Fiction Issue 2012: "Sky Boys" | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Fiction Issue 2012: "Sky Boys" 

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New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam by Charles C. Ebbets

New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam by Charles C. Ebbets

Your first day on the job, the only thing they tell you is, "Don't look down." I haven't met a sky boy yet who took that advice. You step onto one of those girders 50, 60, 70 stories up, and all you want to look at is your feet, to make sure there's something solid underneath. Eighteen inches of unbendable steel and on either side of that, just gravity.

There were 11 of us sitting on an I beam, atop what would soon be the north wall of the 69th floor of the RCA Building. It wasn't something we'd normally do, but a photographer from the Herald Tribune had shown up that morning to take pictures, and he wanted something out of this world. Fitzgerald gave me the responsibility of watching out for him, so I suggested he get a shot of a couple of us having our lunch on one of the border girders. Everyone volunteered to be in the picture. So there we sat, out on that beam like pigeons on a train trestle, bunched together ass cheek to ass cheek, and we were all looking down. You could see the whole city from our perch: the East River and Hudson on either side, Central Park behind us, and concrete stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. Off to the south rose the Empire State Building. I'd been on a rivet gang there, too, for the first 30 floors, before they pared down the teams and I found myself back selling apples for a while, by the cathedral at 110th and Amsterdam.

When I landed a spot on this crew, I couldn't believe my luck, but Clara was beside herself with worry. All she could think of was being widowed at 22 years old. When our boy Otto was born, I'd promised her that as soon as the Empire State Building gig was over, my days of beam walking would be behind me. That turned out to mean eking out a $12-a-week pittance from surplus apples and watching Clara skip meals so Otto could have milk and diapers. She'd been tugging at my sleeve for months, saying we should pack up and move to Chicago. Her brother worked as a gandy dancer for the North Western railway line, and he might be able to find an opening for me. But lots of things could fall apart by the time we got to Chicago; I knew there were no guarantees these days.

Still, I was about ready to give up and take my chances with Clara's brother when Jerry Fitzgerald tracked me down and offered me a job on his crew for the RCA Building. I knew I'd be a fool to turn it down. Otto had been sick lately, on and off, and I wasn't about to be on the dole if I needed a doctor for him. A job like this, not everyone was cut out for it, but it paid so well that everyone wanted in. I could make twice the wage I'd earn on the railway, but that wasn't the only reason. No one ever looks at train tracks with the kind of awe that you feel when you tilt back your head until your neck hurts and gaze at the top of a skyscraper. Fitzgerald said John D. Rockefeller was financing the project out of his own pocket, the whole damn plaza, and it'd keep food on our table for at least the next year. Maybe we could even save up some money. Clara cried when I told her, but that night she also went out and splurged on a wool blanket to wrap up in while she rocked Otto to sleep and sang him those Hungarian lullabies in her soft gypsy voice.

If Clara had seen us out on that girder, she'd have probably hopped a train for Chicago without me. Our legs dangled out in the ether while we ate our lunches out of cardboard cake boxes. Some of the guys were preening a bit for the camera, goofing around and cutting up. Fitzgerald told them to knock that shit off unless they wanted to show up in the paper as an obituary instead. All the same, the photographer had us out on that beam sitting in a line, squeezed in tight. We could feel every fidget. Every time one of the guys pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, the motion rippled through all our bodies like plucking a taut cable. You couldn't help but look down.

I was sitting next to Josef, the only other Hunky left working this floor. Beside him were John Cook and a few other Indians. Montauks or Mohawks, I couldn't keep them straight. They moved across the scaffold like squirrels. This was my sixth skyscraper, and it never ceased to amaze me how these Indian iron workers took to the steel walkways like they did. A pair of Irishmen, Matty O'Fallon and Sonny Glynis, were sitting near the end of the beam. They made up the other half of the rivet gang, with Josef and me. Matty was the bucker—a job he was well suited for since it only involved leaning on a dolly to hold a rivet in place while Josef beat it into shape with the air gun. Matty's cousin Sonny was the heater to my catcher. Both were somehow related to Fitzgerald, who was the foreman. All those micks were related in one way or another. We'd all worked together on the Chrysler Building for a couple months back in '29, right before the market crash damped down the aspirations of the people who financed these steel monuments to their own greatness.

Matty had a whiskey bottle in his left hand, empty, and he kept letting it slip like he was going to drop it. At the last second, he'd dart out his other hand just in time to catch it. Sonny started yelling at Matty to knock it off, which made Matty fling the bottle higher into the air before catching it. It really ruffled Sonny's feathers, but he couldn't reach the bottle to take it from his cousin, and didn't want to risk jostling him, anyway. Matty had already polished off whatever was left in the bottle that morning.

The photographer, Charlie something, had looked a little green when he'd first stepped off the elevator. He was a short, pudgy man, with stubby legs that tapered to tiny feet and loose wisps of hair covering his bald head. "It's the trucks," Charlie said when I asked him if he was all right. He pointed at the flatbeds lined up along 50th Street, waiting for the cranes to unload their girders. "They look like goddamn matchboxes down there. It's like you're building this monstrosity out of matchsticks."

"You should try not to look down," I told him. "You can get dizzy." Since I was stuck babysitting, I spent a few minutes showing him how to navigate the levels, where the piss bucket was, where the floor ended and the steel scaffold began, how to watch for loose boards. He tried to walk out on a girder with his camera hanging around his neck, but wouldn't go out farther than an arm's length from a support column. I could see his knees shaking through his baggy trousers and heard Matty offering odds on how long Charlie would last up on the work site. To his credit, once he got his camera put together, he stopped focusing on the air beneath his feet and started concentrating on composition or light or whatever it is photographers have to consider.

We didn't give anyone too much guff when they got shaky in the knees. Even the veterans would get the spins from time to time and spend a few minutes hugging a column or crawling back toward the elevator shafts, where there were planks of thick plywood laid out for a floor. We all had our ways of coping. John Cook kept a fistful of dirt in each of his pockets, and when he was waiting for the cranes to deliver a girder, you'd see him with a glove off, his fingers shaping the dirt in his jeans like packing a snowball. Sonny knelt down and said a long prayer whenever he started work. For my part, I liked to spit tobacco. Every time I caught a rivet in my bucket and placed it in the frame, I'd hawk a big one and watch it float out on the currents. I'd focus in like an eagle hunting a chipmunk for as long as I could and try to plot its trajectory as it dove and spun toward the dirt below.

Once Charlie had gotten his shots of us eating lunch, most of us shimmied our way back toward the middle of the floor. A few of the guys from Liam O'Donough's gang stayed behind. They were lying on their backs on one of the outer girders. "Those fellas must think they're invincible," Charlie said. "Sleeping like that. . . . Sweet Jesus, that one guy's legs are just dangling off the side."

I patted him on the shoulder. "They're not really sleeping," I said. "We're not so careless. They're just puffing up their chests for the camera. Well, maybe Liam's sleeping. He does that sometimes."

"Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." He snapped two more pictures before the steam whistle sounded to rouse us back to work.

"Come on out with me," I said. "I'll show you how a rivet gang works."

We made our way toward the outside of the building, where the plywood floor came to an abrupt end. Sonny was standing over his coal furnace, dropping in rivets. Sweat had already begun cascading down his face and chest. I showed Charlie how Sonny would throw me rivets, and I'd catch them in my pail and place them. Then Matty would buck them up while Josef flattened the stems with the air gun. "Follow me," I said. "We'll get you some pictures that'll sell some papers."

I stepped out onto the girder, but Charlie hesitated. "Can I hold your hand?" he asked.

Sonny smirked behind his furnace. "No," I said. "It's a safety thing. If I slipped, I might take you with me."

The photographer started to glance down, but stopped himself. "OK. I'm OK," he said. He took slow steps, always keeping his right foot in front. He wouldn't lift it off the girder. He'd just slide his lead foot forward a couple inches at a time, then bring the left foot right behind it, like walking on an icy sidewalk. He went as far as the next vertical beam but didn't look too keen on maneuvering his way around it, so he set up to take pictures from there.

Walking on beams wasn't difficult when you thought about it. A few days after I broke the news about the RCA job to Clara, after she'd simmered down, I tried to show her how easy it was. I drew a rectangle a dozen feet long and 18 inches across on the sidewalk in front of our apartment and had her walk it up and down. I got her to try it while carrying laundry, walking backwards, even running and hopping on one leg. She never once stepped out of the lines. "It's that easy," I told her. "So what if it's up in the air? It's not as if I'm walking on a tightrope. It's not a balancing act."

"Down here, not so hard," she said. "But nothing at stake on the sidewalk. I step off, I lose the game. Big deal. I don't go splat."

"I'm careful. We all are."

"I know, Peter. My imagination is active. I have daydreams, like visions, all bad things that can happen."

"Clara, think of how lucky we are."

"We can be lucky in Chicago, too. You can still work with my brother on railroad lines. Only danger there is trains, and you hear them coming."

"This is what I do," I said. "Once this job is done, we'll see about Chicago. I promise."

Of course I never talked about it with Clara, but even with all our care, we'd already lost 12 men on this skyscraper. Frankie Maciejewski was the first. He'd been run over by a truck before the foundation was even excavated. John D. Rockefeller himself personally delivered the poor widow a ham, along with his condolences, and paid for the man's funeral. Then there was my neighbor Pista, who I watched plummet from 48 when his heater tossed a white-hot rivet that bounced out of his pail and right into his overall. He flailed and clutched at his chest before taking a bad step off the edge. Like a diver in a lazy gainer, he rotated backwards through the air and plunged. One poor bastard was either knocked off balance when an errant pigeon struck him or slipped on bird shit, depending on who was telling the story. That misfortune was compounded by the fact that he landed on a stonecutter who was working on the 32nd-floor mezzanine and never saw it coming. Just the week before Charlie's visit, a man was crushed when a girder herder let a beam slip off the cable from a crane. It was a miracle it didn't go crashing all the way to the ground. By that point, Mr. Rockefeller had tapered off on paying for funerals, though the condolence hams still found their way to the bereaved.

Despite my reassurances to Clara, all of us sky boys knew this was a dangerous job. Hell, a strong gust of wind, a violent sneeze, a bootlace caught on a loose bolt—there were more ways to take an 800-foot swan dive than Clara could possibly imagine. But for each grisly demise, I could offer up a reason for taking the risk. In fact, I could come up with 45 reasons per week. And Clara and I were both smart enough to know there weren't many people in New York who could bring in that kind of scratch for an honest day's work.

We could hear the roar of the motors as the cranes started up again after lunch break. They passed the girders up the building like a mechanical bucket brigade, 24 floors at a time, before handing them off to the next crane in the chain.

By this point, our crew was well rehearsed. We had it down to under a minute from the point Sonny pulled a bolt out of the furnace to the time Josef finished pounding it into shape. We worked deliberately, though. We knew we were ahead of schedule and under budget, and we also knew that we only had one floor left to go after this one. Once the last rivet was pounded into the 70th-floor frame, who knew when the next skyscraper would go up? Where once we thought they'd keep building them until Manhattan Island sank into the Hudson, the market crash had brought construction almost to a standstill. We worked as slowly as we could get away with, but all of us up there knew that this gravy train had two weeks left, tops, before it became every man for himself. I knew Clara would be back on me about Chicago, and this time, I didn't think I could conjure up an excuse not to go.

The photographer got some shots of Sonny's rivets arcing through the air. He snapped pictures of me catching them in my bucket like I was Bill Dickey. If I let one get past me, though, I didn't have the luxury of a backstop behind home plate. Those rivets became flaming bullets, and look out below. I'd missed three over the course of this building's construction, and every time, I spent the next five minutes with my heart in my throat, listening for the phone that ran up the elevator shaft to ring for Fitzgerald. The chances of hitting someone were slim—they kept the area below restricted—but we'd all heard stories. Anything that got dropped from this height might as well be a bomb.

The boys were showing off a bit for the camera. Even I caught a rivet with a gloved hand once—you could hold them for a split second before your glove melted. Charlie was getting into the spirit, too, leaning over the edge with one arm holding him back while pointing his camera straight down. "Look," he shouted, as he inched his way back toward the center of his I beam. "No hands! No hands!"

"All right, Charlie," I said.

"Don't get too cocky, lad," Matty called, swaying to and fro with a fine-tuned tippler's equilibrium. "'Tis more than a wee first step, and there are no angels up here to give you wings." He held his dolly bar horizontally like a circus high-wire walker.

"Don't jinx him," I muttered.

Once Charlie had gotten an eyeful, he made his way back to the center of the floor and let us work in peace. We settled into assembly-line efficiency. Heat, toss, catch. Pull, set, spit. Brace and tamp, then take a breath and do it again. I focused on my work, always mindful of my feet. We had to take care; the photographer was a distraction, and that could be dangerous. I concentrated on settling into my own measured routine.

Since Fitzgerald was a Yankees fan like me, we listened to the ball game on the radio between the noise of the rivet guns and the screech and clang of the steel beams and cranes. It was game two of the World Series. The Cubs had taken a quick first-inning lead, and Matty was already shaking his head. "Goddamn Lefty Gomez. Lad's going to piss it away before the game even begins."

"Simmer down, O'Fallon," I said. "The Cubs can't win. They're overmatched. Gehrig's swinging a hot bat."

Truth be told, I hated the Cubs and hated that they'd made the series. I felt like Chicago was looming over everything in my life. Every day Clara would read something about the city in the newspaper. Roosevelt was campaigning at the Drake Hotel. Al Capone was on trial. She tried to get me interested, God love her. She showed me pictures of skyscrapers. They had the Tribune Tower, Colonel McCormick's castle with its keystones from the four corners of the globe. The modern lines of the new Board of Trade Building, I had to admit, were downright majestic. But those buildings had gone up without me. It was like looking at a photo of someone else's kids. My legacy was in New York. I wanted to walk down 5th Avenue with my boy and point to the tallest buildings in the world and say, "Your pa built that," and watch his eyes go wide.

A little after two o'clock, Fitzgerald got a call that the crane on 24 was belching black smoke. He told us to go on break—until they got it fixed, there weren't going to be any more girders coming our way. Charlie was talking with some of the Indians in the middle of the floor, taking group portraits, so I settled down on a beam, sitting with my back against a stanchion. A few of us congregated near the radio to listen to reports from the game. The Cubs were spraying some hits, but the Yanks were up by three in the fifth. I packed in a fresh plug of tobacco and looked out over the city blocks. This neighborhood used to be gin joints and bordellos before Rockefeller bought up three square blocks and drove the sin out of midtown. Now I could feel the city transforming beneath me. Maybe it wasn't utopia, but you had to admire a man who could take a chunk of squalor and decay and transform it into some spectacular monolith of art and power and progress and triumph. I shut my eyes, thinking maybe I'd catch a nap, nesting on the corner of this scaffold 800-some-odd feet above the sidewalks of New York.

I was drifting, but not asleep, when the clamor began. I opened my eyes and counted to ten to get my bearings before I stood up. A dozen or so men were crowding around the walkways near the north ledge. As I made my way over, I could see Billy Roark, one of the newer kids, on his knees, leaning forward with one hand on the rim of a five-gallon bucket and the other clutching a rope that hung from a pulley above him. I could smell his sick as I got closer. Drops of sweat were falling off his nose and chin, and even though he was far enough in that he was kneeling on the plywood floor, he was clutching the rope as if he were dangling out over the void.

Sonny had an arm around him, his fist locked around the strap of his overalls, saying, "I got ya, lad. Just calm down and breathe. Breathe, boyo. It happens to us all from time to time. Just breathe." Sonny looked up at me and jerked his head toward the border beams. "I've got this one. You might want to see to your duckling, though." A half-dozen Indians were bunched up on a girder, looking in the direction that Sonny had gestured. I followed their gaze and saw Matty balancing like a tightrope walker playing the crowd for thrills. He held a box, and when I saw Charlie out on the girder with him, clutching a vertical support beam, I realized that box was Charlie's camera.

"Aw, Jesus," I said.

I looked toward John Cook, who was among the Indian onlookers, for an explanation. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say he'd given up trying to fathom white men years ago. Charlie was clutching the column and tears streamed down his cheeks. "Don't you do it," he screamed.

I walked out behind him, measuring my steps deliberately. I wanted to make myself as conspicuous as possible. It wouldn't be smart to startle anyone.

I reached the beam and saw Charlie's chalk-white knuckles where he gripped the thin steel edges so tightly that I thought he'd leave marks with his fingernails. "Charlie," I said. "Charlie, calm down. Tell me what's going on."

He was hysterical, wide-eyed and crazy. "The bastard's got my camera," he said.

"That's right," shouted Matty. "I'm gonna toss it, too." He whistled a slow descending tone. He was teetering slightly, the whiskey steering him now. This was nothing new for Matty. We marveled at his ability to keep a straight line while half in the bag, when most of us still forgot to breathe when we walked.

"Damn it, Matty," I said. "Get back here and give him his camera. Go find a playground if you want to play keep-away. We don't do this up here."

"No way, mate. Billy had himself a touch of the vertigo, and this one started taking pictures. He's going to make Billy look like an arsehole."

"I swear to God, you mick son of a bitch. If you drop that camera, I'll throw you off after it," Charlie said.

Matty tossed the camera a foot in the air, then leaned forward to catch it, kicking a leg out and lurching forward. I could hear a gasp from the peanut gallery watching behind me. Matty laughed like a lunatic and unhooked the strap from the camera. He held it out over the ledge and let it slide through his fingers, fluttering into the expanse like a streamer on New Year's Eve. That was enough for Charlie. He let go of the support beam and took a step out onto the girder. The breeze picked up, and his hair flapped like a sail in the wind. His knees were shaking, but he'd clearly calculated what his camera was worth to him. I'd seen enough fights in my day to know when men had reached the point where the only thing they weren't blind to was the bastard they wanted to kill. And with Matty swaying out there with God knows what going through his wet brain, this could only end with a ham.

I took a big risk and grabbed Charlie's wrist, squeezing tightly but exerting as little pull as possible. "Wait," I said. "Matty, he's not going to publish the pictures of Billy." I gave Charlie's wrist another squeeze. "Are you, Charlie? That would be fair, right?"

Matty extended his arm straight out with the camera resting in his palm like a waiter serving hors d'oeuvres at a Rockefeller soiree. He raised an eyebrow at Charlie.

"I won't use those pictures. I won't even develop them. I shouldn't have taken them in the first place."

Matty made an exaggerated show of weighing his options, then shrugged his shoulders. "Fuck it. I need a drink." He bent at the waist and placed the camera at his feet, right in the middle of the beam. I was afraid for a moment that he was going to give it a kick, but he just turned on his heels and walked away. Charlie shook his hand out of my grip and dropped to his knees on the girder. He crawled out to the camera like an inchworm, reaching his hands out, then pulling his knees along the beam. When he got to the camera, he picked it up with both hands and stayed there on his knees, shivering.

I walked out behind him. "Come on, Charlie," I said. "Let's get you back on solid ground."

"I can't do it. I just can't."

"I'll carry your camera," I said.

"No one's taking my camera." He turned his head to look at me, trembling, and long strands of hair were hanging down in front of his eyes. He wouldn't be able to scooch his way back down that beam with the camera in his hands.

"Then you're going to have to stand up," I said. "Nice and slow. Nice and slow."

"Can I hold your hand?" he asked.

"Okay," I said. "I'll make you a deal. If you come in with me right now, you can hold my hand."

He was breathing in short, shallow breaths. I thought of Otto when he was a baby and caught the croup. That first night, we stayed up with him, and every breath was a tight, high-pitched wheeze. I never told Clara, but I was as scared as I'd ever been in my life. I thought of how being up here 69 stories, alone in the atmosphere with this petrified man was nothing compared to rocking Otto in his cradle and bargaining with God. How after each breath, I pleaded with Him and promised to forgo all of my selfish desires. Anything so that breath wouldn't be Otto's last.

Finally, finally, Charlie put a foot underneath himself and slowly stood. He grabbed my arm and pulled himself up, but I was ready for the weight. Then I gently tugged at his hand and we inched our way, slidestep by slidestep, toward the landing. He was clutching his camera to his chest, and even though his eyes were fixed on his shoes, I could hear him muttering under his breath, "Don't look down. Don't look down."

All the sky boys had congregated to watch—even Billy Roark, who was holding a damp rag to his mouth. They broke into raucous applause when we stepped onto the plywood floor and crowded around Charlie. They patted us on our backs and grinned from ear to ear. Over the radio, the crowd from Yankee Stadium joined in the cheers, jubilant that the Bombers had just won. I felt a similar kind of excitement in my chest, like I'd just launched a walk-off homer onto the second concourse. We got to the elevator, where Fitzgerald was holding the gate open for us. He nodded at me as we stepped in and said, "Atta boy, lad. I knew I could depend on you." Then he closed the lattice gate behind us.

click to enlarge "Sky Boys" author Steve Trumpeter
  • "Sky Boys" author Steve Trumpeter

As the elevator descended toward the ground far below, I thought of Clara and Otto, and the promises I'd made. Charlie had said his pictures were scheduled for the Sunday paper, and I imagined how I'd clip them and save them to show Otto when he got a little older. I hoped they'd turn out well.

I watched the girders rising past our eyes too fast to count, and began to feel a little nostalgic. These girders, I'd joined them together. They buzzed past us like the trees whizzing by as you stare out the window of a westbound train. I looked over at Charlie who hadn't stopped hugging his camera to his chest. He was still holding my hand, still looking at his feet, still muttering his simple creed, "Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't look down."

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