Iconic

The photograph itself doesn’t interest me.
I want only to capture a minute part of reality.

— Henri Cartier Bresson

Often I see the portrait[1] in people’s houses or offices, or sometimes in magazines or books, a photo almost sixty years old that captured an image of men eating lunch on a girder over New York City in 1932. Yet, I see what others never can: the days and weeks and months surrounding that ensnared moment, and I see a space that pulses in the gray mist of cloud. I am now of age to understand that seeing is a selective act anyway, that nothing is truly visible to us at all, other than in some intersection of time and memory, shallow imprints in the sands of what we call experience. None of us can ever prove that any one event has truly happened in the exact way we have perceived it, for perception is the slide of the world around us as we spin on its surface and imagine we are still.

Even now I remember the shuddering in my legs that first day in March of 1931, the giddy disbelief at my journey away from the earth, away from the streets of a struggling New York, a dark-jeweled metropolis in a struggling nation of beaten-down cities. I hadn’t expected the overwhelming predominance of space that swallowed me on the morning of my first ascent, the morning I was resurrected from among the desperate job seekers far below. I hadn’t understood that the cost of my transformation would be such a persistent struggle against the vertiginous danger that spread itself out beneath me, a languid gray creature waiting to be fed.

None of us can ever prove that any one event has truly happened in the exact way we have perceived it, for perception is the slide of the world around us as we spin on its surface and imagine we are still.

I had imagined that working on the then fifty-second floor of this new Rockefeller building would involve precarious heights around a core of something solid to which I could cling. I had pictured an actual floor for one thing, a rudimentary plane of concrete from which we would work, our base. Instead, I stepped out into the framework of struts, cantilevers and beams connected by a series of heavy planks, doubled and tripled up in places for the storage of equipment and tools, a web of filaments preparing for the structure to follow. We were the pioneers leading the charge into the sky, the hazards inherent in our point position part of the reason we had been given jobs in a jobless age. When I stepped out of the clanking elevator onto a thin mat of planking, I was immediately struck by a sense of utter disconnection from the earth. Yet, men strode across narrow joists as if they were strolling along a beach, shouting at each other, cursing the early morning and the heavy weight of drink in their veins, seemingly unperturbed by the towering elements they occupied.

A hundred times that day I almost gave up and retreated to the streets, but the knowledge of my sisters’ hungry faces, my mother’s pellucid skin, my father’s baffled eyes, all kept me pinned to the gray sky above the city. Somehow, I managed to prevail over the horrors of that day, and then those of a week, and though I came close to pitching to my death on more times than I wish to remember, I stayed. In the coming months I became part of the strangest family I had ever known. I was Will Sharpton, and I belonged to a family of men who learned to perform as though they knew no fear and whose home inched ever further into the sky each day.

Santini was the one I knew least at first. Quiet, pale, a sapling with slender hands, a youth who did not laugh at the lewd jokes we engaged in to fill the days of fear. Yet, his eyes were large and intelligent, and when I drew him out, his smile and papery voice were things that seemed unsuited to the world at all, much less our world in which the bosses drove us recklessly to complete the project by the fall of 1932.

I recognized early a strange desire in me to protect Santini, and I should have had adequate opportunity to do so. Barker and Smith, the boxer and the former dock hand, loved to bully and leer at the weaker men, sometimes challenging them to fist fights on a girder jutting out over the streets a quarter mile below. Always the timid backed down and earned nicknames they would never want to share with their families or friends who knew nothing of our struggles far above them.

Rockefeller Center rises in mid-Manhattan, 1932.
BY Hamilton M. Wright
FOR Aerial Explorations, Inc., N.Y.
New York World-Telegram Collection
Library of Congress

Yet, Santini, the smallest and thinnest of us, somehow managed to smile and whisper his way through the minefield of hung-over, stinking men with sun-burnished faces, men who invariably wore floppy caps that resembled their prospects.

Twice I saw the real Santini. The first time was in February of 1932. By then I thought I had become almost accustomed to the idea of walking on the shell of a building that swayed and moved in the wind. Snow slanted down against the building, and a winch slipped.

That was it, as simple as that. Such mishaps were regular occurrences: mechanical failures resulting in either inconvenience or death; we never knew which it would be. This day, in that sinuous veil of blowing snow — when we probably should not have been working at all — the slippage of chain on a pulley meant death. A steel beam came loose above us and the winch captain shouted the warning that struck ice into our brains each time we heard it, “Beam down!” We had time to turn our heads toward the sound on the floor above us, time to see the flailing orange tumble of iron, time to shrink away and feel liquid fear sluicing into our bowels like snow melting on heated concrete. Batt Millhouse did not have enough time. His time had run out.

This day, in that sinuous veil of blowing snow — when we probably should not have been working at all — the slippage of chain on a pulley meant death.

The beam struck a pillar and rotated once, like a clock hand gone mad. It tipped over and the end of it hammered down on Batt’s skull as he tried to move out of the way. The front half of his head was gone when the beam passed, the shouts of “Beam down” accompanying its clattering cascade through the building like the fading glissando of some terrible operatic movement. I was ten feet from Batt when it happened. Santini was right beside him, and when Millhouse’s knees buckled and his torso pivoted, we saw his face was gone, that the mess of blood and bone staring back at us was no longer the visage of a man, that this new creature was no longer one of us. Still, Santini grabbed at him, touched his hand before Batt toppled over the edge as if to go in search of the beam that had killed him.

Death did not mean a break in the work. Weather might, though, and as if to recognize that Batt Millhouse had just been killed, the gray skies of swirling mist and clumped flakes spewed snow on us in great swollen blankets of white. A horn sounded and we were allowed to retreat to any of the temporary shelters, wooden frames with plank floors across the beams, which were located on all the levels of the building. Santini was hunched by himself when I entered. I saw he had been sick in the corner, and that he was wiping at his face as though erasing tears.

The icy wind speared through the cracks in the wood, and we breathed against the cold. After a long time, he surprised me by whispering in that soft voice:

“I can’t see… can’t witness any more dying.”

I knew what he meant. Millhouse had been the fourth man from our floor killed while we had been there. Still, I said, “Why?”

It was a stupid question, and I don’t know why I asked it, especially because all of us felt the same way. We all knew the why. Yet, his answer surprised me.

“October last year, my father, mother and brother died.”

I stared at him, but his eyes were far away. I wondered if that was all he would say, but I saw the pale skin of his throat pulsing as he struggled to utter more. The sound of the frigid wind came to me as I waited.

“He… my father… decided the indignities of his bankruptcy could not be faced… decided for all of us, my mother, my brother and me. He bought us breakfast at the Ritz, seemed to have regained all his cheer, though looking back I see it was a performance.” Santini shrugged his thin shoulders, grimacing it seemed at some foolishness in his thought.

His head sank between slight shoulder blades, and he went silent, seemed stuck on some barb of memory. Just then a buffet of wind struck the shelter and from a crack between the wall and its loose-boarded roof came a skirling of snow that drifted down on his shoulders like fairy dust. When some flakes touched the skin on his slender wrist, he began talking again, not looking at me, his voice low and strained.

He shook himself, almost a shiver, and when he spoke a moment later, his voice was softer than ever, as if it had been drained of energy, the words coming in little fits and starts.

“We knew the bailiffs were waiting at the house for us, knew that we were going there to take with us some belongings, but as we drove along in the bright whiteness of an autumn day, my father began to cry. That’s the last thing I remember before he drove the car off the New Jersey causeway into the Chautauqua Lake.” Santini paused again, then turned to me, and I was struck by the lucid green of his eyes, wet-rimmed and delicate like marble in ice.

“I remember the fall through the blue air and the sound of glass breaking and the rush of water, but mainly I recall my brother pushing me out of the car through the icy water. I reached my hand back for him, touched his fingers, but panic took hold of me and I kicked for the distant light. I don’t know why he didn’t make it out, or my parents, but I have often thought since then that I should have held him until we both either died or reached the surface. My fingers brushed his, the same way I… I grazed Batt’s hand just now as he fell. I… I don’t have the ability to save it seems.”

Santini tensed, as if he had thought of something. A flutter of fingers in the hollow of his throat, as if he were trying to touch something beneath his shirt, then the slender hand fell back to his side. He shook himself, almost a shiver, and when he spoke a moment later, his voice was softer than ever, as if it had been drained of energy, the words coming in little fits and starts.

“…took this job — my father had lined it up for… for my brother — I’m here where he should be — here and they are not — I… I can’t…”

I leaned into the long silence that followed this winnowing away of words, and I willed him to continue. The clanging of an ambulance bell drifted up from the streets through the downward muffle of snow, its sound a small rupture of the space between us.

I leaned into the long silence that followed this winnowing away of words, and I willed him to continue.

Santini said one more thing. One more thing that made me colder than the weather that was now swallowing the swaying pinnacle of building on which we stood.

“I’m finished, with everything — surviving is just too difficult, at least… alone.”

Two eyes shone and sparked at me in the dull light of the shelter, a single fleck of snow clinging to a dark lash. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t alone, had a deep urge to shove aside the pain I saw in the wan face floating in the murk before me. Yet, I said nothing.

He stood and went to pass me. I don’t know how I knew it, but I suddenly sensed the surge of some dark and deliberate determination in him. I grabbed him by his jacket, and I felt the lightness of him, saw his leaf-green eyes look at me in shock, as if they had been awakened from sleep, as if they had been informed of some new message in the depths of the night. However, a second later he shook his head again, that slight shivering motion of dismissal he had used earlier.

Then he did the strangest thing: reaching up and touching my cheek, a gentle caress of palm on the bristle of hair and bone, as if he were holding a chalice or a valuable piece of artwork. Nodding, he allowed his expression to shift into that smile of his, before he went back to where he had been crouched before. We sat in silence for an hour until the bosses declared the storm had passed, though it clearly hadn’t.

In the months after that, Santini and I worked side by side, a team almost. He still talked little, and he would never agree to go to the bars with me at the end of the day. Yet. I could tell my presence there in the spill of steel and mist above Manhattan was important to him.

The pattern of days stretched out in a weave of hours stitched together by death and weather. Cold and heat reddened us, branded us as riders of the clouds, and from time to time storms threatened, great wheeling monsters climbing each other’s backs to get to us, gradually settling down over the skyline in a thick mass of fibrous smoke, ready to let loose and destroy or even pass over as they so chose. Ironically, it was often on those tempest-stirred days that we felt most secluded and almost secure, as if we inhabited a burrow beneath the earth, snugly walled in by vapor and rain. On days like that, it seemed as if there had been a kind of inversion of all our knowing. We knew our world backwards.

The pattern of days stretched out in a weave of hours stitched together by death and weather. Cold and heat reddened us, branded us as riders of the clouds…

And then a clearing front would come sweeping in from the Atlantic, and time would begin its slow roll forward once more.

I still remember the rattle of the elevator shaft that August morning when I knew I would not return the following week. The sound was like the sledging of anvils near my ears, and when I climbed the strapped ladders, behind the moving legs of other workers, up into the nest of steel and plank, I felt I was arriving there for the first time. The sun flared beneath the rim of the city, fulminating and hissing red and orange in the steam of the horizon.

I told Santini I had saved enough to pay my way through my first year of college, that I was finished with all of this. He froze, silhouetted against the sunrise, and I saw him turn to one side as if to deflect a blow. When he looked back, he had regained composure, and he nodded. Just as he had done on that day that Millhouse died, he reached out a hand and touched me, this time on the back of my bare arm. It was the same feather touch but briefer, and then he began to move away from me.

It was just then that the photographer arrived, with three of the supervisors in tow. The man was a sallow little fellow, but you had to hand it to him; he had guts. You could see his face was the color of apple peel left in the sun for days, almost transparent, and yet he came out on the joists despite his obvious terror. And within minutes, he became all business. Sit this way on the beam. Open your lunch boxes. Turn your heads to the left. To the right.

We sat precariously, nervous. The supervisors told us to relax, look casual. I was glad to be near the end of the beam, with only Santini beside me. He leaned into me slightly, and I looked at him, his beautiful sad eyes beneath the peaked cap. I wanted to tell him I’d stay, and then felt foolish for having such a thought.

The weather intervened then again. No storm this time, just a bank of hazy nebula, a blemishing of light that would pass. A supervisor said to leave the beam, to remember our positions, and the photographer would take the shot in a few minutes. When I had moved some equipment for one of the bosses, I went to put my lunch box on the plank reserved for that purpose. Something fluttered in the breeze where Santini’s lunch box usually sat, right beside where I put mine: a scrap of paper weighted in place by a bolt. Beneath the paper was a gold chain, a delicate necklace attached to a filigreed heart. I read the words on the paper: “For Sharp, because of what is not. Thanks. S.”

Later Barker said he saw Santini step off the edge of the building, did it as if he were going for a stroll. He said he had smiled that way he always did and then was gone.

It was as if my legs had been cut away, and when I went out on the beam twenty minutes later for the photograph to be finally taken, I had to bite my lip to stop the shaking in all my limbs. The photographer did not even notice there was now no one on my left, that a space existed where a spirit had been before.

It wasn’t until many years later — after I had finished college and gone into practice, after I had married and divorced twice — that I found out. It was in the fifties in Dallas that I met Barker in a bar. I almost didn’t recognize him until I heard him speak. He was a mere distillation of the pugilist he had once been. He had gone back to boxing in the forties and had become the fall guy for promoters of better fighters. Now he was a bit addled; his vaguely surprised face was wide and broken.

New York City views.
Rockefeller Center and RCA Building
from 515 Madison Ave, December 5, 1933.
BY Samuel H. Gottscho
Library of Congress

Over a whiskey, he told me what the ambulance men had discovered, what the workers had been told the next day, the day I had chosen not to return. Santini had not been Santini after all. Well, in a way that wasn’t true either. He wasn’t Robert Santini, but she was Sarah Santini. Santini was a woman. Robert was the brother who had died with her parents, and Sarah had used his name to get the job.

When I went home that night to my Dallas townhouse, I dug out the necklace, now tarnished by age. As I held it in my palm, I remembered Santini’s eyes, remembered her touch, remembered how I had felt. And I finally understood.

Which is why, I think, I get angry when I see that photo — iconic they say — hanging in people’s offices, because nobody sees what is not there.

Because nothing is ever there, not really.

Every time I see that photo, I step off the edge of memory and fall into the abyss of time.

Into everything that is not.

Into everything that was not and never can be.

At least not in this world.

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REFERENCE

  1. Men on Beam at Rockefeller Center, 1932, Charles C. Ebbets.

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