When heat's on, workers, tenants have to take it

DAN RODRICKS

August 28, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

On the way to see the Housing Authority guys -- you know, the ones who don't work in this heat -- I walk the Fallsway. And what do I see?

I see men at work.

I see a postal carrier in those stunning Bermuda shorts and fashionable knee-highs. His bag is empty. He's returning from his rounds, headed for the main post office a block away and, I assume, an after-work frosty. The man is smiling, inexplicably.

I see men with glazed eyes clipping hedges and pulling weeds outside Baltimore's Department of Public Works garage. They're working slow as aardvarks, but they're working.

I see lots of grim-looking men in trucks with the windows rolled down.

I meet a guy with "Betty" tattooed on his left arm and a bandanna wrapped around his head; he's sitting on the gate of a pickup truck full of sheet rock pulled from a renovation job inside the Juvenile Services Administration building. "I'm on work-release," the guy tells me.

I see people everywhere on the streets in the big heat of the city they call Baltimore.

It's noon. It's 95 degrees with 54 percent humidity.

And I'm shvitzing like a pig!

I walk through Lafayette Courts, which is one of Baltimore's bleak housing projects -- tall brick buildings with concrete-slab balconies and almost every view framed in chain-link, and low-rises with torn window screens, porch railings ripped away and urban sumac for shrubs. There's trash in the scrubby grass along the cracked sidewalks. There are children playing around Dumpsters. Two little girls take turns smashing an aluminum baseball bat against a 2-foot iron pole sticking out of the ground.

I walk through a courtyard. On the ground is a crumpled television set with a brick punched into its screen. I smell another Dumpster.

Then I hear electric drills.

I hear hammers. Men are at work. There's a guy painting a sheet of plywood that has been bolted into an opening that used to be a window on the first floor of the high-rise on Aisquith Street. The plywood is a security measure. The painting is mascara on the face of a hag.

It's amazing that money still is being spent to renovate public housing projects when what government should do is tear down each of these buildings, one by one, and replace them with housing conducive to human life.

That, of course, is the big picture.

The little picture is a fresh controversy over an old contract clause.

The clause gives gives the Housing Authority's maintenance workers the rest of the day off, with pay, when the temperature reaches 90 degrees with 55 percent humidity by noon. Old-timers tell me the clause has been around since maybe 1963.

Now, with the projects steadily deteriorating and tenants getting mad as hell, the Housing Authority is under pressure. It has thousands of orders for maintenance work. The new housing commissioner, Dan Henson, looks at this mess and regards workers leaving jobs because of heat as outrageous.

No matter that the agency negotiated and signed a contract that granted the workers heat leave. No matter that the city had already granted it 17 times this summer. Henson, playing new-sheriff-in-town to the maintenance-worker bad guys, decided this week that he could rescind the clause -- just like that.

Contract, schmontract! Beating up on maintenance workers who get the afternoon off with pay -- Henson can't go wrong. In fact, he could parlay a political career out of this.

"His office is air-conditioned, isn't it?" one of the workers said of Henson yesterday afternoon. (The worker asked that his name not be used in fear of being suspended, as one colleague was, for speaking to the press.)

"He drives a car; I assume his car is air-conditioned. People who criticize us, who criticize unions, they're people who work in air-conditioned offices, right? They drive home in air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned houses, right?"

The man was standing with a group of workers in the shade outside one of the high-rises.

"Even on days when heat leave was granted, guys stayed here and worked," the man said between chews on a ham sandwich. "Look, I take a lot of pride in my work, fixing walls, fixing doors, pulling toilets. I know what it's about. If you give people a better place to live, they live better. If you make a dog live in a box, what do you get when you open that box? You get a vicious dog.

"The people who live in these buildings, we care about them. They care about themselves. We like this work. But it gets hot in these buildings, a lot hotter than it is outside even. There are no air-conditioners, and they're poorly ventilated."

Later, I run this complaint about the work inside the projects with a postal carrier I meet on a side street to the Fallsway.

"The Housing Authority guys say the buildings are unbearable to work in in the heat."

"Yeah, well," the postman says. "How'd you like to live in them?"

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