They’ll fight for your neural walls and cardboard cities

The baler has been broken for nearly a week now.

The baler, as you will recall from The Office episode, is a serious piece of machinery located in a very serious part of the building far away from all the rhyming puns and painted artwork of the rest of the TJ’s public store. Most times it stands tall with its big gaping maw open and hungry for empty cardboard boxes. At the roof of its mouth is a monstrous slab of thick metal that’s forced downward by an angry hydraulic snake. It punishes cardboard with loud crackles the sound of tiny bones popping, grinding, made into bread. It can, according to Darryl from The Office, at least, crush a car engine flat. I have yet to see this happen, but I have seen it turn thousands of cardboard boxes into flat bound pallets for recycling. It shakes and rumbles with unpleasant tremors when full, sometimes emitting a piercing wail of discontent that makes you eye the nearby safety goggles with new concern and take new notice of the handful of capital-letter warning signs draped over it.

But the baler has been broken for a week.

Lacking any employee with the devastating forearm strength needed to exert the 62,000+ lbs of platen force* needed to compress a bale, the only solution is to make large, unwieldy, plastic-wrapped towers, turrets and citadels of cardboard, to then be loaded on the truck and sent to the warehouse, which presumably has not lost use of its baler. Or to go on a sanitation strike like in the book Lord of the Barnyard and watch the cardboard backlog choke the store until the management breaks and agrees to fix it. I was informed this was an unwise move, as the hundred new applications received this week could easily repopulate the store with people who would hand make bales in bikinis if asked to.

The result of this is the rise of an urban skyline of a cardboard kingdom in the store’s basement, some of the piles looking like grotesque sculptures mocking a god of a modern age forced to make mountains with the names of ominous global corporations on the side; some like sleek, precise obelisks standing as an aphorism for the byproducts of inconspicuous consumption in a recession. Some look like a big steamers left behind by a roving cardboard monster with a bout of distemper.

Dave and I were on cardboard duty after closing Monday night, the time of day when hundreds of boxes are being unpacked and discarded.

public transit is necessary in Cardboard City

public transit is necessary in Cardboard City

Building a cardboard city is an art, we quickly learned, as much as it is a science. We were unqualified, uncertified by any building council cardboard or otherwise, but were pressed into service.

We forwent blueprints on our initial public works project,and dove into the fray like eternally optimistic Doozers.

The Cardboard City WPA Project List, 3/23/09

Firstimus Maximus

Primary building materials: egg boxes, ice cream cases, frozen waffle boxes, one long piece of packing tape

A horrid abomination, something resembling a weak tower of curdled broccoli, not even reaching the sides of its pallet base, structural integrity based mainly on gravity and lack of crosswind. The building inspector came along and informed us we were not up to code, this was terribly uninhabitable even for the denizens of Cardboard City, our investors in the project were sure to pull out once seeing his report. We explained we had abandoned pretenses of a sound construction project by permit and were now classifiying it as art installation. Future projects would be approached with schematics. Plans. LEED building standards. Union workers.

Estimated final height: You can’t measure art, man.


Indestructible Level: +2
Armaments: Vast parapets of paper towel boxes protecting the north wall; back-up fortifications of toiler paper boxes protecing the inner cache; air pockets of soup boxes holding open the path to the Keep should the outer wall fail.

We continued the construction, higher and higher, altitude thinning all the time, until the threat of a scattering of the TJ’s languages seemed imminent, which would have further complicated the already indesipherable PA system echoing across a crowded 80-year-old bank building, and we stopped.
Estimated final construction height: 8 feet

The Terror Hut

Shape: hut
Building style: hut-like
Mud wasn’t available. What did you use?: Plastic wrap
First-floor parking for mushroom boxes and empty apple cases: ample

To construct the top layer of Terror Hut, I stood atop a step ladder and delicately jammed flattened boxes with all my might so they could continue their conical approach skyward. Confident now in our engineering skills, we added more to make this structure a bulging homage to rural living on the outskirts of Cardboard City. The outskirts , by the way, are the flower display area, near the daffodils.

Estimated final height: stone age

Ron Paul Tower

Engineering approach: libertarian
Milk pasteurization level: zero
Currency: Print your own (cardboard-based currencies preferred)
Each apartment comes with: pocket Constitution, gun license

Problems with RPT construction were apparent from the beginning. Shoddy oversight by the live-and-let-bale building committee resulted in poor structural foundation. Not far into the second phase of vertical construction, the choice of a small dried fruit box for the outer wall proved misguided and a breach quickly flooded the lower wards of Cardboard City slums. An emergency repair was needed involving several go-rounds of plastic wrapping, at an additional cost to taxpayers of $50 million.

The rest of the construction project was more sound, creating a square tall structure that could withstand an influx of the remaining unhoused members of Cardboard City.

Estimated final height: 568,000 ft. (RPT on principal does not follow set building guidelines)


It seemed a shame to make such impressive forts of corrugated beastly beauty for only a few tired employees to ever gaze on. Such construction, were it made out of couch cushions, snow or spare plywood in a backyard somewhere, would have been anointed with flag and headquarters status for some conspiratorial youthful gathering. These instead would only be shuttled off to an anonymous warehouse to be fed quickly into the waiting mouth of a presumably much larger, and more heartless, baler.

Curtis had a thought: His friend apparently lives right down the street from Michel Gondry in Brooklyn. Maybe we could give them to Gondry and he could turn them into something magic and wonderful, he said. I liked this idea. I

Cardboard City, as first seen in The Science of Sleep

Cardboard City, as first seen in The Science of Sleep

suggested we just drop them off in Gondry’s front lawn then come back the next day. “Oh look!”  I imagined him saying in the same childlike French accented-English that I pictured he once used to ask Ally Burguieres if she wanted some juice when she interviewed him on an Eternal Sunshine junket (she said no, I don’t understand why). “I shall lift these to the sky and make clouds!”

And finally Cardboard City would be a real place, if only in a few bored minds trying to keep entertained late into the night in a Brooklyn grocery store.

* actual data

Bonus: Watch Andrew Bird‘s Letterman performance of  “Plasticities”, a song as to which the title of this post is in tribute to.

3 responses to “They’ll fight for your neural walls and cardboard cities

  1. “Lord of the Barnyard.”

    Tremendous book.

  2. it’s better in Spanish

  3. Pingback: Warping through a TJ’s work day « Inverted Soapbox

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