Friday, July 22, 2011

A Life of Grime and the Space for It

I did not end up taking the telephone wire on my move day. The two dusty contractor bags got inexplicably (or not) left behind along with a few fragile things that I wanted to move myself. The couple times I went back to the building I wondered, most likely with all too much morose profundity, whether this would be the last time I see my place, the last time I hike those too-steep-for-today's-code four flights up. But on those visits I didn't get the wire. As the day drew near that the developer would change the locks I became increasingly plagued and indecisive as to whether or not I should get it.
Until last night. I learned the owners were changing the locks today so I drove down there to just get the stupid telephone wire so at least I would have it and could put an end to the obsession I had developed with it. Two bags worth of dirty old wire I wanted because I had had an idea about it. That is all. An idea that I would now never carry out because of the dirt factor. My building offered what my previous and current homes and even the couple off-site art studios I've had in the past never could: the necessity and the space to get really filthy, be it elective, 'character-building', or not so much.

The Roof
So many of the building jobs and projects we had to perform over the years resulted in us being covered, or dealing with, absolute grime of some sort or other. I've told of wrangling 100 years worth of the filthy telephone wire already, and early on I spent weekends on the roof actually doing roofing. I was on the top floor so leaks were my purview. The guys at ACE hardware over on 1st Ave told me what materials and processes to purchase and follow, but not before grilling me about the condition of my roof. If it felt spongy at all, they advised absolutely not what I was planning to do. Evidently a soft surface means its rotten underneath, and patching only seals in the rot, ensuring forever that it won't ever dry out. Not too spongy I replied. In truth, Very Spongy, so spongy that before I learned otherwise I thought roofs were supposed to be that way, that some kind of waterproof insulation went under the tar paper that resulted in the squishy feeling when walked upon. In spite of the ACE guys' warnings, I'd spend hours slinging a trowel full of sticky black goo patching holes, creases and rifts that appeared with astounding regularity. These hot days right now remind me that this work wrestling sticky black materials up on a merciless black roof could only be done in the heat of summer and I frequently ended up with almost-heatstroke, plus roofing tar up and down my shins and forearms, sometimes even in my hair. Anywhere that wasn't covered up. The cleanup was just as onerous as the job: only acetone or mineral spirits could cut the oily tar off my skin. All that said, it could be an exhilarating feeling getting that dirty and tired, and tremendously fulfilling when, during the next downpour I'd listen and watch my ceiling that no longer leaked. For now. At the time I wouldn't have had it any other way. Eventually the roof repair got way beyond my abilities as a roofer and we had to hire a roofing company to re-cover the entire surface over 2 days one late October about 3 years ago. In spite of the 10K we paid them, they still had to be talked into the giant patch job and then refused to furnish any kind of guarantee for the work.

The Basement
I have described in a prior post the conditions in our basement when I mentioned the squatter / junkie infestation we had that one winter. Nothing drains down there, its never dry and every single thing is rotting. Long unused fluorescent light fixtures have fallen off the ceilings, literally disintegrating into the floor in a surprisingly short timeline. Old boiler pipes are busting their corroded brackets, and have ended up precariously tangled in disconnected electrical wires that couldn't possibly hold them up for very long. Its especially wet in the very front vault section that runs under the sidewalk, and 'rust never sleeps' is a gross understatement. The vault of all places is where the junkies chose to design their main sleeping and lounging quarters. Once we got them out and assessed the damage we were stunned at the volume of living materials and paraphernalia that had accrued, suggesting a much longer habitation than we thought possible in such a filthy dripping wet space with no light whatsoever. Either that or there was a hundred of them.

After various hazmat companies wouldn't even come see the job, a building-mate and I elected to clean up after the junkies ourselves. We bagged 2000 sq feet strewn with clothes, rotten food containers, suitcases, spoons, condoms both used and not, bottles filled with moulded piss (I mentioned in the earlier post that they used a far corner for number 2. We avoided that altogether.), and all manner of drug-doing equipment, the worst of which were used needles and syringes. As if that activity wasn't heinous enough we then had to take turns hoisting the 50 or so contractor bags we had assembled up a ladder into the storefront, as our proper stairs to the basement (which was originally CUANDO's basement), had been destroyed (and not replaced) in the demo. I dressed for this incredibly toxic task like a crazy person, donning 3 pairs of everything from head to toe, most of which got tossed out afterward in a paranoid fit right along with all the junkies' stuff.

Elective Messes, Paint Tests and Chemical Dispersing
The common areas in my building, while far from sterile, offered me space for a myriad of art-related projects over the years that would have seriously taxed the environment of my studio proper, which I also lived in. Up on the roof and in the abandoned apartment across the hall I sprayed awful fixatives and sealants on drawings and varnished oil paintings. I cut and paint-tested five, 13-foot-long oilboard (great material but nasty) stencils for a DOT highway barrier beautification job. Using drop-cloth plastic sheet on a large expanse of dusty floor I was able to liberate a whole can of pressurized expanding foam into various patterns for a fantastical cave model made with foam, wood and strung-up chicken wire left over from the shaftway pigeon-shooing project. I regularly shook out my seven throw rugs up on the roof. I built scale models for projects and on good overcast days I went up there to photograph them. I stored my earth art (landscaping) tools and bikes in the storefront on the ground floor, always grateful not to have to live alongside these objects, let alone hike them and their grimy heft up and down the stairs with me.

Last night after I hauled my 2 bags of wire down the steaming hot stairway, I stopped in the storefront to really assess the situation. I felt like a truly insane lady, there with my wire at the last minute, on the last night ever I'd have access to my building, it was really hot, and outside, the 1-hour-only parking meter running. I dumped one bag out on the floor and surveyed it, resolving to try to sort it out and perhaps not have to take it all. This seemed like the sane thing to do, but after a precious few minutes somewhat frenetically yanking and pulling in a vain attempt to make sense of the miles-long unearthly tangle, I was filthy. Arms and legs, shorts and tank top soaked thru with sweat and now covered in what looked like a million lashes from a black and brown dirt-whip. Ahhh, I thought, suddenly calm and feeling quite sane. I knew exactly what to do. I wrangled all the wire back in the bag and got both loads into my bundle buggy. I made it to the car in time, drove to my storage space filthy but satisfied, whether I use my wire ever, or not, was so not the point. Its getting so dirty once in a while that I'll miss, and all that space in which to make such a big mess.

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