Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Chicago Pipefitter: the Wages of Work

Plumbers and Pipefitters mural by Charles Johnston
the original is at 254 Higgens Ave, Winnepeg, Manitoba

Joe Mancari graduated from De LaSalle high school with Al Ribskis [They Call Me Mr. MGB] in 1975. Joe’s main memory of that period in history is the looming possibility of being drafted for Vietnam.  He remembers Al as one of the smart kids at school; he sometimes describes his younger self as having been a knucklehead.  He has fond memories of warm evenings spent hanging out with the guys on 26th Street; when he was older he’d spend some time in the fast lane at the Rush Street bars.

Decades later, though, the striking difference between Joe’s path and Al’s is that Joe’s has been steadier.  He’s lived his whole life in 3 houses within 6 blocks of the house his family settled in when they first came from Italy, when Joe’s father was still an infant.  And he’s been employed by just 2 employers in the past 38 years.

Joe’s a union pipefitter -- a servicefitter more specifically, he says the other pipefitters call them sissy fitters because they don’t break their backs welding new pipe, they make repairs on big HVAC and refrigeration systems that are already installed.  He hasn’t been unaffected by changes in Chicago’s economy during those years.  His first job had him working on refrigeration systems for meat packing plants; the second has him maintaining the temperate environment for offices and data centers in the towers downtown.  For decades, the basics of heat, ventilation and air conditioning didn’t change much, but the innovations have accelerated in the last 10 years.  Now equipment makers race to outdo each other in efficiency, green features and electronic controls.  In some cases the equipment’s so new the service fitters are working out kinks the manufacturers can’t tell them how to fix.

So Joe has done well by his wits, but the fact he’s had just 2 jobs in 38 years is related to the fact he’s lived his life in 3 houses within 6 blocks, because the union has helped give his career its stability, and he needed connections to secure a foothold in the union.  Joe’s vividly aware of that because his father, who was a plumber, wasn’t in a union when Joe was a kid. Back then the unions were controlled by the Irish and the Germans, Italians could only get a foot in the door if they paid somebody a bribe.  Jimmy Mancari wouldn’t pay anybody a bribe, even though he was raising 6 kids and earning just a little more than minimum wage.

In his son’s day there would be big fights about integrating the unions.  In the 1970s, the Justice Department filed civil rights suits to force the unions to open their ranks to minorities; in the 80s, the unions pulled their apprenticeship programs out of Washburn Trade School when the Board of Education demanded they double minority enrollment; by the early 1990s a federal judge ripped the pipefitters union in particular for its racism, arguing that African Americans were effectively screened out through “an informal word of mouth system through which many white members are referred to jobs.”  Eventually, Joe’s uncle, Joe Tassone paid the bribe that got Joe’s father into the union; years later he was in a position to help his son access the system that had once excluded him.

Joe’s uncle had an interesting career arc of his own.  They called him Joe Nickels, from his days as a newsboy during the Depression outside the Metropole Hotel.  When Al Capone came out he’d buy a paper from every newsboy out front, and he’d pay them each a nickel, even though the paper only cost a penny.  As an adult, Joe Nickels started a plumbing and heating business in Chicago, but connections drew him out to Las Vegas.

Vegas has been a gambling town since the 1930s, when construction crews brought in to build the Hoover dam first jumped the town’s population from 5,000 to 25,000.  The male laborers, far from their families, were a natural market for showgirls and gambling.  A collection of local businessmen, mafia bosses and Mormon bankers built on that theme, and the city’s population doubled every decade as they did it. Joe Nickels didn’t do plumbing for the casinos, he laid sewers for all the new tract housing springing up around them.  Within 5 years of resettling in Vegas he had 6 trucks and 10 guys working for him, and he was pulling in millions of dollars a year.  But he’d also contracted a gambling habit and he was losing it as fast as he could pull it in.

An Octopus Furnace: Front View (adapted to burn gas)

As a kid, back in Chicago, Joe Mancari was following along with his father to help him out on residential plumbing and heating repairs.  He learned all the fittings and saw some very old equipment still doing good service in the basements of Bridgeport.  He remembers the old octopus furnaces that ran on coal and worked by convection – the hot air lofting up from the basement through each arm of the furnace to big grates in the floors.  The coal was held in a hopper and fed into the furnace with an augur.  If a large lump of coal jammed the augur, a pin connecting it to the motor was designed to break, so the motor could spin freely without grinding itself out.  Joe would climb into hoppers to replace broken shear pins his father couldn’t reach.

Today he says the most important thing he learned from his father was his work ethic, it’s the inheritance he’s passed on to his own sons.  He had planned to be a plumber himself, to follow in his father’s footsteps.  But when he went to the plumbers union on graduating high school, the waitlist for the apprenticeship program was 6 years long.

An Octopus Furnace: Rear View

So with his father’s permission he enrolled in Coyne Trade School.  The Campus was in Lincoln Park then, it’s just north of the old meat packing district on Fulton Street now.  Coyne was founded on the eve of the eve of the 20th century to train electricians, an emerging trade at the time.  By the 1950s it was known for its training in HVAC and Refrigeration as well.  After eighteen months of night courses, Joe finished with employable skills, but still couldn’t get a job without a union card, and you couldn’t join the union without a job.

“You had to know somebody,” Joe says today.  His father called Frank Young whose plumbing supply business at 59th and Ashland brought all the local contractors in through his doors.  Frank Young helped match Joe with a piping company called Resco, now Mid-Resco Services, who asked the union to take in their new prospective employee.

Mid-Resco had a north side crew and a south side crew.  In heating and cooling as in life, there was a natural rivalry between them, at least the south side crew would entertain themselves with stories about things the north side crew had done, like by-passing safety controls for quick fixes that blew up on them later.  Among themselves, they made a point of fixing their own mistakes quietly in house.

Joe was just out of school, he was motivated to learn, it wasn’t long before clients were calling up to ask his bosses to “send the kid over.”  Mid-Resco brought him out from house basements to the equipment rooms of big commercial and industrial facilities.  They afforded him a tour of the local meat packing plants while they were still running – Chiapetti’s, Bo Packing, Peer Foods.  He recalls the sound of the cattle crying in the slaughterhouse, the big bins full of animal parts – like the hopper full of eyeballs staring up at him like they were shocked to be there -- and the chill of the workrooms, which were all refrigerated, the workers wore protective steel mesh gloves that carried the cold to the bones of their hands.

The Original Ammonia Refrigeration System: Built by Ferdinand Carre in 1859

The meat plants used old ammonia refrigeration systems.  Ammonia is poisonous and flammable and had been replaced by “safer” chlorofluorocarbons like Freon in most other environments, but it is cheap and efficient, especially at very low temperatures, and so it’s still used for food processing in particular.  Today, the ammonia industry describes itself as the safety refrigerant because it doesn’t destroy the ozone and you can easily smell it if it leaks.

Substances aside, refrigeration in the meat packing plants is based on a cycle of compression and rapid expansion that has been fundamentally unchanged since the 1870s, when it was first used to make ice to replace the stuff harvested from lakes in winter and stored under sawdust through the year. The refrigerant is first compressed and condensed into liquid, then pushed through an expansion valve.  The sharp drop in pressure sparks a flash of evaporation that pulls heat out from the refrigerant, chilling it enough that warm air blown across it turns cold.

It sounds improbable, but apparently it works.  In his second job, Joe would be working on similar systems used to cool the core of the towers downtown.  In winter, the envelope of an office tower is heated, but chillers cool the heat from equipment at the core all year round.

Ammonia Refrigeration Equipment

After 18 years, Joe was ready for a change of scene.  He took a job with Competitive Piping in 1997.  Competitive Piping has been headquartered at the Chicago Board of Trade ever since a heroic rescue job during the great Loop Flood of 1992.

As the flood made Chicagoans aware, coal fuel was once fed into deep sub-basements in towers throughout the Loop by a system of tunnels underground.  Later, the tunnels were strung with electric lines, the sub-basements are still filled with mechanical equipment.

In April, 1992, a contractor driving a piling into the bed of the river struck too close to one of the tunnels.  It took awhile for the pressure to break through the tunnel, but after it did, the leak was visible in the river above – it looked like water circling down a giant drain.  Water filled the tunnels and sub-basements, shutting equipment down and creating giant electrical hazards.  The IRS granted disaster extensions on tax returns; the Chicago Board of Trade rattled world markets when it closed for 2 days.

It took weeks to plug the hole and empty the basements; the lawsuits would wind on for years.  Crews were still trying to stop the hole with mattresses when Competitive Piping helped bring CBOT back on line before anybody else.  They flew in replacement chillers by helicopter, they finagled permission from city bureaucrats to operate them from flatbeds parked in the street. They sent divers into the sub-basements with underwater welding equipment to install take off valves in the submerged piping.  The valves tied in hard rubber hose that reached out to the chillers in the street.

Competitive Piping's Headquarters since 1992

Some years later, Joe got to work on another helicopter job for the CBOT.  They were installing cooling towers on the roof.  It was a carefully choreographed performance.  The city shut down the streets, but only for a tight window of time.  Spectators held their breath as the helicopters hoisted the towers upwards, staying steady as they could so the towers wouldn’t start to swing on their tethers.  Joe worked the rigging to prepare them for the lift.

In the years since he started at Competitive Piping, the trading floors have given way to big server rooms for processing electronic trades.  The servers generate great loads of heat that must be cooled constantly and that make repairs more urgent, because anything that shuts them down can cost traders millions in a short span of time.  The constant innovations designed to make heating and cooling more efficient make old equipment obsolete more quickly, particularly the electronic components, and not all the new equipment works right the first time it’s installed.

But many of the basics of the business remain the same.  In the summer, Joe says the most common service calls are for motor repairs.  As ComEd struggles to meet peak demand, the voltage sometimes drops in unannounced brownouts – he says that’s not supposed to happen but he’s seen it on his voltmeter.  When voltage drops, amperage rises, and a surge in amperage will burn a motor out.

In the winter, the most common calls come when tenants under the mechanical floors complain they’ve got water pooling in their ceiling, and that’s usually because water left standing in chill coils over winter have frozen and cracked.  A big building is constantly balancing the air it exhales through the exhaust systems with fresh air it takes in from outside.  Joe says if the balance isn’t right you can feel the resistance when you go to open the doors.  And if the damper that brings in fresh air into the air mixing chamber gets stuck, frigid cold from outdoors will freeze the coils used to condition the air that’s blown through the ducts.

For a big system, the air mixing chamber is the size of room.  It has a door with a tempered glass window on it so you can peer in.  Fans move the air in tornado-force winds inside, so you have to shut them off before you open the door.  Joe will isolate the coils and force air through them, then spray them with a foam that bubbles where the air leaks through tiny cracks. There may be dozens of them, and he’ll patiently braze each of them closed.

Over the years Joe says all that work in very cold environments takes a toll on your joints  - as it probably did for the meat workers with their chilled hands.  But it has also afforded a good life for his family.  His sons are adults – he sent them both to college.  One of them is a materials engineer, the other a doctor of pharmacology.  He and his wife raised them in a house next door to his father.

In fact, the lot their house stands on originally came with the house his father bought for $16,000 in 1966.  Those were his father’s low wage days, he bought it with a loan from the credit union at St. Jerome’s and a spoken guarantee from a friend.   Joe and his wife designed their own house themselves, every detail the way they want it, from the placement of the windows to the extensive insulation, to the materials in the pipes – there is no rattling PVC in Joe’s house.  It reflects what he knows about heating and cooling and pipe, it also reflects the benefits of the union that helped guarantee, over the span of a whole career, fair compensation for work well done.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

They Call Me Mister MGB

Al Ribskis' MGB in the Victory Lane at Road America 

Al Ribskis locates TECH RacinGraphics, his custom race-car helmet business, at a point 150 miles south of Road America and 180 miles north of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  That’s one more set of coordinates that place Bridgeport more or less at the center of things, though the route he arrived by has been more like the historic road course, with its wooded moraines and its 14 turns, than an ovoid track.

Al grew up in Bridgeport, in an apartment at 3139 South Emerald; he graduated De LaSalle High School, Class of 1975.  His mother hoped he’d follow the path of his older brother, who got his engineering degree from UIC, took at a job after college, and stayed at the same company his entire career.  It was an interesting job, assessing risk for big structures like stadiums and convention centers, but still an unusual employment trajectory, especially for his era.

Al enrolled at UIC for 2 years after high school, but says he was distracted by a youthful bout of cynicism.  Cynicism is a word that’s hard to reconcile with Al Ribskis now -- he describes it as a nagging a sense of pointlessness:  good grades came easy, but he really had no idea what he planned to do with himself.  And in retrospect, maybe his doubts weren’t all wrong.

Al's logo for TECH RacinGraphics drawn by Roger Warrick

When Al was in high school, Don McLean was singing “Bye bye Miss American Pie” almost every time you turned on the radio. America’s long streak of post war prosperity, marked by steady growth, had crested and a long period of disruptions was underway – over the next 20 years they’d rattle every rung on the employment ladder.  If Al had gone ahead and pursued the course he couldn’t quite picture as a 19 year old, he might have been one of those middle managers shrugged loose mid-career by rounds of corporate streamlining.

Instead, he rebelled by leaving college to train as an electronic technician at DeVry.   He found electronics interesting – as a kid he built simple radios and motors from Heath kits -- and when he finished the program in a year and a half he had no trouble rounding up job offers.  Over the years, his skills haven’t exactly protected him from disruptions, but they have helped him pluck opportunities from the flux.

His first job was at JAY Cash Registers, a third generation, family owned business now known, after some adjustments, as JAY Retail Systems.  They started out selling used mechanical registers in the 1920s; by the mid 1950s they could claim to be the world’s largest used cash register dealer.  They also made parts and supplies for reconditioning machines, sometimes through contracts with overseas manufacturers.  Then, in 1973, they introduced the world’s first mass produced electronic cash register – with built in computing power that gave managers quick access to sales data a few key strokes.

Over the next 13 years, the company reports, sales jumped from a few million dollars a year to over $100 million in inflation adjust dollars. They didn’t build the registers themselves, they contracted with Japanese firms to do it.  Stateside, JAY maintained a network of over 600 authorized dealers, supported by hundreds of salesmen and technical support personnel.

Al joined their stable in 1979 in the hubbub of their most prosperous years.  He also married the girl he’d met as at his high school job as an Andy Frain usher at the old Comiskey Park.  They set up house in a cool Lincoln Park apartment; on week-ends they’d go dancing at Club 950, where DJ Joe Bryl was spinning New Wave records – Al runs into Joe in Bridgeport all the time now, some 30 years later, at Maria’s Community Bar or at the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And one afternoon back in ‘79, driving a Chevy Nova handed down from Al’s brother, they spotted a used MG sports car on a car lot, exchanged looks, and agreed they should buy it.  Al has collected some of the old print ads for that car -- they show young couples posed with the agile little vehicle at picnics, or at the beach, with gliders in the background – they depict a joyful, carefree existence that still reflects how he feels driving that car today.  And the car opened doors to other things.

They say the British MG was the vehicle that introduced Americans to the joys of the sports car. American GIs first saw it during World War II.  After the war, MG only built about 10,000 of its MGTD model, but a couple thousand made their way to US shores – modest numbers, but proportionally significant -- and  in the coming years, Americans would spend more and more time on the road.

The MGA was introduced in 1955 – the year before Congress passed the Federal Highway Act to fund a new Interstate highway system, and the same year Road America opened as the first permanent road race course on the North American continent.  The MGA was designed to make its mark in a growing field of European sports cars angling for a piece of the American market: the Italians would build fancy cars for the rich; MG built a quality sports car affordable to the ordinary driver.  It was the MGB, the car that Al bought, that would really solidify that reputation.  The MGB was introduced in 1962; MG sold 500,000 of them over the next 18 years.

Interesting, for a sports car, it’s unlikely anyone ever bought an MGB for power or speed.  The car had a modest 4 cylinder, 94 horsepower engine, and it didn’t have the comforts considered basic in American cars, like heat, or windows that could be rolled down, or defrosted.  For comparison, Ford introduced its Mustang GT, setting the standard for a whole class of pony cars, in April of 1965.  It had an 8 cylinder, 225 horsepower engine, and Ford sold 417,000 of them before the end of the year.

Still, MG was selling all the cars it could build.  They had a reputation for simple design and quality construction, and they handled well, they were fun to drive.  Al describes their “underdog appeal” in racing terms  - how in a mixed race, the cars with the most powerful engines would pull out on the straightaway, but the small, maneuverable ones could outfox them on the turns.

Over the years, these qualities were partly muffled as the MGB was ‘federalized’ to meet emerging American safety and emission standards.  Raised suspensions made it a little less maneuverable; heavy rubber bumpers altered its looks.  When the 1975 model came out, the modifications strained every system in the engine, reducing it to 63 horsepower and leaving it susceptible to mechanical problems. Al spends a lot of time in the garage, absorbed in loving repairs, but he still describes driving that car as a joyful experience. 

1975-76 turned out to be a record sales year for the MGB, though sales dropped after that, and MG’s problems were compounded by labor disputes, until 1980, when they stopped production.  But their cars still have a strong following today.  There are over a hundred active MG owner’s clubs in the US, whose members can talk shop, source parts, and socialize in rallies and caravans.  Back in 1979, when Al had just bought his MGB, he joined the Chicagoland MG Club and drove in a club caravan to Road America, the historic road race course in Elkhart Lake Wisconsin, over Labor Day.  He was smitten.

Helmet painting for a customer who told Al
"Every day at the racetrack is like having ice cream." 

Within a few years he was attending Skip Barber Racing School, which provides an introduction to the elements of racecraft, from techniques for braking and passing to controlling vehicle drift, and prepares students to qualify for an amateur racing license.  Graduates can race Skip Barber cars with limited damage liability at Skip Barber racing series that cover 30 race courses in Canada and the US.  Soon, Al was racing 2-3 times a year, and occasionally manning flag stations along the race course.

Back at the job, the electronic cash register business was also accelerating.  JAY’s electronic machines had changed the cash register industry; by the mid-80s competitors had entered the field.  Soon, cheaper versions of the “ECR” (electronic cash register) could be had through discount stores, without the benefit of an expensive support staff. 

Al was let go as JAY’s made adjustments, but he was able to pick up a job at a competitor’s shop on the old Northwest Highway.   And bout that time, he happened to see an ad in the Chicago Reader classifieds that would mark a significant turn in his alternate career.  It was listed under “Opportunities,” and it was located just a mile down the highway at Orion Industries, applicators of industrial coatings.  At the time Orion applied Teflon to cookware; now they apply coatings to medical instruments.

Owner Bruce Nesbitt was a savvy businessman.  Nesbitt is also a prime example of a type Al describes with admiration – the wealthy individual whose success in business allows him to buy a race car and try his hand at racing, and whose priorities gradually evolve until he’s building the business to support the racing habit.  Bruce had been racing for 20 years when Al met him.  He’d built a shop out of a corner of the Orion facility where a crew of 4 or 5 guys worked on his Camaro.  

One of them was a paid crew chief, the others were volunteers who worked for the love of the sport. Al started in the summer season as a volunteer mechanic; by winter, Bruce had hired him as crew chief.  The meticulous work suits Al’s skills and proclivities, though the stress of the occasional part failure did not.  Between them the crew might put hundreds of work hours, using endless checklists, into preparing for a 45 minute race.  At high speeds, heat and vibrations would jolt things loose and cause loose parts to fail.  Al vividly remembers one race that Bruce was leading with a real chance to win, until smoke started pouring from the engine and he had to drop out of the race.  A bundle of cables had rattled loose and short circuited as their protective coating wore off.  Bruce took incidents like that with relative equanimity, it was all part of the sport.  But they wore on Al, and by the end of the season he felt he had to resign.

This left him, in 1986, at a loss what to do with himself for the first time since his college days, though he no longer had that cynical streak.  He took a seminar called “Empower Your Career” that he credits with launching him into something entirely new.  He knew he wanted to try his hand as an entrepreneur, by the end of the seminar he had identified opportunity in a new kind of electronic signage with scrolling type.  The signs were made in Japan, but he could source, distribute and install them.  And once he began subscribing to trade publications, it turned out the sign business was in the midst of another transition, in which hand lettered signs were giving way to adhesive vinyls, cut with a computerized plotter.   Al didn’t buy the equipment, he saw opportunity specking and installing them. 

Compared to fast cars, installation of pre-built electronics and adhesive vinyls might sound like dull stuff, but Al, with his meticulous streak, takes great pleasure in the survey work – the measurements and preparations that make the installation go well.  It’s the part of the job he believes others too often neglect.  He might use third party contractors to build an enormous sign cabinet, to operate the crane that hangs it, to shape the neon tubes that light it and cut the vinyl letters that will spell out the menu around the edge of the roof, and if he’s taken an accurate survey, it will also fit together without a hitch.  He describes working atop a ladder – applying lettering or paint or connecting electronics – as peaceful and absorbing, above the hubbub of the street.

For 9 years, Al’s best client was Leona’s restaurants.  The first sign he did for them was a vertical cabinet with Leona’s name spelled in ruby lights – it still hangs along Taylor Street.   When business slowed after the dot-com bust and 9/11, it became clear that his ability to survey a job did not extend to managing cash flow.  In 2002, he closed his business and began to work for other installers, joining the sign installers union in 2007. 

Union work brought him to big jobs at hotels and office buildings where he might mount hundreds of labels at doors and stairwells – jobs that had less to do with orchestrating the details of one big sign than working out the quickest way to mount a dozen in an hour at precisely the same height.  But there too, Al appreciates a sense of landscape: a job in the West Loop puts him in proximity to where a construction boom unfolds, or it might put him in the service of impressive clients.  When one job sent him to work on a Crate and Barrel store, he was delighted at the prospect because he admired the company.

“I was thinking ‘This is great!  I get to work for Crate and Barrel – (founder) Gordon Segal is a retail genius!’”  Then he arrived at the site, and the store manager filled his ear with complaints about shortcuts and unfulfilled promises made by the installation company that had sent him to the job.  Al went home and wrote an earnest letter to the company president, because surely upper management would want to know about the client’s concerns, and he felt let down when he got a letter back, dismissing the client’s claims in soothing terms about how misunderstandings are inevitable in business.

Al’s other career affords more idealistic principles.  In the mid-2000s, a friend invited him to a luncheon with the Chicago Loop Auto Sports Society (CLASS), an informal club of serious enthusiasts who meet monthly at Pazzo’s restaurant to talk about cars and racing.  It was at a CLASS luncheon that Al met David Cooper, whose west loop company Cooper Technica does extravagant restorations of vintage cars.

For photos from the restoration of this Land Rover,
see Cooper Technica's web-page under "For Sale"

For the purist, a vintage car is a pre-war vehicle, built between 1919 and 1939, though Cooper does other restorations, like vintage Land Rovers built between 1950 and the mid 1970s. He searches out devalued specimens in poor condition with uncertain origins, and assembles a pool of investors to buy them, and fund their restoration.

A rare car’s provenance, its origins, ownership and any racing career, can have a dramatic impact on its value.  Cooper takes pride in his skill as a sleuth – he’ll track down heirs, study family photos for images of a favorite vehicle, he’ll press survivors to visualize themselves back inside the car. “You want to turn on the windshield wipers,” the Chicago Tribune once described him pressing the son of a socialite whose famous custom car may have turned up in a collection of packing boxes. “Where do you reach?”  The answer that helped prove he had the right car: the man reached for a switch overhead. 

His shop mechanics will rebuild the car at Cooper Technica’s West Loop garage, which has its own machine shop, sheet metal and paint facilities.  As they do it, they’ll strike a careful balance between preservation and functionality, because when the car is finished, it won’t be a fragile show piece, it will be a real vehicle built to drive.  Cooper Technica boasts that some of its restored cars may be driven every day.  Wherever possible, they’ll use original specifications and period production techniques, authentic right down to the chemistry of the materials.  But they may make discrete modifications in consultation with an owner -- use modern valves or rubber gaskets for instance -- to adapt the car for current fuel and driving conditions. 

For a time, Al had the great pleasure of working at the Cooper Technica shop alongside an older mechanic named Sonny, who drove his own vintage Land Rover.  Al got to fabricate a complete wiring harness for one of the Cooper Technica Land Rovers.  As wires age, their insulation turns brittle and cracks.  Al ran new wire, making fuse boxes and connections to all the switches with careful reference to the original manual, because every detail would be accurate – if the manual called for a particular connection to be made in blue wire, or in brown wire with an orange tracer, he’d reach for one of the spools Cooper Technica kept ready to hand.

He recalls one happy afternoon spent with Sonny, carefully scouring corrosion off the original spoked wheels of a 1930s era Alfa Romeo.  The metal was 70 years old, they knew its metallurgic composition and the city in Italy where it was made, and at one point they looked up at one another and asked “Can you believe we’re working on this?”

For photos from the restoration of this Alfa Romeo,
see Cooper Technica's web-page, under "Past Projects"

Which points toward one of the contradictions of their craft -- because there is fantastic money in it. Vintage cars have been racking up record prices at auctions through 2014, and the most rarefied specimens never make it to auction, they’re usually placed through private brokers and dealers.  They tend to hold their value when stocks and real estate do not.  That means Cooper’s investors might put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore a car that will eventually fetch tens of millions.  But the restoration will take thousands of hours, and after it’s finished they may wait years to place it with the buyer prepared to pay its real value.

In the meantime, the restoration itself is done by meticulous, skilled craftsmen who might work for something close to the honor of working on the vehicle.  Al got paid for working at Cooper Technica but eventually, he had to quit because he simply couldn’t afford it.  Sign work pays better and it is his main employment today.

But he remains involved in the Midwest racing circuit, and his racing connections spawned the business that would become TECH RacinGraphics, when his friend Rusty Zimmerman first asked him to decorate his racing helmet in 1999.  It turns out that the paint masking techniques and adhesive vinyls Al uses for sign work also lend themselves to the kind of meticulous detail his helmet customers ask him to produce.

TECH RacinGraphics, might decorate a $1,000 helmet for $600 to $900, depending on the level of detail.  To make the checkered pattern on this helmet Al masked out hundreds of tiny squares.  Customers have occasionally hinted he might charge more, and he admits he finds it hard to set prices, which is one reason he eventually abandoned his business as a full time entrepreneur.  He made a living during a respectable stretch of good years, but his work life has spanned a postmodern period defined by the pressures that acceleration, globalization, and widening disparity of incomes exert on labor and ownership alike.

In some ways those pressures have made work more exciting: Al agrees he’s had opportunity to engage in far wider array of interesting work than he would have in a quiet office or on a factory floor.  In fact, his particular interests in racing and rare cars are fueled by the fortunes of wealthy individuals.  But for Al, there has been a big trade off in basic job security and the absence of a reliable safety net.

On the race course, Al says the most expensive car doesn’t always win the race, but he says the car probably counts for more than half of it.  So it’s partly to keep the sport interesting that the racing community self regulates, subdividing the field into classes, so that cars of an era, or similar horse power, compete against each other, giving the widest possible field of cars a fair opportunity to push their limits at the track.

Short of some real life parallel, there is the satisfaction of finding your niche, and finding it again if you can each time the course changes.  If Al’s not sure how to price his helmet graphics, that’s partly because he’s prone to lose track of time while he’s working on them.  He describes himself at work in his paint booth in the middle of the night -- the work is peaceful, he is fully absorbed.  He refers back to that “Empower Your Career” course he took years ago when he says “Working in that paint booth is exactly the kind of work environment I belong in.”

Al on the F1 podium at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
from TECH RacinGraphics web page:
"This is the level of enthusiasm I apply to every helmet I work on."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A New Generation of Live Work Space on Halsted

On the outside, this building looks like a lot of the mystery buildings on Halsted Street, like someone has forgotten they own it, or like they’ve inherited it from their grandparents and they aren’t sure if it’s worth anything yet.

But if Halsted’s other mystery buildings are, in fact, anything like this one, that’s good news for the near term fortunes of the street, because this one has been humming with plans for several years.  Visible progress was slowed by structural problems and hurdles in the Chicago codes, but now they’re cleared, and behind the frontier-town façade the building’s insides are being rapidly rebuilt from the basement floor to the rafters.

When renovations are finished in July, there will be 2 second floor apartments, a maker of traditional Italian sausage in the basement, and a giant live work space on the first floor - that’s a legal live work space, so if you’re in the market for one you should get in touch with the owners now.  [Or you can inquire by phone at 773-724-1594.]

Kevin Sheehan and Bobby Lyons were both born and raised in Bridgeport. So were their parents -- Bobby’s family were cops, Kevin’s were tavern keepers. They have been close friends since grade school, they lived their wild youths together, though they’ve both settled down a lot since then.

A few years ago they started tossing around the idea of buying a building together.  They considered buying a bar out in Mount Greenwood, which seemed like a good source of easy profits, but the potential for easy profit gave way to other considerations, and if this project has one defining characteristic, it is something more like a long term view.

A Sticker Appearing Around Halsted Street
The building they finally bought, in 2011, was the first bar Kevin’s family owned in Bridgeport.  His grandfather’s brother opened it before Prohibition.  It’s across the street from Schaller’s, which holds the oldest active liquor license issued in Chicago, and a few doors south of the 11th ward office.

Kevin’s father ran his own tavern on Union and 38th Street, kitty corner to where the Shinnick’s tavern still operates today. Kevin’s cousin Jack Sheehan, who married a Schaller, still operates his tavern near 35th Street on Halsted – next to the former site of Bridgeport Tattoo, whose owner once talked admiringly about wanting to tie his business in to a traditional neighborhood like Bridgeport, though he’d lived a more itinerate life himself and he’s since shuttered the shop.

One of Kevin’s uncles ran the bar at 3707 S Halsted when Kevin was a kid – he’d lived in the apartment over the bar his entire life.  After he died, the family sold it to Richard Mossman, a bricklayer they knew, who rezoned the parcel to accommodate plans for a lofty 4 story condominium development he hadn’t got around to building before the market crashed in 2006.

By 2011 Mossman had a For Sale sign in the window, and Kevin and Bobby called him up to inquire.  They knew if they bought it they would have to put time and money into it -- the building had settled and shifted over the years, the whole frame tilted to the side.  But it’s in the same corner of Bridgeport where they have anchored their lives, and it has sentimental significance. Kevin’s says his father, who has passed away, had thought about buying it, and he would have been glad to know the old building was back in the family.

Once they owned it, they went back and forth a couple times about how to proceed.  At first they got permits to renovate it, they thought they could take down a couple exterior walls and salvage the others.  For awhile it looked like they might have to tear the whole thing down and start from the ground as a new construction project.  City codes would have required them to move the structure back 15 feet from the sidewalk, and from its original foundation, which they were willing to do, but they needed a new set of permits, and the permit process dragged on through the fall of 2013. 

By December they decided to go ahead with the renovation, which they already had permits for.  They tore the insides out, down to the exterior walls; their contractor looped chains around the top beam in the north wall of the frame, and workers on the ground in the lot just south of the building pulled the whole thing straight with come-alongs.  They nailed in some reinforcing carpentry and let it stand for a month to make sure it stayed straight, then they built the interior framing that will help hold it in place over time.

Meanwhile, one of the most brutal winters in memory blasted the structure with freezes and thaws and eventually caused the foundation, exposed when they took out the floors, to crack. At this point, other investors might have turned, snarling, on each other and sued their contractor; Bobby and Kevin made parallels to the metaphorical significance of building a life on a strong foundation, and their contractor, whom they’ve known for years, proposed to split the cost of the repair.

When it’s all finished, the building will have a pretty new masonry façade facing Halsted Street.  Bobby will move out into one of the apartment on the second floor, and Mike Botica, another friend from the neighborhood, whom they’ve known for years, will rent the basement to make sopressata, a dry cured Italian sausage.

Mike makes sopressata using old family recipes he learned from his wife’s Grandma Theresa.  He says they used to hang their sausage in a spare bedroom, leaving the windows open so it could cure in the cold.  He first started helping out when he and his wife were still dating.  When Grandma Theresa saw he had an interest, she sat him down and taught him her recipe, and handed over her grinder and her press, which he still uses – they’re each over 100 years old.

Right now, Mike makes his sopressata for friends and family as a hobby, but it’s “a hobby on steroids” --- last year he made 1,200 pounds of it in a 3 day operation that brought up to 30 people to his house at a time.  Setting up all the tables and equipment is a project in itself: moving it all out from his garage into the basement at South Halsted will allow him to make the set up permanent, and also to install a walk in cooler and de-humidifier.

Eventually he would like to get all his licensing lined up and open a business – he says he’d try selling it mail order first, and if that goes well, he’d like to open a deli on the first floor of Bobby and Kevin’s building.  It would require changing the zoning back to commercial, but he’s already discussed it with Alderman Balcer, and the Alderman was enthusiastic about the idea.  They both remember a time when South Halsted had more storefronts on it – including Granata’s, next door to the Ramova Theater, which Mike describes as something like Conte di Savoia on Taylor Street, not as large, but very successful.

All that would be several years away, come July, the 1st floor space will be ready for other uses.  Mike says Kevin and Bobby have chosen an ideal location – with the new homes being built out from Donovan Park on the west, and some of the most stable blocks in Bridgeport to the east.  The Halsted renaissance might seem slower to advance than its residential one, individual investments might take time to mature, but the foundations are good.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On the Industrial Frontier

Ten years ago the little strip of 37th Street between Morgan and Racine was not broad and smooth and wide open like it is today.

There were more buildings on it -- the Joslyn plant sprawled the whole length of a city block -- and the street itself was narrower.  Its rolling pavement was a ruin of asphalt patches, all broken into potholes and crumbling to gravel, with stretches of the old paving stones showing underneath.  A set of rail tracks ran across it -- they were operational just up to the verge of the street, but the railcars that used it all stopped before crossing.  And somewhere underneath all that ran a very old water main -- it was broken, and it was also legally inaccessible, so it was going to stay broken for awhile.

But my friend John didn’t know that when he bought the three story warehouse at the middle of the street.  He saw industrial heritage and the opportunity to build something new.


I’ve told this story before.  At least the practical version, about the progress of a real estate project. About how John bought it, in 2002, with documents in hand from the city, promising to repair that water main, and from the railroad, detailing their plans for re-activating the track where it crossed the street and ran alongside the loading docks at the back of his building.  The rail siding was a feature central to the interest of the drywall distributor who was going to lease the whole first floor, and pay the rents that would help finance John’s plans to subdivide the other stories into small spaces for metal fabricators, makers and artists.

And how, after he bought it, the railroad’s lawyers squashed the idea of a grade level street crossing – too much liability risk (even though the same tracks run through the middle Racine a few blocks away).  And how the city’s plans to repair the water main were stalled by the significant detail that the city didn’t own the street.  The street was still owned by the company that originally developed the Central Manufacturing District, now a huge multinational, whose lawyers had other things to do than manage the sale of a scrap of street in Bridgeport – an inconvenient bit of industrial heritage.  It would take 3 years before they’d complete the sale and another year for the city to repair the main.

And how John still ploughed forward anyway, doing renovations himself like a really ambitious home improvement project, and attracting tenants, even before there was water, and about the cast of characters who passed through that place, from the outlaws who prowled it before he bought it, to the cast of bikers, missionaries, machinists and other curious parties, including myself, who were drawn in by John’s evolving vision for rebuilding something exciting from waste stream recycled materials, and by his skill for telling a really good story.

For a long time it wasn’t clear if he’d be successful.  He has been.  Though it took him 6 years to finish it, and start looking for the next project, which he found in the Stockyards.  He’s pursuing that one gradually too – time allows synergies to develop.

When I first tried to write about John and his building I had a hard time making a coherent story out of it, because by then I’d already spent 3 years down there, shoveling rocks and hauling debris into dumpsters, and listening to John and all the guys who came through to see what kind of progress he was making.  At night I’d pedal north, exhausted and filthy and weirdly satisfied, and the next morning I’d write down everything I could remember because every detail seemed really important.

Partly I liked it just because in my regular life, I worked at a desk and didn’t have a lot of opportunities to operate simple things like pallet jacks – I thought it was absolutely astounding that even a relatively small person could maneuver loads of material, even machine tools weighing thousands of pounds, across floors and around corners with a simple hand operated device.

But I thought it was a story about everything: the ups and downs of industry, the twists and turns of human ambition, man’s strange relationships with the stuff he manages to accumulate in this world.  There was one scene in particular that stands out in my memory -- it reminds me how the building was an opening, or a lens that made things visible that I couldn’t usually see.  It was a Sunday afternoon spent in the basement, it was cold, like it is now, and beautiful.

When John first bought the building, that basement was like a dungeon.  The windows were covered with plywood, its corners and concrete columns were clotted with cobwebs, the floor was covered with sediment that had been left after he’d pumped an inch of standing water off the floor.

Water would continue to seep back in from a phantom building next door.  When the other building was standing, it had shared drain pipes with the Lowe warehouse; after it was gone, water still entered its old pipes and backed up a drain at the bottom of the elevator shaft in John’s building. Eventually, he’d rent office space to the engineering firm that rebuilt the drainage system for the whole district.  In those early years, though, he was pumping the seepage through a hose that carried it up to a set of plastic drums on the first floor where he’d use it to operate a flush toilet.

Meanwhile, water had seeped into the tank of fluid that ran the hydraulic elevator, turning the oil into a greyish foam that spread through the lines and into the piston that raises and lowers the elevator cage.

On this particular afternoon, John was down there in the elevator pit – where everything was covered with a thick coat of slime that stank of mold and motor oil.  He had clamped a floodlight on the elevator door, which opened horizontally like 2 iron jaws, and the muck at the bottom glistened in the light.  He wasn’t intimidated by the fact he’d never fixed an elevator before – he’d basically do it by taking it apart to see what was inside, and he’d do most of it with nothing but a pipe wrench and a big allen key.

The plywood had been pried off the basement windows, and the sun was streaming in overhead.  I was sweeping sediment off the floor.  It filled the air in a sunlit haze, and the otherworldly chords of a Romanian women’s choir filtered through the space.  Every now and then, John’s voice would rise from out of the pit, exclaiming after he’d opened a line and found it was still in excellent condition inside.

And while we were down there, Santa stopped by.  Santa had been proprietor of Scooter World, a business selling used motor cycle parts that had once occupied at least 2 floors of the building, though he’d lost control of his inventory before John arrived on the scene.  He still came around to see what kind of progress John was making.  He knew a lot about the building – what had broken and how they’d fixed it before.  And if John had some scrap he wanted to get rid of, Santa would take it off his hands.

This afternoon, he fell to chatting about how he’d started Scooter World back in the 1960s, when motor scooters were very popular.  He’d started it as a repair shop, and neighborhood kids would hang around the shop and learn how to fix stuff by watching Santa do it.  He says scooters came out in a new model every year, and you could harvest parts from old bikes people would abandon in the alley when they got new ones.

As his inventory grew, he moved from one space to the next, before arriving at the old Lowe warehouse on 37th Street, where he spread over several floors.  Now Santa looked back with nostalgia on the glory of his inventory, which had whole departments dedicated to seats, or gas tanks or carburetors.  Gesturing around, he described how the basement was filled with wheels from every kind of vehicle, from lawn-mowers to bikes.

Then the guy who owned the building died, and left it to his daughter, and his daughter let her boyfriend Cowboy move in.  Cowboy engaged in a lot of destructive pastimes before he finally went to prison.  Santa said it was for beating an old man to death for the money in his pocket, which turned out to be $37 and change.

But his real complaints about Cowboy came after Santa fell behind in his rent, and Cowboy started selling off his stuff. Because Cowboy didn’t know what anything was worth, or he didn’t care.  He’d sell parts worth hundreds of dollars for a fraction of their value in quick cash.  He’d squandered Santa’s glorious collection, accumulated over decades, it still rankled with Santa now.

After they were both gone, other guys, friends of John’s, would come through that warehouse with new collections.  Their skill sets reflected the era of industry where they’d pursued their careers; it was their collections that reflected what they’d been able to make of it all.  They weren’t accumulations of wealth, in fact they often turned out to be cumbersome objects hung round their owner’s necks, but they were fascinating to look at, to sort through, they seemed to be testament to something – to their owner’s ability to see possibility, though not necessarily their ability to grasp it.

So Santa and Cowboy both came through in the frontier days, the long interim between when the Central Manufacturing District was first built, at the cutting edge of modern industry, and when John arrived a century later to rebuild it for a new industry revival.  In that interim, Cowboy saw a vacuum for a chaotic career on the semi-legal fringe; Santa saw opportunity dealing in other people’s junk, sifting out gradations of value that could only be realized if you were willing to learn what it was all worth to the right buyer.

John’s friend Richard was a machinist.  His employer kept luring him back from retirement because his skill set can’t be hired anymore.  His collections included heaps of stuff you could buy at hardware stores, but also elegant wooden chests filled with antique instruments, sets of drill bits and dies that had been hand tooled, and a growing collection of machine tools he was buying up at fire sales and hauling to John’s building as more and more businesses shut down – some of them still had appendages from when they were hooked up to steam engines.

His friend Matt’s favorite job had been working for a company that made elaborate props – fiberglass trees that were really waitress stations, things like that.  He wanted John to fill the warehouse with craftsmen who could build objects in any material – wood, glass, metal, fiberglass – and he got him started, referring some of his earliest tenants.  Matt’s collections were accordingly eclectic: boxes of glass lenses the size of saucers, a long tray of beads and semi-precious stones, antique furniture he might someday repair and dozens of wood-framed windows he planned to someday build into a greenhouse.  His friendship with John nearly sank under that collection, he underestimated how much time we spent hauling it back and forth across the floors to get at windows John was replacing, or to core holes where he’d run new plumbing stacks through the floors.

John’s era was in high-tech end of industry.  He built virtual sets for industry trade videos using motion tracking technology originally developed for making smart bombs – it’s probably archaic now, it was a little tenuous back then.  You could build any fabulous set you could imagine, but if the tracking mechanisms lost their place the human talent could appear to go skidding across the virtual carpet, or the whole set would shiver behind their backs.  The industry turned out to be tenuous too – the company John worked for spent millions on bleeding-edge technology they were betting would become standard for the industry, and when it did, the price came down and they found themselves competing with guys working out of their basements.  Eventually, the founder would sell his business to a big media company.

But by then John’s building was up and running with water and utilities, and he’d sorted through a whole range of new age, low tech possibilities – the drywall distributor lost interest when the rail siding fell through, but then the Italian cookie company and the green architects considered moving in, and even though they never did, one by one the glass finisher, the metal workers and the artists started renting.  When the building was fully occupied, he moved on to the next one, which he bought a few blocks away.

That afternoon in the cold, in the basement, when John was banging around the elevator shaft, and the women’s voices filtered through the sun-lit haze, while Santa told wild stories of the frontier days, the whole place hummed with possibility.  It was more vivid because it was built from stuff that was workable with simple tools and human sweat, and because it resonated with the efforts and imaginings of all the guys who’d passed through there before, whether they’d been successful for a time or not.