cool 3 mil just a few years back. Now, if I can get 1.8 for it, I’m doing well.
    Well. I digress.
    Remember the Women’s House of Detention? A building with a tower, towering over Sixth Avenue at 10th Street? Now it’s a library, dim and bleak and peopled as this sad one is with old men dozing off in front of worn paperbacks and someone twirling around a rack of DVDs. A joyless place, now dim and bleak also on the outside as black mesh, like a loose-fitting see-through gown a hooker might wear, covers the building, the tower, the clock. And scaffolding — yes, scaffolding — dark and forbidding with crisscrossing metal rods above the vertical ones, the corrugated tin ceiling, the suspended bulbs surrounded by black plastic cages, and, yes, those blasted blocks of wood! The mesh is not really so see-through; you can never see the time anymore on that clock at the top — the clock never worked much, anyway, when it was exposed to the light of day or lit up at night: 2:30 when it’s 9, eternal midnight sometimes, stopped dead in the night. Now, it’s completely obscured by black mesh. Well. It’s just as well.
    I walk to work. My office is in a neighborhood newly known as Hudson Square, where the West Village verges into SoHo. On the corner of Hudson and Houston.
    The building one block north on Hudson is in the process of scaffold building. The building itself is low, maybe six or seven stories. And the building is fairly new — built in the ’80s or maybe even the ’90s, but somehow it is under construction. From my walk from 2 Fifth to Hudson and Houston, I counted, one morning, 18 buildings with scaffolding. I found scaffolding covering town houses and doormen buildings, coffee shops and boutiques, pet stores and delis and bars. Who knows what exactly is going on above the scaffolding on the floors above, some wrapped in mesh, some not. I don’t know what is going on in any other scaffold-wrapped building except my own.
    I have lived at the aforementioned 2 Fifth with my aforementioned partner peacefully, even blissfully, since 1992. First, we rented, and how excited we were! Washington Square Park right at our elbow, tourists click-clicking away at the arch. We were so chic to live there, like it was Paris at the foothills of the Arc de Triomphe. Okay, Eighth Street between Fifth and Sixth isn’t exactly heaven, more like a haven for funny business — shoe stores and drag gear and vacancies. Pimpmobiles and head shops and Papaya King. The larger neighborhood itself, however, can’t be beat. In 2006, we bought the place from the sponsor. Living and owning on lower Fifth! New York’s Gold Coast. Could we be any luckier? Turns out, we could.
    You see, this piece is about scaffolding, remember? It is my scaffold story, and here’s where it’s going: In 2009, July it was, reading The New York Post on the deck of our Amagansett home, David turns to me and says, “Hey, look at this headline: ‘Bricks Flying Off 2 Fifth,’ ” and the piece went on to say that due to a particularly rainy spring, some bricks, white bricks, dropped down off a building built 60 years ago, fell down onto the courtyard driveway. Luckily, no one was hurt. But from that moment on, now almost two and a half years later, the building has been wrapped in scaffolding and dismal, dark green chain-link fencing and thus securely confined and protected in case some other wayward bricks might loosen and rain down.
    And the windup is that it is costing me a whopping $100,000 — my assessment, my share of the $30 million dollar loan the building had to take out to fix this mess, my figure based on the shares of the co-op I own (a small one-bedroom). The building is to replace every last white brick, every single terrace — and this is a 390-unit apartment building a city block wide and half an avenue block long. There must be about a billion bricks to replace!
    Digression again: During one meeting at which the board of directors of the building laid out the plans for the renovations, the cost, the individual participation, how much per share — and you should know, a lot of the people who live there are on fixed incomes and retired — a woman, small and frail and uncomprehending, raised a hand to ask a question: “Excuse me. I’m 80 years old. Does this apply to me?” (It does.) But it doesn’t apply to shrewd renters, in whose numbers are two men each hovering around 80 themselves, Ed Koch and Larry Kramer. As renters, they are spared. Their bill will be footed by the management of the building, the sponsors, as they were, and as they are. Those folks, that firm that used to own my apartment until I was giddy and crazy enough to buy it.
    They say the work will take two years to complete, but I bet it’s closer to five. Or possibly eight.
    I will be living with scaffolding and mesh as I drift from employment to retirement, turning 70, sitting in my chair in what once was a sun-filled living room overlooking the Washington Mews and stately 1 Fifth Avenue, gloriously scaffold-free. (But then again, that could change, too.) For me, I will now be looking out at black mesh, suffering noise and dust and scaffolding forever.
    Welcome to New York City. And of all the buildings in New York whose reasons for scaffolding are a mystery to me, this is my scaffold story.
    Hy Abady, a creative director at a large New York advertising agency, is the author of “Back in The Star Again,” a collection of pieces that have appeared here over the years.