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Lunch Atop a Skyscraper

One friend said I should reference a different photo in my novel because this one had become a cliché. I argued that it is an icon. One woman’s icon is another woman’s . . . ?

If you describe the photo to people, they know it. Eleven ironworkers sitting on a beam 850 feet above New York City, feet dangling above Rockefeller Center, city skyscrapers behind them. The year, 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression when men and women were grateful to have work–any work. The place, the new RCA building. The photo is still relevant enough to be in the latest issue of Time Magazine, on posters in student dorm rooms, on t-shirts, on the Smithsonian website . Not bad.

Clearly blue collar workers, the men wear overalls and dungarees. One is bare-chested. Engaged in various activities—reading, eating lunch, one man lighting another’s cigarette—they seem to be at ease. Except the man on the far right. He stares straight ahead, squinting, what looks like a liquor bottle in one hand, despite Prohibition. His Irish face lined, he carries a worn look.

My first thought when I decided to use this photo was to focus on the pulsing energy of early 20th Century America. The explosion of automobiles, the Hoover Dam, Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, railroads crisscrossing the country, the Empire State Building. Telephones and electricity spreading to more remote regions, air conditioning in movie houses and office buildings. Will the world astonish us like that again? Does the iPad really compare?

People from several nations—Ireland, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Sweden—claim at least one of these men, some several. It’s possible that workers emigrating from one nation worked for the same company. Relatives often helped brothers, nephews, and sons get hired on, primarily through the unions. At least one of the men is supposed to be a Mohawk.

Conversations must have been a symphony of accents and languages, perhaps words spoken in Swedish or German when the English did not come to mind.

Most people writing comments on the Smithsonian website seemed pretty proud to claim these men as grandfathers or great grandfathers. In fact, at least four people claimed the third man from the left, clearly the most popular for reasons even the commentors questioned.

One man who claimed the third ironworker said his grandfather broke both legs when he landed from a jump at work and, as a result, needed crutches later in life. Then he fell off a beam and ended up with a steel plate in his head. Bad doctors, ancient medicine, the last forty years of his life spent in pain as he fought for disability. Never got a dime from the photo. The grandson sounded bitter.

They all wear caps. No fedoras, no bowlers. No sunglasses, just coming into vogue. A couple of them look as if they had recently polished their boots or maybe bought new ones. No steel toes.

The city so far below the men disappears in a white haze. Multi-story buildings crammed together, teaming with people from all over the world, like the ironworkers. Surely if video and sound had been available, we would hear voices rise in a babble, like Pentecost, where apostles spoke in languages they did not know so that every man present could hear about the Christ in his own tongue. But on the scaffold where the men ate lunch, surely they spoke one language, albeit with many accents. The men who built twentieth-century America.






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