THE GHOSTS OF NEW YORK

By Thomas Paper

 

I grew up among the remnants of greatness—whole complexes of buildings, completely vacant or partially occupied, like squatters in an abandoned house that had once been the residence of the giants of industry. I had a passive knowledge of their significance, from the stories of those who had worked in them—the companies that had been built by their ability and ingenuity, and from those who had handed that knowledge and ambition down to them. 

There hangs over the city a nameless feeling that something has been lost. It is written in the hard earned lines, which are etched into the faces of the hangers on sitting in bars—those last few, from an age when you were taught to think first, and then feel. Their stoicism wavers when they start to talk about their history, brimming with both pride and melancholy when the point to where they had worked, and what they had built.    

Once, droves of workers would gather at these bars, in mutual agreement that the beer they drank was earned–the summation of their work week, drank in honor of what they had accomplished. The remnants of an era of prosperity and industry loom over the city—each an overlooked monument to men who, like the buildings themselves, are fading from the collective memory. One by one, they are demolished to make way for a new era physical ambition that never arrives.

What remains, are the gutted bodies of the industrial giants of their time; all that remains of them is the semblance of structure, standing stubbornly quiet, on the off chance that someone will come into town, and start the industrial revolution all over again. 

I have always been in awe of the achievements of the generations before me—I have great admiration for those with ability, and the skill to physically manifest their intellect. Nothing can match the pride I have felt knowing that, my achievement—my ability to design, create or repair, was recognized for what it was and respected by those who knew its worth.

The physical manifestation of a man is his creation, and can tell you his worth more accurately than the balance of his bank account, or his university dissertation. 

I had a summer job for a landscaper whose accounts included the grounds of the former GE complex. My grandfather had worked for GE. My grandparent’s home is a short walk from the entrance, which is still manned by a security guard—controlling the access to a graveyard. 

The stories my grandfather told of his years there, always seemed to me to be distant, and far in the past. Now, while mowing the grounds of the complex, I couldn't help but feel that I was standing on a platform where something had taken place, that had changed the world—and like a man relaying what he had witnessed, the building were saying to me, "You should have been here, there will never be an event greater."

I would take any chance I could to look through the windows of the buildings, to look at the decor that remained as it were sixty years ago, filing cabinets that likely still held the personnel files of the workers, and heavy steel desks that in one, probably still contained a nail file from the last secretary, who had typed out the office memo that told them it was over.

They seemed to me to be frozen in time, left alone never to be entered after the last man in the building had turned the key in the lock, and walked away—the man who to me, is always my grandfather, though he has never said either way.

Many of the homes it had been by job to landscape belonged to those who, or more likely whose forefathers, had built the industries, those having had the ability to create an empire and had succeeded.

They all looked at me with the haughty judgment of unearned pride, as if to say, "See what I have?” Looking back on how I felt, and how hastily they concluded their business with me, I must have stared back with pride thinking "Look at what I've done" a look that was, no doubt, an insult to their unearned or nefariously attained level of living. 

They were the sellouts. I don't fault them for naming their price, I feel an immense loss for those who believed in them, and were abandoned—the loss of the what they had built, and had been looted; picked clean of anything of value, consolidated and shipped off, and whose workers who were turned out with a severance check that could never match what they had earned.

The next summer I worked as a laborer. Most of the projects were urban renewal–my job mainly consisting of demolition.

One building in particular which has fixed itself firmly in my memory, still standing to my knowledge, off to the side of the highway that cuts through the city—built of the trademark red brick of the industrial age, and whose solitary tower bares the epitaph R.E Dietz Company.

In 1840, Robert Edwin Dietz, along with his brother bought a small lamp and oil company in Brooklyn, New York and named it Dietz, Brother & Company. One of their first products was a candle lamp, quickly followed by every other iteration of the lamp available at the time. Three of their brothers joined them, and the name was changed to Dietz & Company.

After a fire destroyed their first building, they rebuilt an even bigger factory—soon after, they patented a flat wick burner to burn coal oil. Robert eventually sold his interest in the company, and partnered with Absolem Smith to form a new company, though buying back Smith's shares when he decided Smith was a bad business partner, and continuing on under the name R.E. Dietz.

Again the factory was destroyed in a fire. This time, to avoid going out of business, The R.E. Dietz Company merged with the Steam Gage and Lantern Company in Syracuse, NY—eventually moving the manufacturing center there. By 1906 the company was manufacturing gas head, and tail lamps for automobiles and trucks.

In 1956, then company president, Gerry Dietz, established R.E. Dietz LTD in Hong Kong, and by 1965 the company had grown to be one the largest manufacturers of truck lighting, and hazard warning devices. Whether driven by the financial climate of doing business in New York, or the draw of cheaper production in Hong Kong. In 1971, the Company moved production to Hong Kong. Sales maintained through the 1970's but began to slowly decline thereafter, eventually shutting its doors by 1992. 

A little less than ten years after the close of the Syracuse facilities, I found myself walking into the dark, and crumbling R.E. Dietz & Company building. Most of the building was vacant, with sections used as storage for a second hand office furniture outfit, whose business model was to loot defunct buildings of their usable goods, and stash them in the mostly empty Dietz building—until another doomed company wanted office furniture at a fraction of the cost of buying new. 

In piles, as if hastily discarded in the act of pillaging, were the unwanted items left there by the looters—those working for an arbitrary board, full of members who had never built anything, whose ability consisted of conscripting the ingenuity of others—of stripping the accomplishments of those with ability and ingenuity, and bring the profitable remnants under a conglomerate umbrella.

I was just past legal working age but my father, being an electrician who held firm to the values of contributing to productive society as soon as one could turn a wire nut, had always kept me active when not learning. He had partnered with another electrician, and they were to use a space in the building for a warehouse of sorts in exchange for some upkeep on the building's electrical systems.

After arriving at six o'clock, I was given a task which involved a great deal of finding my way around the building. I have always been fascinated with anything historical in nature, and I couldn't help but to stop at every pile of abandoned artifacts from a bygone era, not unlike an archaeologist discovering king Tut's tomb for the first time.

Over the course of a week, left much of the time to myself, as my father would go out on service calls—my work took me into the underground levels of the building, and like excavating a fossil deposit, the farther I descended, the older and more unique the relics of the passed became. While pulling away plaster to get at a conduit, I would find writing that I have by now lost the memory of, but I recall  the context of one message being to the effect of "we will never surrender!" with a date that coincided with World War II.

I don't know why I never felt fear being alone in the subterranean basement of an abandoned building, which was mostly lit by sparsely strung construction lighting. Recalling my feelings working there, I am aware that there was something like ghosts occupying the place—but these were my familiars, the spirits of my ancestors, who impressed upon me the values I will hold for the rest of my life.

Without knowing the history of the building or the men who built it, I learned what makes a man great through their work. I learned the value of creating, out of an idea, a way to better my life and the lives of others, and the ability to translate that into the self affirming act of putting that idea into physical semblance. 

I have since moved from New York to California, and once again I feel that I am too late to the show, and all that is left are the people telling me what I have missed.

Here, at an even more rapid pace, are those with ability, selling what they have created to the faceless entities, whose sole purpose is to procure, pick clean, discard and return to the never-ending search for more. Here and there are left a few startups that are working to build on their ability—to make a lasting impression on the industry, but more often than not I hear, "We want to get to the point where we get bought out" or "We're working here for the opportunity of equity, once the company finishes their valuation and goes public."

I don't feel, as I did, a sense of loss as profoundly as I do for the loss of those back east, who never had the benefit of a formal education that these new schooler’s do. Their education was passed down from those who learned from those before, and from the errors they made when attempting to improve what they already knew. I have an immense sense of loss for those who added to the ability of the next generation to accomplish more than they did by their ingenuity. 

How can anyone value a thing, when they have no idea what it took to create it? I have since left trade work to take up the business of selling—where I can hear, on every conference call, the unspoken statement "What have you done for me lately?" and from every customer "What more can you give me?” I cannot show what I have done lately because what I do is inconsequential—it is the work of feeding the beast; the act of self immolation, repeated over and over for no ones benefit, because what I provide cannot last.

The only value we now hold to our education, is the monetary gain attached to the piece of paper marked "diploma", all the while our pursuit of it, has been the accumulation of knowledge without the tools for its application. We have become obsessed with knowing—with the mass consumption of information, but to what use have we put it? What practicality is to be gained, from our unlimited resource of information? Is it to make the development of life saving drugs easier? To what end? To fill the coffers of the pharmaceutical companies? To live longer? What is it to live, when we will leave nothing behind that shows our posterity what it was to have lived?  

I have not felt pride since leaving work that required the harmony of hand and mind. I have not felt the soul feeding encouragement, and satisfaction of my ability—the recognition of my work for its craftsmanship, by people of greater ability than mine that I admire.

Nothing now is built to last. So when the world moves on, this time there will be no empty buildings to stand as monuments—there will be nothing left to speak to our ability, because our technology has to short a life span to tell its story, because our pace doesn't leave time for our skills to be honed, because we would like to know, "What have you done for me lately?".

It is darkly satisfying watching these pseudo-entrepreneurs fail, these feigned intellectuals whose values die with them, or are lost forever when they fail to click save. It is a testament to the frail nature of a business, when there is nothing left to show for their effort, after it is swept up in an acquisition—or fails before it can go public. 

Whole companies are bought up for the brainpower of its engineers, proving the pilfered enterprises' only value is not in the ability to physically craft or the skill to repair—not the ability to add to the understanding of what it is to be human, but to add computing power to the collective mind of a robot, not the brain of an individual, but of a component—a link in the chain that is attached to every wallet in our pockets.

No one with ability will be here to hand down their knowledge, and to have added too it–the knowledge that can be lost if, and when the infrastructure of the industrial giants fail.

I will feel no love-loss when my iPhone fails to connect to a network, when my lights don't turn on and my television doesn't work, in fact I'll feel liberated. I won't panic and lose my mind to the fear of the unknown, because I can chop wood and start a fire, I can frame a house and wire it, I can fix a car and design a rudimentary aqueduct—I have learned how to use my ability from those who were, and are, more able than me. Theirs has been the lessons of practicality, that what a man can do, he must, and to the best of his ability.

If I am to be afraid, I choose to fear that I will lose my ability to create. If I am to seek to attain knowledge, I would choose the knowledge that my legacy is the creation of the physical manifestation of who I was, and who I am—that is the reason pharaohs built the pyramids, that is why Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa. The knowledge of ability in itself is useless, but the use of the knowledge to create its physical form, is our admittance to the afterlife. The monument I create of myself, gives me acceptance of those I honor, to be welcomed as a humble apprentice, to learn at the feet from the legends of industry—from the ghosts of New York.