How do you polish a skyscraper?
"Hey, monsieur, watch your sneakers here. There's too many nails. . . . Once in a life chance to come out on a building like this, no? After this scaffolding comes down, you can forget about it."
Looking 61 plummeting stories down to the city streets, one could easily be persuaded to forget about the "once in a life chance" to clamber around outside the upper tower of the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan while a $30.9 million cleanup is under way. But Louis Molina, an overall-clad supervisor for the Brisk Waterproofing Company Inc., is leading the way; and there is no turning back, now.
Cold wind whips around his legs and shoulders as he climbs the narrow scaffold stairs from the 61st to the 68th floor on the building's south face, where Brisk has had to rig fixed scaffolding because high winds made the hanging scaffolds dance dangerously against the building.
Mr. Molina doesn't seem to mind the dancing winds. Scrambling from level to level, he rattles on absently about one thing and another, while an accompanying reporter carefully ascends -- white-knuckled, gripping the rails -- behind him.
The supervisor has been climbing around on these scaffolds for over two years now, and he is more concerned with talking about his Basque heritage than watching his steps on the scaffold stairs.
"Lot of trouble these days in the Basque country, no, monsieur?" he asks, pronouncing it mesher,m with a heavy accent on the sher.m "They said Franco was a bad man.But, after he died, that's when all the trouble started. All the killing and fighting. At least he keep the place quiet."
He himself is surrounded by unutterable quiet as he finally perches on the uppermost level of the latticework scaffolding. Behind him, there is a wide expanse of cityscape, punctuated by occasional puffs of white smoke. He looks serenely around, studying the workmanship on the building's lavishly appointed exterior, and comments absently, "High quarters, huh?"
"High quarters" is the term used by riggers, window-washers, construction crews, and other skyscraper climbers to describe their lofty workplaces above the city's manmade canyons.
This building, the tallest structure in the world when it was erected, and still fifth in height, offers "high quarters" of a particularly spectacular variety. With its cathedralike spire, massively graceful arches of stainless steel and squared parapets guarded by eight fierce eagle heads, it is in many ways the most daring and artful building in its class.
The building's dramatically distinctive exterior is matched with interior appointments of a type that vanished with the age in which it was constructed. The lobby, with its muraled, arching ceilings, mingles deep marble tones and energetic metal motifs in the grandest art deco style. The elevators are more like 19th-century carriages than simple vertical conveyances.
The outside arches, which erupt dramatically from the 61st floor parapets and stare grandly across the distances, are one of the more distinguished features of this city's skyline.
Sitting at the apogee of one of these arches, almost 1,000 feet above the city, Louis Molina takes a moment to admire his view: twin rivers flowing leisurely along on either side of Manhattan; city traffic crawling remotely along in the distant streets below; and the vast geometry of buildings and street patterns weaving its impenetrable web.
Even the voluble Mr. Molina is momentarily silenced by the awesomeness of the place. Gazing around the profound distances, he utters a soft "beautiful!" Then , climbing further along the scaffold, kicking an occasional board to make sure it is secure, he points to the work his company is doing as part of the restoration of this incredible building.
It is Mr. Molina's job to see to it that this building gets a much needed shine and polish. When his crew is done, the edifice -- rescued from bankruptcy five years ago by the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company sold recently to Jack Kent Cooke Inc. for $87 million, and now turning a tidy profit with over a 90 percent occupancy rate -- is expected to assume a more brilliant appearance on the city skyline, with new metalwork, cleaned bricks, replaced windows, and reinforced structures.
New floodlights are being added to splash light over the distinctive tower. And the triangular gothic windows of the tower are going to be lit from within.
This tower -- seldom seen from the inside by anyone but the building's gregarious, lumbering manager, John Bua, and his maintenance crews -- is a hollow belfrylike structure with a rust-flaked interior that must be mounted by means of narrow ascending ladders and, finally, by crawling through cramped structural cross-ties to the diminishing point just below the needlelike spire.
From here, one can look down the spaces along the building's concentric arches. Also from here, one can see the cables strung by Brisk Waterproofing to support the two-man "buckets" Louis Molina's crews must use to reach inaccessible corners of the building's upper arches.
Working in these buckets is the most arduous and dangerous part of his crew's job. And, on another wind-whipped December day, Mr. Molina climbs into one to give a reporter a firsthand opportunity to test the truth of John Bua's comment that, "these buckets are tricky business."
The bucket is suspended by a single cable, which coils around a spool underneath its floor. Its wire-mesh sides are only waist high, and it seems even more precarious on the way up the building than it did standing on the ground. Unattached to any rail or other fixture, it bounces and sways its way up the side of the arch, telegraphing every nuance of wind and building structure to its passengers.
Louis Molina is busy reading these nuances as he operates the controls and guides his passenger along in pushing the bucket away from the jutting window ledges and building contours that get in the way. He is as concentrated and busy as a rocky Mountain cliff-climber; and, at 68 stories, he is also probably a lot farther off the ground.
"Be careful, monsieur, not to hit the window," he says, as he negotiates a particularly rugged ledge. "We don't want to break anything."
The parapet below has disappeared, and only the endless spaces beneath him are visible now. The cold, cutting wind numbs fingers and toes as it rushes relentlessly against the building's face. A helicopter glides off in the distance, a good dozen stories lower than this dangling bucket.
Finally, 69 stories up, in the most silent and awesome corner of the sky, just a few dozen feet from the top of the arch, he brings the bucket to a shuddering halt. "Something else! hey, monsieur?" he asks breathlessly, staring across the chasmic spaces unimaginably high above the city.
Something else, indeed! The bright winter sun seems within easy grasp, shining irridescent in the frozen sky and glinting off a distant gold leaf roof. A jumble of towers crowd each other at the other end of Manhattan, shouldering their way to the sky. And there is a melting of the city's colors: auburns and grays and subtle blue-greens of the buildings; the yellow river of taxis in the street, parted by deep blue buses; the white plumes of steam suffusing the near sky.
Vast geometric shapes of skyscraper roofs litter the ground. Boats ply the rivers: tugs pulling barges, and long thin freighters looking like dragon flies barely knifing the water.
A yawning silence broods over everything, a profound stillness that mingles with the city's muffled voices and forms an uncertain kind of quiet -- serene, but charged with latent energy. And, were it not for the cold grip of fear that seems to seize your legs, you might enjoy the most incredible feeling of aerial freedom, like an eagle soaring above the city.
Mr. Molina points up to the building's spire, which seems to be spearing off into the heavens at a bizarre angle. "That spire is bent, but not that much, monsieur," he explains. "That is an optical illusion." Then he gives a sudden start, as a massive shape, looking for all the world like the belly of a whale, comes gliding over the top of the building.
It is a huge jumbo jet; but at this close range the underside of the airliner , monolithic and silent, its engine-roar blown away by high winds, seems to signify the end of the world.
"That monster came out of nowhere," he gasps in relief, as he realizes what it is. "It was so black, so dark! boy, my heart almost stopped!"
Later, looking down at the electric line feeding away below us, he says apologetically, "I am sorry, monsieur, but we are running out of line. We will not have enough to go over the top of the arch."
That's all right, Louis. It's quite all right.