I've worked renovation around New York for nearly a decade, and in that time, I've seen just about everything, seems like. I've found dead bodies before, in various states of decomposition. I've found all kinds of weird things: guns, money, drugs; all of which I turned over to the police. My brother-in-law and I once discovered a meth lab that had been set up in two stories of an old townhouse, that was fun; we had a small army of cops out there for weeks combing the place for evidence. I've worked in rat-filled tenements that haven't been used since the 1940s, brand new luxury condo buildings, and everything in between. In this city, you take it all with a grain of salt; New York is one of those places that has a little bit of everything. Still, it was a job I took in the summer of 2009 that I would say is the strangest one so far.
At the time, I was working with a crew of four guys, not including myself. There was my brother-in-law, Tony, who was a new hire at the time; Raul, an ex-con who had been with us for a few years; Big Mike, a big burly dude who had been a firefighter before coming to work with us; and Sam, who had been with the company for over fifteen years at that point. The company I worked for was kind of a contracting catch-all; we did HVAC, maintenance, renovation, asbestos removal, the whole deal. It was that last one, asbestos, that we all hated pulling the most. This particular job was an asbestos job. For those who weren't aware, asbestos is a really, really nasty kind of toxin that they used to put in all kinds of things in old buildings like vinyl flooring and insulation. It's not radioactive or anything, but when it gets wet or damaged, it will break down into dust that can give you cancer and lung damage. That dust can get into the air and contaminate everything in the house.
I'll give a little bit more background, since I'm guessing that most people aren't familiar with the intimate details of asbestos removal. When my crew gets one of these calls, we have to dress up in disposable plastic suits, disposable underwear, face masks with respirators, gloves, and boots. Then we have to seal up the building in question with plastic, like we were fumigating the place, and filter the air out of the building with specially-designed vacuum pumps. We go floor by floor, ripping up everything that's contaminated, and throw it in huge bags that get sealed up, which are then brought out of the containment area and shipped off to a facility designed to handle hazardous materials. When we're done for the day, we go to a trailer set up on the site, where we strip off all the gear and shower off. The gear gets disposed of or decontaminated for the next day or the next job. After all that, when it's finally wrapped up, the air inside the building gets tested and if it's good, we get paid and move on.
Maybe that gives some context as to why everyone hated asbestos jobs; they took a hell of a lot more time than just fixing something or tearing something out, there was the obvious health risk if anything wasn't done properly, and we had to spend the entire day sweating under a full jumpsuit and a bunch of gear. Still, money was money and that summer, jobs were hard to come by; there was plenty of work, between apartment air conditioners going out and people moving into places and wanting repairs done, but it was like a feeding frenzy, with the best jobs getting taken by other companies first. We took what we could get, even if it meant risking heatstroke while ripping out toxic insulation. Other than Tony, all of us had done this kind of thing before, so when the call came in, we got to work.
The location in question was an older apartment building in the Bronx, it had to have been from the turn of the century, or before, from the way the outside looked. It was kind of rundown, one of countless low-rent slums in that area, and honestly, I wasn't sure that the building would hold together after we had finished up. Still, we had our job, taking out the ceilings, and that's all we were focused on; all of us were looking forward to the point when we could shower, stow our gear, and take off. After we sealed off the building and set up the air units outside, we got in our outfits and began.
From the start, I hated that building; we kept the lights on since the windows were covered in plastic, but they flickered constantly, sometimes going out for minutes at a time. The place stunk, too, not just of urine and cigarettes like most of the Section 8 housing I had been in, but of mildew and rot as well. The place was noisy, the floors especially; most of the doors had been swollen from water leaks and didn't fit in their frames, so every so often, one would creak from the building settling. The whole place was falling apart on the inside and every so often we'd hear something crack or fall down. It had been condemned and all that was saving it from a bulldozer was the asbestos, which was practically spilling out of that damned place; water pipes bursting and leaks in the roof had soaked through most of the ceiling tiles, a clear sign of deadly particles in the air. Every time I walked into that place, I felt uneasy, it was like walking into a tomb.
For the first couple of days, we tackled the ceiling in the lobby of the building, cutting up chunks of the plaster and throwing it into polystyrene bags for disposal. It was probably the closest I felt to comfort in that place; we were all together, cracking jokes and shooting the shit, the droning hum of the air units outside helping to cover the creepy sounds that came from the building. After that, though, to save time, we split up and started tackling various apartments on the same floor; I especially hated working on my own in that place. The sounds and the lights flickering really started to get to me, and I swear I started to see shadows that weren't there in the darkened corners of the building. Every day that I drove away from the job site, after changing out of my work gear, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me. I started sleeping less as I worked on that place, finding it hard to wake up in the morning and get back out there.
It was about a week after we had started that Sam and Raul got finished with their part of the floor we were on and went up to get started on the next one, with Mike following suit shortly thereafter. I had been lagging behind to help Tony out with his work, so he and I continued on as the others moved around and generally made a ruckus upstairs. The heat on that day was oppressive, and with the protective gear I was wearing and the lack of proper air circulation in the building, it was practically suffocating. More than once, I had been tempted to rip off my respirator and run outside to get a breath of fresh air, but with the sheer amount of particles in the air, it would have been certain death. Apparently, I hadn't been the only one who had had that idea. As the day dragged on, I finished up the last of my area and headed upstairs where the other guys were, bypassing Tony's section of rooms altogether; I had checked on him maybe an hour before and he had been fine, a little sweaty from the heat like the rest of us were.
I had only spent about twenty minutes upstairs when I heard a voice from below me, it sounded like my brother-in-law but was far too clear. The face masks we wore muffled our speech and made it hard to really raise our voices, and yet, the voice I heard was perfectly enunciated, as though Tony had taken his respirator off. His tone was deeply nervous, panicky, short of breath, and it sent a chill down my spine. I dropped what I was doing and sprinted out into the hallway, just as the lights flickered out, sending the entire corridor into shadows. Faint sunlight filtered in through the plastic window coverings, casting eerie shadows along the walls that made me jump. Yeah, it had just gone dark, I was woozy from the heat, and I was already running, but I swear I saw people. As it is, there wasn't anything in those rooms, so I seriously cannot explain what was casting shadows. There really shouldn't have been anything outlined on the walls of that hallway.
I reached the stairwell and felt my way down, nearly tripping at a turn, and as I rounded the corner that faced the floor below, the lights flashed on and grew brighter. I shielded my eyes as lightbulbs burst in other parts of the building, and as I stepped forward, I saw Tony standing further down the hallway, staring at me. His eyes were wide and gaze vacant, as though he was stunned by something, and he was frowning; his respirator was dangling from one clenched hand, his other arm outstretched and pointing at a doorway. I heard Sam and Raul shouting from upstairs as bulbs continued to glow brighter and burst in showers of glass, including the one just above my head. I ducked aside to dodge the fragments, and when I looked back up, my brother-in-law was gone. I ran out into the hallway where he had been, and when I looked in the doorway he had been pointing at, I found Tony on his back, kicking at the floor and struggling to rip his respirator off his face. Without any delay, I ran to him and stopped him from progressing any further with his attempts, cradling him under one arm and running out to our airlock to get him to the trailer.
We made it inside and I got both of us out of the work gear, then put him in the shower; the cold water helped his delirious state and helped him calm down. After he and I scrubbed down and got into our street clothes, I sat with him in my truck and asked him what had happened. He said that the heat had been getting to him and, after the lights went out, he had some kind of a panic attack, forgetting where he was and trying to get out of the gear. I asked him if he had stepped out into the hallway and tried to get my attention, and with evident confusion, he replied that he hadn't; once the lights had gone out, he had fallen down and stayed on the floor until I found him. The stunned expression I had probably said more to Tony than the lame excuse I made up to try and cover for it. Eventually, Sam, Raul, and Mike noticed our absence and came out to see us. I explained the situation, and half expected them to get frustrated with me ducking out early, but to my surprise, they asked if Tony needed to go to the hospital, with genuine concern in their tone. He seemed overwhelmed with this show of care, but insisted that he was fine.
Eventually, we all agreed that the heat was too unsafe to deal with and decided to call it a day. At the time, I figured it was just the others being generously understanding with the new guy, but later, I found out it was a bit more involved. Sam admitted to me a year later, after some beers, that he had heard the voice of his late mother calling out for him to come downstairs, exactly like she had when he had been a kid playing upstairs in his house. Big Mike told me that he had seen a kid gesturing for him to follow him, a kid, he said to me, who he had tried to save from a house fire back in the days he had been on the FDNY, but who had ultimately succumbed to smoke inhalation. Raul never told me what he saw or heard, but the anger and, if I'm not mistaken, hint of nervousness he expressed about the whole thing said plenty already.
We continued in that building for another week, electing to stick together and work on rooms that way. We all said it was because of the heat, and maybe part of it was, but after knowing what I know now, I can say that it was hardly the entire reason why we stuck together. Nothing unusual happened in the building after that, but it felt less foreboding whenever we were there. Granted, we never strayed too far from each other, but even still, it seemed like the lights, what few there were after the power surge, stayed on and didn't flicker. The creaks seemed to stop, too, for the most part. Again, we were sticking together at this point, so maybe they were still happening but we weren't noticing. I slept better, a lot better, after the thing with Tony; I didn't mind working in that old place anymore.
Only a week after we had finished clearing that place of asbestos, the city demolished the entire row of buildings to make room for a huge housing project. I turned out to watch the proceedings, which were over quickly; time and neglect had done most of the work already, the bulldozer was almost a formality at that point. It was sad, in a way, seeing that place come down. It had been a wreck, completely beyond saving, but despite everything I had been through there, I wouldn't have reached Tony in time if not for... whatever it is that appeared and spoke to me, Sam, and Mike. Since then, Tony and I have done plenty of jobs together, we've come across all kinds of things, including that meth lab I mentioned above. Nothing has ever compared to this, and I doubt anything ever will.