Pile Driving, Poetry and Poultry by Sangamithra Iyer

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August 2003

In the wee hours of the morning

You might see me on the 7 train

With my eyes closed

And my steel toes

memorable-jan13I exited the subway at Main Street in Flushing, Queens. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, tucked my white hard hat under my arm and walked toward the big inflatable rat on Fowler Avenue. Union workers protested with their 12-foot tall rodent until 7 a.m. They then abandoned the fight in search for other work, deflating their rat and, perhaps, their dreams.

woman in white hard hat looking at harborI walked quickly past them to enter my construction site. I wasn’t avoiding the union guys, but rather the chickens that I feared were protesters of another sort.

Caution: Hard Hat Zone

Don’t forget the safety glasses

And your steel toes

And by the live poultry market, you may want to hold your nose.

When I arrived in the morning, the live market was not yet open. I did not see any birds, but I heard them behind the roll-down gate. Wings fluttering. Chirping. Screaming. I smelled them too. The foul stench of live fowl on Fowler Avenue. I moved on, rushing to get to work. I couldn’t face them. Not that day.

It was my birthday. My mother told me Lord Krishna and I had the same birthday that year.

“Oh really,” I replied. “How old is he going to be?”

“Ageless,” she answered.

I was 26 years old; the same age my father was when he arrived in America in 1969 with seventy-five cents in his pocket. It was my first birthday without him. It had been three weeks since my father’s death, and I had just resumed going to work.

I’m stuck in Flushing for the day

Because apparently what we are flushing

Is being dumped out into the bay

The city was building a new Combined Sewer Overflow retention facility in Queens. Like many older cities, New York has an antiquated system, sending a commingling of stormwater and toiletwater to our 14 wastewater treatment plants.

Once inside a plant, wastewater goes through several stages of treatment. Debris or “floatables” are screened out and the fluids enter settling tanks. Then an aeration process begins, which entices oxygen-loving bacteria to feast on the organic matters. The treated water is separated from the solids and discharged into our waterways. A boat moves the sludge, and it is later dewatered and processed for reuse as fertilizer.

It’s an impressive system when it works. The problem is that it only takes a mild rainfall to overload treatment plants, so almost every time it rains, we discharge untreated sewage combined with rainwater directly into our waterways. As the old engineering saying goes: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

It’s not a practice we can keep up for long. Sooner or later, we all have to deal with our shit.

I was there to inspect construction of a new retention facility that would capture 43 million gallons of sewage for temporary storage during storm events, which could later be treated before being emptied into Flushing Bay. Part of the facility is a pipeline that would be supported on pile foundations—446 steel legs driven into the ground until they can’t be pushed anymore. The earth’s strength, like ours, is measured by its resistance.

When the pipe met its refusal criteria, 72 hammer blows per foot for example, we said “the pile is home.” The contractors tended to cut corners, so I had to check on them. With a masters’ degree in geotechnical engineering, I felt like an overqualified babysitter. But I did my job. I counted.

This site, these piles, those birds, that banging were not what I wanted to surround myself with that day. With every hammer drop my heart jumped and the ground shook. After a while I got used to it. The ear protection helped, but it didn’t protect me from what he said. Loudmouth Freddy is what I called him. He’s the foreman in charge of his crew, but he was not in charge of me. I wore the white hard hat, which made me boss and him angry when we disagreed.

I hated being yelled at. I hated having to yell. While I was not particularly attached to this assignment, I made sure the job was done right, and that meant from time to time Freddy screamed in my face, and I stood my ground. Sometimes he was nicer after lunch because he snuck in a beer (something I couldn’t technically prove when I tried to report it as an occupational safety hazard). His jovial demeanor and red face did not put me at ease. He could turn from nice to nasty in an instant.

Freddy and I must have looked like an odd pair. He was about my height, twice my age and triple my weight. I would say he could be my father. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t.

In some ways this assignment was good. It was easy anyway. But my mind and my body yearned to feel something. To feel purpose. To feel alive. Aside from Freddy, the crew members were good to me. Good enough. They looked out for me, made sure I was safe and treated me with a modicum of respect. My favorite was the “pile monkey,” a young guy named Bobby whose job it was to climb up the rig to position the pile beneath the hammer. Bobby was 19 years old at the time, seven years younger than me, but always called me ‘Hon.’ I laughed. I wasn’t offended, though a younger me would have been. I chose my battles on this job. As long as someone was not yelling at me or lying, I let most things slide. On most days there, “Hon” was the nicest thing anyone said to me.

Bobby was not there that day. I learned that he was killed in motorcycle accident. I was always worried about him falling from the rig, and never thought that anything outside this job would put him in more peril. Though we spent so many hours together in the same place, I didn’t know much about him except that he was engaged to the welder Tommy’s daughter. I offered Tommy my condolences, and he did the same to me for my father. We knew each other only by our losses.

Unlike other field assignments I’ve had, pile driving wasn’t a conducive atmosphere for getting to know my field crew. I didn’t know the names of their wives, how old their children were, or how long they had been doing this. They didn’t ask me what my strange name meant, why I didn’t eat meat, or how come I wasn’t married. Well except for Freddy, who told me, “You should get married so you don’t gots to do this no more.”

“You’re married, and you’re still here.” I quipped back.

He made a puzzled face, and moved on.

I knew I didn’t have to do this any more. And I had other options besides matrimony. I didn’t bring up my love life with the field crew. I liked presenting myself as an independent woman, not reduced to her relationship with a man, or her reproductive function. I was partly defined by my aspirations. Pile driving wasn’t one of them, and it was not what I had in mind when I studied geotechnical engineering. I wanted to apply my understanding of soil behavior in mitigation and prevention of natural and man-made disasters. Some days I did. Most days, however, I was plotting my escape. Critical state soil mechanics was of interest to me. All soils, when subject to pressure seek to find their equilibrium, their critical state—their happy state. Pile driving made me want to find my happy state.

But it would be some time before I could get there. I didn’t see how the grief would ever subside. The pain was like the perpetual pounding of pile driving. I’d barely been eating or seeing people since I came back to our apartment in Spanish Harlem after the funeral. My partner Wan had been taking good care of me. He had a big vegan birthday dinner party planned for me, knowing it would be good to see my friends and eat good food even though I didn’t feel like celebrating my life when my father lost his. A few weeks later, he convinced me to go to a vegan bed and breakfast upstate at a farm animal sanctuary in Watkins Glen over Labor Day weekend, when all I still wanted to do was be a hermit. Labor day was when we celebrated the anniversary of our first date in Berkeley, the beginning of us.

In our drive up to the sanctuary, I panicked. What if he proposes? The anniversary/animal sanctuary combination seemed too perfect. But I was not ready. I was not ready to feel joy. I need not have worried. He knew that. He wanted to take me away from the shit and the pounding and remind me of the things I cared about—the same things my father cared about— and see the beauty in this world.

The 60-foot long steel leg was slowly disappearing into the ground, but the pile was not yet home. We had to weld another pipe on top of this. I got a short respite from the constant banging, while the crew pursued this. I was not supposed to look directly at the welder’s torch, so I looked the other way and took notice of my surroundings. Discarded coffee cups, cigarette butts and plastic bags decorated our excavation pit. Though we were on break, a flurry of activity persisted elsewhere on the construction site. Young boys were suited up to act like grown men and grown men acted like little boys. Workers lit their smokes with a blowtorch.

Four smelly things here

Diesel, cigarettes, woodchips,

And I’m afraid, me

I heard back up sirens, whistles and hollers, and I tried to decipher construction hand signals that resembled the American Sign Language I knew.

Good is like candy

Excavate: to dig with paws

T is for hot tea

Cranes lifted big heavy things but not my spirits. Collisions of hard hats resembled missed kisses. I dreamt of being somewhere other than there.

Montana skies

And cold fresh air

Sure beat dusty eyes

And dirty hair

My crew took a coffee break.

Angry man shuts up

Pile driver gets out of crane

I get to relax

            I had switched from counting hammer blows to haiku syllables. The days I learned to count were more interesting and sophisticated than these. When I was maybe four or five years old, I didn’t have imaginary friends, instead imaginary numbers. I invented personalities for these digits and assigned them genders and relationships. One was a man, solitary. Two was the daughter of Four. She was the heroine and Seven was the hero. They made a nice couple and fought battles against Three, the villainess, and her partner in crime, number Nine. Five and Eight played softball. Eleven was a skinny girl who liked to run.

I saw number Six approaching in the form of our pot bellied site supervisor, Yefim. A very hearty cough I heard escaping his body, and I asked, “Are you okay?”

“Don’t worry, I have my medicine,” he said. He pointed to his pocket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. His hearty cough faded to a hearty laugh.

Yefim was from Belarus, “a very nice place before Chernobyl,” he told me, “but after 1986, everything turned gray.” So many young construction workers lost their lives in the clean-up.

I wanted to hear more. This was the first conversation that day that engaged me, the one that captured my heart and my mind, but the pounding resumed and we had to drive the pile home.

We finished up for the day, and although leaving this site was the moment I had been waiting for, it was also the one I was dreading. I had to walk past the live poultry market on my way home. This time the gate was open. I held my breath, kept my eyes on the ground averting theirs, but noticed feathers on the sidewalk. A few steps ahead of me was a little old lady carrying a black plastic bag in each hand. I heard chirping from the bags, which would not last much longer.

Around the corner from the live market, I saw the parking lot of a supermarket called Western Beef. Consumers bought live animals in one and nameless, faceless, packaged and frozen body parts in the other. One masked and distanced us from the reality; the other provided no such shield. But for the chicken, I suspected, there wasn’t much difference. Their fate was the same.

I still couldn’t get the pounding out of my head, and I wondered, in their last moments, if that’s what the birds were thinking too.

sangamithra iyerSangamithra Iyer holds engineering degrees from Cooper Union and U.C. Berkeley and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Hunter College. She is an associate of Brighter Green, a vegan food columnist for Open City, and was the assistant editor of Satya. Her essays have been anthologized in Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice and Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy, & Sanctuary. She is working on her first book which blends memoir, history and reportage. Follow her at @literaryanimal or visit her website, Literary Animal.

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