A wide-angle view of odd jobs
NEW YORK — Five hundred feet over a busy intersection in downtown Brooklyn, Brent Nemetz grips a handheld digital video camera while scaling a wobbly metal ladder. Peering intently into the camera's tiny screen, he carefully lifts one foot after another, clambering finally onto a catwalk.
Here, at the top of the Brooklyn's tallest building, as tendrils of wind shoot through large slats in an open dome, Mr. Nemetz trains his camera on his subject a gentle, bespectacled man named Bill Harris whom he has followed onto the narrow metal platform.
"Walk back toward me," Nemetz instructs. "Walk past me. Don't look at me."
Mr. Harris is the building's chief engineer, who keeps the time on its four Big Ben-like face clocks and is accustomed to vertiginous heights. He pads past Nemetz.
"Good," says the filmmaker, pivoting, his eyes anchored to the screen.
The New York University film school graduate has gone to other extraordinary lengths to get a good shot: walking the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; treading along New York City subway tracks in the middle of night; and leaning out of a World War II-era plane at 10,000 feet. Always with camera in hand.
His ongoing PBS series, "The Souls of New York," which provides behind-the-scenes video portraits of everyday laborers with unusual jobs, won an Emmy award in 2000 and has since gained syndication at PBS affiliates throughout the country. The Smithsonian Institution acquired the series in 1998 for its permanent collection, and The Museum of the City of New York made it a highlight of its "New York Century" millennium exhibit.
In response to growing national popularity, Nemetz has developed other locally tailored series "The Souls of Los Angeles," "The Souls of Rhode Island," and "The Souls of Miami." He is considering hatching other series in Chicago, Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, and Portland, Ore.
Nemetz's more than 500 subjects since 1996 have included the keeper of the Statue of Liberty's flame, Zamboni operators at Madison Square Garden, a scissor sharpener, a department store Santa, and a restroom attendant at the Waldorf Astoria.
"You could be doing this every week for your whole life," Nemetz says, "and you'd never run out of shows."
Like many of his segments, the profile of the chief engineer at the Brooklyn skyscraper, famous for its huge clocks, grew out of simple curiosity.
"I'd seen the red lights on the clocks at night," Nemetz says. "I had always wondered if there was an individual responsible for maintaining those clocks."
Other ideas have come from newspaper blurbs, conversations at parties, and from walking around on the street.
"I met a young boy selling lemonade outside Balthazar's," he recalls. "He was 8 years old. I profiled him as a little entrepreneur."
Once he finds his subject, Nemetz usually has to get the employer's permission and is accustomed to getting turned down. "Sometimes you chase a subject for three years," he says.
He first inquired about interviewing Harris five years ago in 1997, when the building was the Williamsburg Savings Bank. The answer was a firm "no."
Last summer, after reading that HSBC had bought the building, Nemetz called the company. He finally got the go-ahead.
The first interview with Harris there were several interviews in different locations took place on a terrace beneath one of the colossal clocks.
Nemetz never scripts his interviews, and all of his questions are off the cuff. In the lobby, while waiting for a security clearance, he had requested that no one ask Harris any questions before the interview. "I like to keep the answers fresh," he explains.
Although Harris speaks clearly and calmly, his initial answers are short and sound a little like a tour guide's stock phrases.
So Nemetz tries to warm Harris up.
"Tell me where we are right now," he says. "Tell me what we're looking at."
Once these have thawed the formality out of the interview, Nemetz delves into the topic that captured his interest years ago.
"We actually maintain the clocks on a regular basis," Harris explains, as the wind gusts around him. "It's the wind that pushes the arms of the clock and makes them go off."
He adds that each of the clock's hands are adorned with red neon lights. The big hand weighs 300 pounds, he said, the little hand, 200 pounds.
He then speaks nostalgically about his 25 years working at the building, proudly keeping the time "on the tallest face clocks in the United States."
Inside the "clock room," a gray chamber with bulky ceiling pipes and ducts, Harris demonstrates how he adjusts the time on the clocks for daylight savings. He inserts a long metal handle into a wheel mounted to the wall and with both hands, slowly cranks the handle, turning the clock's massive arms outside.
When he stops filming and lowers his camera, Nemetz notices a bird's feather taped to the wall. It is a serendipitous discovery.
"What's that?" Nemetz asks.
Harris plucks the feather off the wall, and Nemetz focuses his camera on the feather. "We have a falcon who lives in the clock," Mr. Harris replies matter-of-factly. "I saw it once or twice waiting for the birds to go by."
Fifteen minutes later, on a ledge above the clock, Nemetz affixes his camera to a 5-foot-long pole, a "monopod," and leans over the edge of the building, filming down at the clock. As Nemetz dismantles the monopod, Harris points west and says, "That's him."
Nemetz hoists his camera, filming the bird as it glides by.
Editing an hour-plus of footage into a five-minute segment usually takes from three to five hours.
"This is not a multicamera shoot," he says. "So it takes time to tweak it to get the whole thing to flow."
But this chronicler of the culture of work does not mind the long hours.
"I heard someone say that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life," he says. "I think that's true.