The new York office occupied three floors of an old 20+ story building on West Broadway near Canal street. Kevin and I were on the 12th floor, while Mark was on the 9th and Frank on the 10th or 11th. The 12th floor was spacious and open. No cubes or divider walls. Just an open expanse of flat drafting tables and filing cabinets. The other floors were subdivided.

The employees at that time were a mix of approximately 75% long-time staff, and 25% contracted short-term staff. Part of the reason their office was falling behind the other two on that particular contract was due to training efforts with the contractors. The Newport News office was ahead on milestones. The San Francisco office was just about finished as well.

I never explained the contract, did I.  The contract was to design a “class” of a half-dozen “floating prison facilities”. Basically, they were modified barges, equipped to penal code standards. The idea was popular in the late 1980’s due to increasing prison demands and a trend of push-back when it came to convincing towns to approve building new prisons nearby. The solution seemed simple enough: put the convicts on a big boat and anchor it off shore.

It was an interesting change from our usual U.S. Navy contract work, and helped get our foot in the door of new types of work.

Several coastal cities signed on, and hired firms like ours to design them, and off we went.  (Ultimately,  only a handful were ever built and sold. The reasons varied from jurisdiction concerns in the water, to bad PR, to sudden budget reductions)

The builder, a Gulf Coast shipyard, benefitted from this contract later, because it allowed them to perfect a new construction process, called “inverted modular assembly”. They would later win a lot of Navy contract work due to the time and cost savings it provided. Eventually that shipyard would be bought and suffer bad times.


Anyhow, each lead designer was given a “zone” of the facility to oversee.  My zone was 4th deck, aft. This zone included the indoor and outdoor gymnasium, locker rooms, storage, open courtyard and helicopter pad. My personal focus was on piping and hvac systems at that time. I worked with two or three other designers and drafters as well.

This was near the end of board-style drafting days. The design world was about to jump head-first into CAD.

Anyhow, back to the story. ..

One of the long-time employees was a big guy named Willy. He was of Asian heritage, Chinese actually, but was raised by an Italian family in Bed-Stuy (a rough area in Brooklyn). Willy was a very nice and intelligent guy, who was also very loud and dominating. It was not uncommon to hear him tearing someone up on his phone from across the entire room, which was large enough to house a typical grocery store. Willy also had incredible hearing skills.

One time, a designer behind me was trying to talk quietly with another designer about something he believed was a mistake made by Willy. In the midst of all the office chaos and noise, Willy heard him, covered his phone and shouted back, “bull fucking shit, scumbag!!“, followed by pointing out the actual culprit, and then went back to his phone conversation without skipping a beat.

Another thing I remember was Willy’s adjacent coworker. He was an older Italian guy, who always had headphones on, listening to his cassette tape Sony Walkman. All the time he was drafting and doing calcs, he would munch on pistachios. Every half hour or so he’d place a handful of shelled nuts on the sill, outside the opened transom window at the end of his drafting table.

The doves and pigeons never left his window it seemed.

Around the second month we were there, Willy won the local lottery. I forget how much he won, but it was in the thousands. Rather than just announce it to the office and leave, he announced it, called everyone a bunch of “scumbags” or something to that effect, and then ordered up a ton of Chinese food for the whole floor. It was amazing to watch it all brought in and spread across two or three drafting tables. I’m not certain, but it seemed to have fed around 50 or 60 of us.

Good times.


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