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By THOMAS KELLY
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2005 Thomas Kelly
All right reserved.
Chapter One NEW YORK CITY, MARCH 17, 1930
This one, they say, will stand forever.
Michael Briody digs his bootheel into the muck and listens as hotshots in crisp dark suits speak of marvels. All around, in the gaping desolation where the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel so recently stood, are tangles of cables, beams, uncoiled air hoses, heavy trucks, and stacks of muddy lumber. The speakers huddle on a slapped-together podium and take turns salting the morning air with superlatives: grand, gigantic, epic, magnificent, unrivaled, biggest, best, momentous. They trace imaginary arcs in the air and all agree. The Empire State Building will dominate the Manhattan skyline, dwarfing all pretenders to the crown of tallest structure in the world.
Briody looks about at the gangs of his fellow workmen, who he knows can't wait till this is over. Next to him Armstrong lifts his shoulders and bounces on the balls of his feet. "Christ," he mutters. "Look at them. A flock of weasels. Ten seconds on a work gang would put any one of them in a hospital ward." Armstrong lets you know he started as a rivet punk on the Woolworth Building back in '13, that he has banged up steel on more skyscrapers than he can count. "Who needs these dipshits?" he asks. "I seen this city change shape beneath my feet. I'mthe goddamn rivet king of New York."
On the sidewalks surrounding the excavation gawkers pause. They crowd five and six deep, jostling for views through holes cut in the wooden fence. Others mass around the entrances of ramps that lead down into the site. Some gather hoping for work, thinking, Hey, why not me. Men rise on their toes, angling for clear sight lines. Children perch atop parents. The air has the tinge of carnival, a funfair. Opportunists in shiny suits work the crowd selling postcards and trinkets commemorating the event, shouting about the eighth wonder of the world.
Cameras still and moving record the ceremony. Mayor Jimmy Walker, spiffy as a Broadway prince, each hair exact, steps to the microphone. He looks over the assembled, smiles widely, and starts to speak but is interrupted by an unholy screech of feedback that careens off the foundation's stone walls and assaults the gathered, causing them to slap hands to ears, wince. Walker, an old pro in a new medium, rides out the noise, and when it subsides says, "I didn't realize Fiorello was here too." The crowd roars. There isn't a goo-goo vote for blocks. Walker smiles again. It's the kind of smile that lights up rooms, douses ire, and lets him get away with so much.
Walker knows the drill. He pays homage to the project, its scale, and to those making it happen. He steps back in line, his head fuzzy from way too much champagne the night before. He swoons toward reminiscence. Back before he entered politics he was a Tin Pan Alley sport, a writer of songs, and on more than one occasion he tossed a sawbuck to Chuckles Larue, the house dick, and frolicked away an afternoon in the grand hotel with a chorine. Those were the days.
Now it is no more. The papers told all about it, how the destruction sparked a million memories, all those echoes of lost celebrations. People called asking for keys to rooms in which they had honeymooned. A socialite in Denver called demanding a ballroom mirror, a length of bar was hauled down to a speakeasy in the Village, chandeliers were hustled to uptown drawing rooms. Then the demolition gangs swung their wrecking balls and hammers and knocked the grand hotel into a pile of junk that was carted away and dumped into the briny sea just off of Sandy Hook. Like the corpse of some refugee nobody cared to claim.
Briody is not surprised that none of the swells on stage mention the six men who died demolishing the old hotel. Not surprised in the least. He considers their ugly endings, the crushed and broken bodies spirited away like just more rubble, their names already forgotten. Their stories untold. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, is anxious to start work. His fellow workers watch with dull stares. They have no interest in the staged spectacle. They mutter and joke under their breath until one of the concrete crew makes a loud noise, like a ripe fart, and the superintendent swivels his fat head around and glares at them as if they were recalcitrant schoolboys. They fall silent. They want the work. The next stop is the breadline.
Al Smith, red-faced and stout, strides to center stage as a round of applause rises against the swirl of the wind. He rolls his cigar over his teeth, tosses it aside, doffs his brown derby. He wraps a meaty hand around the neck of the microphone and cracks a wide smile that flashes gold. He sweeps a hand across his front, indicating the foundation. "I know it don't look like much today. But trust me. The same way I came out of the Fulton Fish Market to rise to governor of this great state, so too will this site be transformed. A year from now we'll be drinking tea a quarter mile high in the air and looking down on Walter Chrysler's nifty little tower." Smith accepts the shouts and cheers of the crowd and talks about the project, its magnitude, its importance, as if he were still trying to convince himself that the raising of a skyscraper is a serious enough task for a man who so recently was his party's candidate for president of the United States of America. He eases the gathered into a few awkward verses of his theme song: "East Side, Wrest Side-we tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York."
Briody knows the story-how Alfred E. Smith came up from the docks of the Lower East Side, how he clawed his way to the top, made governor, how he looks out for his own kind. And while he no longer occupies the office, he holds the title still. They say he champions the little man, the average joe. But center stage in his suit and vest, his tight shave, his diamond stickpin catching the morning sun, he is a long way from the reek and stifle of the cargo hold.
There is to be a ritual first rivet and Briody, with his tall Celtic features, has been told by the superintendent that he is the ironworkers' poster boy, like it or not. Dust rises in little swirls as the wind blows through the site. The dignitaries vie for position in the throw of the camera's strobe while out on Thirty-fourth Street someone leans hard on a car horn. A hush flails over the crowd. The sky is clear. Briody comes forward and smiles stiffly. His colleagues have a hoot at his expense, but he doesn't mind. He looks up and sees the office workers crowded at their windows, staring slack-jawed, heads resting on shoulders, women peeking through men's elbows, noting the event so as to pass it down to the generations to come.
The Governor, his crooked smile wide, shakes Briody's hand. "I'm a card-carrying member of the bricklayers union." Briody feels the warm fleshiness of his palm and says, "Ah, that's grand, Governor. A brickie." He imagines that the last billion bricks or so in the city, have been laid without the man's help.
Skinny Sheehan cranks the bellows, flaring his coke fire. The rivets are bright orange now and Sheehan spits gently into the heat, his saliva hissing into steam. He nods and Armstrong plucks a rivet out of the heater. Acrid smoke stings the air. The officials push forward, moths to a light of recognition. It is not enough to merely be present. They must be seen to have been there, their attendance entered into the official record that is the city's tabloids. Their movement kicks up more dust, causing a few to produce handkerchiefs and blow the muck out of their noses.
Briody hooks the pneumatic hose to his rivet gun, securing it with a quick turn of the wrist. The column is held steady by a derrick cable. Al Smith nods the go-ahead, waves the crowd silent as if this is a moment for reverence. Armstrong puts the scalding steel nugget in place, Delpezzo bucks it up, and Briody drives it home, securing the column to an anchor plate. The tool barks like a Thompson as a golden flame erupts around the rivet and sparks shoot in dying arcs from each side of the steel.
A roar goes up from the men of commerce. There is fear in these men now, maybe for the first time ever, so they need this day, want the energy and optimism that the construction of this behemoth will take-want it all to rub off on them. The politicos make a point of glad-handing the union officials who showed up. Every vote counts. The Mayor backslaps the boys: the ironworkers, the laborers, the derrick men. He puts his arm around the son of a man he knows from his old Greenwich Village neighborhood. But as soon as the cameras are put away the crowd disperses until it is just the men and the work.
The ironworker foreman, Hard Nose McCabe, strides toward them. At six feet five inches he towers over most of the men and he can barely contain his disgust over the work delay caused by the ceremony. "All right ladies, now that your mothers are gone it's time to get this modern marvel built," he shouts over the carpenters pounding apart the podium.
Briody leans back until his head is parallel to the ground. He stares up into the vast blue expanse of the New York sky and tries to project how far the steel they are about to throw up will reach. To what point in the heavens he and his crew will ascend, where they will meet the ether, where the Stars and Stripes will be mounted at the topping-off ceremony. There is nothing in sight to scale it by.
"Great country, hey Paddy?" Armstrong slaps his back.
His head is heavy with blood so he rights himself. For once, he doesn't even mind being called Paddy. He nods. "So they tell me," he says.
Nothing gets built in Gotham without a kickback. When the Empire State developers were ready to turn their crazy dream into concrete and steel they had turned to Johnny Farrell. Now Farrel stood in the foundation hole admiring the scope of the project he had helped make possible. He pulled his fedora snug and stepped lightly across the dirty construction site. Up on Thirty-fourth Street he slid into the backseat of the Mayor's jade green Duesenberg, where Walker was busy wiping his shoes with a handkerchief. They rode in silence through scattershot city traffic, skirted trolleys, horses, jalopies, and trucks, the dashing and darting populace. The driver worked his horn and siren to little effect.
"Did you see Smith? In his glory with the finance men, his new pals. He's a long way from his boyhood on Oliver Street, our old friend. Next thing, he'll be breaking bread with Episcopalians, or joining the Union Club, maybe running for redemption on the Republican ticket." The Mayor dropped the soiled handkerchief on the floor between his feet. "Do me a favor, Johnny Farrell, when I am out of the politicking business, don't let me sully myself so."
"I'll make a point of it, your honor."
"And he gives me grief for enjoying the nightlife, the odd showgirl."
"It's easy to be self-righteous with a full belly."
The Mayor placed his homburg on the seat between them, leaving his hand atop it. Farrell noticed the thinness of his fingers, the nails immaculately buffed, the skin pale and smooth. If ever a man was born to a particular job in a particular place and time it was Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York. Farrell wondered how the Mayor saw his career. Was this his last stop? He clearly loved his position, reveled in the power, the pomp, the burn of the spotlight, and while he never expressed interest beyond his present office, who knew? Walker lived his life on two stages-one for the world and one for himself. Farrell's success often depended on his ability to read the Mayor, to anticipate his moods and whims, but it was never easy.
Walker stared out the window and said, "So, Deputy Commissioner of Buildings, did the little code changes make my constituents happy?"
"Pleased as punch." Farrell smiled at the rare use of his official government title.
"A small price to pay for the ability to construct such a monument to their own greed."
"Business as usual."
"Well, it should keep the lads happy in this time of need."
Farrell broke down the kickback in his head, distributing the loot, working his mental abacus. The Mayor, as usual, would take far less than he deserved. In these matters he was strangely reserved. A small percentage, a "commission" he called it, a fee for his services. Which Farrell was entrusted to deposit in one of the fourteen bank accounts the Mayor had going, or sometimes to the Mayor's good friend and financier, Sherwood Wilson, who would squirrel it away God knows where. There was a lot of talk of overseas accounts and blind trusts. Walker tended to keep his distance from graft. Still, he knew better than to try to stop it. The system had acquired a dangerous momentum and woe to the man who interfered with its dark commerce. Farrell had no qualms about taking his share, and occasionally bits and pieces of others'. And why not? They ran the show and to the victor go the spoils.
Johnny Farrell popped a mint into his mouth, adjusted his cuffs, and wriggled deeper into his seat. Even so, this was by far the biggest score he had ever worked on. The developers needed two changes in the building code to make the Empire State Building feasible, never mind profitable. Steel gauge and elevator speed. Two simple adjustments in the way skyscrapers were built that the Mayor had vetoed twice without comment. Farrell had played the developers beautifully, had created supreme leverage.
His assurances that the Mayor would be swayed had led to the massing of capital and the forging of steel in the burning cauldrons of the Monongahela River Valley, to the commitment of the money boys, to the transformation of an idea into a million tons of fact. And Farrell had secured the Mayor's signature, after doubling its price, of course, to a nice round one million dollars. And that was just the beginning. There were to be dozens of subcontractors on the job who would have to pay for the privilege, not to mention ancillary work like sewer lines, roads, and a sparkling new subway station. Plus, someone had to meet the gambling and policy needs of several thousand workers. Farrell controlled all of it.
"It's just a bigger scale than usual. Any contractor knows how this town works."
"I am sure you educate those who don't."
"The reformers can't fault us on this one. Even when the Organization is out of power, nothing gets built without a tribute. It only makes sense that the biggest building in the world calls for the biggest payoff." Farrell knew he did not need to spell it out for Walker. Kickbacks were as constant as the roar of the elevated. Whether the government was machine or reform, Democrat or Republican, made no great difference.
Excerpted from EMPIRE RISING by THOMAS KELLY Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Kelly. Excerpted by permission.
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