Thursday, August 11, 2011

Motorcycles & A Manhattan Sunrise

This morning was spent grinding out and polishing over all the nicks and imperfections that weren’t there last night. It is truly an amazing mystery how a piece of steel, touched by nothing but the air, can develop new scratches overnight. But art is art, and this cross was something more even, so kept at it we did, grinding and smoothing and polishing, again and again, aiming for perfection, not at all mindful of what was bound to happen to the metal on the ride down the highway and into Manhattan.

There were two more pizza boxes in the trash can when show time rolled around – the moment of truth when we’d find out just how straight (or not) the cross would stand. It would be far too tall for the rafters in the barn; we’d have to do it outside, on a patch of cracking, crumbling and most likely not level concrete. The cross was already back outside and waiting, the smaller portion of the base attached to its feet. The much larger part of the base, ten feet tall and five hundred pounds easy, was still inside. There were two dollies over in the corner, doing absolutely nothing – but the weight of the base would crush those small wheels right into the dirt of the barn floor. ‘Let’s just carry it,’ Jon said, not a hint of irony or sarcasm in his voice.


Standing upright in the bright sun, this ten-foot monolith was suddenly sporting new scratches. This minor annoyance, however, had to take a back seat to the possibility that the smaller portion of the base wouldn’t fit into the pre-cut hole in the top of the larger part.

It was close.

A little whining of machinery and grinding of metal and she dropped into place. ‘Look straight to you?’ ‘Yeah, I’d say so.’ ‘How about from the side?’ ‘Yeah, sure, perfect.’ This left just a little more welding to be done: the smaller part of the base had to be fixed to the larger part; after this was accomplished a few steel braces on the inside of this larger part would be necessary to hold the cross firmly in place. (Welding these steel braces to the inside walls of the base put three burn marks on the outside, to give an indication of the heat we were working with.)(Okay, the heat Jon and Anthony were working with, no bloggers were allowed near the welding equipment.) Now all we had to do was lay the cross down on the trailer and strap it down.

This simple step would turn into a three hour adventure.

With the arms of the cross resting on the forks of the lift and the top of the cross tied to that part that holds the forks (none of us knew the word for it) it was going to be impossible to lower the cross down. Untying the rope, freeing the cross from that thing no one knew the word for, would result in a very obvious and foreseeable catastrophe once we tried to ease it down. There was only one solution. Well there may have been a whole lot of solutions but for a while we couldn’t think of any.

‘Lean it up against the barn and retie it,’ said Anthony, implying that Jon should be the one to get up on that pitched roof and hold his twenty-eight-foot tall, one thousand pound sculpture in place while he untied and retied that black rope, both our savior and our enemy in the moment. We all watched from the safety of the ground as Jon, as a fire walker blocks out pain, as a soldier blocks out fear, blocked out all sense of self-preservation and held on to everything in reach as he reattached the cross so it would hang freely below the forks of the lift – if the lift happened to extend far enough to account for all twenty-eight feet of the cross hanging from what was now an extra four feet of tautened rope.

The lift did indeed give us the height we needed – and soon the cross was swinging and spinning in suspension. ‘Hey, everybody! Stay out of the way!’ Jon shouted, back on the ground now, trying to ease six months of work into aerial submission. ‘I don’t want anyone dying today!’ Everyone went quiet. Jon slipped a smirk. ‘I need you guys until tomorrow…’

Anthony maneuvered the cross into place behind the trailer, sticking one wheel of the forklift behind the base of the cross for when it would inevitably begin to kick out. Then slowly, incrementally, the top of the cross began to arc downward, in perfect position it seemed, for the curvature in the steel to rest on the low railing along the hitch end. At about forty-five degrees Jon began shouting again. ‘Hold up! Hold it!’

Anthony stopped. Jon shook his head. A certain blogger knew what was coming, though he had kept his mouth shut assuming Jon knew what he was doing.

‘The cross is facing the wrong way,’ Jon said. ‘We’re laying it down on its front side.’

Knowing where the scratches were coming from would actually be a nice change from having them spontaneously appear so Jon went with it. At about 6:30 in the evening, a mere hour behind schedule, the cross was strapped to the trailer and ready for one final trip into New York.

We wouldn’t be going straight into the city. We had a stop to make: the New Jersey Firemen’s House, a retirement home for elderly and disabled former fire fighters. Here we were greeted by Robert Sola and a few dozen of his fire-fighting, motorcycle-riding friends, along with a handful of proud, retired firefighters. One last time, Jon would tell the story behind the cross. One last time Jon would pass around that piece of the Trade Center rubble. One last time, people would place notes and prayers inside the cross. One last time, Jon would drive off, his artful memorial behind him

One last time.

Smoke & Iron. Knights of Inferno. Red Knights. Blue Knights. These were the names of the motorcycle clubs represented by the thirty-odd firemen escorting us, lights flashing and engines roaring, down Rt. 287 along Rt. 80 and over the George Washington Bridge. At a light on the West Side Highway one of them pulled up to us. ‘Where are we going exactly?’ Apparently that bit of information hadn’t gone around. ‘Barclay and Church,’ Jon answered. Our friend pulled up to the others in front of us. They had a quick discussion we couldn’t hear. One of them finally turned around. ‘Where’s Barclay and Church?...’

Parked next to St. Peter’s Church, the cross had made it to its own doorstep. Our firemen friends lined up on both sides, picked the cross up, base and all, turned it over and laid it back down, face up. In the dim streetlights it seemed the mirror finish had more or less survived. Before we took the power tools to them we would walk two blocks, down to the construction fences outside the foot of the new Freedom Tower, to join our leather-jacketed comrades in prayer, remembering all those who had lost their lives on the ground in front of us ten years ago.

They roared off up
Church Street
, in groups of two and three, as we got to work putting the cross through a final – the final final – polishing. We moved to the far side of the street to make use of the only streetlight on the block. Now and again passersby stopped to look, to sometimes ask, to admire or comment or simply continue walking down the street. It was eleven o’clock when Jon realized we had forgotten a few pieces of small and very important hardware. With no other apparent option, he unhooked from the trailer and drove back to Boonton to grab nine one-inch nuts for the bolts we had remembered to bring.

An hour later, Scottie, whom Jon had brought in to assist with the technical and critical aspects of the physical installation, noticed we hadn’t brought any epoxy. A moment of inquiry with a guy in an SUV told him where he could get some in the city at this late hour. In another moment Scottie was jumping in the guy’s SUV for a lift uptown.

By this time the union guys were finished unloading the crane we needed – which turned out to be another telescopic forklift. Once again we found ourselves wondering – praying – that it would reach high enough for the circumstances, in this case getting the twenty-eight-foot cross over the five-foot fence between the sidewalk and the cross’s new home. While we were discussing the scenario, along with another one involving us having forgotten to bring the orbital sander to erase all the latest scratches, a guy in a blue jacket came sauntering up.

‘You guys got everything under control?’ He had a smile that was very genuine, and a look on his face that said he hadn’t been getting enough sleep for around twelve years now. He glanced across the street, then back at the cross. ‘How tall is this thing anyway?’

Turned out this guy worked for the City Transit Department and has been working down at the former World Trade Center site. He knew his job and all the rules and regulations that came with it - ‘Just make sure you keep those wheels off my grates, all right?’ - and he seemed not to care about much else. But his smile never went away.

Jon got back about 1:00 am, with the hardware we were missing along with the sander he’d noticed was still sitting on the floor of the barn. Soon after Scottie returned with a bag full of tubes of epoxy and an orange caulking gun – and more hardware. At a little after two o’clock Anthony noticed that the drill bit Scottie had gotten didn’t fit the drill we had. So away Jon and Scottie went, back to the hardware store that, miraculously, was open all night. New York truly is the city that never sleeps.

It was four o’clock when we set in place a heavy metal foundation plate, on bolts sitting in the eight holes froming a square in the cement – eight holes filled with epoxy that needed another four hours to dry but our guys with the crane disguised as a forklift would only be sticking around until six o'clock. Let’s say we use the weight of the cross and a couple of well-placed straps to hold it…

We didn’t have the right wrench for the nuts Jon had driven back to Boonton for, but the boys made do with something Bob Vila would never have agreed with. Meanwhile we’d kept at it in the light of our only streetlight, grinding and polishing and chasing away those elusive phantom steel-scratchers. And while for days now it seemed as though we would never get them all, saying over and over ‘That’s about as good as it’s going to get’, when it was time to get back over to the other side of the street and have our hired heavy machinists do their thing, it seemed there was, suddenly, a thing called perfection. Of course, the sun had yet to come up and light things up for us. But for the moment we could put our tools down and drink in a bit of satisfaction.

After four and a half hours of waiting around for us, our crane/forklift guys got the cross hoisted and over the fence in about twenty minutes. And at four-fifty am, on August 11th, the cross finally came home.

The city had turned light by the time we were packed up and ready to go home. Jon and Anthony had welded the base to the metal plate, but more stability would be needed. The Book of Names had yet to be attached, but this would be done in time. Those six burn marks, three on each side of the base from welding those interior braces, were still there. But from the sidewalk, that cross towering over our heads did indeed look perfectly polished. Unblemished. Miraculous.

People walked by, glancing up at the shiny piece of steel now standing in place of the scratched and rusty I-beam cross that had been there for the last five years. And they kept walking, on their way to work or wherever their day was taking them.