Great White Sharks: Story by Andrew Riiska


George walked through the downtown Brooklyn streets where the modern buildings collide with the tree lined old neighborhood brownstones. On the corner he noticed a beat up green dumpster that was too tall to see into. It was seven, and all of the workers had left, but the signs of construction were evident. The boarded up windows and the scaffolding made it clear that there was some serious renovating in progress. The signs were good.  George quickly climbed up the ladder welded onto the end of the dumpster and peered in. His heart jumped.

It wasn’t the usual dumpster full of tuff old goats.  It wasn’t even the rare, but still common dumpster full of cows.  It was swimming with great white sharks.  Thats when I got the call.

The next day George was at my door at the crack of dawn. We wove through the streets south of Houston until we got to a parking lot close to the Williamsberge bridge that I never noticed before. George had the keys to an old van that he borrowed from his friend who was borrowing it from some Guatemalan friends who took it to the farmers market to sell ponchos and sweaters on the weekends. It  was beat up and gold.  It was standard shift with the stick poking out of the steering column and when George pushed in the clutch and turned the key it started right up. Driving down the FDR I named it Goldar.

We crossed the East River over the Manhattan bridge. Traffic was backed up heading into the city but the path to Brooklyn was clear. We turned onto the tree lined street and pulled up behind the dumpster. The morning sun flickered through the leaf canapé. I climbed up the dumpster ladder.  The wind moved the tree above my head and the contents of the container lit up with sunlight.  They were beautiful.  The Great White Sharks were actually 6″ X 12″ X 14′ long Eastern White Pine Beams.  This is the King of all Pines and the State Tree of Maine which has been known to stretch 100 to 200 feet above the earth and reach diameters of up to 6 ft.  I was looking at rare native American lumber that was perfectly cured having dried slowly for at least 100 years in this old brick brownstone.   It was the bingo colada.  The real stuff.  And they were so big they could only be Great White Sharks.
We put on our gloves and started loading the fish into Goldar.  Even with the noses of the sharks pushed all the way up in between the front seats their tales still hung out the back three feet.  They were heavy and un-sanded and covered in 100 years of dark brown dust but the cut ends were a creamy gram cracker tan.  We had three of the beasts in the van and were carrying a fourth towards Goldar.  I tightened all of my stomach mussels trying to prevent the inevitable hernia from carrying such heavy beams when a construction worker walked around the corner with a blue and white coffee cup in his hand.  I  laid the head of the shark on the bumper of the van and introduced myself to him.  I was surprised that he had an english accent.  I gave him my usual spiel about how  underneath all of the filth the wood is actually nice and I explained how we recycled the wood into furniture.  Usually, the construction workers think we are crazy but they let us take the wood.  It makes room in their dumpster for more debris so they are often grateful.  This guy saw an opportunity.

“I know that it is  nice wood I am selling them over in England for $100.00 each.  I will sell them to you for the same price.”  George and I looked at each other.  We knew the wood was worth far more than what he was asking but this had never happened before and paying for the wood was not an option at the time.   I knew the guy was just trying to make a quick buck.  It would cost more to ship the wood across the atlantic.  Plus if it was so valuable they wouldn’t’ have been throwing it in with the other debris from the brownstone like bricks and cement, but their was nothing we could do.  We put the sharks back in the dumpster with a New Jersey address on it.  This dumpster was not going to England.  Just thinking about all of the beautiful Native American white pine rotting in a landfill broke my heart.

We climbed back into Goldar and headed back over the Manhattan bridge when we my phone rang.   It was Jaren.  Together, Jaren, George and I owned a small wood shop in Brooklyn we named Elshopo.

“Did you get the sharks?”  I said no and started explaining what happened but he interrupted me.

“Do you still have the truck?”

“Yea why?”

Dennis and I are installing a kitchen at 169 Hudson street.  The construction workers have pulled out 16″ X 16″ X 16′ long Southern Yellow Pine beams from this old building and they are cutting them into 2′ chunks with a chain-saw and throwing them into a dumpster.  “Stop them!  I yelled, “we are on our way.”  I couldn’t believe this was happening in the same day that  we almost caught all of those great white sharks.  Usually I referred to the Yellow Pine, also know as Short Leaf Pine, as cows, but I had never come across them this big.  These must be something else and since we were fishing today they could only be wales.  Yellow pine is a much nicer wood than Eastern White Pine.  Before the days of the Steam Boat it was one of the most prized woods in ship construction.  Early in the 1700’s the wood was proclaimed by the Royal Crown as the property of the British Crown for the masts of the Royal Navy.    We had recently built a kitchen out of pieces of this same wood we pulled out of a floor to make room for a Cathedral Ceiling.  The wood is striped because its growth rings change with the seasons.  The summer season rings are light tan, slight yellow and soft but the winter rings can be dark brown, with bright yellows that burn into red.  They are thinner rings because of the difficult winter growing conditions and after they dry for a hundred years they are as hard as hickory.  When you cut into this wood the air fills with the smell of what Pine Sol is supposed to smell like.

We pulled up to the loading dock of 169 Hudson Street.  Construction workers were carrying what looked like two foot square stumps and dropping them off the loading dock into the dumpster.   They looked heavy.  Jaren walked us back into the torn out building explaining that they were removing the beams to make room for a entrance way with cathedral ceilings.  The only lights were bare bulbs strung up on extension cords dangling from the rafters.  The floor was covered in debris, crushed bricks and cement dust was pushed into piles along the floor like filthy prairie dog homes.  Lying in a pile were the sleeping giants.  They were huge.  There was no way we could lift them.  They cuddled together, finally resting after laboring for a century holding up the building.  We devised a plan.

We loaded all of chunks of whale blubber we could fit into Goldar, without the bumper dragging on the ground, and George and I headed for Elshopo.  We unloaded all the wood into the shop and built a level platform to lay all of the beams on in front of the shop that elevated the wood above the street and moisture.  The next day we rented a Uhaul.  Jaren had the construction workers cut the 16′ beams in half.  I brought a bunch of blocks and Mr. Bar, my 8′ long steal bar, and by making a simple lever we jacked the whales onto dollies and wheeled them to the loading dock.  The loading dock was two feet higher than the bed of the Uhaul so we got a running start and jumped the old beams into the fully insured truck with a crash.   Jaren also found some smaller pieces in the basement.  With some help Jaren’s friend Dennis we were able to carry the 6″ X 10″ X 119″ beams up the twisting staircase into the Uhaul.  After loading-up all of the whales we were exhausted.  George and I managed to unload the beams in front of the shop without picking them up.  We slid them off onto our platform, chained them to the cement and covered them with a tarp.

A little research revealed that 169 Hudson Street was built by the John A. Roebling Steel Corporation in 1893.  John August Roebling was a German born civil engineer  famous for his wire rope suspension bridge designs.  At the age of nine he built a model bridge and later this bridge was noticed to be similar to the Brooklyn bridge which he also designed.  169 Hudson was built very well to handle a lot of weight because it was used as a storage facility where heavy cables and other materials used in the construction of bridges were stored.  That is why the beams we pulled out of the building were so large.    In 1867 he started design on the Brooklyn Bridge.  In 1869 he was standing on the edge of a dock, working on fixing where the bridge would be built when his foot was crushed by an arriving fairy.  His injured toes were amputated and he refused further medical treatment and wanted to cure his foot by water therapy(continuously pour water over the wound.)  He died of tetanus 24 days after the the accident.  His son Washington Roebling continued work on the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was completed 1883.
The wood that this reinforce storage facility was made of grows from New York southward to most of the southeastern states as far as Florida and eastern sections of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas.  Large groves of these native American Yellow Pines grew right up against the Hudson River.  They were most likely felled, dragged to the river and floated down in huge bunches and finally used to build New York City.  One of my colleagues said he saw vintage photographs in a Brooklyn museum of the Hudson river clogged with so many of these trees that it looked like you could walk across the river on the logs.  We counted 300 growth rings on our biggest beam.  Since a pair of growth rings is 1 year we estimate the tree grew for at least 150 years.  Since these trees were know to reach diameters of 5′ to 6′ these could have been a much older trees. They supported the building from 1893 to 2000 for a total of 115 years. Therefore, we can estimate that the wood is at least 265 year old but possibly older.  I am no dendrochronologist but I do know that one section of the beams that we saved from 169 Hudson Street would make a perfect “tree cookie,” which is a cross section of a tree.  Through the study of these samples they can not only determine the age of a tree but the environmental conditions the tree grew in.  By studying the different chemicals in each layer of the wood they can even tell when I volcano erupted on the other side of the globe or document the increasing levels of mercury we are releasing into our world.

These trees are the Great Grandfathers of the United States. They are old souls that watched over the world as they grew. The droughts, the storms, the cold winters that glazed their branches in ice and the hot muggy summers the trees thrived in are all recorded in the grain of their wood. As construction materials they are intricately connected to New York City History. They are books that we can read to understand are environment. They belong in the Natural History Museum or at least given another life were their beauty is revealed through the honored tradition of crafting furniture.  They do not belong in overcrowded landfills rotting with moldy garbage.  So the next time you are walking past that big green dumpster, don’t be afraid, take a peek. You might just  find some barn animals inside or if you are lucky you might have to blow the whistle and get all the kids out of the swimming area because there are sharks in these waters!


3 responses to “Great White Sharks: Story by Andrew Riiska

  1. samuelmoyerfurniture

    Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
    I love Great Whites! I love spelunking and SCUBA diving! I love adventures!
    Can we make a tree museum? I wood museum? A museum for little scientific samples of all the found and reclaimed offcuts? They’re just piling up now in my shop waiting for love. I want a shop named ElShopo. Andy, can you name my new 6th floor shop? Start thinking about what to name it so when I move up there, I’ll be move SOMEwhere, not just up. Hm. How about Hawk’s Nest?

  2. Loved it! It was as if I was there, standing in front of the elshopo, or sitting out front smoking a cigarette. You made the coolest tables there!
    Amazing history in that wood! Good job YOU!

  3. That was fantastic to read.

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