Toxikleen, Inc

Toxikleen, Inc is a story about men with an usual job – cleaning up radioactive waste for a large faceless corporation. Some quirky characters and wacky adventures intertwine with technical expertise and a satirical look at the modern corporate world.






ACGIH     American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists

ALARA     As Low As Reasonably Achievable

Be            Beryllium, a metal used primarily in alloys, which is considered extremely toxic if in contact with skin or respiratory tract.

CERCLA    Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (known as Superfund)

CFR           Code of Federal Regulations

CM7           A frisker, or a hand held radiation measuring instrument.  Detected radiation given in counts per minute.

CRZ           Contamination Reduction Zone: Entrance and exit point for the Exclusion Zone, or “Hot Zone”, on a HAZMAT clean up site.  Protective clothing is removed in this zone upon exiting.

DOT           Department Of Transportation

DU            Depleted Uranium

EPA           Environmental Protection Agency

Frisk     To inspect an object for radioactive contamination with a hand held detection instument.

H&S           Health and Safety

HAZMAT    Hazardous Materials

HP            Health Physics: Radiation technicians who oversee all operations involving radiation.

IATA          International Air Transport Association

LEL           Lower Explosive Limit

Level B   Level of personal protection using supplied air systems and completely encapsulting clothing, usually disposable tyvek suits and hoods.

Level C   Level of personal protection using filter respirators and disposable tyvek suits

Level D   Level of personal protection using hard hat, safety glasses, steel toed boots along with regular work clothing.

NIOSH     National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

NRC           Nuclear Regulatory Commission

OSHA          Occupational Safety and Health Administration

PCM           PCM-1B- Personnel Contamination Monitor: radiation detecting instrument which is stepped into upon exiting a radiologically controlled area.

PEL           Permissible Exposure Level: OSHA mandated, maximum allowed exposure to a given substance based on a time weighted average.

PID           Photo Ionization Detector: Air monitoring instrument which measures content of organic vapors in ambient air and gives instant readings expressed in parts per million.

PM            Project Manager

PPE           Personal Protection Equipment: Any protective clothing or respiratory protection apparatus.

PPM           Parts Per Million: Unit measuring amount of a constituent as a part of a whole.  Eg: two parts per million of cadmium in soil.

PSI           Pounds per Square Inch

RCA           Radiologically Controlled Area

RCRA          Resource Conservation & Recovery Act

RSA           Fictional corporation named Radiation Safe America

SCBA          Self Contained Breathing Apparatus:  Air tanks worn on the back

TCLP          Toxic Chemical Leachate Process:  Lab analysis technique for determining constituents in a liquid or solid sample.

TLV       Threshhold Limit Value:  Maximum exposure limit as      recommended by ACGIH


It was 6:30 AM on a raw October day.  I provided documents which identified me as an employee of the well known environmental clean up giant, Toxikleen, Inc., and the guard issued me a visitor’s pass, allowing me access to the U.S. Army weapons lab.  I got back into my beat up Ford stationwagon and drove down the neatly manicured streets past the brick buildings of the old base.  Turning an ivy covered corner I saw the small dome of the reactor hunched over a muddy yard filled with office trailers, piles of equipment and stacks of 55 gallon drums.

I parked the car in a crowded parking lot and got out wearing my hard hat, plastic safety glasses and steel toed boots. Hitching my travel bag over one shoulder I fished a wrinkled memo out of a pocket. The memo contained my instructions and had been given to me yesterday by the Operations Manager back in the Newark, New Jersey office.

A group of laborers, with “Local 619” patches on their hard hats, were smoking, drinking coffee out of 12 ounce styrofoam cups and arguing loudly about the Bruins’ goal-tending. I asked them where I could find Trailer 16 and the collection of crooked teeth, scars, tattoos and pot bellies grinned back at me.

“You must be the new Tox Queen!” the laborers all erupted in laughter.

“Yeah, I guess so.” I forced a grin. Last night had been one beer too many in yet another motel room.

“O.K. buddy, go down to the left here and you’ll see Johnny A. and the rest of the Tox Queens.”

“Thanks pal.” I slogged off through the mud and found Trailer 16 with a stack of cinder blocks in the middle of a puddle serving as the steps up to the trailer door.

I hauled myself in through the trailer door and was engulfed in an atmosphere of smoke and noise. A computer printer was loudly spitting up reams of spreadsheets and a fax machine was clicking off a transmission. I scanned the trailer and noted three desks, stacked SCBA air tank cases, boxes of glass sample jars, a couple of rows of reference books and federal regulations, tools, and piles of bulging file folders. On one wall hung several respirator facemasks along with some rain jackets and hard hats.  A short, pudgy young man with thick glasses was trying to bang the burnt sludge out of the bottom of a coffee pot. Solidly planted in front of him lounged a huge hulk of a man with a bristly mustache and big ears who was drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette as he leaned against the “NO SMOKING” sign. The big man was telling a story with a booming voice that shook the only window in the dreary trailer.

“I tell you what good buddy, she had a rack out to here. Whoowee! What a baby doll!”

I heard a splash in the puddle outside and a loud curse. The door opened and a young red-haired man lurched in. “Goddamn puddle! Hi. Are you the new guy? I’m Mark Roberts. I’m from the Baltimore office.”

The other two men turned around and noticed me. The big man stuck out a large paw with a friendly grin. “I’m Earl Smith. Real glad to meet you. This here’s John Anthony, our project manager, but everybody calls him Johnny A.”

“So you’re from New Jersey?” Mark asked me.

I shuddered quietly at the thought as I answered. “No, I live in New York City but I work out of the New Jersey office.”

“Is that right?” asked Earl “Right smack dab in the middle of New York?”

I nodded my head.

“Whoooeee!” Earl whooped. “I tell you what buddy, that place is too much for this ol’ southern country boy. I had to deliver supplies there once, a few years back. We were doing a job for the Transit Authority. With Billy Thomas. You remember him John? Remember he got caught in that KFB down at Dew Point Chemical and sprained his ankle running out of there.” Earl laughed and looked at me. “You know what KFB is?”

“No.” I nodded my head as Earl took a drag on his cigarette and eyed me intently.

“Ker-Fucking-Boom!” he yelled and slapped his knee as he exploded into laughter. “A big ass old explosion! Anyway, like I was saying, this ol’ country boy’ll be real happy if he never has to go back to New York again. I don’t know how anybody can live there.”

“Have you been through safety orientation yet?” asked Johnny A. He spit a stream of tobacco juice into an almost full styrofoam cup. “Why don’t you put your bag on top of those SCBA’s and follow me. The safety orientation’ll take about an hour. They show you a couple of videos. Then after that we’ll take a tour of the job sites. Oh yeah. Let’s stop off at the health and safety trailer and give them copies of your certifications. We never did get that fax. Earl, you and Mark are going to sample those drums of machine oil in the Be room this morning right?”

“Yeah, uh. We talked to Butchy and they’ll be ready for us after coffee. They need two airlines right now for the electricians to go in. One of the power panels is on the blink.”

“Damn. Not again. That’s so tired.” Johnny A. shook his head with disgust.

We hopped down out of the trailer and crossed the muddy yard to a trailer marked “Health and Safety.” Inside four men with hard hats were lounging and drinking coffee while another man worked on a computer. A walkie talkie radio was on full blast and an excited voice was yelling about a broken down generator until the volume was mercifully turned down.

“This is our new field chemist.” Johnny A. announced. “What’s your name again?”

“Otto Flanagan. Nice to meet you.” I shook hands all around. The man at the computer terminal looked up quickly and kept typing.

“Do you have all your certifications with you?” he asked me.


“OSHA HAZMAT 40 HOURS training?”


“Rad Worker training? HAZMAT Emergency Response Operations?”




“O.K. We’ll schedule you for a respirator fit test tomorrow if we have time. Until then you can’t do any respirator work.”

We made copies of all eight pages of my certifications and went back out into the mud.

“Which company are they with?” I asked Johnny A.

“They’re C and C, Cushman and Crane. They’re the general contractor on this job. They’re also providing Health and Safety here. Toxikleen is a subcontractor on this job. We’re responsible for the chemical and mixed waste. Nukekleen is shipping out all the rad waste to the disposal facility and RSA, Rad Safe America, is overseeing rad safety controls for the entire operation. Here’s where they give the safety orientation. I’ve got a conference call with the people from Claremont Labs at 8:30 so I’ve got to hustle. Just come on back to the trailer when you’re done.”


The safety orientation had consisted of the standard stuff that you see in all the petrochemical plants and oil refineries. There were a couple of videos illustrating proper use of ladders, proper handling of drums, safe usage of electricity and safe work practices around forklifts. The dramatic high point was the scene about the worker who goes down after becoming asphyxiated by an oxygen depleted atmosphere or toxic gas. Go immediately and get the Emergency Rescue Team! Do not attempt a rescue and become another victim yourself!

Back at the trailer Johnny A. was still on the phone. Mark had gone off with one of the foremen to the lab building to trace some drainage pipes that were suspected of being contaminated with mercury. I was passing the time reading the job contract and trying to familiarize myself with the scope of work.

I heard sloshing foot steps outside and Earl hoisted his big frame through the door. He stood there blinking as drops of rain water beaded on the brim of his hard hat.

“I’m going to have to get one of those union boys to fix us up some steps.” Earl’s voice rumbled from the back of his throat. He wiped some of the mud from his boots off on a piece of paper that was lying on the floor. I noticed that it was a memo from corporate about the office dress code. The big man cocked his head back and squinted at his watch.

“C’mon buddy, let’s go get a cup of coffee.”

I grabbed a rain jacket and my hard hat and followed him out into the drizzle.

“How long you been with the company?” Earl asked.

“Three years. I started out lab packing, but then I got into a couple of rad jobs. You know that Army weapons lab we did out in Cincinnati? I was out there for four months last year.”

“Oh yeah. I heard about that job. George what’s his name, uh, Simmons was the PM out there wasn’t he?”

“Yeah. He’s a real prick.”

“Yeah, you got that right! I grabbed him by the throat one time on a job in Richmond. He’s got himself an attitude problem. Or at least he did. We get along fine now.” Earl grinned and winked at me. “Anyway I’ve been working construction for twenty years and I’ve been doing this shit for the last five.”

The cafeteria was crowded. It was the union coffee break and there were at least a hundred laborers eating doughnuts, drinking coffee and smoking. One of the union workers with a Harley Davidson tee shirt, two missing front teeth and a long scar across his cheek greeted Earl.

“Earl, you guys going into the Be room after coffee? The electricians are finished so I’ve got two airlines free.”

“Yeah, we’ll be there.” Earl introduced me. “This here’s Butchy. He’s the foreman in the Be room over in Building 95.”

We got our coffee and Earl filled me in as he lit up a Marlboro. “In the machine shop in Building 95 they were grinding beryllium in one room. Beryllium is a lung hazard. Extremely carcinogenic. It’s Level B in there. And they’ve only got four airlines, so you’ve really got to schedule your jumps.”

Two men in clean blue jeans and white hard hats came up to our table. “How’s it going today Earl?”

Earl passed a big hand over his face and flicked cigarette ash on the floor. “Oh Jesus. It’s one of those days. It’s enough to make me feel like fucking a fat girl.” Earl exploded in a loud laugh. “Hey Henry, you know why fucking a fat girl is like riding a moped? Cause it sure is fun, but you don’t want any of your friends to see you.” Earl laughed loudly again. The men chuckled and went on. Earl turned to me again. “Those guys are with the Army Corps of Engineers. They’re overseeing this job.”

Earl smoked two more cigarettes while we drank our coffee and then we headed back through the drizzle to the trailer. Johnny A. was still on the phone. His face had a look of frustration as he spoke patiently, “OK, just fax me that analysis as soon as you can. OK, thanks. Bye.” He hung up and sighed. “That guy at Claremont Labs is such an idiot.” He looked up at me. “Are you all set?” Before I could answer him the phone rang again.


Johnny A. finally escaped from the phone and took me on a tour of the job site. He was quiet and not really at ease with people, so we didn’t talk much. He was from North Carolina and had a degree in chemistry. He had been with the company for six years, most of that time on the road as a project manager going from one job to the next.

First we picked up my TLD, the thermoluminescent dosimetry, which measures radiation dosage and hangs around your neck on a cord. Then we walked out to the RCRA storage pad where the 55 gallon drums of waste were kept. About 500 drums were stacked on wooden pallets separated in several sections. One section was exclusively for nonradioactive hazardous materials. The liquids were separated from the solids and were stored in an area which had a floor lined with 60 mil poly and a berm surrounding it to contain any possible spills. The berm was made out of 2 by 4’s under the poly. The drums were further segregated into Hazard Classes: Flammable Liquids, Caustics, Acids, Poisons, Reactives, and ORM’s or Other Regulated Materials. Several sections were cordoned off with yellow and purple cord and posted with signs warning about radioactive materials and limiting entrance to authorized personnel only. These sections were for the Mixed Waste, or the materials that had both radioactive and chemically hazardous characteristics. They were also separated by solids and liquids and the liquids were again bermed and segregated by hazard class. The drums in the liquid sections were all covered by huge poly tarps to keep off the rain.

We entered a small wooden shed and met a big, burly laborer with a moustache and a green shamrock decal on his beat up hard hat. The laborer was scratching the back of his neck with a wrench and staring at a crumpled and rain soaked piece of paper. He looked up at us with a perplexed expression on his face.

“Hey, Johnny A.! I can’t find these two drum numbers that you wanted me to move out of here. I wanted to do it first thing this morning ’cause I knew the forklift operators were going to be busy most of the day when they started moving those B-25 boxes out of the reactor later.”

Johnny A. tried to smooth out the soggy paper and decipher the chicken scratchings scrawled on it.

“That’s C-198 and C-207. They’re acids.” Johnny A. said matter of factly and handed back the paper. The big laborer opened his mouth and a look of enlightenment came over his face.

“Oh yeah. I can’t even read my own writing. O.K. No problem Johnny, I’ll take care of this right away.”

“O.K. By the way Jack, this is our new crew member.” Johnny A. paused and looked like he was trying to remember my name so I jumped in to save him the embarrassment of having to ask me again.

“Hi. I’m Otto Flanagan. Nice to meet you.”

“Oh, hey. How ya doin’. I heard another one of you guys was coming up here. Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh yeah. Are you an Islander fan?”

A wave of distaste propagated through me before I answered with a touch of pride. “Hell no! I’m a Ranger fan.”

Jack laughed, “Ooh, you’re in the wrong town, buddy. Hey that new kid they’ve got is pretty good. He scored two goals last night against Pittsburgh. The Rangers lost anyway though.”

“That figures.”

Johnny A. had been listening patiently, but now he broke in. “You’re going to be working with Jack a lot. He takes care of this drum storage pad. Let’s go over to Building 95.”

“Hey, nice to meet you.” said Jack. “If you need anything just call me on the radio.”

We walked through the drizzle to a large building with a roll-up garage door. Two laborers were outside smoking next to a 5-gallon plastic bucket marked “BUTTS”. The interior of the building was a huge cavern with an overhead crane on tracks hanging from the I-beams under the ceiling. At the far end was a table and a solidly constructed plywood shack. Three men with “RSA” written on their hard hats were sitting with their feet up on the table. The table was covered with styrofoam coffee cups, a box of doughnuts and several three-ring binders of sign-in sheets. The shack was a changing room and above the door was drawn a skull and crossbones and the words “BRIAN’S BEACH BUNGALOW”.

Johnny A. grabbed one of the binders and signed himself in.

“You’ve got to read and sign the briefing sheet and sign the sign-in sheet. These guys are the HP’s. They’re with RSA.” he explained to me tersely.

The Health Physics, the radiation protection technicians for Building 95 looked up at me. “Have a doughnut.” one of them offered.

Johnny A. unhooked the purple and yellow barrier cord and we entered the Radiologically Controlled Area, or RCA, which is a restricted area due to radiological hazards. Most of Building 95 was one RCA in which there were several individual contaminated work areas.

I followed Johnny A. and he explained the site history and hazards in a flat toneless voice and an expressionless face. The army had experimented with different materials to take advantage of their useful properties. Depleted uranium for example had been used to plate armor piercing artillery shells because its density is greater than the steel armor of tanks.  There were three containment areas on the first floor and another one comprising the whole third floor. The first floor containments were for the old machine shops and the electroplating shop.  We stopped by the observation windows for the DU Room and the Be Room containments, where the army weapons technicians had ground and machined depleted uranium and beryllium.

Through the windows we could see the union laborers dismantling machinery, dressed in level B: disposable tyvek suits and hoods, plastic booties with rubber overboots, neoprene gloves with layers of cotton and latex surgical gloves underneath, full faced respirators, and all seams sealed with duct tape to prevent any penetration by contaminants. They were breathing air supplied to their respirators by 100 foot long air hoses connected to bottles outside the containment at the safety station. Their respirators were equipped with emergency backup filters which could be breathed through if there was any breakdown with the air supply.

The hazards of concern were depleted uranium dust and beryllium dust. The depleted uranium was a low level radioactive material, but inhalation or ingestion of particles could be carcinogenic as the particles remained in the body and mutated cells by giving off radiation energy as they decayed. Beryllium dust was an inhalation and ingestion hazard and also a carcinogen considered to be extremely toxic with no known safe exposure limits. During the operation of these shops, the metallic dust had been contained within the machines and a ventilation system which filtered the air on the third floor before releasing it to the environment.

I met Billy, the bottle man in charge of the air supply, and Timmy the safety observer. Billy had a shaved head and a sleeveless denim jacket with the Hell’s Angels logo on the back. His hard hat had a skull and cross bones decal and the word “wasted” written on it. Timmy was missing a couple of front teeth and had a green shamrock decal on his hard hat. He was dressed out in a tyvek suit and booties and had an SCBA air tank ready in case he had to respond to an emergency.

When I introduced myself, Timmy shook my hand and laughed. “Jesus Christ! I’m ready for a drink! These fucking assholes don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. I fucking told ’em three fucking times, but they didn’t fucking listen. Now they’ve got to do the whole fucking thing over again. Fuck it! I don’t give a shit! Fuck them! I’m going to the bar after work today. What do you say Billy?”

“Why should today be any different?” Billy cracked a smile in his menacing face.

“Ah fuck you too!” Timmy laughed. “How are we doing on the bottles?”

Billy checked the gauge and answered, “A little under 600 lbs.”

Timmy grabbed the radio and growled into it with his gravelly voice. “Safety to Butch.”

“Go ahead.” Butch responded from inside the containment with the background noise of machinery almost drowning out his voice.

“Start wrapping it up and come on out.  You’ve got about 10 minutes of air left.”

Timmy turned back to me.  “You can only go in for one hour on each jump because of heat stress.  And then we have half an hour for cool down time.  And it takes about 15 minutes at the end of the jump to untangle your fucking airlines and decon.  So you really only get about 45 minutes to work on every jump.”

A laborer had pulled open the decon entrance flap and was ready to exit.  Timmy disconnected his airline and took his respirator.  The laborer stepped out dressed in the tee shirt, shorts and boots he had worn under his Tyvek suit.  He was drenched with sweat.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Johnny A.


As we continued our tour we went up to the third floor, where the laborers were coming out of the last containment which comprised the whole floor.  The decon walls were made of plastic sheets with flaps hanging at the entrance way.  A plexiglass observation window in one of the walls allowed Vito, the enormous safety man, to monitor the activity inside the work area.  Above the decon entrance was written “Welcome to Freddie’s Foyer”.  Freddie, the third floor foreman, was quietly giving instructions to his work crew.  His work area had four airlines and four sweaty laborers had just come out and four more were all suited up and ready to go in.  The third floor had contained some machinery and also the massive filtration unit for the machine shop ventilation systems.  The health hazards were again beryllium and depleted uranium dust.

On our way out we passed through the second floor where some RSA HP’s were conducting a termination survey.  The rooms were empty and the HP’s were slowly passing radiation meters over every inch of surface space in a grid pattern.  The HP’s had to hold their meters for about a minute at each location and they looked bored out of their minds.  When an entire room was finished and deemed clean of any radioactive contamination, it was sealed off and posted to prevent any recontamination.

Back on the first floor at the RCA exit, we had to pass through the PCM, or Personnel Contamination Monitor, which counts any radiation emitted by contamination on your clothing or body. Johnny A. stepped in and set off the warning buzzer.  He cursed impatiently.  An HP on duty walked over, still in the middle of his conversation about the new running back for the Chicago Bears.  He looked at the machine indicators to see which body zone was contaminated.

“Head zone.  Give me your hard hat.”  He continued his conversation about football as he carried Johnny A.’s hard hat to his work bench.  He sprayed the hard hat with water from a plastic bottle and wiped it dry with a paper towel. Then he passed the CM7, a hand held radiation counter, slowly over the surface of the hard hat.  Half way through he became so engrossed in his conversation that he forgot what he was doing and Johnny A. just waited patiently until he resumed.  The CM7 clicked repeatedly but the green light flashed and the HP gave the hard hat back to Johnny A.

“Just a bit of radon gas.  You’re good to go.”  He looked over at me and realized there was a new face on site.  “Hey, are you the new Toxqueen?  Nice to meet you.  My name is Buck.”  We shook hands and Buck gave me a brief explanation. “There’s radon gas in the air sometimes.  It could come from trace radioactive elements in the building materials decaying.  On cold, dry days when there’s a lot of static electricity  your plastic hard hats attract the radon gas.  Then your hard hat sets off the warning on the PCM.  But radon has a really short half-life so it either decays to non-detectable levels within a few minutes or you can just wipe off your hard hat with a damp paper towel to get rid of the static electricity.  Sometimes on cold, dry days nobody can get out of here.  Hey are you a football fan?  The Bears’ game was on T.V. yesterday.  They destroyed Minnesota.”


Johnny A. and I walked through the drizzle to Building 34 and Johnny A. continued his terse and toneless background briefing.  Building 34 was a large high-ceilinged shell which had contained presses and tanks of machine oil and diesel fuel.  Most of the building did not require respiratory protection, but the last section in the back was barricaded with caution tape and respirators with particle filters were required for access beyond that point.

We went into the HP’s trailer to sign ourselves into the RCA and found Earl slouched on the counter, smoking a cigarette.  He was telling a story to a union supervisor and a couple of HP’s who were lounging around the trailer drinking coffee.

“I tell you what, she could do more to your dick than a squad of monkeys on a nine-foot greased flag pole.”  The HP’s and the union supervisor laughed and Earl took a big drag on his Marlboro.  The radio crackled and the union supervisor bellowed into it.

“This is Flynn.”  The voice on the radio was trying to yell over the background noise of jackhammers.  Flynn yelled back into the radio. “That’s bullshit. Just make sure it’s done by the end of the day.”  He looked over at Earl and shook his head.

Earl exhaled a big cloud of smoke and grunted, “That guy’s fucking useless.  I ought to go in there and disconnect that valve myself.”  He took another big drag on his cigarette and then jerked around in Johnny A.’s direction.  “Oh yeah.  Uh . . . John, we couldn’t go into the Be room this morning.  Butchy had to move a B-25 box of rad waste out and he had to coordinate with the HP’s and the forklift operators.  He told me he’d try to get us in after lunch.  We have to be over there dressed out and ready to go in by a quarter to one because the union afternoon coffee break is at 2:15.”

Johnny A. nodded almost imperceptibly and stared out the trailer window at the grey drizzle.  Earl tossed his cigarette on the floor and stubbed it out with his big, muddy boots. The HP’s sipped on their coffees.  Earl turned to Johnny A. again.  “Yeah, also John, Flynn found six more unmarked drums this morning.  Three of them are rusted to shit and need to be overpacked.”

Flynn nodded authoritatively to corroborate.  Johnny A. sighed.  “How many unmarked drums do we have over here now?”

Earl looked at Flynn and raised his eyebrows.  “Twenty-seven?”  Flynn nodded again.

Johnny A. sighed again.  “And how many of them need overpacks?”

Earl scratched his neck.  “I’d say at least ten.”

“At least.” Flynn added.

Earl paused for a moment and looked down at the floor as if he were thinking of something.  Then he turned to Johnny A. again.  “I guess we’ll have to sample those drums on overtime.  We can’t go in there and open drums of unknowns on level B with all these guys in the building.”

Flynn stirred.  “Do you have to be on level B to sample unknowns?”

“Hell yeah!”  Earl straightened up his big frame and threw his arms out for emphasis.  “That’s standard corporate policy.  Any time you’re dealing with unknown materials you take worst-case scenario and go on supplied air.”

Johnny A. was still staring out the window.  “I’ll go get clearance for some overtime.”  He started towards the door and turned suddenly to me as if just remembering I was there.  “Why don’t you hang out over here with Earl and get acquainted with the area.”  Then he went out into the drizzle.

Earl looked over at Flynn and they both grinned at each other.  Earl looked at me and laughed loudly, with a jolly twinkle in his eye.  “What do you say, buddy!  Ka-ching!  Ka-ching!  Ka-ching!  I love that sound of money going into the register.”

Chapter 6

After work ended at 3:30 I drove out to the motel I’d found about 15 miles out in the suburbs.  Our living expenses allowance wasn’t enough to cover anything closer to town.  Earl had offered almost persistently to share a room and split the cost at his motel.  It was a 45 minute drive but he had negotiated a reasonable rate.  I had declined or evaded his offer as diplomatically as I could.

I had my own idea about a living situation and there was no room in it for motels on a suburban strip.  I began going through the apartment ads in the stack of local newspapers I had bought.  I had been told that the estimate for this job was four months, but my own personal estimate had put it at closer to eight.  One of the reasons I had volunteered for this job was that I had always wanted to try living in this city so I wanted to get an apartment in town.

I perused the ads and then unpacked my gear from the car.  I had just driven in from Indiana where I’d been working for the last two months at an old landfill that was being dug up.  The original magnetometer survey had indicated the presence of approximately 4,000 buried drums of unknown materials.  By the time I left we had already dug up over 5,000 and the last magnetometer survey was indicating between 16,000 and 20,000 buried drums.

I had been working as a field chemist on that project, fingerprinting samples in the lab trailer from 6:00 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon.  The field crew excavated the drums, which were mostly rusted to pieces, and took samples of each one.  The samples were brought to me and I repeated the same series of experiments on each one to determine the generic hazardous characteristics so that the samples could be safely shipped to a lab for complete analysis.  Most of the drums appeared to have contained paints, inks, solvents and oils, nothing very exotic, but stuff you wouldn’t want in your drinking water.  Some samples had also tested positive at the lab for PCB’s, so these drums had to be separated from all the rest.  The Midwest had been a dreary existence for me and I had begged for a project back in the East.

For the past two years I had been living on the road, bouncing from project to project, from town to town, and from state to state.  We got paid travel weekends every three weeks and I had spent exactly eleven weekends at my New York City apartment during this time.  It was an unsettling, shiftless life style and it often had damaging effects on relationships and marriages.  My own divorce had been the main reason I decided to go on the road.  The extra money had not been sufficient incentive to disrupt my domestic routines while I was still married.

I had been married for five years.  I met my wife Tania in Paris where I had been teaching English on a hiatus from my career in the environmental field.  Tania had been working in Berlin and had come to Paris for a visit.  Within three months we were living together in Berlin.  Tania was waiting tables and I got another job teaching English.  Tania was from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but her grandparents were from Italy so she could work in any European Common Market country.

The first moment my friend Gustav had introduced us, I had stared at her and felt an electric tingling.  Tania didn’t speak French, but I knew just enough German to show her the sights of Paris and flirt with her.  She had big, dark, expressive eyes, long, frizzy brown hair and a bubbly, exuberant personality.  The second night we had gone to a small club in Montparnasse to hear a blues band.  Tania had worn a brown leather miniskirt and black nylon stockings, and all night long the men had turned their heads to look at her when she walked past.  We had drunk cold draft beers and got sweaty dancing close to the rhythm of the blues.  That night I kissed her for the first time right out on the dance floor at the end of a song during which our bodies had rubbed together slowly as we danced.

That electric tingle had never disappeared, but after a year in Berlin, a year in Buenos Aires and another three in New York, Tania and I seemed to have lost the ability to continue living together.  We had different ideas about how to live.  She wanted a more elegant, more conventional and more career oriented life style, while I had always gravitated towards a more bohemian existence.  Tania had campaigned for me to go to law school and settle down in one place.  She wanted to move to a house in New Jersey and go back to school and get an M.B.A.  I had a restless mind, a restless body and a restless soul that wanted to see, to explore and to move, but definitely not to New Jersey.

During our second year in New York, Tania had become pregnant and we were both really happy at the expectation of having a child together.  There were many practical worries and Tania was particularly nervous, but it also brought us together to talk about ways to deal with difficulties that might arise.  I spent a couple of weekends building an elaborate tree house with catwalks at my parents’ country house in Vermont.  After Tania had her miscarriage she had said, “It’s just as well. We don’t make enough money to have kids.”

The end had come in a violent explosion. I moved out and scribbled “Adios mi amor!” on a law school brochure Tania had left out on the kitchen table for me to see. It was a bitter act during a moment when we were angry and frustrated with each other.  Afterwards we got together and calmly agreed that it was probably best that we separate. We weren’t angry any more, just sad.  I felt mournful for our lost love and obliterated expectations.  I missed laughing together and our plans for the future, of having children, and of getting old together after a lifetime of shared experiences.  The frame and structure of life that we had built had been dashed to pieces and I was left looking dazed at the debris and ruin of my life.  The only thing remaining was the knowledge that you have to keep going, so I just pushed everything down and refused to feel any sadness.  I went to work and concentrated on doing the things that I like, including things that I hadn’t had time for during my marriage.


Over the next few days I tried to familiarize myself with the jobsite and find an apartment.  Most of the contractors on site were staying at expensive hotels or apartment complexes in the suburbs nearby.  Earl harangued me frequently to share a room with him, telling me it would be cheaper than anything else I could find.  He seemed quite puzzled and almost a little bit offended that I didn’t take him up on his offer.  He seemed even more confused by my incomprehensible desire to find an unfurnished apartment in town.

After three or four days of searching fruitlessly through the newspaper ads, I spent one evening strolling through the square near the old university in the city.  The narrow streets twisted in a maze of brightly lit shops, cozy bars and ethnic restaurants.  Even on a cold, damp evening there were enough people bustling about on the street to remind me of the restless activity on New York City streets.  Taped onto a lamp post, under a sign advertising a lesbian dance party, was a notice for a roommate wanted.  I took the phone number and a few minutes later found another notice that seemed promising.


The scope of work for this project was divided into two phases.  The first phase was site characterization which included finding, sampling, analyzing, cataloguing and collecting all the hazardous waste on site.  The second phase would be the disposal of all the collected waste.  I had arrived after the commencement of the first phase, but the project was still in the early stages and there was a great deal of confusion.  For the first two weeks there was very little to do.  We inspected, calibrated and catalogued our equipment and frequently toured the work areas, inventorying drums that would need to be sampled and collected.  Some of the drums had been on site for decades and had no identifying markings, and others were being generated during the demolition.  We also hung up a dart board in the trailer and read a lot of newspapers.  Earl seemed to constantly have a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  He spent large portions of every day, as Mark put it, “smokin’ and jokin'”, wherever he happened to be.  Only Johnny A. seemed to be constantly busy, beetling about quietly from one meeting to another and spending the rest of his time on the phone.

I made appointments to go visit the apartments I had seen advertised on the street.  The first was in a slightly run down apartment building about a 15 minute walk from the university.  I was shown the apartment by a stiff, humorless 40 year old man named Kent, who had attended the university when he was young and stayed in the neighborhood ever since, working in bookstores for leftist and New Age literature.  He showed me some of his crystals in the cramped living room before taking me through the rest of the apartment.  The vacant room was small and dark, but I only needed a place where I could come and go so it would have been acceptable.  However when Kent was showing me the kitchen he began explaining the apartment’s communal living philosophy.  The inhabitants of this apartment and the one adjacent shared facilities, pooled grocery money and ate dinner together at eight o’clock, with everybody taking regular turns cooking.  Kent claimed that it was not obligatory to participate in the grocery money plan, but he was so persistent in trying to convince me of its practicality that I began to feel sure that he benefited disproportionately.  In any case with my expense account, I could easily afford to dine out and explore the local cuisine, and under no circumstances did I want to get trapped into a militaristic dining schedule.  I thanked Kent, who was still indexing the economic advantages of communal living as I was backing out the door, and then went back to my suburban motel and dinner at Burger King feeling somewhat demoralized.

The next day I went to see the second apartment.  It was the first floor apartment of a three story wooden house just past the fashionable neighborhood of the university.  I rang the bell but it didn’t work, so I knocked on the door.  A thin, thirty-five year old man with blond hair opened the door with a friendly, energetic hello and introduced himself as Randall.  I had barely said hello in return when he burst out in an emotional gush.

“I’ve just been listening on National Public Radio about the racial problems in New York.”  Randall began pacing back and forth in the hallway, nervously smoking a cigarette as I stood in the doorway.  “I’m from Mississippi and I’ve lived with black people all my life.  They’re good people and I’ve always had a lot of black friends.  Of course there are always some assholes just like in any group, but for the most part they’re good people and it makes me really mad to hear stories like these where rich white bankers red line a black neighborhood and refuse to give them loans to start up businesses or do home improvements that would help develop their communities.”  Randall leaned against the wall and stared down vehemently at the scuffed floor boards as he continued his passionate monologue.

“It’s typical of the way things are run in this fucked up country.  There’s no social consciousness.  It’s just a system for continually making more money for the rich and keeping the poor held down.  It’s just like health insurance for example.  Only the rich can afford to get sick in this country.  We have the resources and technology to take care of the entire population, but the average person can’t afford insurance or get access to decent health care.  It’s obvious that the medical establishment and the insurance companies are in collusion.  Those fuckers!  They’re all criminals!”  I stood in the doorway as Randall raced on with his monologue, sometimes pacing the floor and sometimes leaning against the wall.  I shifted my weight from foot to foot as his tirade continued.  Randall was starting to light a second cigarette, during a violent diatribe about Third World development policy and people that litter, when he seemed to suddenly remember the reason why I was standing in his doorway.

“Hey I bet you want to see the apartment.  Here I am spouting off a lot of political horseshit.”  He laughed merrily and the intensity vanished from his face.  “Come on in.  This first room is my room.”  I glanced in and saw a neat, spartanly decorated room.  Next to the curtained window there was a small hole in the wall and chunks of plaster and dust were lying on the floor.  Next he showed me two empty, sunny rooms across the hall from each other.  The hardwood floors were badly worn and the walls needed painting.  “The deal is you take both these rooms for $300 a month.  You can do whatever you want with them.  You can turn them into a bowling alley for all I care, but you have to take both of them for that rent.”

Randall showed me the rest of the apartment.  The kitchen was large and fairly clean.  There were also two more rooms which were occupied by a Polish biochemist who was a post-doctorate at the University.

“Jozef is home on vacation for three weeks,” Randall explained to me.  “He told me to just use my judgment in picking a roommate.  We’re both basically pretty laid back and believe in live and let live.  We’re not manic about cleaning either.  Sometimes I let it go if I’m not in the mood and then I’ll get a frenzied craze and attack the whole house.”

I told Randall about the apartment I’d visited yesterday and Kent’s communal eating system.  Randall’s face screwed up in disgust.  “Fuck that!”  He spat out.  “That guy sounds like a frustrated fascist.  I couldn’t live like that.  Besides I’m too antisocial.  I’m really kind of a loner and I need my space to brood.  I can’t take people getting in my face at all.  Hey!  Come on downstairs.  I’ll show you my wood shop.”

I followed Randall down to the basement and he unlocked the door to a small wood shop.  A band saw was in the middle of the floor and a radial arm saw was mounted on a work bench.  Above the work bench were tools and files hanging neatly in rows.  Next to a stack of drawings and designs was a partially constructed musical string instrument.  On the wall was a poster of a renaissance painting depicting a young woman playing the same type of string instrument.

“This is my shop for making lutes,” said Randall enthusiastically.  “Here, look at this.”  He grabbed a drawing off the stack and began explaining the dimensions and physics of construction.  To illuminate my understanding he wrote down a formula for calculating the distance in millimeters between the bridge and the first fret on the neck.  Then he showed me an incubator where he stored strips of maple, dogwood, linden and yew at a constant temperature and relative humidity.

Randall’s ambition was to eventually become a professional lute maker.  He told me that he’d been working for the last dozen years as an arbolist.  He had worked for every landscaping company in town and was an experienced, highly skilled tree climber.  He spent most of his working day 60 feet off the ground trimming branches with a chain saw.

I briefly described my job for him and he seemed very interested.  “Well we sure need people doing that kind of work,” he exclaimed emphatically as he nervously dug another cigarette out of his pack.  “Well you seem pretty cool so if you want the rooms they’re yours.”

I considered the matter briefly.  Randall certainly was eccentric, but basically he seemed to be a good person.  I told him I’d take the rooms and it was decided that I’d move in that weekend.


I originally became interested in environmental management when I was dropping in and out of college.  It had interested me partially as an intellectual puzzle of how to clean up the mess and maintain the system, and also because of a primal attraction to the great, wild outdoors.  I had a romantic image of myself working in a pristine, idyllic forest.  It hadn’t ever occurred to me then that there were very few people who would be willing to pay me to hang out in the woods and go camping.  When I finally began job hunting in the field, it was both a revelation and a disillusionment to discover that most of the available jobs would take me to the industrial nightmares, petrochemical wastelands, and muddy construction sites across the country.

At 7:15 the next morning Earl and I were dressing-up in the changing room next to “Freddie’s Foyer” on the third floor of Building 95. Earl was grumbling about not being able to smoke in the RCA as he pulled off his big, steel-toed boots.  Vito, the safety man with the enormous pot belly, and another labourer were looking through some porno magazines.

“I tell you what.” rumbled Earl from deep inside his massive chest. “I ain’t in the mood for this shit today.  Me an’ old Flynn  went out to a tit bar last night and I didn’t get back to the hotel till 3 in the morning.”

Vito perked up with interest.  “Oh yeah.  Which one did you go to?” he asked, turning the magazine sideways and opening the centerfold.

“The Gentleman’s Club.” Earl drawled.

“Yeah, out on Route 11. That’s a good place.”

“I tell you what, there was this little blonde there.  I swear she wasn’t as big as a minute, but Lord she was a sexy little thing.  Her ass was like two little pigs in a gunny sack.  Man I would have been on that like stink on dogshit.”  Earl let out a big laugh and then groaned.  “Oh my head.  I need a cigarette.  Otto, we’re going to have to do this jump as fast as we can and get this shit over with.”

“Hell, sucking rubber and sweatin’ are good for you when you’ve got a hangover.” laughed Vito.  “I know.  I’m the safety man.  I’ll even let you stay in extra time so you can work up a really good sweat.  But you’ve got to be out by 9:00 at the latest, ’cause we can’t be late for coffee break.” The other labourer laughed along with Vito.

“Yeah, fuck you.” growled Earl.

I finished duct taping my gloves to my poly tyvek suit sleeve and waited for Earl to finish dressing.  I was wearing a swimsuit and a tee-shirt underneath my suit.  Earl was wearing his bluejeans.  We both had on two pairs of plastic booties taped around the ankles to the suit legs.  The suit itself was a waterproof set of disposable coveralls with a zipper down the front.  On our hands we had a thin pair of cotton liners, thin latex lab gloves, and green corrosive resistant outer gloves taped at the wrists.  Detachable tyvek hoods would be taped to our shoulders and facemasks at the entrance of the containment.  It was warm on the third floor and I could already feel the heat building up inside my suit.  I opened my zipper and a stream of hot air rushed up past my neck.

When Earl was ready we went to the containment entrance, put our respirators on and waited while Vito taped our hoods.  Vito had about 100 strips of duct tape on the wall ready for use, all with one end folded over as a tab.  The duct tape had to be tabbed because it stuck so strongly to itself that if there was no tab, you’d never be able to peel off the tape and someone would have to cut you out of your suit.

Vito finished taping my hood and plugged in my 100 foot airline.  I smelled the familiar stale air odour you always notice when you first plug into an airline, and my ears were filled with the rhythmic whoosh and hiss of air going through the pressure demand valve.  The respirators we were using had combination dust and organic vapor filters for emergency escape if our airlines malfunctioned.  Inside the containment were cabinets with bottles and jars containing various liquids and powders.  Our job was to remove all the chemicals from the work area so that the labourers could have a free hand to take apart and dismantle everything that was left.  We were working on supplied air partially because of the known hazard of beryllium dust throughout the area and also due to the presence of unknown materials in unmarked containers.

I pushed aside the hanging poly flap and stepped into the first chamber of the decon.  I was in a 4 by 6 foot space made entirely of clear poly sheeting supported by 2 by 4 studs.  This was the clean room.  I parted the next flap and passed into the dirty room.  I stepped past a plastic bag of discarded Personal Protective Equipment and went through the last flap into the work area.  There was a pile of steel toed rubber boots by the door and I slid into a pair.  The boots were about three sizes too big and my feet sloshed around inside them, but they would do.

While I waited for Earl, I remembered back to the first time I had worn a respirator.  My first job in the environmental field had been as an asbestos inspector and air monitor.  I had sent my resume and salary requirements to all the well known environmental activist groups like the Sierra Club, The Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and so on.  I had also seen several ads in the classified section for asbestos inspectors.  I had no idea what asbestos was, but the ads were under the heading “Environmental”, so I had sent in my resume.  Of course the famous nonprofit environmental action groups had budget and staffing restrictions, but asbestos removal was a booming business in the late 1980’s and I was able to pick the entrance of my choice into the corporate world.

After a two week crash course in asbestos handling and the fundamentals of air monitoring, I was sent to Madison Square Garden to work on the renovation project.  All the spray-on asbestos fireproofing and asbestos pipe insulation was being removed as part of the renovation.  My first impression when I arrived on the construction site at the Felt Forum was that I’d gone on a journey to a different planet.  To get at the asbestos fireproofing sprayed onto the I-beams and the decking of the ceiling, an entire floor had been constructed underneath it and was supported by a massive jungle-jim of scaffolding, 30 feet high.  Groups of men dressed in white paper suits and hoods were lounging and wandering around.  Others who had obviously just emerged from the decon showers were walking to the changing room with white paper towels wrapped around their waists.  A number of workers were also wearing these same paper towels around their heads like kerchiefs.  There were constant banging sounds coming from up above the scaffolding and also occasional thuds as heavy objects fell to the floor somewhere above my head.  Added to this were several high pitched whines which I later discovered to be the high volume pumps for the asbestos air monitoring.

I met a Greek guy named Peter, who was the inspector for this containment.  Peter was as calm and easy going as I was nervous and anxious about entering a containment area with the infamous carcinogenic killer, asbestos.  During the heyday of the asbestos hysteria, somebody published a study on the chronic effects of exposure to asbestos fibers, in which it was stated that there was no known, safe, minimum level of exposure.  The recommendation had been therefore to minimize exposure as close to the zero level as was practically possible.  In the mind of the general public however, “no known, safe, minimum level” became distorted to “one fiber will kill you.”

Equipped then with my two week training course and not a few wild and ugly rumours, I had suited up with Peter to go into the containment and tour the area.  We were naked under our tyvek suits as it is always done in asbestos work, where you take off your suit and then proceed to the shower while deconning.  The respirators we were using were PAPR’s, or powered air purifying respirators, with small motors that sucked in ambient air through high efficiency particle filters.  As I donned my PAPR, in my state of apprehension, I pulled the straps so tightly around my head that it felt like someone was cutting my skull open with piano wire.

I followed Peter up the steps to the decon entrance with my respirator still strapped excruciatingly tight.  We passed through the first set of three overlapping poly flaps into the clean room.  Then we pushed through the next set of flaps into the shower, on through a set of flaps to the dirty room and finally, with my adrenaline pumping, into the containment area itself.

I felt like I was moving in a strange dream as I walked through this new world.  The scaffolding floor covered the area underneath the entire ceiling of the Felt Forum and we had to stoop slightly to walk under the beams.  The surfaces of the floors and walls were completely covered with double layers of clear poly and it looked like we were inside a shiny plastic bubble.  The combination of fear of the poorly understood hazard, the noise of men and machinery working, and the pain of the straps around my skull, had my heart pounding.  I trailed Peter through the work area, trying to understand what I was seeing.  Some workers were cutting up black-iron ceiling tile support grids and electrical conduit with powersaws, which sent orange sparks flying.  Other workers were forming a chain and relaying plastic bags full of cinder block debris to an exit chute at the far end of the area.  I was dimly conscious of Peter explaining to me, in a voice muffled by the respirator, that everything that could not be cleaned  of the fireproofing spray would have to be double bagged and disposed of as asbestos contaminated material.

The pain of the straps digging into my head grew worse and my anxiety was beginning to make me almost dizzy.  I was getting pangs of claustrophobic panic and wanted to get my face out of the mask.  I was embarrassed and ashamed to admit my fear and discomfort to Peter, but finally I could bear it no longer.  To my immense relief, Peter, instead of showing impatience and disgust at my greenness, was very understanding and relaxed.

“That’s O.K.  It takes a while to get used to wearing a respirator.”  he reassured me.  “Just sit down here for a minute and see if you feel any better.”

I sat down on a pile of cinder block rubble and tried to breath calmly.  Peter sat down also and waited patiently for a few minutes.  “You O.K.?”  he inquired.

My breathing had slowed down to almost normal and I replied as nonchalantly as I could.  Peter then earned my gratitude by telling me that I’d probably had enough for my first time out and I could head back to the decon and shower out.  It would soon become second nature to me to spend long hours in respirators of all kinds, and to not cut off circulation to the brain in the process, but that first time was an event I will always remember.

Having this experience makes it easy to be sympathetic to a new worker going through the same thing, but there is still one story that stands out in my mind as pure comedy.  At the height of the renovation of the Garden there were over 25 containment areas being worked on simultaneously and I was eventually assigned as the inspector for one of them.  The general contractor had an Italian guy named Tony who came around to each containment area every day and kept track of the work progress.  Each day he would ask me what per cent of the gross removal or fine cleaning had been completed, and each day I would add five per cent to my answer and he would smile and continue to the next containment.

One day somebody in management for the general contractor decided that Tony should dress up and go in the containment areas and see the work first hand.  Tony was visibly nervous his first time.  Upon exiting, after removing his tyvek suit in the dirty room, he entered the shower still wearing his respirator as was proper decon procedure.  However after rinsing off his mask, he was too afraid of the asbestos to take his mask off and it slowly began filling up with water.  As the water level rose above his nose inside his mask, Tony began banging on the metal shower walls until somebody went in and loosened the straps and pulled his respirator off.  Everybody could empathize with Tony’s panic, but that didn’t stop anybody from razzing him for almost drowning inside his own respirator.

A thrashing of the poly decon flaps and a deep grunt behind me announced Earl’s entrance into the work area.  Earl bent over to put on a pair of boots and split the seam in the crotch of his suit.  He grumbled a long stream of curses that were garbled by his respirator and grabbed a roll of duct tape to patch up his suit.  When he was ready we looked down at the tangled pile of spaghetti that was our airlines.  “What a cluster fuck!” was Earl’s assessment.  He started walking towards the other end of the work area and beckoned me to follow.  We extended our lines as far as they would go and began lifting over and stepping through to untangle them.

After a few minutes we got our lines straightened out and we began combing through the area to remove any hazardous materials, Earl on one side and myself on the other to avoid crossing lines again. I looked in all the cabinets, drawers, boxes, shelves and closets, and staged all the jars, bottles, vials and jerry cans near the decon.  There we would check the PH of unmarked liquids if they weren’t oils, and decon all the containers by wiping them down to keep any beryllium or depleted uranium dust from escaping the containment.  Then the containers would be passed out through the decon to the HP who would take a smear sample from the surface of each container and check it with his frisker, a hand held radiation meter, to determine if the container was free of removable surface contamination.  If the containers didn’t pass, they were handed back into the containment to be wiped down again.  When the containers were clean of surface contamination they were brought downstairs to a storage room where Mark was busy segregating them by hazard class and cataloguing everything in an inventory log.  One set of shelves was for radioactive items and several others were for unmarked and unknown containers which would have to be characterized before they could be segregated.  Our company, Toxikleen, wasn’t going to do the lab packing, the packing of these materials into drums of like hazard classes, because a competitor company had the contract for lab packing with the army base.  The other company therefore would have to deal with the characterizing of all these unknowns.

Accompanied by the regular sound of my breathing, I staged 50 or 60 containers by the decon before Vito called us on the radio and told us it was time to come out.  The materials were mostly a collection of machine and pump oils and metal powder samples.  The army had been testing various metals to discover useful material properties and they were considered hazardous because fine metal powders could ignite and were therefore classified as flammable solids.

Earl and I rolled up our airlines and removed our tyvek suits in the dirty room of the decon.  Textbook procedure dictates that you carefully roll off your suit, but every HAZMAT worker in the world rips the front zipper open and then continues tearing down the seams of the legs.  We shoved our suits into the plastic bag, along with gloves, booties, hoods and bits of duct tape, then emerged from the decon, where Vito unhooked our airlines and collected our respirators.  My tee shirt, swim suit and socks were thoroughly drenched with sweat.  Earl’s blue jeans, that he’d have to wear for the rest of the day, were soggy.

“I tell you what,” grumped Earl with an unhappy frown, “I sure could use a cup of coffee.”


I had taken up quarters in Randall’s apartment.  That is, I brought a futon mattress and put it on the floor along with a bag of clothes and a cassette player.  This wasn’t really much less than I had in my New York apartment because I had put most of my possessions in storage when Tania and I had separated and they have been there ever since.

My New York apartment was in a funky, part grad student, part Hispanic neighborhood above Columbia University.  The plaster walls were crumbling, the paint was peeling, the floor boards were worn and splintered, and the elevator was usually out of order, but it was dirt cheap so I had moved in temporarily with my friend Massoud after my separation.  Massoud was an Iranian ex-philosophy doctorate student who had been studying in the U.S. since before the Islamic Revolution and now had nowhere to go home to, even though he had long since left the university. Like many of my foreign friends, I had met Massoud playing soccer, which I had fallen in love with during my years abroad.

Massoud was a real city rat.  He worked part time as a translator in the courts and lived parsimoniously to be able to do the things he liked that New York had to offer.  His transportation was an old bicycle that he repaired constantly, his furniture was scavenged from the street, and his clothes were old and worn.  However he was a great fan of opera and the theater and he went several times a week, always paying next to nothing for his tickets.  He was a bit moody, but I left him alone and he left me alone and we got along fine.  One time though when we were talking about the movies, Massoud had suddenly burst out vehemently, “I hate going to the movies with someone else. As soon as the movie is over they start nagging you, asking you what you thought about the movie!”  We did go to the movies together occasionally, but I carefully refrained from nagging him about his opinions until he’d safely had a beer tucked into him.