Unsung Heroes

In this episode, Dan Holohan celebrates the unsung heroes who do the tough jobs that keep our cities running.



Episode Transcript

The Lovely Marianne's cousin, Suzanne, married Phil back in the early-Seventies when we were all young, dumb, irresponsible and absolutely bulletproof. Phil had come from Dublin, Ireland, by way of London, England, where he once slept in a tree because the rent was right.

When he arrived in New York City, with little more than dreams and a body about the size and hardness of a corner mailbox, he went to work in the heating trade and eventually became a union steamfitter.

We moved Phil and Suzanne from their apartment in the borough of Queens to a house in upstate New York on one of those bulletproof days way back when. It was about a two-hour commute each way to where Phil would spend the following 40-plus years building New York City, and he would have to rise before 4 AM each morning to catch the bus, but it was all worth it for him. And he could sleep on the bus.

I didn't know where we were going that day, so I asked Phil's crazy Irish brothers who had been up to see the new house.

"How far is it from here to there?"

One brother thought for a moment and then said, "I tink it's about a five-beer drive."

And the other brother said, "You tink so? I tink it's a six."

And so it was. And I know how irresponsible all of this business sounds nowadays, but I'm telling the story and that's just the way it happened. Young and dumb.

And most of those brothers are gone now. As the years passed, children, mortgages and difficult times peeled away our bulletproofing. We all managed to stay alive, often in spite of ourselves, and each went his own way. I became a writer, and Phil kept building those towers in New York City. We'd get together often, and I would ask him about where he was working, and about that latest bump on his head, or that scar that wasn’t there the last time we met, and he would settle down into another wonderful story about the work. It was always about the work, and about the wackiness of New York City. The women would sit over there and talk about the kids. Phil and I would talk about the work. We never tired of it.

At one point, Phil was teamed with a fitter who had been born in Italy. Phil told me that this guy had an accent you could pour over a plate of spaghetti. One day they're on a job and the guy says, "Phil, you got da ham anna chiz?" So, Phil, who has a brogue that takes some getting used to, shrugs and says, "Ham and cheese? I'm not sure. I tink Sue might have packed me tuna fish today." And he goes to look in his lunch pail. The Italian guy says, "No, Phil. No ham anna chiz, HAM ANNA CHIZ!" And he makes a hammer-hitting-a-chisel gesture. "HAM ANNA CHIZ! YOU GOT THE HAM ANNA CHIZ?" So Phil went to get him the hammer and chisel.

Isn’t that just the best?

I was in Philadelphia and I got to see the sun rise from the top of one of the city's tallest buildings. There's a ballroom up there and I was doing a seminar for the district-heating-company’s customers. Trigen ran Philly's district heating system back then, and I was drinking coffee made by Trigen steam – fifty stories up. I looked at the river and the land, and I had a better understanding of why this American city came to be where it is. You can find a lot of perspective up there in that ballroom. I looked down at the cooling towers and the basketball courts on the roofs of the buildings, things that people on the ground never stop to think about. Looking down at the roof of the hotel where I had spent the previous night, I spotted a steel pipe that puffed Trigen steam. I had a good long time to think while I waited for the people to show up.

Thirty miles of steam pipes run under Philadelphia's sidewalks, not its streets. They did it that way to keep the weight of the traffic off the pipes. The people at Philadelphia Electric made that decision more than 100 years ago. Smart.

The natural gas that makes the high-pressure steam comes all the way from Texas through a steel pipe, welded together section by section, by pipefitters. Think of it - all the way from Texas. I visited the Philly steam plant some years ago and touched the end of that pipe. It made me smile, and I hugged it.

I looked out the window and I watched the steam puff from the pipe that connects to a flash tank somewhere in the hotel where I had slept, and I remembered a story Phil had told me a few years ago. He and his partner were working at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where they use steam for just about everything, and have done so for as long as anyone can remember. There are so many ways to use steam, and when the pipes are in a building that's as busy as a hospital, it's difficult, if not impossible, to shut it all down to work on it. So steamfitters like Phil often face challenges.

"Danny,” he said. “They had this 12-inch flash line that stuck up out of the roof, and parts of it had corroded over the years. We had to change that line, but there was no way we could shut down all the tings that were flashing into that pipe. And no one was even sure where the valves were."

When you use high-pressure steam, you get condensate from the steam traps and that condensate is about the same temperature as the steam that's going into the equipment. Some of that extremely hot condensate flashes right back into steam when it leaves the trap, and that's where the flash tank comes it. It gives the flash steam a place to let loose without back-pressuring the other traps. Flash steam is what you'll see coming from those pipes that stick out of the tops of big buildings.

"There was no place for a crane, Danny, so we had to rig scaffolding and hump these four, five-foot-long sections of 12-inch pipe up the scaffold and weld them in place while the steam was coming up from the hospital. It was tough."

"How much did each pipe section weigh?" I asked.

"About two-hundred and fifty pounds," he said.

"And you did this while the steam was coming out of the top of the pipe?"

"We did. And that was the worst part. It was a very hot summer day. It was about a hundred-and-tirty degrees up there."

"But you got it done."

Phil shruged and laughed. "We had no choice. Dat's the ting. We had to get it done. We had no choice. So we just did it."

Phil and I and the wives went to Key West, Florida to be silly without adult supervision. We were sitting one night in the Hog's Breath Saloon, eating food that's not good for anyone and drinking cold beer. These twenty-something, bulletproof guys were at the next table. It was their first stop on a traveling bachelor party, and we struck up a conversation with them.

"So what do you fellas do?" Phil asked.

"I'm a lawyer," the guy closest to Phil said. "And he's a chemical engineer. That guy over there is a real-estate appraiser. And he's a cop."

I hoisted my glass to them and said to the bridegroom, "Let's hope you won't need either the cop or the lawyer tonight." And we had a good laugh.

"What do you do?" the lawyer asked Phil.

"I'm a steamfitter in New York City," Phil said.

"Steamfitter? What the hell is that?" The lawyer looked at his mates. "You guys ever hear of a steamfitter?" They all shook their heads. Even the engineer shook his head. And the real estate guy as well.

"What does a steamfitter do?" the young lawyer asked.

"I work on the pipes in the big buildings," Phil said.

"Interesting," the lawyer said. "You mean like the skyscrapers?"

"Yes, the pipes in the big buildings, like the places where you work. I put the pipes in there."

"No one ever thinks about stuff like that," the lawyer said.

"I tink about it all the time," Phil said, taking a pull on his beer.

"Interesting," the lawyer said, and turned back to his mates.

Phil looked at me and shrugged and we had a good long laugh about that – about how few people ever think about what fitters do every day, and about how they make it all look so easy. Yeah, we had a good long laugh about that.

Here's to the unsung heroes.

I hope you liked that story, and if you did, please share it. And if you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to listen. It means a lot. Thanks.

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