Looking 61 plummeting stories down to the city streets, one could easily be persuaded to forget about a "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 Co. 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.
Molina has been climbing around on these scaffolds for more than two years now, and he is more concerned with talking about his Basque heritage than watching his steps on the scaffold stairs.
He 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 man-made 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 cathedral-like 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 outside arches, which erupt dramatically from the 61st floor parapets and stare grandly across the distances, are one fo 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 streets weaving their impenetrable web.
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 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 Co., sold recently to Jack Kent Cooke Inc. for $87 million and now turning a tidy profit with more than a 90 percent occupancy rate -- is expected to assume a more brilliant appearance on the city skyline.
It will have 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 belfry-like structure with a rust-flaked interior that must be mounted by narrow, ascending ladders and, finally, by crawling through cramped structural cross-ties to the diminishing point just below the needle 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 Brusk Waterproofing to support the two-person "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. The bucket is suspended by a single cable, which coils around a spool underneath its floors. 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.
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, Molina brings the bucket to a shuddering halt.
Something else, indeed! The bright winter sun seems within easy grasp, shining iridescent 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 river; tugs pull barges; and long, thin freighters looking like dragon flies barely knifing the water.
Molina pointed up to the building's spire, which seemed to be spearing off into the heavens at a bizarre angle. "That spire is bent, but not that much, monsieur," Molina said. "That is an optical illusion."
Looking down at the electric line feeding away below us, he said apologetically, "I am sorry, 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.