Posted by: tommybrennan | April 4, 2011

Woodhull Killed Me. (Part 3)

So there we were, in the basement of Woodhull hospital.  It was a typical basement in a commercial building.  The walls were not square, and they were dented and scraped and ugly and beige. There was the pervasive smell of garbage from the loading docks, and I saw the biggest cockroach I ever saw in my life.   We were measuring walls and drawing it in AutoCAD, but we kept finding errors.  We were measuring and drawing to an accuracy of 1/8”.  There was no room for error.  I called an architect friend of mine back in Michigan, and asked him if he had ever measured anything this big.  He said that he hadn’t but suggested that we start with measuring the corridors first.  That way, we could work around the corridors as if they were a grid, and fill in the areas they defined.  This made sense, so we started to measure the corridors.  Since the corridors were so long, we had to try to get an overall shot across the entire basement.  This was impossible, as there were glass doors that prevented the laser from getting an overall shot.  We considered breaking the space up into sections, and then piecing them together.  This is never a good idea, but we had few other choices.

This thing had reached a crisis point.  It was either time to simply say “I can’t do this” and walk away from the project, or put my head down and fight this thing through and find a way.  I made the decision silently, and asked Jim how we could get a good overall shot.  He suggested we use chocks to hold the doors open and try to get an overall shot.  We went to the carpenter’s shop and asked for some wooden shims to hold the doors open with.  The carpenters took a real interest in this project and immediately agreed to help us.  They became our cheering section, and they greeted us every day.  One of the really wonderful things about Woodhull was the people.  They were extremely friendly, and were always eager to check on our progress.  The head carpenter shook his head at us with pity.   He declared “there’s no F___ing way you’re gonna finish this whole building” as he handed us the shims.   I was to learn that this was actually affectionate NYC conversation, but it sounded a bit caustic to my uninitiated ears.  In any case, the thought that came to me was “you’re probably right, but I am going to do my best to make you eat those words”.  I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and I thanked him for the shims, grabbed them and we wedged the doors open.

We needed a target to shoot the laser at, so we looked around for a piece of white cardboard.  We fished a discarded circus poster out of a garbage tote, and it became our target.  We turned it around and used the white backside as a target.  Then, I walked one way to the far end of the corridor, and Jim walked to the other.  We shouted to each other across the expanse of the hospital, but we were too far away to hear.  Jim did not have a cell phone, so we had no way to communicate.  At this point we were about 600’ away from each other.  After several vain attempts to get a good shot I walked back to where Jim was and we decided to agree on a height of 48” and shoot at that height.  We got back into position and tried again.  I kept adjusting the laser very slightly, and then I saw it flash on the target.  I held it steady and pulled the trigger on the laser.   Beep!  612′-8 3/8″.  I shot again to make sure.  Beep!  612′-8 1/8″.  One more time to make sure:  Beep!  612′-8 3/8″.  We were in business.  Now we took shots across the corridor to define its width.  After about a half an hour, we had correctly drawn one of the corridors.  This was a small victory, but very important.  We had proved the concept, and successfully drawn the space.  We just had to do this a few thousand more times and we were all set.

Jim and I worked that whole first week, facing new problems with every measurement.  But, we were determined to make it work.  Jim Kenney proved to be the perfect man for the job, as his problem solving and resourcefulness seemed to be designed for this kind of a project.  It was like a huge story problem, and he simply thought out the best way to make it work.  Most of his ideas were great time savers.  He was constantly up for the challenge, and kept finding new and creative ways to measure the space.  At the end of our first week, we had measured all of the corridors in the basement, placed all of the doors, measured some warehouse space, restrooms, and offices, and had established a routine to measure and draw space that worked.  We were woefully behind schedule, but at least we knew this beast could be tamed.  It would just take longer to do it.

We packed up and drove home from Brooklyn at about 8:00 Friday night.  We saved our work, loaded the laptop into its case, and rolled our computer cart out and walked along Flushing to our vehicle parked a quarter mile away.  We got in my 1992 Chevy Lumina and drove out of NYC.  We crossed the midtown tunnel, drove across Manhattan, crossed the Lincoln tunnel, and finally out of the city into New Jersey.  As we got further from the city, we began to relax inside.  We were very tired, but glad to be going home.  I put on the old time radio station, and we listened to the Great Gildersleeves, Jack Benny and other programs before we lost the station.  Jim was asleep as soon as we got out of the metro area.  I drove through the night, and thought about the project and how long it might take.  I really didn’t want to lose my whole summer on a project like this, but we were committed.  I soon forgot about the project and let the late spring night fragrance remind me that life was good.  We wouldn’t get home till about 2:00 am.  I kept rolling the window down to stay awake, drinking coffee, and occasionally slapping my face.  I dropped Jim off and drove home.  I walked in and fell into bed.  I slept until I woke up at around 10:00 the next morning.  I had a terrible migraine headache.  I took some Advil, went back to sleep and awoke hours later.

We needed another team.  We decided that Jim could run one team, and I would run the other.  Jim got his son Patrick to help us.  He was a college student and needed work for the summer.  I got my son, John  to help us as well. He was fourteen.  So, we would now be using two teams, and would be able to go twice as fast.  Things were looking up, but the budget was only enough to cover one team.  We had to get faster, better, and more effective.  That was what we did that whole summer of 2002.  We got to know NYC very well that summer.  We also got very intimately acquainted with Woodhull.  I know things about that building that no one else knows.  Woodhull was to reveal its secrets to me in the following months.  I would also learn a lot about myself, Jim, my son, my wife, Shlomo, and the employees of Woodhull.

Not to mention Williamsburg rogelach.



  1. Total cliff-hanger!

  2. Is there another part??? I’m kicking myself for not having come back and read this chapter earlier this year.

    • Hi Sam. Thanks for reading. I will be writing part 4 in the next week. It is kind of an ordeal to write it, as I relive alot of unpleasantness. The next part is REALLY good! Stay tuned!

      • Awesome – can’t wait.

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