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.