By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Veteran sandhogs are finishing tunnels for the future subway, right beneath your feet
The centerpiece of the hog house is the picnic table. On its benches and pulled-up chairs, the sandhogs gather before and after each shift and talk. The topics and manner of conversation are what might be expected from blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth, heterosexual males who go the majority of each day without seeing natural light or a member of the opposite sex and who, when without the time or bodily restraint to trudge the mile through ankle-deep mud and water to the nearest Port-O-Let, resort to a muck bag and a plastic bucket—which is to say the same topics and manner of conversation found most anywhere in the world straight guys happen to be congregating.
"Royce Gracie. Pound for pound, best ever."
"You know what's good? Fucking pomegranate juice. Fucking amazing. I mean even without vodka."
"Two things you never tell anybody you have: money and jumper cables."
Mostly, though, the talk is about the job—it always comes back to the job. The current job, past jobs, future jobs. Drill-and-shoot and cut-and-cover, secant piles and slurry walls, top and bottom pours. One frequent subject is the generational gap. Some of the older sandhogs refer to themselves as miners and disdainfully dub the younger sandhogs mere tunnel laborers. The difference is the state-of-the-art machinery that prohibits, as one miner puts it, "getting to know the rock, have a love affair with the rock." The tunnel laborers ruefully concede this. But as Paul Salamone says, "I'm sure I'll be saying the same thing 20 years from now when everything's automated, and the young guys don't even have to go down into the hole."
Tom Buzzell thinks both terms are inadequate.
"Miners are guys who dig holes. Yeah, we do that. But we also pour concrete. Does that mean we're masons? We also weld. Does that make us welders? We also do electrical work. So are we electricians? That's what's unique about sandhogs. We do all those things. Just call us 'sandhogs.'"
One benefit of the TBM and other technical advancements is increased safety. Thanks to rock bolts and time-delayed fuses and the like absent during the profession's early history—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn't established until 1970—cave-ins and blowouts and the bends are no longer commonplace. No more is it "a man a mile." Yet death remains a real and constant threat. Just this past November on the East Side Access, fallen concrete killed a 26-year-old sandhog, his father working nearby and witnessing the accident. It was the first fatality on a job since 1997, but there are few sandhogs who can't claim a close call similar to that of Devin Bates. (Whether they are to be believed is something else. Sandhogs are inveterate embellishers, Tom Sawyer–caliber yarn-spinners. As Chesman says, "When it comes to sandhogs, the rule of thumb is, 'Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.'") In addition, and apart from chronic aches and pains, there are the daily minor injuries such as skin abrasions and burns from concrete, which can be so severe as to warrant an emergency-room visit. Every sandhog sooner or later comes by at least one penny-size pinkish scar from a concrete burn—a rite of passage and identifying mark akin to the military tattoo. (And, of course, there are those who have actual sandhog-themed tattoos.)
This perilousness as well as the job's typically ad hoc nature is well familiar to the ex-servicemen sandhogs.
"The saying we had in the Marines was 'Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome,'" Salamone says. "It's the same thing in the tunnels."
Adds Buzzell: "The misery is part of what breeds camaraderie. It's not like an office environment. We have to watch each others' backs, keep each other in line."
Actually, one of the things Buzzell enjoys most about the job, and the way it most reminds him of Army life, is its physicality. Although he hasn't touched a free weight since he was discharged, he's built like a strong safety. Most sandhogs appear in little need of a gym membership and—though perhaps due as much to limited sun exposure—are often taken for a good 10 years younger.
Yet any outward appearance of health can belie what might be the most persistent danger to sandhogs: lung diseases, such as emphysema and silicosis, resulting from inhalation of the dust raised by blasting and drilling. According to a 2006 Newsday article, respiratory problems are attributed to most of the approximately 80 percent of sandhogs who qualify for workmen's compensation upon retirement. In this case, too, modernity has abetted safety: Unlike their forbears, today's sandhogs use respirators, dust suppressant, and water-fed drills, and air quality is regularly monitored by OSHA and contractors alike; last month, OSHA fined the consortium of contractors overseeing the tunnel work south of 72nd Street $8,500 for violations including excessive silica levels. But no matter the precautions, dust will always be an inescapably hazardous part of the job, and it was severe enough last November that construction on the tunnels was briefly suspended because of complaints from neighborhood residents.