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History In The Schools

Summer 1996 | Volume 12 |  Issue 1

John Carlsen, the fireman for P.S. 73 in Brooklyn, New York, stands on a sloping mountain of anthracite in the coal bunker in the school’s basement and shovels 650 pounds of coal into a bucket suspended from an overhead rail. “I do this at least ten times a day,” he says. He pulls a link chain to raise the filled bucket and pushes it out through the bunker doorway and across to an area in front of one of four big boilers, where he tips the bucket to dump the coal onto the floor. Then, after opening the doors to the boiler, he starts shoveling again, throwing coal onto the fire inside.

P.S. 73 was built in 1889; these boilers, made by the Titusville Iron Works, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, were installed when a new wing was added in 1921. They’ve heated the school ever since. They are hardly a rarity. No fewer than 322 of New York City’s 1,200-odd public schools are heated by coal. The coal fires warm the water that makes the steam that bangs in the radiators upstairs.

“Shoveling coal is like a piece of art,” Carlsen says, taking a break to catch his breath. “You get heat blasting in your face, and you have to learn to stand it; you have to wear a long-sleeved shirt just so your arm hairs don’t burn. You have to know how to keep a good draft going and how to spread fresh coal over the fire so it will burn right.

“You lay it on the front first, to block the heat from you, and then reach the back. You don’t want the fire too high, but you also can’t let it get too low, or you’ll get clinkers.”

Are the days long? “I’m here at five each morning. First you have to breeze the fires up; then you dump all the ashes from the front part of the boiler; then you roll the fire to the front and dump the ashes from the back. Then you just have to spread the fire very evenly and keep covering it every twenty minutes until you can start shutting down in the afternoon.”

But at least, I suggest, being in the business of heating a school, you get the summer off. He shakes his head. “Nope. In the spring you break the boilers down, clean the chimneys, punch each of the ninety-two tubes in each boiler to get the soot out, take all the covers off, flush everything with water, and replace all the gaskets. That takes until June, when the inspector comes. In July you start putting it all back together again.”

The New York City Board of Education’s reliance on this very inefficient and obsolete technology makes it one of the nation’s largest single consumers of anthracite. Why? I asked Michael Burke, executive assistant to the board’s chief executive for school facilities, and he responded ruefully: “New York City is the world capital of finance, and the world capital of art, yet it has hundreds of schools still heated by coal. It’s a shame. The General Accounting Office in Washington has figured that we need $14 billion to repair everything that’s wrong with our school buildings. We can’t get a quarter of that.

“Some schools are so far gone they’ll just have to close. That’s the future. Each school that burns coal costs about a million dollars to convert to oil. How can you think about that when the school needs a new roof? We do have a plan to convert ten schools over the next year, but, remember, those boilers were put in in a different world, and they’ve stood the test of time.”

John Carlsen, a Brooklyn native, has spent his adult life in that different nineteenthcentury world. He started at P.S. 73 when he was twenty and quickly worked his way up from less skilled custodial jobs, apprenticing and taking classes to qualify as a fireman. He is now thirty-six. “It’s amazing these things still work at all,” he says, leaning on his shovel. “The two in the middle are condemned, and one of the two we’re still using—you have to run two to heat the building—has a leak in the firebox. Tubes rot out. Grates fall apart.”

He looks down at the shovel and says, “I went into a hardware store and said I wanted a coal shovel. The man said, ‘A snow shovel?’ I said, ‘No, a coal shovel.’ He got on the phone with his supplier, and I heard him saying, ‘I have a guy here who says he shovels coal and needs a coal shovel.’ People don’t believe me when I tell them what I do.”

So what will he do when they replace the boilers? Leave? He cocks an eye at me. “Leave? Do you think I’m crazy? When I can just come down here and flick switches? I’ll be very happy, man.”

And with that he starts shoveling again.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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