They make our city tick in ways we take for granted. They do the dangerous work that others avoid. But what drives these pros besides adrenaline? We dug deep to find out.

The Blaze of Glory


It’s the New England Patriots’ high-stakes playoffs game against the Indianapolis Colts.  Shielded by an umbrella from lashing rain, a singer standing at Gillette Stadium’s 50-yard line is about to belt a soaring stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And on the field’s sidelines, Matt Shea prepares for his cue. “I like to hit it at the ‘t’ in ‘rockets,’ ” he explains—his hand not on a microphone, but on a switch in a lap-sized electric control panel. “That’s when they have the biggest effect.”

Sure enough, as soon as the “rockets’ red glare” is heralded, the switch is thrown, and streaming bolts of crimson fireworks shoot up from the field like bombs bursting in air. It’s a perfectly timed play. The crowd goes wild.

Shea lives to hear those cheers. “At the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business,” says Shea, who left a career in radio for the pyrotechnics industry about 20 years ago. Today, he’s vice president of the New Hampshire-based Atlas PyroVision Productions, which produces 800 dazzling displays annually, from Boston’s Fourth of July celebration to First Night, rock concerts and sporting events. There are 25 full-time employees and 700 project-based part-timers—hobbyists drawn, like Shea, to the thrill of exciting an audience.

Hours are long, liabilities many, expectations big and glory little. But pumping up crowds is Shea’s passion, so when Tom Brady and Co. rush onto the field during introductions, his team sets off the fireworks fountains—“gerbs” in industry-speak—announcing their arrival. They also make the weather-contingent decision about whether it’s safe to set off huge plumes mere feet from the athletes.


Safety is strong in modern pyro, says Shea, who designs productions weeks in advance. Mortar racks (crates full of hollow upright pipes) are stuffed with wired explosives and ignited from a switchboard by technicians who refer to a script of cues and a map outlining pyro placements, like coaches reviewing a clipboard. It’s challenging (two words: live TV) and often expensive. At Gillette games, with spectators at close quarters, Atlas must use special low-smoke, high-precision pyrotechnics that might cost as much as an entire municipal display on July Fourth.

Regulations weren’t always so strict, says Dick McDowell, Atlas’ “old-timer” with more than 40 years of experience. At age 10, a shovel was thrust in his face before fireworks in his Ayer hometown. “They asked me if I liked to dig holes,” chuckles McDowell, who proudly obliged the orders and took his post with the big shots. “I felt like King Tut.” A love for the industry was born, and not even a mortar-rack mishap that shot 16 steel fragments into his leg could dampen it.

But his most rewarding thrill? Not movie effects for The Departed, not a Fenway concert for the Rolling Stones. “Fireworks for the Special Olympics,” McDowell says. “They brought me into the gym afterward for a round of applause.” Touchdown.

The Freedom of the Sea


“You don’t make a ton of money,” Anthony Pucci admits of his work. That’s OK. Pucci has something that he prizes above all else: independence. “When I wake up in the morning, my biggest worry is, how many will I bait?” In a tough environment, Pucci survives as a commercial lobsterman—the only one still based in East Boston, he says, though he’s been working boats since age 13 and remembers when the shipyard was flush. (Now most sail out from South Boston.) Three years ago, tired of taking orders as a construction worker, he saved paychecks and purchased a lobsterman’s license. The draw? “Freedom,” Pucci says. “If it fails, it’s my own fault.”

An entrepreneurial spirit also attracted Tony Carli to the business. “My wife jokes that I have the two jobs every 6-year-old boy wants,” laughs Carli, a captain in Everett’s fire department and owner and operator of Boston Lobster Tours, which runs 75-minute outings that allow small private groups to “catch and keep” their own. Though lobstermen are private and cagey about their competitive work, Carli’s pal Pucci showed him the ropes. Carli’s not looking to make lobstering his livelihood, but to “give insight into the history and importance” of the trade to his guests, who spend $225 per group for a chance to catch their own Bahston hahba’ lobsta’. Plus, it’s an excuse for the Coast Guard vet to indulge his love for open water.

“Even this time of year, it’s a beautiful place to be,” Carli says, filling his lungs with wintry air as we cruise out from Eastie. Insert: poetic waxing about man, mere drop in an expansive ocean. “It’s freeing. It [lobstering] is a very solitary business.”

Expensive, too. Licenses, boats and other overhead push lobstering startup costs to the $40,000-$100,000 range. Like red oil, lobster prices fluctuate with the market, and though some lobstermen sell directly to restaurants, most use brokers whose relationships move product even in low-demand seasons.

That’s assuming you get a good catch. Averaging a half-pound per trap is strong, says Pucci, who in the summer baits and sets 400 traps per day, about five days a week. (He leaves the house by 5 am.) How soon are they hauled in? That’s an “industry secret,” I’m told, based on an individual lobsterman’s analysis of geography, weather, tides and more.

Indeed, on the unforgiving open water, everything comes down to quick thinking and instinct. “I froze for a second. I didn’t know what to do,” Pucci says, remembering one wooden boat that lost a plank in the middle of the harbor. So he pulled up to Gallops Island, ripped the door off the boat’s cabin and, coupling it with a lifejacket, nailed it down like a Band-Aid. He might be going it alone now, but at least those construction skills came in handy.

Getting Their Hands Dirty

It’s nearly 1:30 am, and word comes on the radio that the last Red Line subway car has cleared the tracks for the night. Immediately, a different schedule springs into action. Finally green-lit, three gear-toting track workers pile into a rickety yellow cab that only appears after-hours—a cramped, lightless MBTA “work train” filled with oil-streaked equipment. The urban submarine chugs through darkness from a sprawling Southie bus yard to the JFK/UMass station, where sub-zero temps have cracked a rail. Service must resume in four hours (otherwise, cue the “T sucks!” tweets from morning commuters).

En route there’s much good-natured joking: about kids, dogs, one another. Then the guys hop off and start moving like well-oiled gears. Sledgehammers knock metal clips off the broken rail. A crane hoists its replacement. Foreman John McGrath throws constant words of caution to me, the amateur interloper. (I had to pass an eight-hour training course to even get this close.) “Look away!” he barks. Blinding white light jumps from a panel as he kills the power to the electrified third rail. “Step over it anyway,” he cautions, though I’ve just watched him test it. Earplugs and goggles are thrust into my hands, and a worker takes a circular saw to the tracks, slicing slowly as if through mud. Metal screams and a chest-high flurry of sparks flies. I’m suddenly grateful for the guidance.

“We’re a team here,” McGrath explains. “We have to watch out for each other.” I remember a sign back at the bus yard, requesting donations for a sick worker.

MBTA maintenance is dangerous: Take heavy machinery and load-bearing infrastructure, and then add 600 volts of electricity, the pressures of an overnight time crunch and, potentially, moving trains to the mix. “Our goal is to go home to our families” was a frequent refrain during the intensive safety class, which also dispelled oft-heard urban legends. (No, you can’t save yourself by laying low between tracks.)

That’s what cultivates the unique camaraderie, says MBTA’s Danny Payne, who supervises track maintenance teams. Payne picks me up from the JFK/UMass station for a subterranean tour of the tunnels at Porter Square, which at 130 feet below surface is one of the world’s deepest subway stations. As the service truck crawls down the endless earthen corridor, a group of orange-vest-clad workers climb out of the way and offer a salute that seems quite cheery for three in the morning. There’s another city down here, with its own streets and sense of civic duty.

“We’re in the business of moving people,” Payne says as we pull into the station. “And we take great pride in doing that together.”

Feeling on Top of the World


“That day I was the tallest guy in Boston,” Stanley Standrick recalls with a smirk. “It made me feel good.” Standrick is about 6-foot-1. Not short, certainly, especially standing next to me—yet hardly a noteworthy height. But he’s reflecting on a day when he stood nearly 800 feet up, washing the wide glass windows of the 62-floor John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in Boston.

The 31-year-old is one of 40 employees of PureView, a Chelsea-based company that is New England’s top dog of commercial high-rise cleaning. They service 125 buildings, including Boston’s biggest—the Hancock, the Pru, the State Street building—plus smaller but still-mighty icons like the Museum of Fine Arts. Window cleaning is the bread and butter, but services include waterproofing, restoration, even installing bird wire. If it keeps the Hub’s cityscape sparkling and postcard-pretty, they do it.

For obvious reasons, it’s dangerous work. Though PureView is a polished and professional player, Standrick says the industry is full of fly-by-night companies that rush inexperienced guys through hazardous jobs. He attempted his first “drop” (one pass down a building) as a last-minute fill-in for a sick friend. With no training, he clambered over the edge of the building with his equipment incorrectly fastened. On his second novice drop, he says, “I just froze.” But he managed to hoist himself out of his chair and back onto the building.

That’s unusual, because when systems are working correctly, there’s one way off: down. They’re based on “friction-controlled descent,” explains Sergio Serpa, PureView’s director of health and safety. His workers use two ropes, a main line and a safety, designed to support 8,000 pounds—about the weight of two cars. Carrying 60-plus pounds of equipment, workers trudge to the roof in full-body harnesses and attach themselves to fixed anchor points welded to the building. (They even stay attached while on the roof, if within six feet of the ledge, to protect themselves from sudden microburst winds.) Once they’re dropping, gravity pulls the rope slowly through a brake series; workers can “tie off” for a temporary halt to clean six-foot spans of glass. (It’s unsafe to reach any farther.) Every tool is tethered—a wet sponge is a weapon if dropped from 800 feet—and it’s a slow process: It takes two workers a total of two months of eight-hour days to clean all four sides of the Hancock.

Now Standrick loves his job. (And is one of the company’s best, Serpa says.) He takes pride in making his city shine, enjoys the fringe benefits of the occasional X-rated show (close your blinds, people!) and, most of all, likes feeling on top of the world.

“The attention we get is amazing,” Standrick says. “In some of these buildings, you have these multi-millionaire lawyers. But they look at us and say, ‘You couldn’t pay me enough to do that. I respect what you do.’ ”

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