Last year I wrote a paean to the end of summer, which was also a paean to the end of nonstop construction in our neighborhood and all the noise that came with it. I looked forward to all the cranes and suburban tough guys and their paint-splattered boom boxes going away for the winter, leaving Milwaukee’s East Side to slip into blissful cocooning.
Which lasted until Monday, December 11, 2012, when ten men started tearing down the roof deck on the building next to ours.
They’d been there on and off throughout the summer and fall, investigating, measuring, repairing here and there, walking the roof hands on hips, bellowing at each other two feet apart. (Why some men do this I will never understand. The sound of it carries like you wouldn’t believe when you’re on top of a tall building. One low whisper and the occupants of the buildings around you will hear it as loudly as if you were in their living rooms.)
“Maybe they’re just taking down the roof deck and then they’ll be gone,” said John, looking out the window.
Our hopes were shot after a crane arrived and began loading buckets and rolls of what looked like white plastic onto the roof. By the end of the day, the deck and all the who-knows-how-many-years of garbage under it was gone and half the roof stripped down to bare wood. The perfectly good deck furniture was also tossed onto the garbage heap.
We were crestfallen. John was in the midst of studying for law school finals. My birthday was the next day and I was looking forward to having a quiet, Zen time of it.
At 7 a.m. on December 12, the ten men, plus ten more, were back on the roof; the other half of it was stripped down to bare wood within two hours. Black debris filled six wheelbarrows several times over. The crane was loaded and unloaded, the men shouted to each other in Spanish. Our cats were wide-eyed and twitchy.
It was clear we were in for the long haul, so I decided to have a little fun with it. I opened our windows and raised the screens so I could get clear shots of everything that was going on and began taking what would turn out to be nine days’ worth of pictures. It took a few days for the first worker to see me, and I didn’t care when he did. Part of me figured that if they were intruding on us, I’d intrude right back. And turn it into a photo-essay on the anatomy of a new roof.
The men and I got to the point at which we started to have bits of conversation when I appeared in our windows.
“When do you think you’ll be done?” I asked one.
“Friday for sure,” he said.
The week passed relatively pleasantly like this. But they were not done on Friday.
“At least we’ll have the weekend off,” said John.
Just when we thought the coast was clear, Saturday evening in the fog and rain, some of the men came up to the roof to clean it, dumping liquid from red bottles and mixing it with the rainwater. One of the men started whistling, the kind of whistling that starts out sounding like a beautiful bird but after a half hour makes you ready for the loony bin.
One of the workers unzipped his pants and took a piss on the new roof, not even trying to hide it. After he finished he took his mop and went to another part of the roof, mixing the soap from the red bottles with the rainwater and shoving it down the drains. Eventually he made it back over to where he’d pissed, nonchalantly swirling it in with the soapy water and into the drain.
Before they left at 9 p.m., he unzipped his pants again, this time facing our kitchen window. He stopped midstream the millisecond he saw me in the window; in the next, he zipped up and ran out of sight.
The next morning—Sunday morning—a crew showed up at 7:30, yelling and laughing and throwing things. A young man in a red Columbia-looking jacket, wearing a Mohawk that looked like the fur along the spine of some wild animal, paced all day on his cell, pausing only to watch the others seal the edges of the new roof and eat junk food.
I took some pictures while he was outside our bathroom window shooting the breeze with a guy who was trying to work. The young man in the Mohawk looked up at me and rolled his eyes.
“Thanks for being here at 7:30 on a Sunday morning,” I said.
“You know I own this company, don’t you?” he said.
“So you’re the one we have to thank,” I said.
“If you don’t like it, call the building owner,” he said. “And close your stupid windows.”
Within an hour after I emailed the management company, the man who turned out to be the real owner of the roofing company arrived. The young man with the Mohawk was on his knees, sealing the roof along with the other workers.
The next day they were officially done and gone. The owner of the roofing company and the owner of the building stayed afterward for debriefing, arms folded, looking serious. The owner of the building next door is also the owner of our building and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve lived here for nine years.
When I started taking pictures of the new roof going in, I thought it would turn out to be an interesting photo-essay. But as I look through the photos, they’re not as interesting as I thought they would be.
Two days after the workers left, temperatures in Milwaukee fell forty degrees and it began to snow, hard. The sudden change in temperature made for some unusual conditions over Lake Michigan, which we can see from our apartment.
Trees turned white. Temperatures dropped even further to single digits, then below zero. The weather over land collided with the weather over the lake, producing some spectacular and unusual winter weather phenomena: stalagmite steam; thick fog; ominous clouds; giant waves; sun reflecting off icy blue water; breathtaking sunrises; ice floes moving up and down the coast.
It’s been going on for so long now—Milwaukee’s had a wonderfully righteous winter this year—that I’ve almost forgotten about the new roof. Mother Nature trumps Man.
The only time I do think about it is when I look out at the lake, which is now framed by a white roof, and I miss the old, innocuous black tar paper roof. We worry about what will happen when the summer sun finally returns to Milwaukee and hits that white expanse.
Look at another photo-essay in which Mother Nature trumps Man.