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On top of the world

Economy be damned, at least one worker in Portland gets a raise every day

The hardest part of Klaus Coleman's commute is the final 220 feet. That's how high the 46-year-old construction worker has to climb to get to his cab at the top of the tower crane stationed on Northwest Couch Street near Powell's City of Books.

Three flights into the 15-minute ascent, the ground recedes rapidly and the wind packs a punch. By the time he's 200 feet up, 40-mph gusts send the steel tower swaying 3 feet either way. At the top Ñ 240 steps up Ñ a five-step ladder with a sheer drop on one side leads down into the orange cab.

Despite the fact that the Oregon economy is limping, the 'city that works' still manages to throw up some new buildings. Most of them are high-end condos and retail outlets, not offices, and most of them are in Northwest Portland. It's not a building boom, more of a steady pulse. But it keeps Coleman, for one, in well-paid work.

'The toughest job I had recently was lowering 30-foot steel tubes into the smokestack of the Henry Weinhard brewery to reinforce it,' he says. 'There were only 2 inches of clearance all the way around.'

Tower crane operators have the catbird seat in construction, but they need the steady hand of a surgeon. They also need patience: They are at the beck and call of those on the ground.

'It's all scheduled,' says Coleman, a Milwaukie resident. 'The ironworkers have (the crane) for a few hours, then the carpenters, then at the end of the day whoever is left.'

Big heights, big bucks

Coleman, who's had the high-end job for 16 years, is training his colleague J.J. Sisson to do the job. Sisson, 40, has worked his way up the construction-world ladder the same way Coleman did, from dirt movers to greater things. For now, Sisson is happy to run errands if anything is needed from the ground, scampering up and down the ladder in all weather.

'That's why it pays $30 an hour,' he shouts as the wind whistles through the slippery steel ladder. With overtime (time and a half) almost every day, that's a living wage. Sisson shows up for training on his days off and stands in the 5-foot-by- 3-foot cab, literally watching over Coleman's shoulder as he moves his 'picks,' or loads, from place to place on the site below.

The front section of the cab has a reinforced glass floor so the operator can see what's below his load. A couple of tons of steel plate swinging in the wind could do more than put out someone's eye.

While his fiancee might worry about him, Coleman looks on the bright side. Perks of the job include the sight of spectacular sunrises, peregrine falcons and helicopters carving the air, and the incremental frosting of Mount St. Helens. (The U.S. Bancorp Tower blocks the crane operator's view of Mount Hood.)

'When I get a break, I like to watch people on the ground,' Coleman says. 'You should see the bad parallel parking, and the people pulling out in front of streetcars.'

Crane drivers see cities differently. Coleman is proud to have worked on the 470-foot-high, 27-story Fox Tower in 1999, the last tall building to go up in downtown.

Hoffman Construction Co. is renting the crane while it builds a 15-story retail and condo building on Block 3 of the Brewery Blocks. If all goes according to plan, the crane will come down in October and the building will open in June 2004.

A vanishing species?

Seven cranes currently grace the Portland skyline Ñ four of them in Old Town or the Pearl Ñ plus one in Lake Oswego.

'Two years ago there were 13 here,' Coleman says. 'And two years ago in Seattle there were 39. Now there are 12.'

'There's always Las Vegas,' Sisson says of the permanent boomtown, although both men prefer to work in Oregon.

At the end of the day the guys leave the crane in 'weather vane position,' which lets the crane rotate if the wind changes direction. Otherwise a storm could wreck it.

Both men love to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Even in the rain.

'The (crane operator's) job is a lot like riding a motorcycle,' Coleman says. 'You need good hand-eye coordination, you're aware of the wind, you're always anticipating, and you have to concentrate real hard. At the end of the day, there's a lot of eyestrain. You just want to rest your eyes for half an hour.'

In winter, Coleman has two space heaters on the go. In summer, even with the tiny window open the cab can reach 120 degrees. If the wind goes over 40 mph, or if he sees a lightning storm bowling in from the west, it's time to shut down.

He uses radio to find out what the next pick is, and sometimes talks hands-free on his cell phone during his break, but the pressure is on to stay focused.

'It's a good job if you like being alone,' Sisson says.

Once a month, Coleman puts on a harness and climbs out along the 180- foot-long arm of the crane, called the jib, to lubricate it. To a beginner, even walking on the counterjib, the short arm of the crane that has protective railings, is like leaving the International Space Station for the first time. But for these guys it's a cakewalk.

'I put the flag up,' Coleman says, pointing at a U.S. flag held taut by the breeze at the highest point of the crane. He also ran 43 24-foot strands of lights along the jib for Christmas, but he didn't bother with a tree this year. 'By the time it's up,' he says, 'there are so many wires holding it down, it's in the way.'

Lunch is only half an hour, so neither man usually bothers climbing down. They eat in the cab, or in the fresh air. Cramped conditions don't bother Coleman, who worked in submarines in the Navy in the 1970s.

And what if they have to go to the toilet?

'Laundry detergent bottle,' Coleman laughs.

'And for the other, you train yourself to go before you come up,' Sisson adds.

'And if you really have to go, take a 5-gallon bucket and a plastic bag,' Coleman says. 'We have a rule here. What you haul up, you haul down.'

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