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 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
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