It was pretty easy to pick out Joe Merschoff as a couple of DEKA Research and Development Corp. handymen – their actual title is facilities workers – hung around the rear of 400 Commercial St.
The DEKA guys wore work boots and padded jackets, which overcompensated for the comfortable, above-freezing temperatures.
Merschoff was clad in a T-shirt, work pants and sneakers. His back straight, his knees bent, he was in a position that provided necessary leverage with minimal pain.
With the help of a few handymen, he heaved two large doors – metal and glass behemoths that had come off the Millyard building – onto his pickup.
The doors topped a bed filled with scrapped electric light fixtures, battery packs from old iBot wheelchairs and strands of wire.
He strapped down the load. He started the Chevy pickup, whose front plate dangled from a single screw. The exhaust growled as if roused from a slumber, and the truck crept out of Manchester’s technology hub en route to a West Side scrap yard.
“I’m not a scrapper,” Merschoff said about the people who ply city neighborhoods on trash day eves. “I’m a commodities dealer in ferrous and nonferrous metals.”
Merschoff lives in a world where pounds mean money.
He can look at an abandoned office, a cluttered workshop, a pile of debris and calculate the money he will earn, and the time it will take to strip everything down, sort it out and haul it off.
He claims clients as diverse as DEKA and Brady Sullivan, Milestone Construction and W.B. Mason. If you need space cleared out and scrap hauled away on a regular basis, you likely have Merschoff on your speed dial.
“There’s always dumpster divers, but as far as Joe goes, he’s the most consistent,” said Pete Twombly, one of the over-clad facilities workers at DEKA. Twombly was installing new doors at the DEKA building that houses the core of Dean Kamen’s ARMI venture.
DEKA avoided a disposal charge, and Merschoff got some cash – about $40 for the doors and other debris.
“He makes out, we make out, it’s a win-win,” Twombly said.
Twombly said Merschoff won him over about three years ago when he approached them and asked to be their scrapper, er, recycler. Merschoff boasted he was a licensed recycler and showed them his driver’s license.
The work is not easy, nor is it enriching, at least monetarily.
Merschoff is 61 and suffers from emphysema. His back was injured in a car accident decades ago, so by the end of the day his loads get lighter and the work takes longer.
And the $68,000 he grossed last year (before taxes and expenses) means he can’t get health care at a discounted rate.
We spoke as he worked to clear a cavernous room in a mill building. He worked beside a stack of about 25 fluorescent light fixtures. He stripped the fixtures of their aluminium plates and insulated wires, then pushed a power saw through the 10-foot-long fixtures to make them easier to move.
Each part – skinny wire, thick wire, aluminium plates, light-iron fixtures – will earn a different price at the scrapyard. The copper wire will command the highest price, but it is also the smallest and lightest part.
“I’m a workaholic. Work is like play to me,” Merschoff said.
He speaks with enthusiasm, even appreciation to have a task that many would think menial. He credits his sobriety with an attitude that gets him through the challenges.
There are several. The transmission is shot on his own truck; he uses a truck from a friend who charges him a minuscule $15 a day.
The prices of scrap metal are unreliable, peaking at 7½ cents last year, then plunging to 2 cents and now sloshing around at about 3 cents.
“That means I work twice as hard to make half as much,” he said.
Earlier this year, he lived at the New Horizons shelter, though he’s now moved in with a friend.
“They do a lot of good,” he said about New Horizons. “The staff tries their hardest, and they have to put up with a lot of flak.”
Merschoff moved to Manchester from New York in 2012 at the behest of his significant other. He’s well known at Hope for NH Recovery, where he plays the piano and gives an encouraging word when he can. Addiction’s only an arm’s length away at any point, he said.
This week, he had the luxury of steady work. The job inside the Millyard building kept him busy for days. He swings a load of light fixtures around with a pallet jack, down a freight elevator and then into the bed of the pickup.
Other days, he starts not knowing what he’s going to do. His phone might start ringing with a contractor with a load of unwanted scrap.
When the phone is silent, he hits the Millyard, industrial parks and construction sites. He makes it a point of arriving before he’s called.
“I know where I’m going,” he said, “I just don’t know if there will be anything there for me.”