The Information Superhighway, Circa 1870

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06/03/2006

421 8th Ave, NY, NY 10199

Neighborhood: Chelsea

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Right up until the time men started to stop wearing hats, the city was woven together by a network of pneumatic tubes that connected post offices and major buildings. A letter took seven minutes to go from Manhattan's 32nd Street to downtown Brooklyn through this Pneumatic Tube System, or PTS. Making use of the city's subterranean foundations, the tubes ran through basements, subway tunnels, sewers, and utility passages. Generators were stationed below ground every five blocks to maintain the pressure necessary to speed things through. Operators at the major switching sections routed canisters north and south and east and west, according to route tags slipped into sides of the "cans."

Historians of the pneumatic tube in New York City generally concentrate their monographs on publisher and inventor Alfred Ely Beach's efforts to present a pneumatic subway to the city, slighting his earlier innovation of the mail tube. Working in secret so as not to be threatened by the surface transport monopoly, Beach's crew dug a two block long tunnel under Broadway by City Hall in 1870. He proved his point, but it would be thirty years before political will, commuter demand, money, and the usual chicanery combined in the IRT. However, his much smaller diameter mail tubes took off. The US Postal Service pioneered pneumatic tube connectivity, while private firms like Consolidated Pneumatics and Vacu-Send hooked up private vertical and horizontal systems around the city.

Almost completely lost to memory, the hundreds of miles of three-inch copper tubing that made up the PTS were cared for by the members of the old Pneumatic Tube Maintenance Workers Union (Local 131). Once more than a thousand members strong, the militant local disbanded in 1952. As far as I can tell, there's only one "tube monkey" living today.

His name is Eddie Villacruz. While researching Local 131 records stored in the Wagner Archives at NYU, I found his name on a list of attendees at a 19677 reunion, and tracked him down as the sole survivor. Living quietly in Queens now, Villacruz was happy to tell me about his days in the union and "on the tubes."

A remarkable ninety-three years old, he is frail but still vinegary. He walks with a limp from the day he lost his kneecap to cops in a brutal strike in October, 1934. Tube monkeys were famous for their ability to make the best of bad situations, often having to cobble together temporary patches and clear out frequent clogs in miserable circumstances. Villacruz was no exception - in the thick of a pitched street battle, he flattened a beer bottle cap and slapped it on his shattered kneecap with binding tape to hold his leg together. I wince just thinking about it, but he told the tale with such nonchalance you would think he was discussing putting a Band-Aid on a boo-boo.»

He began his career as an apprentice at the age of sixteen, during a period that in retrospect can be seen as the swan song of the tubes. It was 1923. Not just the post offices were connected, but skyscrapers in Midtown and the Financial District, factories on the West Side and shipping companies up and down both rivers were tubed together. It was a labyrinth of pneumatic tubes, one that acted like the city's circulation system, pumping information to and fro. But the heart was aging, slowing down as pipes that were already thirty- to forty-years old jammed and clogged more and more as a matter of course. In addition, the wide-spread use of telephones in corporate offices steadily reduced the amount of inter-office memos shunting up and down, leading to cancelled contracts with tube operators.

The Strike of '34 was pivotal. Ostensibly about bettering working conditions, it was really a last chance stab at preserving jobs in the field. The union held, but barely, for there were just enough jobs to be had. In a few short years, things would change completely.

On July 15, 1939, two tons of pressurized U.S. Mail erupted out of the 31st Street sidewalk. One person was killed and dozens of passersby were wounded. It was the PTS's biggest disaster, and one that would be its death knell. Villacruz remembers the infamous Farley Post Office Blow Out very well. "Talk about yer god-damned confetti," he laughs, but with the bittersweet agony of experience crinkling his eyes. "Like a god-damned massive coronary!" he says, shaking his head and putting his hand over his chest.

The Second World War found local 131 members to be excellent mechanics and engineers. Villacruz was 34 in 1941, and, with his bad knee, even less appealing to the military, but his skills earned him a place on the team that protected what was left of the Postal Service's system from enemy espionage efforts. He ended up working with the Service through to his retirement under the dome of the old Cunard Lines Building, home of the Bowling Green P.O.

These days, he takes it easy, and scoffs at the newfangled "information superhighway." "Been there, done that," he chuckles.

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