Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Yeah, I Know a Guy
by Daniel Frisch
Posted April 30th, 2020

Loiter around construction sites, and you will invariably hear a response of “yeah, I know a guy.” Successful contractors always know whom to call to get something done, especially when a task demands expertise beyond the skills of the field team. Calling upon such resources is akin to a general practitioner recommending a patient to a specialist, and specialist referrals are no more than a doctor’s affirmation of “yeah, I know a guy.” I find I’ve adopted the saying, so much so, that my every utterance of the phrase elicits snickers and eye rolls from my colleagues.

Other than “thanks, guys” or “come on, guys,” the colloquial ‘guy’ or ‘guys’ has largely receded from general usage, and nowadays, that guy may not be a guy at all. Sometimes, she’s a gal, and sometimes he or she is a cardiologist, professional engineer or consultant who would be offended at being labeled as such. Regardless of gender, age, education, or expertise, having resources beyond one’s own team is extremely valuable. As a residential architect in New York City, one of the first guys one gets to know is an expeditor, a consultant who can navigate the bureaucracy of both the Manhattan and Brooklyn divisions NYC Department of Buildings, and just as importantly, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. For the past twenty years, our guy is both a guy named Walter and a gal named Jackie, together with their team of assistants, attend to all manner of incomprehensible and always-changing DOB issues. When municipal approvals languish, clients invariably ask “what do expeditors do?” Many times, I reply “you have no idea,” and frankly, sometimes, I don’t really seem to know. Notwithstanding this sophomoric attempt at humor, I am acutely aware that the bureaucratic DOB approval process would be even more Byzantine and inefficient if not for our close relationship with our expediting team.

In addition to our expeditors, we work with engineering consultants on a near-daily basis. Engineers speak in tongues, and communication between engineers and architects is made challenging by opaque technical jargon. This private language takes a long time to master, and building trust between architects and engineers requires commitment on both sides. We’ve partnered with our mechanical and structural engineers for more than twenty years each and, whenever we find ourselves in a pinch, I can make a call and cut through the noise and get a much-needed answer. With our structural engineer, more than with any of our consultants, we enjoy an especially personal and intimate relationship. Our guy’s name is Edy, and I refer to him as my self-selected godparent. When I am really in a pickle and need someone to lead me to safety, I call Edy. A few decades ago, Edy was the lead engineer at one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the City and, on his fiftieth birthday he resigned to start his own firm. Today he employs friends and family and has become a referral-based leader specializing in New York City façade repair and restoration. He and his firm work predominantly with building owners, building mangers and commercial architects, servicing much larger interests than those of our small-scale residential work. In fact, we are the only residential firm with whom Edy works and, even more importantly, the only firm, large or small, with whom Edy socializes. When our team finds a structural problem particularly confusing or challenging, Edy and one of his team will drop by the office and hold class while we ply them with food and drink. To have unlimited access to an engineer of such intelligence and experience makes us much better at everything we do.

The importance of knowing a guy came naturally to me, even before I knew to place such weighty value on knowing a guy. Soon after founding the firm, I met a man named Hugo Ramirez. Before he retired, Hugo was the City’s preeminent expert, collector, and restorer of pre-electric lighting, operating out of a small and overstuffed shop and workroom on East 59th Street. The store, which he called a gallery, was about a thousand square feet and was surrounded by similar-looking shops selling similar-looking lighting, except those shops were not similar at all. Hugo’s fixtures were museum quality, in either original condition or professionally restored by Hugo himself.

I don’t recall exactly how I met Hugo, he didn’t advertise, but for about ten years, he was a very special guy to me who shared his great love and knowledge of antique lighting. Hugo was more than a bit mercurial and hard to get to know, and to this day I am astonished by the extraordinary access and friendship Hugo offered me. I recall he was very pleased to have worked with the set designers of “Amistad,” and that he was just as pleased to have tossed out the folks from “The Age of Innocence.” Evidencing great disdain for the chicanery of others, he elected to restore fixtures for only one antique dealer in town (Hirschl and Adler), and rarely at that. I believe the last piece he restored for a museum was for the grande dame Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was tickled, of course, when his fixture made the cover of the catalogue, even if his days of working for others were numbered. In spite of his pride, he had all the time in the world for me and for my colleagues and clients I brought around to his shop. When we would schedule a visit to his gallery, I would tell my colleagues or clients to budget at least two hours so Hugo could take us through the entire history of pre-electric lighting, and one-by-one go through his collection of rare and significant fixtures. On a good day, he would turn off all the lights in the shop and illuminate a single fixture, demonstrating how significant the light from a single lamp would have been in a period without our abundance of electric lighting. His stories and examples of factory finishes, whale oil and kerosene fixtures, argands, sinumbras and gasoliers fascinated me, and he was equally energized by my interest. As the trust between us grew, Hugo would patiently share his great love of lighting, as well as the methods by which other less honest dealers ruined fixtures, stripped factory finishes to raw brass, and over-charged for reproductions or undocumented fakes.

Fast-forwarding to present day, I’ve recently come to know a guy who epitomizes what it means to know a guy. He goes by the name of Crazy Levi, and I met him after doing internet research on vintage pinball machines. Levi lives in Manhattan and has a day job, but what really excites him is pinball. He enjoys playing in tournaments, hosting friends, and most importantly from my standpoint, buying, restoring and selling machines. I purchased two restored machines from Levi, and he is gradually teaching me how to work on a machine myself. I have a lot to learn, so I am awfully glad Levi makes house calls, even if my house (party barn) is ninety miles from his Manhattan studio.

From the essential engineer to the most colorful pinball enthusiast, and everywhere in between, our projects are more successful and our lives infinitely enriched by the guys and gals we know. Thinking further on this, I realize I know guys in just about every field of endeavor – expeditors and engineers, obviously, but also fellow architects, designers and educators; bankers and insurance brokers; building superintendents, writers, publishers and editors; hardware and plumbing fixture sellers; website developers, car mechanics, and vintage boat guys; booksellers, bartenders, and maître d’s; and even artists. We’ve found it’s great fun to know the artists whose efforts we promote, collect and hang on our walls.

I’ve learned that getting to know a guy takes investment, an investment in time and most importantly, curiosity. Every guy and gal I’ve come to know, and upon whom I’ve come to rely, I’ve gotten to know through mutual interest and genuine appreciation. When I say “yeah, I know a guy,” I say so with confidence that I am that same guy in return.

DF, 4-4-2020