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The International Writers Magazine:New York Stories

Health and Safety in New York
Dean Borok

I have never been much for rubbernecking other people’s misery.  When the World Trade Center was bombed I was working only one block away, at 39 Broadway, and I went home that day covered in that mess, but I never walked over to see Ground Zero until a couple of years later, when I was called for a job in the adjacent World Financial Center.

I saw the site of the crane collapse on 51st St. the day after because the express bus taking me down to Wall St. happened to pass by.  When I first came to New York, in the 1980s, I lived one block away.  Anyway, that scene was grotesque enough, let me tell you, with the cab and crane tower lying in the middle of a collapsed apartment building, looking like a set from a science fiction movie.
You’re never safe in New York.  My downstairs neighbor when I lived on 83rd St. got hit in the head by a flying chunk of a luxury condo under construction on 85th St., which knocked her out cold.  A girl from my gym was speedwalking in the bicycle lane in Central Park when a cab driver crossed over into the bike lane and hit her from behind, sending her flying 20 feet.
One time my girlfriend, Magpie, and I were drinking margaritas in Arriba Arriba when a stereo speaker dislodged from the ceiling, falling on her and breaking her foot.  Thank God, it didn’t hit her head, because it was a very heavy piece of equipment.
I myself boarded the York Avenue bus to go to work one day in 2005.  Before I was able to reach my seat, the bus driver unexpectedly jammed the accelerator and then instantly hit the brake, sending me flying.  My arm hit one of the metal armrests, and it broke my forearm.  I had to have an operation to set the broken bone, and I was in a cast for six months, in unbelievable agony.  The case goes to court this summer.
And that’s just me and a few of the people I know.  New York is filled with millions of victims, walking wounded, victims of a shit infrastructure and badly skilled workers.
I can’t address everything that is happening in New York.  I am only one person.  But these recurring construction accidents, with fires breaking out at construction sites and the firemen arriving to find that the standpipe was disconnected, hence no water; cranes collapsing; tons of material breaking loose and falling on people; scaffolds collapsing, well that is actually a rather easy problem to address.
For years, I have been complaining that there are relatively few persons in this country who know how to perform any manual functions.  All the good manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to the orient, leaving a nation of computer mouse pushers.  I have often written half in jest that Americans’ hands would eventually atrophy and fall off from disuse.
Unfortunately, this unfortunate attitude of manual labor being a degrading condition is now visiting its legacy on us.  People don’t know how to work anymore.  Remember the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, or the tunnel collapse in Boston, where the ceiling of a brand new highway tunnel dislodged and crushed a family that just happened to be innocently driving through?
Engineering and skilled labor are not degrading and low-end careers, but they have been made into them by our distorted value system.  There is no national program to promote these functions.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  In South Korea they have built a national infrastructure for building industrial capacity, and it has paid off.  That country excels in shipbuilding, engineering and small - and medium - sized manufacturing.  South Korea is also exporting skilled labor for contract work on engineering projects worldwide.
Skilled people are at a premium, and nowhere more than here.  We’re already importing labor to fill the nasty, low-end jobs, and we’re bringing in educated people for the brain functions.  Now we’re going to have to bring in skilled help so that the whole place doesn’t completely cave in around our ears.
Let me give you an example of how woefully difficult it is to find anybody who is capable of bringing to bear any talents other than what are laughably referred to as “social skills.”
I got hired by a huge law firm to work on a document production job relating to a big French multinational being sued by an American private equity firm.  To get the job, you had to be admitted to the bar or a paralegal background, and you had to speak French.  The only Americans they were able to find were me and a couple of female attorneys who are of Haitian background.  Every single other person related to the project was a foreigner; Haitians, West Africans, French nationals and Canadians.
I was the only person in the freakin place who knew where Broadway was!
Now, I’m still working there because they need somebody to translate French documents into plain English for the firm’s associate attorneys and partners to read.  The reason I managed to snare this plum assignment is because not one of these Frenchmen are capable of writing English.  So here you got English who don’t speak French and French-speakers who can’t write English.  In addition, I’m the only one who can format the documents to look like the original because I have Microsoft office skills like PowerPoint and Advanced Word and Excel.  Hell, most of these attorneys can hardly even type their names.
The point is, how can we expect to compete in world markets when you can’t even find anybody in New York City who knows French?  We can’t even have decent commercial relations with France, which is the world’s fifth largest economy, and a major industrial powerhouse (France is even bigger than that because they were the originators of the European Union, which now boasts 377 million paying customers, and they were the original motivators of the now-all powerful euro).  This country has been on an anti-French binge for years, thanks to the Republicans.  As a result, I am one of the last French-speaking Americans in the whole country.  I stuck with the French language and culture because I like the way they live.  Right now, there is not much culture coming out of France because like the rest of the world, they are going through a historical period of cultural hibernation, but the language is still worth knowing for the commercial possibilities it presents.  My reward it that the French language landed me in a job where I am performing a very desirable function.  Right on!
But I don’t want to seem to be crowing when other people are suffering because of the lack of coherent industrial policy in this country.  We need a National Industrial Mobilization program with incentives for companies to provide training, so that people can get back the use of their hands.  We need trade schools that are not just money machines for a bunch of thieves.  And we need a national realignment of social values that rewards people for being useful
© Dean Borok June 2008

Dean's writing appears in Borderlines Vol 2 A Literary Spark -
A University of Portsmouth publication - Available from Lulu Press this June

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