Congratulations to Gad B. Larsen for winning the
Architecture of Power: Short Story Contest with his story, Years.
Gad B. Larsen is a structural engineer living and working in New York. He completed his university studies in England and France, and was previously based in London. He is interested in architecture, history, jazz, politics, and literature.
It has been two years since the accident, since I left. I was working on the construction of a hotel tower in the gulf and had been since that spring. It had been a full summer of being broiled by the hanging sun and grilled on storey after storey of curing concrete. It was a big project and we were nearly half-way through. I was young, excited, and abroad. That’s when the guardrail on the 27th storey failed.
I was in one of the cabins at the tower’s base that day when he fell. In the booming emirates accidents happened; twice -- even three times a day -- sometimes. We had all become accustomed to the news. Except that sound; no one could become accustomed to that sound.
I cross Washington at Lincoln and dip beneath the temporary scaffold maze on the sidewalk. On a day like today it’s also a temporary shelter from the cold for workers joshing around in Spanish and Cantonese. I walk out and round the corner onto Eastern Parkway. The neoclassical grandeur of the Brooklyn museum watches on, wise with the names of the great civilized philosophers engraved along its crown and guarding a world’s artifacts within. An astonishingly chill wind speeds down the expanse of the road, wide as a runway, and floods the museum plaza and my face. I appreciate how different everything can feel here.
It has been two years since I moved to New York. After the accident I struggled to look at my tower without unsolicited memories reappearing. I struggled to give instruction to the fallen man’s friends that next morning, the other South Asians who were ordered back to fixing steel already on the 29th story.
The relationship between me and my workers had changed. Before, I was teaching them about construction and motivating their work. Now I increasingly felt implicated in more. I was young, ashamed, and abroad. Tainted by a hot guilt. I needed somewhere to try again, a world away from this. So I left.
I glance up at the flagpole marking the entrance to the subway. Beneath the stars and stripes is the New York City flag pointing out towards the West African coast, snapped taught in the boulevard’s blow. On it a colonist and a Lenape show off their wares of beavers and flour. The Lenape is wearing comparatively very little clothing. I cross the gritty street, down the stairs, and into the subway; my collar up.
It has been two years since I was last on a construction site. Whether on the skeleton of a bone-dry tower or the shell of a drizzled grey condo, I still feel the sting of the steel gang’s stares from that morning after. Now I stay in the cockpit of my engineering office, ensconced in front of my computer and proudly wearing the aviation wings of my university degrees and professional licenses. I sit, a captain, pressing buttons and occasionally giving instructions from afar.
I used to enjoy visiting sites when I worked back at home in London. I’d receive a tour of the works like a visiting royal and hear the languages and accents from around the world: the Albanian steel-fixers, the Lithuanian demolition crew, and the Irish foremen. It reminded me of the stories of the navies who built the canals and railways back in Camden Town.
They were brought in from Wales, Scotland and Ireland; homeless, desperately poor and constantly inebriated. After a day of digging their own bodyweight in clay many times over, they were due a drink. To stop the inevitable brawls each nation was assigned a separate pub to spend their pay in, each pub carefully at a safe distance from the others. The only memories that remain of their contribution were the names of the pubs that I had a drink in 200 years later.
The subway train skids to a halt. It is uncharacteristically empty; today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. I observe it by embracing the opportunity to take a seat. I still go to work on federal holidays but most do not. Today it is just me and the woman on the bench opposite, stretched out beneath coats. I enjoy the quiet and I imagine she enjoys the absence of disdainful scowls from a car of hardened working faces. Together we pass beneath the old estates of Teunis G. Bergen, Russell H. Nevins and Charles Hoyt, before diving into Captain William Clark’s tunnel. Bankers, developers and explorers, together we remember the men who built these United States.
Things are better now. My Manhattan office is a world away from that cabin of two years ago. The only unusual sounds come from an archaic heating system firing up and the disgruntled car horns from below. I feel guilty about plenty of things -- how I shrug off panhandlers, my Bangladeshi-made clothes, yet another upcoming transatlantic flight -- but my work is no longer on the list. I see it like this: society needs housing and bridges. Even the vanity projects, if I didn’t do them, someone else would. It’s best if I do it as well as it can be done, instead of letting someone else make the situation any worse. I’m part of a larger ecosystem and I can only control what is in my own hands. If I can’t see it, is it not my issue?
Together we trundle beneath Wall Street, where the world shuffles its cash. Someone told me it’s named after the old wall built to keep the colonists’ beavers and flour safe. Someone else said the oldest market in New York was on the very same site. This made sense - before you build anything grand you need a supply of labour & materials and for that you need a market.
Things are better now. I love this city and it's melting pot multiculturalism. We're all in it together here, not like it was two years ago. There we moved, drank, worked, all in our own circles; here we stand face to armpit in the subway. My friends all feel that we’re integrated with them. Then there’s the architecture and theaters and museums. It reminds me of London or Paris, old cities full of knowledge and excitement, steeped in everyone’s history and authored by the world’s largesse.
It felt different in the Gulf, a ready-made consumption culture was being formed through a modern alchemy. Start with a base of natural resources, add a flurry of banking wizardry, a pinch of societal sleight of hand, and stir vigorously. Thicken with regular lashings of cheap imported workforce and garnish with naive consultants.
I step out of the second car from the rear, push through the turnstile and an underpass of subway flotsam -- soiled cups, last week’s newspapers, a groaning sleeping bag -- before lumbering back up the stairs to 40th. Like the train, the sidewalk is only lightly dusted with people. It’s amazing how a metropolis can deflate, its inhabitants suddenly dispersed to a network of family homes across the rest of the country. It leaves just us few and the tourists. The tourists do well to fill the quiet, spend their money, and see the things we’ve collected.
The bulk of the Port Authority Bus Terminal bulges over the corner. Here they have a special flag for the two states who control the Hudson River. Four women stand there: a blindfolded sword-wielding Justice, Prosperity laden with bounty, and two Liberties, each holding aloft the cap of emancipated Roman slaves.
A 10 ft pipe weighs down two staggering legs that cross in front of me, lugged from a truck and on its way to a building’s bowels. Construction carries on, regardless of public holidays or arctic weather. I step out of the sidewalk and through the double-door airlock into the reception. Hat off, gloves off, into the elevator; today I have no need to wait, no time to admire the chandeliers or marble siding. I step out on the 27th floor, pass the photos of the Chrysler and Flatiron along the corridor, and through the heavy door into a room for people like me.
It has been two years since I started over. Once more I am young, excited and abroad, although admittedly a little less of all three than I was before. Work feels real and relevant. We push technical boundaries and draw plans for smarter and more efficient things than ever before. Occasionally, someone mentions that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
We never mention the shoulders that the giants have trampled on.