Approach Span
by Paul Smith

Driscoll waited for Pumper John underneath the south approach span to the Skyway over the Calumet River. The wind blew hard. It was a late October wind, not a summer wind. The wind looked back tosee where it came from. Driscoll looked north, where the wind came from, towards the skyline of downtown Chicago, where he once had an office. Then he looked up, where parrots were perched on the Skyway piers and made incongruous sounds, tropical caw-caws here in the bluster of oncoming winter. They didn’t belong here, but someone got tired of them, they bred, and now there were hundreds of them. Driscoll looked at his watch.

Pumper John was not late. He came at two o’clock in the afternoon, just like he said he would. Driscoll had met him once before. Pumper John was a big, substantial guy, hefty, with a bulk he threw around like it was a guarantee of reliability. He wasn’t cheap. His company pumped concrete for a high price. Driscoll doubted Pumper John would remember him.

Pumper John parked his Hummer and got out into the biting wind. He wore a windbreaker and no hat. He looked comfortable. “Pumper John,” he said, holding out a paw.

Driscoll introduced himself by first name only. “Nice seeing you.”

Both men stared at the approach span, where some lucky contractor would remove the bearings, jack up hundreds of tons of Skyway, pour new concrete and then install new bearings. The old concrete was rotten and spalled and had to be jackhammered out. Fifty years of road salt did that. The top of the concrete pier was way up there. Driscoll could have guessed at the height, guessed at the weight of the steel that had to be jacked up, guessed at the cost of the concrete pumper to get the concrete up there, but decided to get a firm price on all of it. That way, disasters would be prevented.

“The drawings say sixty feet,” Pumper John said. “No problem. Our rigs go that high. Only a few yards, though. Figure our truck for eight hours a day, as many piers as you can get ready.”

Driscoll looked south. There were twenty-three piers on the south approach span. He could do some calculating later on.

“So you work with Hartmann, huh?” Pumper John said. “He’s good people. We worked with Mike a lot.” Pumper John stood in the Skyway’s shadow on South Avenue N and pointed up. “We’ve done dozens of jobs like this. Some with Mike. We did the lock and dam at Dresden for the Corps of Engineers. When we finished, the Colonel said he’d never seen anyone as reliable and trustworthy as us and he’d look forward to working with us again.”

Driscoll had heard this speech before. Pumper John was trying to distinguish between good people and bad people. Good people hired Pumper John. Good people paid their suppliers, paid their subs, never misled anyone, got annual inspections on their cranes, turned in certified payrolls every month. Bad people hired his competition. Bad people lied to their subs, did shoddy work, slept in their cars after carousing all night, paid their workers straight time when they should pay time and a half, frequented prostitutes. He knew this soliloquy by heart. Driscoll still thought of himself as good people.

“We do the difficult jobs nobody wants. We were low bidder on that disaster on Dixie Highway. But the general contractor hired some nutcase from Indiana instead. You know what happened, right?”

Driscoll knew. He nodded.

“So this Hoosier concrete pumper sets his truck on the other side of the railroad tracks and the general says it’s alright to pump over them. No flagman. Nothing. And the truck is sitting in mud. Mud!” The general says don’t worry; your truck won’t tip over. But it does. Right on the tracks! Metra is shut down twelve hours. FRA is there. OSHA is there. NTSB is there. Then the general blames the pumper. The lawsuit is ongoing. It will go years.” Driscoll looked north again, like his eyes wanted to see where the lawsuit came from, a place far away. Then he looked back at Pumper John.

Pumper John squinted. “How long you been with Hartmann?”

“Oh, not long.”

“Where were you before Hartmann?”

“I’ve been around. I got started in the marine business. Dredges, breakwaters, you know.”

Pumper John nodded like he’d heard this speech before. “What you been doing recently?”

“Estimating, mostly.”

Pumper John gave another nod. Then his speech pattern retreated to the good people and bad people theme, which was meant to establish credibility, advertise and get out of clumsy conversations when there was no other way out. Pumper John was a good conversationalist.

“That Dixie Highway disaster left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” Pumper John said.

“Maybe people will learn from their mistakes.”

“Good people will,” Pumper John said. “Bad people never will.”

There was a sudden exaltation of green above them. Hundreds of parrots, once the darlings of South Side bird owners, now a feathered blur of tropical debris, arose in a startling explosion from a dozen Skyway piers all at once. They formed a vortex that swirled below the approach span, looping over Avenue N, then East 101st, then South Ewing, then up over the Skyway and the Calumet River till all their dots connected and became a single company of gray-green, a smudge on the lakefront that climbed further until it disappeared into the skyline of the Loop, and past that, into the suburbs out west, maybe even over Bensenville, where Driscoll now worked out of.

Pumper John held out his meaty hand to say good-bye. Driscoll wouldn’t be getting a price from him. Pumper John was going to call Hartmann and ask where Driscoll came from. Pumper John would tell Hartmann that he’d give him a good price because they were both good people, no matter who Hartmann hired. Who’d want this dumb Skyway project, anyway? Replacing concrete where all these parrots called home. So all the parrots would have to move out and start over because of the jackhammers and pumps and compressors? The wind rose and got stiffer. Driscoll leaned into it and wished all the luck in the world to those birds that just flew off to parts unknown.

Packingtown Review – Vol.8, Winter 2016/2017

Paul Smith lives and works in Chicago. He is a civil engineer that believes there is poetry in the techniques and methods and equipment and people involved in building things. He also likes the buses in Chicago and Newcastle Brown Ale.

  1. Katie Lewington