Cinthea Fiss
transcription of text
audio track two
The heating hot water pump howls out of alignment. Its pale blue cast casing strains with the pressure. The scalding liquid within travels at a rate of two thousand gallons per minute through the pump and out into networks of pipes and coils. This fluid is used to heat one million square feet of prime financial district real estate, to keep the temperature constant and comfortable for seven hundred thousand office workers. And now as the heating hot water pump rocks and surges, there is a danger of losing heat to the offices.

The heating hot water pump is on the thirty-seventh floor machine room. The building maintenance engineer whose duty it is to check the equipment on that floor is down in the third sub basement, setting the main controls for the fans that heat, cool, and ventilate the entire building. Soon he will go to the roof to rebuild a different pump, the cooling tower condenser water pump. It is a routine procedure, scheduled every three years. He won't have time to check his assigned machine room areas, to notice the heating hot water pump on the verge of imploding.

I am on my coffee break. The acrid beverage jars my weary senses. One of the guys on the early shift scorched this coffee in a dirty pot two hours ago. Now they're all on the roof, in the biting chill of winter, rebuilding a cooling tower pump. I'm left to answer all the tenant calls. Ordinarily I'd feel left out. I love to rebuild large unwieldy pumps. But the misting spray of the cooling tower is toxic, filled with heavy metals and biocides. I've had my fill of that. Alone in the break room I can relax. My feet are throbbing and sore, swollen inside my steel toed work boots. I roughly place them on the table. There's no one here to offend. They're all upstairs bonding beneath the spray of rancid condenser water.

Years ago, as an apprentice, I was in charge of the chemical treatment of the heating and cooling systems. Once a week I tested the levels of chemicals and solids in each heat exchanger loop, chiller system and the cooling tower. Every week I'd gather my samples in little plastic bottles. Walt, the carpenter, made a wooden carrier for me, with sixteen compartments for my sixteen plastic bottles. The wood, a mountain ash, was blonde and fine grained. He shaped an elegant smooth handle which fit my hand perfectly.

Walt spent many hours making that box for me. He lost his job when the building was sold. The new company preferred to bid out carpentry jobs. When Walt left, the engineering crew got complete use of the carpentry shop. We all have elaborate "government jobs" we are working on, projects for our personal pleasure that we don't feel obligated to explain. Phil builds furniture for his wife`s business. Leo makes frames for his photographs. Sven constructs the ribs of a ship's hull.

At the same time that Walt was fired, Roger, the locksmith, was terminated. The building engineers became responsible for the locksmith shop. I often cut keys and re-pin locks. Roger was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He plastered the walls of the lockshop with slogans that make my skin crawl. I've removed what I can, but the memory of what was there remains etched in my mind.

My chemical treatment job required that I collect samples from every machine room. It took at least two hours to make my way through the entire building. I picked up my bottles in the third sub basement, and walked up the stairs, over sixty flights, to the roof. I carried my tray of bottles rattling in one hand, my tool belt slung over my shoulder. I know every step of that stairwell. I memorized the words scrawled on the walls by office workers who stepped out for a break, a cigarette and a snack. They left behind wrappers, butts and a drawing. They exchanged raillery, back and forth on the eighteenth floor, in the northwest stairwell. A poem was scribbled between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth floors:

O! Computer screen, I gaze at you,
Hour after hour.
Your brilliant glow, I love you so,
You fill my boss with power.

By the thirty-seventh floor I had to radio security on my walkie talkie to let them know I was approaching the thirty-ninth floor motion detector. They would spot me on the surveillance camera, but I preferred to warn them than be greeted by an armed guard, ready and aiming, on the fortieth floor landing.

On the fortieth floor is the office of the President of Bank of America. The ceiling is twenty feet high. The walls are solid carnelian granite. I enjoy working on the fortieth floor, repairing the heating system, trouble shooting electrical problems, or snaking toilets. The president has a private bathroom with a shower. Outside his office hangs a Diebenkorn painting, a study of the artist's studio with chair and table. Phil and I installed Leger's prints of the circus in one of the conference rooms. Matisse's paintings hang in the adjacent office.

On the fifteenth floor, inside the south east machine room, is a storage area filled with more artwork. I have spent hours sifting through the collection, fingering the bank's investments, hidden away, out of sight. It is known what a broken pipe or leaking valve could do.
The Bank of America boardroom is on the sixtieth floor. From the thirty foot ceiling hang three enormous antique crystal chandeliers. The walls are covered with a veneer of African oak, a wood with a small circular grain.

The boardroom table is thirty five feet long. It is divided into eight heavy sections which must be wheeled in on special racks from the storage closet. It takes six engineers to assemble the table. Six engineers are needed to lift one section. First we set up the metal frame. It is in eight parts which must be assembled, screwed together. Then we wheel the table out.

When Mike White was an apprentice, he dropped part of the table on Pops' foot. Twelve bones broke. Pops was out of work for months. Pops, whose real name is Lorenzia, is from Louisiana. As a teenager, from the Bayou, he trained as a sheet metal worker. He moved to San Francisco to seek work. He wasn't allowed into the union because of his race. He was able to get a job as a security officer. Years later he became a utility engineer, an assistant to the building maintenance engineers.

After his foot was smashed by the boardroom table, Lorenzia became responsible for painting all the machine rooms and the building equipment. He designed a color code system for all the pumps and pipes. The chilled water pipes are pale lime. The condenser water is carnation pink. Lorenzia used to call me aside, into his paint room, to counsel me, give me advice. He warned me against speaking my mind. He told me that they would never hire another female. I was too much trouble.

When it came to setting up that boardroom table, I hove more than my share of tons of dense and highly polished wood. Once assembled the table glistened, reflecting the sparkling chandeliers above. The security officers were responsible for bringing the plush leather chairs up from the storage room in the third sub basement.

The main security office was on the concourse level. Originally the building management utilized an in-house security force, but eventually they decided to contract out. They switched agencies until they ended up with the company that offered the lowest pay, gave the fewest benefits and enforced the most stringent regulations. Most of the original security guards quit. Some were students. The new company imposed rigid work schedules. The students couldn't swap hours to accommodate classes.

Chris was studying philosophy. I enjoyed talking to him when I worked on graveyard shift. Three a.m., we'd stand in the freight elevator, the one with the stainless steel walls, the exhaust fan humming rhythmically beneath the din of our badinage and our laughter. Chris left with the third change in security companies. David, a mathematician, quit for entirely different reasons. The day his wife died delivering a still born, he left work four hours early. The company refused to pay him four hours not worked. Sick leave couldn't be applied. They had no provisions for personal tragedy pay. Bob the photographer was another security guard to leave. He made beautiful black and white photographs, some of which are still tacked up in the main security office. He liked the job because it entailed fiddling with the computer for the life safety system. He was good with basic electronics. But the cut in pay was unbearable.

I also miss Alice. She was one of the few women ever hired on the security force. When I worked day shift, she worked swing shift. We'd meet in the locker room, after I had showered. Wet and clean I'd tear into the changing area. My locker was three lockers away from hers. Mine was the one with the hard-hatted woman sticker. Hers had the logo from the National Rifle Association. Alice had been in the Army. Her lean hard body resonated with discipline. We'd chat about everything during our ten minutes together, twice a week when our work shifts touched. Dressing and undressing concurrently, we ventured into each other's universe. I slipped into civilian clothes, she into her uniform.

The security company charged the officers for their uniforms. My uniforms were provided by the building, along with weekly laundry service. Alice worked a split shift: two days of swing shift, two on graveyard, and one dayshift. Our time together lacked leisure. She rushed to get to her post on time. I dashed to the time clock to punch out and away, to catch the bus I often missed. And now Alice is gone. I don't know why she left or where she's working. She never knew I walk to the roof daily. No one knows. It is my secret.

When security sees me in the surveillance cameras from the thirty-ninth to the forty-first floors, they can't tell how far I've come or how much further I'll climb. They can't hear me panting, can't see my pale blue polyester shirt drenched with sweat. They only see a dutiful engineer using the stairs to avoid waiting for an elevator, avoiding the use of electricity necessary to turn those giant motors that hoist the cabled elevators up and down their long and narrow shafts.

At first I climbed the stairs to the roof just to see if I could do it, how long it would take if I needed to race to the roof in an emergency, an earthquake, when the elevators had ceased running, to secure a valve to save the domestic water tanks for drinking water. But now I climb the stairs to the roof daily. It's a matter of discipline. It's exercise I get paid for, my secret excursion.

It's easier to climb the stairs without my box of bottles, but when it was my job to collect samples, I never noticed how cumbersome it was. I'd head up the stairs to the roof. Then I'd climb out on the metal catwalk, across to the cooling towers. The three towers are made of redwood. They stand thirty feet high. Each one has a large rotary fan on top. The condenser water is torrid with the heat of compression, the change of state of the freon in the chillers in the third sub basement. It is pumped to the top of the cooling towers. The fluid surges out and flows over series of slats. It releases its heat in a fury of steam and spray. I enter the tower. I climb over thirty-six inch pipes, pry open a small corrugated fiberglass hatch and slide in. There are wooden planks to balance on. I avoid stepping in the steamy pool of scum and muck accumulated through years of evaporation. Inside the tower it is sultry and moist. The sun spills in from the gently rotating fan. Fragmented by the large fan blades, the light is rhythmic, steadily pulsing. The rushing water deafens. The scent of fevered redwood and biocide overwhelms the stench of my own sweat. It's the sauna to reward my long hard climb to the roof. It's the wooded glen waterfall, covered with moss and ferns, beneath the towering redwoods, the sunlight dodging, scattered through tree tops as I lie on my back by the river's edge, close my eyes and dream of you. I reach my hand out and you're beside me, also damp from our strenuous trek up this steep fiery mountain. I turn and brush my cheek against your shoulder. I lick your ear and nibble at your neck. Your soft old skin is salty, damp. You remove your shirt and turn away, lying on your chest. Your dewy skin glistens in the measured beat of the shattered sunlight. You wad your tee-shirt up in a lump and place it under your cheek. I take my tee shirt off and move closer to you. I rub my hand over the hairs of your back. I lean closer, lightly sliding my breasts across your shoulder blades. I notice the cooling tower fan. I pull out my bottle marked C W and dip it in the red brown pond to fill.

Above the chemical station is a photographic calendar. Every two months a new photograph flips into position. I notice a new image. It is of a woman by a mountain stream. The greens and reddish browns of the photograph are soothing. The site appears remote, isolated from this furious metropolis. But the photographer, staff and model did not hike far to make this image. It is a set in a studio. The model's sweat is an oil sprayed on copiously to shimmer under the studio lights. The water foaming cool and wild is absolutely ersatz. I've seen it used in other photographs, selling entirely different products. This picture sells me some one else's concept of the eroticization of space. It is not a space I want to inhabit. Nor do I want this image impinging upon my space.

I want a photo of a shining red liquid, smeared glossy, muscles tense. and ripping, sweat on skin. it's thick. you taste it. pounding, twist and squirm. no air. just pressure pressing harder hotter. damp and breathless. still no air. no spit to swallow, hotter, damper. muscles ripping, tense and red. no air to swallow, hot and hard. saliva. fluids. spit and squirm. and muscles rip and twist and tear.

Every week I added buckets of powdered chromate to the toxic brew. The chromate made me itch. At times I got severe rashes that would last for days. I avoided inhaling while handling it, but my sore throat indicated how much I had ingested. Chromate prohibits scaling and corrosion. Biocides prevent Legionnaire's Disease. Once a year I tested the systems with in-line coupons. The coupons were thin wafers of metal, precisely weighed. I inserted them into the system for sixty days. Then they were weighed again. The amount of scaling or corrosion of the pipes and tubes was calculated.
The coupon for the condenser water needed to be inserted in the 36 inch pipe next to the cooling tower. The first year I tested it, I isolated the line, closed the valves, and drained the pipe. I went to the shop to get a large wrench to remove the plug where the coupon would be inserted. The entire crew of fourteen guys followed me back to the roof. Everyone watched from a distance as I removed the plug. Complete silence fell upon the crowd as I lifted the immense and heavy wrench. Carefully placing it on the geometric faces of the plug, I leaned into the wrench with all my strength. Groaning and pushing, aware of the anxious crowd, I finally felt the slightest movement of the plug. It was starting to turn. I took a deep breath, repositioned myself and applied greater force. Struggling and cursing, I removed the plug. A geyser of chromate and biocide erupted. I was thoroughly drenched. It was suddenly apparent that there had been no way to relieve the pressure on the line. I had been initiated.

Now I can relax, my feet up, sipping lousy coffee in the break room where the walls are lined with photographs of women. A young brunette demonstrates the use of a power saw. Although she appears quite capable of ripping planks, I worry that her hair worn loose and flowing could create a safety hazard. She isn't wearing any safety shoes, or goggles. She isn't wearing anything, except a G-string. This poster is a blatant disregard for safety. I will bring it up at the next shop safety meeting.

Only eight minutes into my coffee break and the walkie talkie blares out my name. It calls me away to the thirty-fourth floor, where an office is complaining of excessive heat. I quickly swallow the rest of my coffee, grab my tools and I'm off.

There is a conference in the board room at Matson Navigation. The president of the board is meeting with twelve lawyers. He is very angry. Great quantities of money have been lost. I have been called into the room, in the middle of the meeting, because the room temperature is too hot. The conference room is simple. A long oak table is surrounded by conventional office chairs. The wall covering is tasteful, abstract patterns of muted pinks and lavender. The light fixtures which hang from the ceiling, reminiscent of chandeliers, are expensive but simple, of a contemporary design. The ceiling is standard height. Compared to the board rooms of other corporations, this room is modest. It's most striking feature is one entire wall of glass, a large picture window exhibiting a view of the harbor.

I walk in carrying a six foot ladder, my tool belt slung over my shoulder. The tirade continues, uninterrupted by my presence. I scan the ceiling for a key tile, one which I can open. I need to pop my head into the ceiling to examine the duct work and the variable air volume box. The key tile, marked with a red spot, is located directly above the lawyer to the right of the president. The president is extremely irate, sweating and flushed with wrath. I decide not to disturb the conference and instead open my step ladder beneath a ceiling vent. As I climb up to take a temperature reading of the discharge air, I glance out into the bay. I locate the ferry building. I remember the fire that burned three piers. They were never rebuilt. As vacant waterfront, the area is popular with fishers.

I begin to remember yesterday. Riding the bus home after work, I sat next to a man who had caught a bag full of mackerel at the site of the burned piers. He fishes there three or four times a week. While the fish are biting, he keeps his large, extended family well fed. Other piers on the waterfront have been transformed into restaurants.

About a block from the ferry building, on the side of the municipal bus lot, is a small painted metal sculpture dedicated to the longshoremen and seamen who struck in May of nineteen thirty-four. The strikers were so powerful, that the National Guard was called in to break the strike. On July 6, the security force killed two strikers and injured many others. The entire city responded with a general strike, closing down all business until the shipping companies agreed to the demands of the Longshoremen and Sailor's Union. The general strike lasted four days.

My grandfather, Ovediah, worked the docks in Rhodes. The torrid Aegean sun scorched his back. His dense, determined muscles enlarged with the weight of cargo. He'd gaze across the swollen seas and dream. Loading crates that left his island, he envisioned his own journey. When the sweat and toil overwhelmed his capabilities, he set sail for Piraeus. He left his wife and sons. Working aboard cargo ships he voyaged west, to America.

My ladder wobbles beneath me. My mind slips to a dream of the sea, rolling. The salted spray etches my skin. I'm on deck. The boilers roar below. I climb down a long metal ladder. I'm the oiler. The turbines pound and grind. The deafening cry of the diesel engine, rhythmically churning, pushes this colossus forward through the turbulent waters. But I'm not on that vessel of grease and sweat. I'm on a ladder in a boardroom, where commerce drives the engines. The surging torrents swell and roll.

The president of Matson continues his castigation. The discharge temperature of the air from the ceiling duct is eighty-nine degrees. Added to the body temperature of thirteen overdressed professionals, the room temperature is well over ninety. I mutter that it's too hot for me to work in there. I leave the room.

I put the ladder away. I return to the third sub basement, where the building computer is. I reset the controls for the fan to the Matson boardroom. I lower the air temperature to fifty-four degrees. The watch engineer, now busy rebuilding the pump on the roof, must have been too busy to check the fan temperature this morning. I notice a magazine rolled up next to the computer terminal. It's a Hustler. It's four years old. I flip through it quickly, hoping that the Chief Engineer doesn't walk in. I come to an article describing a sexual fantasy. It is well illustrated with color photographs. It is called Five Easy Pieces. A woman waits for her man to come home from work. He arrives in a hard hat. His skin is glistening with sweat. He is smeared with grease. He has heroic muscles, well defined, distended with passion.

I toss the magazine into the trash, pick up my tools, walk out into the stairwell and begin to climb sixty flights to the roof.