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Protective Structures

By Sam Rauer

Four days after Santa Con last year, I was faced with a surprising development. Seemingly overnight, stretches of scaffolding had materialized in front of my residence, located on a quiet, residential block of brick buildings and homes with front lawns. Not only was there no construction in sight, there were no postings, no work permits, no company branding. 

I had awoken with a sore throat and piercing headache and stayed home from work that morning. Stepping outside in search of a COVID test, the scaffolding blocked the sunlight, causing me to feel momentarily disoriented. Was it the scaffolding or early signs of COVID brain? I exited through the shadowy scaffolding tunnel, more reminiscent of a commercial sidewalk than my leafy Brooklyn block. 

The second episode of the HBO series ‘How to with John Wilson’ is entitled How to Put Up Scaffolding. The series follows questions like How to Make Small Talk and How to Cook the Perfect Risotto, spinning off into side journeys interspersed with scenes of New York life: trash, pigeons, dog shit, people doing weird things on park benches. 

Throughout the episode, the history of scaffolding unfolds, dating back to the 1970s when a woman was killed by falling masonry, and up to present day New Yorkers who have learned to live with miles of wood and steel running throughout the city. Eventually, we see a scaffolding conference, where the scaffolding industry is gathered for a trade exhibition. In the last scene, scaffolding is shown collapsing into a heap of destruction.

After my PCR test, I waited one week for my results. The entire period, I obsessively refreshed my lab results page and monitored my symptoms. Like many, I had been told my results would be available within 48 hours. Since testing sites were not prepared for the Omicron wave, they were quickly overwhelmed. I griped on group chats, learning of friends who were in the same miserable state of limbo, awaiting results before they could solidify holidays plans and travel – as well as friends who had already learned the expert tips of this latest COVID stage, from which pharmacies stocked at-home tests to the intricacies of insurance coverage. 

Living in New York, I find comfort in the communal nature of urban suffering, as well as the individualist scrappiness that it breeds. I am accustomed to complaining. I complain about delays, people, the weather. I complain about the cost of a cup of coffee. In a city where residents eat, sleep, and commute in constant close quarters, community is inevitable, as is the development of personal resourcefulness. New York solidarity warmed my heart during some of the bleakest months of the pandemic, when residents in my building banged on pots to thank frontline workers, delivered groceries to elderly neighbors, and formed a neighborhood mutual aid group. Later, when the vaccine was released, the survival instinct of my fellow New Yorkers caused me to experience a familiar anxiety. Faced with vague official guidance on vaccination protocol and eligibility in New York State, as well as an impossible scheduling system, the more competent of my friends and acquaintances quickly adapted, following the right accounts, obtaining insider knowledge. They rose the occasion, this time to ensure their vaccination.  

I had recently watched John Wilson and at some point while I waited for my test results, I decided to investigate the scaffolding that had appeared in front of my building. I was still struck by the absence of any explanation, recalling that there was typically identifying signage or a phone number to reach the scaffolding company, at the very least. Looking for answers, I ran a search on the Department of Buildings website. The investigation revealed two DOB violations – including a class one violation with a $3,000 civil penalty attached. Lazily concluding that the scaffolding was related to some legitimate building violation, I closed the browser, placated. 

There was admittedly some relief in my test outcome, which came after I’d fully spiraled and nearly recovered from what I now know to be COVID-19. I’d convinced myself that my illness was just a cold, that I was weak for taking sick leave and self-indulgent for sleeping for two days. I am fortunate to have been vaccinated and boosted, and to have experienced relatively minor symptoms. However, having COVID was still worse than unpleasant. I experienced nearly every telltale symptom except for the full loss of taste and smell. Otherwise, I had a cough, body aches, a sore throat, headaches, and what can truly best be described as “brain fog”. Despite the awful physical symptoms, the worst part was the waiting; the sense of systems failing and overwhelmed with sick people, and all of it out of my control, like mazes of scaffolding spidering uncontrollably across the city. 

I have the feeling sometimes that New York City is slowly crumbling and inching towards physical collapse. The stench and decay are inescapable at times, and it’s difficult to know if New Yorkers are doing an excellent or a terrible job at holding the place together. That buildings go on standing, trains keep running, and we have not been buried in garbage are genuinely impressive facts, and I find magnificent beauty at times in the sheer ongoing existence of a city that is so populated and run down with activity, construction, and life. Yet still, the scaffolding in front of my building remains, no remedy or hint of the underlying building violation to be seen. Is New York City killing me or keeping me alive? Most likely, I think it’s successfully doing both.  

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