A recent Thursday at 12:01 p.m.: With the sidewalk 720 feet below him and nothing but clouds above, Jim Phelan takes a look at a damaged cotter pin on top of the flagpole on San Francisco's third-tallest building. "It'll have to be replaced," he calmly reports into a small radio down to the building engineer. "When I'm climbing, there should not be any adrenaline rush because that means something went wrong. There is no place for fear," Phelan says. Fortunately, he hasn't had that stomach-turning sensation in more than 10 years. "With my experience, the reality is that the risk is minimal," he said. A San Francisco native, Phelan, 58, has been a steeplejack for more than 40 years. He learned the trade from his father, who had him climbing light towers at Candlestick Park when he was 12. His grandfather did this work, too, and now Phelan is grooming his 11-year-old son to do the same. Today, Phelan has been contracted to change the cables that raise and lower the star-spangled banners on both the east and west spires of California Center at 345 California St. It's routine maintenance, but there are only two other companies in the country that can pull it off with ease. Phelan is a very calculating man. He always plans his moves up the tower in his head before setting foot near the roof. He moves methodically up the stainless steel pole using a rope and pulley system. Usually Phelan is all business, but today he pauses to look around to admire the top of his magical world. "San Francisco definitely stands out," he said. "There is no doubt about it."
To see a multimedia production of this piece, go to sfgate.com/cityexposed. If you have ideas for The City Exposed, e-mail Mike Kepka at email@example.com.
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