“I am a Lineman for the County and I Drive the Main Roads”
It all starts on Bunker Hill. Some people say we emerged from the 2nd Street tunnel to the stairs, ascending Angel’s Flight to the top of the hill, a bunch of us with Elote Girl with corn silk in her long dusty hair and her sack of corn that she sells steaming with mayonnaise on the street corner. That’s not really true of course, not in the literal sense (what is?), that’s pure reductionism but that’s what I am going with because, because— Anyway, yeah. We need a simple gesture at the beginning—especially for things that seem to have no real beginning or end.
Because it’s not easy to think of the teriyaki-flavored Buddhist chain of cause-and-effect events (lingering aftertaste of ginger) that caused me to be dangling from my line, roped securely to my harness outside the 45th floor of the United California Bank building, watching the war, the regular ordinary war they had going on at that time between the zeppelins and the dirigibles, the skyship versus airship war for the skies of Los Angeles, when the Kraken appeared out of the clouds and forever changed the world as we knew it.
I might be the first person in modern times to see the Kraken.
Fulminating out of the sudden swirling vortex of a huge black thunderhead, lashing out at the nearby bank and oil company skyscrapers with hellish flashes of lightning, lightning bolts popping and exploding like the thrashing arms of a wild monster, purplish and black—so overbearing at first that I thought I might be seeing spots and about to faint, perhaps I was suffering from a stroke caused by years of stress and thinking wrong thoughts texted into my head from the invidious culture of advertising—on the other hand, it simultaneously occurred to me that perhaps two of the dirigibles and zeppelins firing on each other had collided, exploded directly overhead and this enveloping darkness signaled that they were about to crash down upon my neck. So I hid my face against the black glass and sharp edge, raising my arm over my skull to ward off the massive debris that I felt would most likely follow the great shadow.
Winds wildly whipping my (fake) company jumpsuit such that my collar slashed at my neck and my own hair stung my cheeks as it flicked about insanely didn’t bother me in the least, even when the gale-force winds caused my line and anchor rig to sway back and forth freakily across the black glass-divoted surface of the building, and all it took was a couple of snags or scrapes against the window edges to send me spinning dangerously, so that my line was going to wrap and perhaps shear and I was going to smash hard into the side of the building which whirlpooled around (and around) like I had become the hopeless center of a me-centered lunatic universe spiraling totally out of control.
I had not had time to spike a piton in a window-cleaner’s track as a stabilizer. I knew what was about to happen and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I had the piton filched from a cargo pocket and gripped tightly in my fist when it did happen.
The slack in the line combined with a drop in the wind slammed me face first into the reflective obsidian black glass of the building (I glimpsed my reflection careening forward) so hard that I blacked out.
I came out of it feeling like I was coming up for air. I felt myself floating toward a fluid surface and gulped air, trying to breathe and clear my vision.
But I wasn’t swimming, I was spinning 51 floors above Hope Street, downtown L.A. gone light and blurry below. The piton I’d been gripping was gone; I was feeling at my smashed face with my numb fingers. They came away bloody; my nose seemed to be broken, along with one or more front teeth. I tasted blood.
But I could see, more or less, and the impact with the building had slowed somewhat the spinning, so I found another piton and executed an E, lifting my right leg and my right arm parallel to flail the building, stiffly and weakly, attempting to halt the spin. I wasn’t sure, but a couple of burning airships had landed atop the tower above me and burning pieces and raw ejecta might fall on me at any moment. But I didn’t have time to consider it; I had to knock a piton into a window-cleaner’s track or spacer column. So first I clawed my grappling hook onto the next spacer that came around—it took several tries and I was worried my spin would accelerate, but I got the hook on a crease without losing it or my grip, and knocked a piton in. I clipped my harness to the piton and looked up.
We were all looking up.
When I looked up, the window was flying to pieces so I didn’t even have time to turn away before I was hit. Three masked gunmen who emerged from a black Honda firing dozens of shots in murderous unhurry blasting the window apart and missing all the patrons but striking me in the head. As I went down beside the counter, I didn’t even have time to register what I felt. I’d come from China only the year before, working to bring over my daughter. I rode my bicycle to work every day.
When I looked up, turning my face from my mother’s shoulder as we walked on Eastern Avenue back to the apartment with my sister and my aunt (Eastern curves north at Medford by the Big Boy #2 Auto Service), this giant bucket thing like a big steel arm swung loose on this huge truck turning the corner, swung over crushing us against the cinderblock wall, killing us instantly except for my little sister who suffered severe head injuries and me, a toddler not even old enough to talk or say the word “crane”.
When I looked up I couldn’t see a thing, not a light of any kind. Who knows, but maybe I wasn’t even looking “up.” I’d gone down in the black hole of the tank to save my co-workers, who’d failed to come out or answer my shouts. I thought I might be able save them, but I couldn’t locate them—instead, I blacked out. I must’ve taken a little breath or somehow tried to breathe.
When I looked up, I was flying through the air into the street; the driver had run the red light. It had been a nice warm evening, mom pushing me in my stroller. It was at the downtown L. A. Art Walk.
When I looked up inside the Red Line tunnel, we saw or really just heard the 4 x 4 concrete blocks stabilizing the shaft in the Santa Monica Mountains above us shift and buckle. They basically exploded. I jumped aside a yard or so but they landed on me anyway.
When I looked up there was a big school bus and it didn’t stop. I was pushing my bike like my parents said to in the crosswalks, but the driver didn’t see me somehow, even in broad daylight.
By the time we arrived at work, we’d lost so many of our people it was hard to even call them a “team.” When I had time to glance sideways, I saw traffic whiz by on the San Bernardino Freeway through the photochemical afternoon haze of delimited expectations. I saw fuzzy remnants of black plastic tarps or whitish plastic bags partially buried in the sand, feathery soft and wind-tattered like petrolate feathers, wispy on windswept soil under a broken fence line. One time I saw a wheel ejected explosively from an unseen collision in the opposite lanes come bounding and bouncing over the center median like an unwanted missile as if charged with all of civilization’s automotive kinetic energy and bounce. I saw skinny topless girls lolling on the faraway faded beaches of an obsolescent titty calendar on the wall in the oily dank quiet garage bay with hydraulic lifts, waiting for a mechanic beside the coke machine. I saw neighborhood teenagers filling out their nightly schedules trying out skateboard tricks in parking lots under the streetlights out of the sight of cops. That was when I had time to glance sideways. I glimpsed the high-tension lines marching toward the horizon of the Chocolate Mountains and black stains of cooking grease trailing from the back door of a restaurant to the grease pit next to the dumpsters.
I always carried my tools close to my person: Swiss Army knife, bottle of aspirin, fake ID with social security card, pictures of actual children, scraps of paper with contact information for children and wife, work gloves, anti-entropy ideology (which starts by replacing the word “cool” with the word “folded” or “unfolding”), climbing kit (pitons, harness, belaying devices and descenders, carabiners, ropes, hooks, clips, chalk, gloves). First aid tape and whatever little medical first aid I could get. In a bag with extra little baggies. You get killed so many times for carrying too much gear or too little, it helps you get your gear kit in order, over the long haul.
In his ground-breaking analysis of Pacific Rim urban planning for the new millennium, Laundromats, Liquor Stores and Storefront Psychics: Los Angeles Rules the World, UCLA social scientist George Carlin writes, “I don’t like ass kissers, flag wavers or team players. I like people who buck the system. Individualists. I often warn people: Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, ‘There is no “I” in team.’ What you should tell them is, ‘Maybe not. But there is an “I” in independence, individuality and integrity.’ Avoid teams at all cost. Keep your circle small. Never join a group that has a name. If they say, “We’re the So-and-Sos,” take a walk. And if, somehow, you must join, if it’s unavoidable, such as a union or a trade association, go ahead and join. But don’t participate; it will be your death. And if they tell you you’re not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.” Such an expert analysis of modern industrial trends. Which is why Carlin is considered an expert on such subjects by crowds of people in auditoriums and lecture halls on universities and TV shows, by people who sit back and clap.
But we don’t go for that.
As I said before, we emerged as a people from the earth, from the depths underneath our feet or conduits underneath the four to ten sub-basements with their nylon earthquake shock-absorber pylons, the motion isolator supports, flexible electrical conduits, utility service tunnels, etc. We enter the buildings from below and begin to climb. Many times our teams and crews are eliminated by security, or predatory gangs, or the mishaps and accidents that constantly occur.
We never give up. That’s not our official motto or anything, that’s just the way it is. That’s why they kill us.
When the experts are saying their thanks on stage, thanking their moms and God, nodding at standing ovations and sitting on panels with the checks in the mail, we’re in the shadows—standing in the aisles with a flashlight or in the back door staring out over the parking lots. We’re cleaning up after the shows are over, locking the doors and holding the gate till everyone else has gotten into their cars and driven away. We’re walking the gangways high over the convention floor pulling cables and junction boxes, coiling the cables and turning off spot lamps. We’re driving around the parking areas cleaning up trash or evicting a drunken couple fucking in a vehicle against the back fence and sending neighborhood skaters on their way. We’re cleaning the hall and emptying trashcans, sweeping and vacuuming carpets in aisles, hallways and lounges, floor to floor. We took tickets and set up for the Republicans and evangelicals, Democrats and Teamsters, SCIU, AWP panels and keynote speeches, celebrity benefits, anime conferences, e-hardware and Internet conventions, and porn industry galas.
Which history of famous porn stars mentions us by name? Which economic study of the industries of desire and disgust records our extensive labor inputs?
You’ve seen us wave goodbye, pointing at the exit with flashlights, nodding as you go, standing with our hands folded waiting for the show to be over, pushing the cleaning cart, sweeping corners and swabbing toilets. You didn’t notice us at the time; maybe you nodded as we came out of the elevator. Our uniform blended in. We got on with the work.
We emerged from the earth to ascend, bound together, networking our teams via safe houses and contacts. We were those “so-and-sos, trade unionized”—together, we proceeded. Via portals and tunnels, harnessed and geared as we moved into the day. Roped, strapped in, tool belt, carabiners clicking. Strapped into blowers, blowing leaves, strapped into trucks, driving endless routes, jammed in traffic, staggering out of back doors at all hours carrying slopping steel pans and tubs to the grease pit—turning back again—tied to soiled aprons—frying, grilling, chopping, blasting pots, pans and trays with spray in clouds of steam boiling out of the dishwasher when we opened it and stacked it higher. Hey, didn’t I see you at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park, getting your lunch? Didn’t you leave your magazine in the motel room—so I glanced through it before I tossed it? Stacking cars on the parking structure, stacking pallets and dead cars in wrecking yards, stocking shelves in the big-box stores all night. Flattening cardboard boxes and aluminum cans and filling shopping carts to push down the avenues. Delivering parts from San Pedro docks to warehouses throughout L.A. and the Valley, crawling under fleet vehicles changing brake pads, pulling transmissions, welding mufflers and radiators, climbing through ceilings two stories from the ground to pull wire through conduits, minds and fingertips numb, breathing dust and plastic resin, our faces blackened and skin exposed to soot and tuolene solvents, roof tar and herbicides, staple gun in one hand, sweat-stained life lines on the other.
Staggering, long resume of job histories like the South Kaibab trail zigzagging up the Grand Canyon.
You saw the grave markers. Those pegs scattered across broken ground, little ribbons of fluorescent orange tape flying. Bladed ground prepared for new construction. Someone gone for every tied-off piece of orange tape flicking in the breeze across the clay ground of an open field.
Maybe you saw the markers alongside the highway, white crosses and plastic flowers to commemorate lives lost on the way, or the pile of votive candles, real and fabric flowers, mylar balloons (“We’ll miss you!”—“Rest in Peace”—“Love”—“Smile Now, Cry Later”—), hand-written cards and sometimes stuffed toys, against a nearby fence or the streetlamp on the corner where it happened.
On one job, while climbing a 240-foot steel cell-tower by Altadena, I reached 200 feet and spotted an expensive alloy clip still attached to a guy line, and knew something had happened to the last steeplejack, because for what we make to risk our lives at these heights, you don’t leave that gear behind. (I left it clipped in place as a commemoration of whoever it was, a reminder to the next guy.) It was like working your way alone (as member of a team or crew or collective, we still have to play our individual role on jobs requiring hazardous solos) in some intricate far corner of some sub-basement level, I don’t even remember which level of course, and I came across another crew’s duffle bag emptied and discarded in the tunnel behind the pipes—(I’d only found it accidently; leaning against the pipes to wipe my face in the stultifying heat, I touched a strap)—and pulled out the bag. You get those shocking messages once in a while: “Somebody like you came this way. Somebody like you was doing exactly what you are doing. Likely they were killed doing this, exactly what you are doing. Watch yourself.” What happened? Who took out the other guy? Who stole his gear and discarded the bag? That’s exactly the kind of intelligence you never get from the people contracting the job. Their line always is, “Don’t worry. We’re just scouting new talent. The last crew had no problems at all.” At most they might say something like, “The last group was involved with drugs. They got sloppy, made mistakes. We let them go. You guys are clean, eh?” You never get the real story.
One or two teenagers in their cowls clutching their sacks of paint might pass furtively along a crawlspace or tunnel—taggers. You might be outside on the stairs or crossing a bridge—they’ll give you the owl-faces with their lizard eyes, then go back to spray-painting.
Everybody who’s not some total nihilist is a sell-out; you got half a life, you’re a sell-out too. They’re more anarchist than the anarchists. That glowering owl-look from huffing too much fumes says it all; they’re going armed now, too.
Sometimes there are unmistakable signs that individuals are living inside the walls, merging with the infrastructure. Old retirees or women living within utility closets or under bridges or under the stairs. That’s how the owners want us. Coming from a long line of subway tunnel families and high steel ironworkers, my favorite writer, Rick Harsh, author of the trade classics, Belaying and Rappelling with Guts, and Sensual Buildering and Erotic Stegophily: I Like it On Top, writes, “The fucking fascist-capitalist assholes both as a class and as individuals goddamn want us motherfucking dead or fucked up and frozen in catatonic postures of shit-eating horror, blind-sided by their horrible motherfucking goddamn fuck-off piss-ass delusions of grandeur, those motherfucking assholes—that’s why we have to camouflage in the infrastructure.” Possibly the most famous quote about why we must unobstrusively excel at the highest techniques of parkour and structuring, else we are lost. No wonder his books are passed hand to hand and studied by cold ugly fading LED lamplight deep underground in dank filthy utility tunnels with the intermittent rumbling of heavy traffic or subway trains or mineshaft cave-ins.
Word came down also that you didn’t want to get a reputation for being too good at your job, either, as employers had paid local gangs to take out crews or units that got too proficient or too prominent and asked for higher rates, driving up demand. One crew, among the best in their line, was driven to a service road in the Verdugo Hills and shot in the head at close range. One team came under fire at a gas station: four were killed, including a fourteen year old who was famously expected to become “the next Rick Harsh.” A family was found slaughtered at home, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot—the rest of the team was never found. Of course, the media suggest that these crimes are endemic to our community: desperate elimination of the competition, due to overwork or drugs or epidemic violence or “secret histories” or “unknown genetics.” It was counterintuitive, but tunnel rats respected for acuity suggested that powerful contractors with connections to the Philipines and Central America, to Citibank and Bank of America, respectively, wanted a more disorganized labor pool. That that was more to their liking, historically; they had more experience with the brutalization of supply. Legislators and attorneys general suggested that crews would be subject to indefinite confinement in secret prisons and subject to torture if they were stopped in public without permits and licensing, in order to protect the public order. Some suggested it would even “protect” the workers in the aggregate by “sacrificing” a portion of individuals. Anguished death agonies unheard of in the secret prisons should be considered, podcasts argued, as a small price to pay for lower taxes. Pundits or academics would say that it was just competition between aboveground and underground, between base and superstructure (“inside” and “outside”) workers that had taken a violent form, maybe just random or isolated cases of crews or teams fighting amongst themselves because they were infected by Southland gang cultures and the dirty criminality of Lakers fans, though I personally never saw anything like that—it made no sense. It was true that “things happened,” that is, whole groups disappeared, leaders were assassinated—throughout the years with the accumulation of thousands of such deaths and disappearances—and no official inquiry or media attention or importance placed on any of these lives gone, so that they were erased—history was erased, as if tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of vanished lives had in fact never existed. What was actual, instead—in fact, in actual hard fact—were the corporate logos and company names we affixed, rappelling from the roofs of high rises and skyscrapers to affix them like subconscious beacons on the dusky city evening skyline.
Electronic billboards and vinyl murals broadcast perfectly anesthetic deformations of desire. Ceaseless supply moving to demand, our teams and crews entered buildings from underground, repurposing light and motion-detectors, rerouting alarms, switching video-surveillance closed-system monitors over to the Saturated Fat Network or Pornographic Home Industry, as we installed marijuana gardens or organic plots behind the fence line. I didn’t have anything to do with it myself, but drug gangs paid some workers to tend marijuana plots and heirloom tomatoes to supply to locals. I appreciated picking my own fresh chiles, potatoes, summer squash, Anasazi beans, kale and chard. With hydroponic gardens installed in sub-basement levels and dry-irrigation crops sown on freeway medians and embankments behind rows of oleander, we occupy interstitial margins, overlooked and forgotten spaces. Politicians whip citizens into a self-righteous frenzy about imaginary sins and corruption, whilst we raised the city about them—we push wheelbarrows, carry hod, shoulder drywall and solder plumbing. We electrocute ourselves and fall sixty feet down dark shafts. We fix cars, tend babies, begonias, lawns or laundry, empty bedpans and piss bottles, shift old people in bed, strip the beds and change bedding, bathe the enfeebled, disabled and demented. From either side of the window, behind glass, everything on the other side appears normal, routine, ordinary.
Buildings and boulevards, avenues and malls, freeway exchanges, parking lots and vehicles, the whole built cityscape was real, but we who lived inside walls—we had no visible life. The visible life was of things.
Perhaps, momentarily, what I would see in a single dangling wire (a single, loose, disconnected TV cable line) from a telephone or steel power pole was something different that others could not see. Anyway, what we saw everywhere could always—and in every case—be denied.
In the baleful gaze of the woman peering from under the covers in a crawlspace beneath the stairs, as three of us ascended, I saw the history of a whole people.
If our peoples were deemed to not have existed (or if allowed some sort of existence but never really counted), if the service workers that tended the grounds, swept the walks, cleaned the offices, corridors and hillsides, did misdemeanor community service picking up trash on the freeway medians and embankments wearing orange reflective vests, framed tract houses on building pads bladed across landscapes, and kept green the greenways of executive golf courses and resorts, transforming swaths of the terrain—in fact, we who also overnight, in the dark, reconstituted the world of the financial towers downtown while the rest of the world slept, so they might awaken in the morning and find “their” world as they presumed it (a world possessed by all those possessed by it). The artifice of this material world sustained that false, comforting illusion people cherish at any given moment: that all was as it had ever been—served up with bread and pastries baked for the coffee stand or cart or shop from two to four a.m. and delivered by the trucks negotiating the predawn streets in submarine hues of greenish shadow and gleam, the roasted coffee beans providing fresh roast unseen to those same locations, and fleets of shining taco trucks and lunch wagons sprayed down, washed, restocked and steaming by the hundreds in dark yards before they rolled along the avenues under the streetlights. It was as if the civilization were sleeping, dreaming of a distant Hollywood life of a ghostly Shangri-La where sweaty faces and grimy necks, toil-weary backs and arms, calloused hands and dirty torn fingernails were themselves the strange dream.
In the morning, people rushing to work might have seen the others at the end of their shifts, might have been awakened by a disposal truck banging down dumpsters or caught some vague fleeting bit of conversation between garbage-men before turning back to sleep, or while trying to beat rush hour might have paused at a stoplight behind a work truck laden with welding equipment and chained oxy-acetylene tanks emblazoned with yellow warning stickers looped with rubber hose, and did not bother, never thought, never imagined or ‘dreamed’ of marginal lives channeling the velocity of their own into the mainstream of broad daylight except to feel some impatience perhaps at having to pause for a truck at the light. In the spotlit gaze of unblinking storefront security cameras and mannequins, we became as shadows.
A gas company work truck or some old flatbed Ford 550 or a 1960 Ford pickup fitted with plywood siding to extend the bed four or six feet in the air, so overloaded so often with pallets or vegetation or metal junk that the frame of the vehicle is irrevocably bent and the driver must proceed slower than traffic, or any of various step vans, or the groundskeeper’s pickup truck loaded with mowers, edgers, blowers, tools, bags, and stuff. Like you, some hold in hand the first cup of coffee of the day. Those are the ones who did not work all night.
Maybe you saw cops pull people out of a vehicle. A couple of cop cruisers with their light bars flashing at daybreak, starting early. No wonder traffic was slowing. Men kneeling on the sidewalk, hands behind their heads. Maybe you’d pay special attention if one was a woman. Did they pass that confinement law, or whatever the new law was they were talking about? You couldn’t recall.
Let’s get back to the original line of questioning we were going over, eh? What about the war between the zeppelins and the dirigibles in the skies over Los Angeles?
I heard something about it, I don’t remember exactly what. I figured it didn’t have anything to do with me, frankly. I have enough trouble trying not to get killed by gangs or random, crazed, heavily armed individuals, or by accidents on the job.
Really? You don’t know anything about the Volunteers of the Zeppelin Attack Dirigibles, and their defense of hillside communities and crowds of protestors?
I probably saw something about it on the news. Yeah. Pretty sure.
You’re sort of disappointing as a narrator.
Hey, they subcontracted me on this job. That’s the way it works. They contract out, no questions asked. Our crew had to retrofit the foundation at the basement levels—jacking up one side of the building at a time, imagine—to meet new codes.
But still, the War of Los Angeles is pretty important. It’s a major social issue, and you don’t seem to know much about it.
If you let me check with my co-workers, my backup probably can—
No. No, no time for that here. Besides, your compas are even more injured than you are. I don’t know if they regained consciousness. They’re being tended to.
Sorry, I never was asked about social issues before.
Don’t you care about your community? I mean, you live in this city, too.
I tend to keep my head down—or up, in this case—
It’s in all the papers.
Yes. Mainly my reading is confined to work-related questions. Did I tell you about my favorite quotes by my favorite author, Rick Harsh, author of Belaying and Rappelling—
Yes, you already mentioned that.
Did I tell you about his motivational instruction, “The fucking fascist-capitalist assholes both as a class and as individuals goddamn want us motherfucking dead or fucked up and frozen in catatonic postures of shit-eating horror—”
I said that?
Often, we find such concepts useful, when you are thinking about how to extract your own crushed or broken fingers from the belaying device at fifty or more storeys—
No doubt. We are rather more interested in the first documented sighting of the Kraken.
I never suspected for a second the existence of such things. Never in this world! Imagine?
This may be the first documented sighting of one, yes. That’s why we’re trying to document it here. We’d like to complete your testimony, for the record.
So really, you don’t want to hear about my job situation, is that what you’re saying?
As you were saying, you were roped outside the 51st floor of the United California Bank Building dangling above Hope Street and 6th, sent crashing into the side of the building by gale-force winds out of black thunderheads above you?
That’s right. I thought I was dead right there. Before we go on, can I get some medical attention for my face and my hand? I’d like to get my face sewn up and my fingers splinted.
We’ll get you some primary care as soon as we finish this interview.
It’s getting hard to see. I’m worried about losing sight in my left eye. I feel as if I might black out.
Yes, let’s proceed with answering the questions, shall we? That way, we can get finished as soon as possible and we’ll get you fixed right up. Your co-worker is a lot worse off—in critical condition—and we’d like to get him airlifted out of here as well. We just want to document the important details while we’re waiting.
Can I have a drink of water?
Of course. I have some M&Ms, would you like some?
I don’t think I could hold them; these fingers are really—
Of course. You must be in a great deal of pain.
About a five on a scale of one to ten.
Let’s get on with it, then we can get you to the doctor. You said, you knocked a piton in and clipped on your line. “I clipped my harness to the piton and looked up.”
I clipped my harness to the piton and looked up.
It did start on Bunker Hill (or underneath it).
As you know, the sky has become a striated vortex of polyethylene or polypropylene snow or dust (resin pellets), capable of sudden dynamic weather formations that defy climatology. Who can account for strange sudden orange clouds blowing in after the Santa Anas, raining down not the harsh stinging desert sands and alkali chalk lifted off the scoured high deserts (off vast desertified landscapes such as the now dry alkali flats of the former Salton Sea or Owens Lake), but instead drawing curried and burnt sienna curtains over the atmosphere, winds either soft or harsh sifting almost invisible semitransparent flakes and sharp, hard-edged glinting reflective flecks sweeping across the terrain, threatening urban citizens (particularly young children, or the elderly and infirm) with asphyxiation, or severe eye and lung damage resulting from breathing yellow particulate, sparkling glittery winds? What do people hiding from inclement weather in shopping malls, abandoned public buildings like libraries or schools or Starbucks say about the Orange Gyres? They speculate that some secret US government agency like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conspired with radical environmentalists to foment orange gyres over the urban centers of the planet in order to hide the wholesale theft of internal combustion automobiles and major appliances like refrigerators, microwaves and popular consumer goods from former “First World” nations. China (and sometimes Brazil) always figures in the theories. Water heaters, 1970s Oldsmobile Cutlasses, store manikins, screen doors, and refrigerators occasionally falling to earth out of massive violent orange thunderheads blotting out the sun only adds to the conspiracy bullshit.
As you know, I said fuck you (in my mind) to your generous offer to unlock the glass case in the lobby, remove the black cardboard directory of suites and offices, expose the panel and unlock that one too, step through into the service corridor (“watch your head, some of these pipes are hot—as you know”), skedaddle semi-sideways the length of the southern side of part of the elevator core, ascend a series of ladders and gangways to the sixth floor (where you could feel the heat of the eastern face of the building through the wall) to a nearly perfect air-conditioned cubicle ensconced inside that “inframundo” with CCTV feeds to a central flatscreen panel, digital feed from security sensors indexing energy use, infrared cameras, movement sensors, and security cameras, to a board giving the operator in his or her comfy pilot’s chair total access to all spaces, interior and exterior of the structure.
And you with your “fuck you.” Don’t you feel childish?
Our generous offer to unlock the glass case in the lobby, remove the black cardboard directory of suites and offices, expose the panel and unlock that one too, step through into the service corridor (“watch your head, some of these pipes are hot—as you know”), skedaddle semi-sideways the length of the southern side of the elevator core, ascend a series of ladders and gangways to the sixth floor (where you can feel the heat of the eastern face of the building through the wall) to a nearly perfect air-conditioned coffin ensconced inside that “inframundo” with CCTV feeds to the flatscreen panel, digital access to security sensors indexing energy use, infrared feeds, movement sensors and security cameras, to a mixing board giving the operator in your own comfy pilot’s chair total access to all spaces, psychological and horticultural, interior and exterior of the structure. It could have been the perfect job for you. No more climbing up the outsides of the tallest structures in the city during shit storms and wars.
It’s not really my thing.
Compunctions! What does this squeamishness come from? Why? You don’t want to inform on a prostitute ducking into a broom closet to change her rag and shower in a mop bucket, flush ragazzi out of the Hope Street garage entrance planters to protect the shrubbery, not even inform us that one of our former security supervisors has returned to his old habits and unrolled his bedding beneath the generator housing in sub-basement A, when it’s clearly unhealthy to do so (given the magnetic fields) and unsanitary for all involved? That we must comply with all state, federal and municipal codes for the welfare of all concerned? You know this is a cushy position that must pay several times your current income. Even if the office is difficult to access.
Oh, not your thing. Steady work, paid vacations, health benefits, full package, inside job.
Inside job! Come on!
“Fuck you,” eh?
All right, all right. Back to our original agreement. Install the jacks, lift the building ever so gently so that no one notices anything, retrofit and align the isolator columns, service the shock-absorbers, upgrade the flexible conduits and give us the premium-quality maintenance of the elevator core your people are known for. Sixty-two stories’ worth!
Certainly. (It was the warm handshake, the brotherly squeeze of the shoulder followed by the wink, that stayed with me. The wink especially. A wink, really? A wink.)
Come on. What’s a wink?
That’s what we wondered. Then the accidents started happening.
Accidents? Really? Your team had quite the safety record previously. I shall have to note these “accidents” for our insurance representative. They’ll be contacting you. What happened?
After we’d finished up in the sub-basements, we were cleaning up to leave when Sergio went upstairs and found the exit locked. It wouldn’t be the first time that management forgot about us and forgot to allow us access to leave.
No doubt, some oversight by the plant supervisor. I’ll check on that.
So we packed up and tried the alternate routes. We had to drag our men out by their feet from the air ducts, because the air ducts were full of carbon monoxide. The men nearly died ascending those routes.
That’s terrible! You’re suggesting engine exhaust fumes from the street or some other source is finding its way into our HVAC air ducts? Not good! Something else to check on. Go on. You had other incidents.
Yeah. We made our way to the central elevator core—
How? How did you get to the elevator core?
We made our way to the central—
Yes, but how? How did your people—
You’d rather not say? Really? No problem. It’s not really important. A little unusual perhaps, but go on—as you were saying—the central elevator core.
We planned to steeplejack the corporate logo as per the contract and get signed offon the specs. To do so, we had to ascend to the roof. All elevators began descending as soon as we emerged into the shafts. It was as if whoever was monitoring building security was trying to physically eliminate us. The elevators began rapidly to descend, cutting us off and threatening to crush us.
I wonder if that could be related to a computer error we noticed that morning. Perhaps your coworkers tripped a safety device when they entered the shafts.
We’ve never heard of “safety devices” that send elevators down on workers in the shafts.
All right. I’ll check with the plant supervisor and security. What else?
We gained the NW stairwell of the building and began ascending.
You did, yes. How did—
We gained the NW stairwell and one of my men was hit by a piece of steel rebar. Stabbed through his leg above the knee, just missing an artery. He was bleeding badly when we pulled it out of his leg.
There’s no record of any work involving rebar on that day anywhere in the building. Perhaps your man somehow injured himself. Did you see this occur personally?
Please, go on.
I left Saul behind with him, saying we’d finish the job quickly and be right back for them. After we left them, they did not answer their cell phones. We left them messages, but they didn’t return our calls. We don’t know what happened to them.
Really? We don’t have any records of unauthorized personnel exiting the building from that area. Perhaps they got tired of waiting and left to seek medical assistance. Did you consider checking the hospitals in the area? Perhaps they know something about your friends. Don’t worry. I’ll have someone check. So, yes, go on—
We were attacked on the roof.
Three individuals attempted to gain access to the roof while we were preparing to go over the side.
They attacked you?
We assumed they were going to.
What did they do?
They advanced toward us. They told us they were building security. They were armed.
Then what happened?
We were complying with their request to see identification and papers when I got a funny feeling.
A funny feeling?
Yes. So, so we disabled them and put them back in the stairwell and locked it.
This was when your coworker was injured?
No, he was fine at that time.
Were the other men injured?
Yes, they were all injured. One was badly injured. He caught a spring loaded grappling hook in the face, and the other, the claw end of a wrecking bar.
Well, I’ll have to check with security to see what they have to report. As far as I know, no reports were made of security personnel in the roof area. But I will double-check on it. Curious, indeed. So you defended yourself with your steeplejack equipment, got into your rigging and went over the side. Then what did you see?
When I looked up, a pickup truck was stopped on the freeway, and someone was lying in the lane ahead of it, on the pavement shiny with blood and broken glass. Then I caught a glimpse in the side mirror of a big rig truck going too fast to stop.
When I looked up, out of the sudden swirling vortex of a huge black thunderhead lashing out at the nearby bank and oil company skyscrapers with hellish flashes of lightning, lightning bolts popping and exploding like the thrashing arms of a wild monster, purplish and black, it simultaneously occurred to me that perhaps two of the dirigibles and zeppelins firing on each other had collided, exploded directly overhead and this enveloping darkness signaled they were about to crash down upon my neck, so I hid my face against the black glass and sharp edge, raising my arm over my skull to ward off the massive debris that I felt most likely would follow the great shadow.
To tell the truth, with all the wars in the news, War on Drugs, War on the Poor, War on Litter, War on Terror, War on Crime, War on Time, I have not had too much time to pay attention to the War of Los Angeles, with the Dirigible Attack Zeppelins hunting and destroying the ELADATL Volunteers in their home-made airships. I’m sure somebody will win or lose or something, making the skies over Los Angeles safe again for human-powered flight. I suppose. I’m a long way from being able to afford a bicycle plane or one-man gyrocopter—I’m a pedestrian. I do know several people who have been injured by falling debris, but look around, there’s so much trash, psychological and ideological, littering the landscape, it’s hard to pinpoint any real source. Meanwhile, I got a job to do.
Impact with the building slowed the spinning somewhat, so I found another piton and executed an E, attempting to halt the spin. A couple of burning airships had landed atop the tower above me and burning pieces and raw ejecta might fall on me at any moment, but I didn’t have time to consider it, I had to knock a piton into a window-cleaner’s track or spacer column. First I clawed my grappling hook onto the next spacer that came around—it took several tries and I was worried my spin would accelerate, but I got the hook on a crease without losing it or my grip, and knocked a piton in. I clipped my harness to the piton and looked up.
The attack zeppelin appeared to descend from the clouds close upon the ELADATL dirigible. They were close enough I could make out the insignia and writing on the sides. The dirigible seemed to be damaged, attempting to maneuver, using the central library tower as cover. Directly out of the roiling column of the black cloud came the Kraken, purplish tentacles furling forward, writhing and flexing as they coiled about the zeppelin. Before the zeppelin exploded, I could see the wires or strings controlling the tentacles, which I noticed were moving stiff and shiny as paper mache. I actually think the Kraken was made out of paper mache. Of course I never said anything about that because how.
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for more than 25 years. He’s also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts and the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems.