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Skinning a Roof

Photo of Vince Basehart

By Vince Basehart

April 25 -- These men, eight by my count, are responsible for skinning the roof off of a large apartment building and replacing much of it in a day.

Five of them atop the four story building are already attacking the roof by the time morning traffic thickens on Broadway. They dig in with large, long-handled scraping tools to remove the existing roof surface, hurling large papery sections of it down into a massive bin in the lot below. Men kick at stubborn spots with their boots.

Their efforts expose raw lumber. The two smallest among them, as if thereby designated for finer work, walk behind the roof strippers, scouring the exposed wood with other long-handled tools. They must put their backs into their work.

From my sixth floor air conditioned office, as I sip my morning coffee, I can see the roof surface being methodically laid to waste like the carcass of an animal being stripped bare by piranhas.

Some of the roof chunks raining from above hit the lip of the bin, shatter, and clatter onto the hood of a truck. The truck looks like it was pulled from the hold of the Titanic: it is impossibly dirty and dented, rusty, speckled and streaked with stringy tar. A tar pot is hitched to the back.

Other trucks have been brought alongside, burdened with the raw materials for the pot. Two men unload what look like greasy, microwave oven-sized charcoal briquettes wrapped in brown paper, and stack them beside the pot, much like you would imagine Napoleonic artillerymen setting up cannon balls next to a field piece. After unloading the briquettes, they struggle to heave rolls of tar paper from the bed of the vehicle.

By mid-morning the roof is laid nearly bare. A man below struggles to start up the tar pot, but fails. Some fussing occurs. The vexed man whistles to call over another. Soon both men are fiddling with it, until the thing kicks on with a whir and begins to chug in a rhythm which I can feel at my desk.

Smoke is what this beast of a witch’s cauldron creates. An awful cloud of lung-filling foul, dense, oily smoke. It becomes clear that each man is wearing a kerchief around his neck for a reason other than sweat collection or fashion. Like bandits about to rob a train, when the pot starts up, each man pulls them over their faces.

By noon, the topside men are slathering the roof with the black, liquefied goo being pumped up from the pot through a pipe, smearing it with large push brooms. The tar continues to smoke after it is laid down. All of the men breathe through their kerchiefs. They sweat through their t-shirts in the afternoon sun.

The man below intermittently feeds the pot with chunks of the creosote blocks, like a sailor feeding a ship's boiler. He stands upwind of the smoke, and now and then pounds on the pipe feeding the tar up to the men on the roof.

A lunch truck pulls into the lot, its horns blaring the first strains of “La Cucaracha,” and the men climb down by various ladders. The motor on the tar pot is switched off for a while, and the stench dissipates, as the men eat their sandwiches in silence.

The next time I check, the rolls of the tar paper have some how been brought to the top of the now fully-tarred roof and the crew is laying down the sheets of it in sections over the curing tar. Two workers follow the paper and pound nails to secure it. They are the same two smaller men who cleaned the exposed lumber this morning.

A large white truck pulls up bearing a load of shingles. The men begin to unload stacks of them by hand. The building is now in deep shade, and the evening traffic is moving along Broadway. They will finish the job tomorrow.














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The views expressed in this column are those of Vince Basehart and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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