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The Man Who Couldn't Fly
stood balanced gracefully on the four inch flange
spandrel beam, his yellow hard hat tilted rakishly
to one side and pulled
his right eye. He opened a package of Granger, took
out a pinch and wedged
between his gum and cheek, far enough back so it
wouldn't interfere with his
whistling. To make sure, he piped a series of
shrill blasts with and without
fingers to make sure everything was in working
order. The office girls in
Trump Tower would be arriving soon and he wanted to
be ready for them.
Frank and his friends kicked off the whistle ritual
every day about nine
the girls arrived; ever since the foundations were
set and the steel was
delivered. But in spite of his swagger, his crotch
hitching, and his macho
whistle, Frank Walker was not as secure in his
masculinity as he would have
think. He was a tiger up on the thirteenth floor,
but he'd rather not get
closer than that. The closer he got to a woman the
more insecure he was.
He would justify his insecurity by telling his
friends, "The girls ain't so
pretty when y'get them up close. Whistlin' close --
is close enough." The
younger they were, the louder and more piercing was
his whistle -- insistent
authoritative -- as though the girls were
candidates in a personal beauty
contest, a runway, walking the street just for him.
He would score them
from one to
ten according to their sexiness and sizzle.
"Hey, Al!" He would call. "Check it out! A number 8
comin' your way!" In
return the girls would cringe in embarrassment or
disgust, or try to ignore
a few of the bolder ones would give him the finger.
As they passed from
Frank's field of view, the other men would take
over and the whistling would
the girls until they disappeared through the
revolving doors of the Trump
Tower. Then, and only then, would the steel worker's
Some of the girls complained of the harassment to
superintendent and the police, but it only served
to encourage the heroes of
As every young secretary in mid-town Manhattan
knows, steel workers are
yahoos, the loudest and lustiest of the boys in the
building trade. They
compared to bullfighters or World War I fighter
pilots romanticizing the
of their profession. The electricians are older --
so are the plumbers,
jobs are not as romantic or dangerous as the hard hats of the high steel.
steel workers live their lives to the fullest.
Frank and his crew drank,
and gambled as if there were no tomorrow, and as
small boys will nervously
whistle as they walk past a cemetery, Frank and his
crew whistled at the
as they flounced in and out of Trump Tower.
Frank Walker's masculinity guttered out like a
penny candle when he picked
his lunch pail and went home. He was not master of
his house. Far from it.
His wife, Lucinda, and his step-daughter, Tammy,
were numbers one and two --
Frank was a distant third. He frequently found
himself warming yesterday's
take-out dinner while Tammy took ballet lessons at
the dance studio and
Lucinda entertained wealthy dilettantes in her art
gallery at the mall. He
often ask himself, "What goes? Where is everybody? This ain't the way it's
s'posed to be. What the hell is this?"
A few years ago Lucinda's former husband asked
himself the same question
times. Frank met him at a cocktail party a few
months after he and Lucinda
were married. Both men had enough to drink to be
able to discuss Lucinda man
man straight from the shoulder. The former husband,
an account executive for
Madison Avenue advertising company confided to
Frank that she was "some
of work," and he frankly confessed he wasn't sure
he was Tammy's father.
"But, to tell you the truth, Frank," he said,
"numbers confuse me. Counting
from the time Tammy was born, I'm not sure where I
was -- or where Lucinda
for that matter."
Hell of a thing, Frank thought at the time -- but
as much as he was tempted,
he didn't have the nerve to bring the subject up
with Lucinda. She had an
tongue. All he was sure of was that things at home
weren't as simple as they
were up on the high steel. He couldn't remember the
last time he stood up to
Lucinda and told her off. Whenever the thought
crossed his mind (like when
got the mink coat without even telling him) ....
one withering stare made
back off. It wasn't that he was afraid of her -- it was just that she always
knew what to say to make him look like a backward
fool. Tammy was just as
Thirteen years old and she had her own cell phone!
"How come she needs a cell phone? She's only
thirteen years old! Why can't
she wait 'til she gets home to use the phone? I
don't even have a cell
"She needs it," Lucinda said. "All her friends have
cell phones -- Frank,
wouldn't know how to use a cell phone if you had
Money was not a problem with Frank and Lucinda.
Steel workers are better
than account executives -- the union was good to
steel workers. When the
weather was inclement, (rain, wind, snow or sleet)
they were paid in full to
the day off. It provided low cost, generous
insurance and great job
If Frank met with disaster on the job, Lucinda
would be a wealthy woman.
and Lucinda lived well by any standard. They had
television sets galore,
could watch television in any room of their
apartment in Forest Hills. Frank
had a Camaro and Lucinda had a BMW. In four years
Tammy would have a Honda
which she would probably drive with one hand while holding her cell phone
the other. The Walkers paid more in garage rent than many people spend for
housing. Lucinda rarely cooked, even Frank's warmed-over Chinese take-out
Mandarin's Gourmet To Go. They had a financial
advisor, an Irish cleaning
lady and a bedroom with floor to ceiling mirrors.
Frank was a steel worker because his father had
been a steel worker. That's
the way it goes in the building trade -- pass it
along. Frank's father had
slipped and fallen 27 stories from the four inch
flange of a 36 inch beam
was knocked askew by the building crane. A fellow
worker confided to Frank
the funeral that, "he wuz whistlin' at some broad
sun-bathin' on the roof
door. I don't think he ever knew what hit him."
.... That's the way it goes.
Frank was not a literate man. His mind wandered
when he got past the
headlines and he would find himself reading the
same words over and over,
would turn the page and look at the underwear ads.
He hadn't read a book
high school, and even the work manual for welders provided by the union lay
unopened on his bedside table. He had difficulty reading directional signs
the highway. He couldn't operate a VCR or set up
the push buttons on the
in his Camaro.
In spite of his whistling, he was ill at ease with
women. He met Lucinda at
west side spa shortly after her divorce, and it was
she, not he, who struck
up a conversation. Before he knew it, he had been
persuaded to take her and
Tammy to the Four Seasons for brunch. Her
theatrical description of the
with her husband reminded Frank of an old movie he
had seen on television.
Lucinda was a fine looking woman. A natural honey
blond, in her mid
well toned and possessed of a walk calculated to
provoke an involuntary
whistle in any male animal. Although she would
never admit it, 'the walk,'
preservation of it, was her main reason for working
out at the spa. The male
customers would stop what they were doing and marvel at 'the walk' as she
her fifteen minutes on the treadmill. Frank would
stand spellbound and look
her as a small boy might look at a new ten-speed
bicycle. Fed up with her
husband and the ups and downs of the advertising
business, it didn't take
to nail Frank. She was well acquainted with his
type and knew how to play to
his vanity. Before Frank knew what hit him, the
three of them were living
together in Forest Hills. Marriage quickly followed
"Frank, we can't go on like this, Tammy is ten ....
she's beginning to ask
"Y'mean you wanna get married?"
She looked at him more in astonishment than
affection. "How did you ever get
this far without falling off a building?" she
Having sex with Lucinda was like opening the hood
of his Camaro and trying
understand its complicated mechanism. He found her
to be a very complex,
multi-jointed machine where every movement was
carefully planned and
it wasn't, severe and expensive damage would follow. In addition, there were
curlers, greases, oils and undergarments which, in
Frank's stubby workman's
fingers, were impossible to remove. Frank, clumsy
and frustrated, would
despair, throw up his hands and find something else
It is pitiful how fragile a man can be. Any man.
For all his swagger and
posturing -- for all the bravado and sexual
boasting it takes very little to
a man, any man, to his knees. A mote of dust in his
eye. A grain of sand in
his teeth. A wrinkled sock inside his shoe, and
suddenly the man is a
A harsh word from Lucinda would often render Frank
speechless and undo him
completely -- he would replay her harsh words and
rebukes in his mind like a
frustrated schoolboy. He was forced to admit to
himself that he was not the
he used to be -- or thought he used to be. He
shared these concerns with no
one, but at lunch he would look around him and
secretly wonder if other men
the same problem.
But up on the high steel, walking the four inch
flanges of the beams and
girders with his buddies, he is himself again, and
in a voice deeper and
than it has to be, he bellows, "Damn broads!
They're not human, Al --
It's nothin' like I thought it was gonna be ....
marriage I mean. I been
at cards -- lucky with the horses, but I ain't been
so friggin lucky with
broads! They're okay from a distance -- whistlin'
distance. Y'can put a move
'em from up here. But once you get 'em up close
they're different." He turns
to Al the morning of that last day. "Y'with me on
that, Al?" Then he walks
a step or two, stops, turns and looks out at the
city spread below him.
"Did'ja ever stop to think how quiet and clean it
is up here, Al .... up
from the noise and the dirt? Healthy like -- y'know
what I mean?"
Out on the knee braces that will support the thirty
seventh floor, he is
beyond the safety of the outrigger nets below.
"Wait for the nets, Frank. They ain't put the nets
up on this side yet -- we
got all day, Frank. The foreman's gonna give you
hell if he sees you out
without a net."
"That's okay, I don't need no net .... You get
careless when you know
there's a net. Once in a while I look down, that's
all I gotta do. It
me right out. Thing y'gotta remember, Al -- is
don't look up. 'Cause when
up here you're closer to the sky than you are to
the street .... and you
"Forget what, Frank?"
"You forget you can't fly -- it would be great to
fly, wouldn't it Al?"
Sea gulls often cross Manhattan from the Hudson to
the East River in search
of food. In loose and undisciplined formation they
fly no higher than they
to, often stopping to sit on window ledges. There,
they will check out the
street below or watch the busy people through the
windows of the office
With unerring grace they will glide gracefully
through the steel framework
a building under construction, startling the
workers. With quiet superiority
they will perch on the steel and watch the clumsy,
wingless men working
Then as if to show them how simple it is, they will
spread their wings,
launch themselves in the air and drift away. Why
not, he thinks -- It looks
to Frank. It looks like the most natural thing in
the world -- you almost
forget you can't fly.
"It was the damnedest thing," Al said later. "There
he wuz, sorta wedged
between the knee brace and the corner column. The
gulls come over and set
like they sometimes do -- kinda lookin' him over,
y'know? Pretty soon they
tired of it and take off towards the east. Frank
turns and looks at me ....
gives me a silly grin. Then he spreads his arms out
wide and kicks himself
of the column. I get the shivers even now when I
think about it .... arms
wide-like, he just went down. Down like a stone. I
could hear him whistlin'
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