An American Cathedral


In this episode, Dan Holohan reflects on the tradesmen who built NYC's World Trade Center.


Episode Transcript

Mike always wrote his initials on the pipes with a wax crayon. Next to his initials, he wrote the date and next to the date he drew an arrow that pointed toward heaven.

He didn’t write on all the pipes, just the ones that he himself had welded. It didn’t matter that the other trades would soon bury his pipes behind the walls and beneath the ceilings. Mike knew what he had done, and he knew that it would be there forever.

These towers, both of them, would last. Of that, there was no doubt. You did not build something like this and then take it down a few years from now. Not even a hundred years from now. You did not build something as enormous as this and take it down. No, these towers would define this city and its people and they would forever change the men and women who built them. He would grow old in this city and look at his towers and know that a part of him was now a part of them, and that was good enough for Mike.

When the building was still just a deep hole in the ground and Mike had begun writing on his pipes and pointing his arrows toward the sky, his partner would laugh at him. “You’re gonna need a lot more crayons,” his partner would say.

“Ah, you’re so young,” Mike would say. “Don’t you know what we’re doing here, lad?”

And his partner would laugh. “Here we go,” he’d say.

“The work outlives the man, lad.” And Mike would nod and smile. “We’re building an American cathedral here, lad. An American cathedral! It will rise to the heavens and be here forever. Long after we’re dead and gone people will look at our work and admire what we built. This is a special place, this one.”

His partner would shake his head and laugh. “You saw the drawings. These things are just big boxes, Mike. They’re gonna be as ugly as sin. To me, they’re just next week’s grocery bill and next month’s rent.”

And Mike’s eyes would gleam and he’d say, “Ah, but you’re wrong, lad. This one is much more than a paycheck. This one is special. We’ll never be the same after this one. Mark my words. You’ll see.”

“Oh, you’re so friggin’ deep,” his partner would say.

“And you’re such a young pup!” Mike would say.

And they’d both have a good laugh for themselves, neither taking the other too seriously, and Mike would sign another pipe and draw an arrow upward, to where they were going. And he’d smile at his partner and wink.

They were a good team, these two. They’d been together for five years, moving from job to job, always together, as it is with this trade. They knew that they’d be working on these towers for a good long time. There was no denying that at this point. The die had been cast and this was a project that no one could stop. It rose by the will of the workers, each day a bit taller. They would build these towers and they would put away some of the money for their children and for vacations and for their future. And as they arrived at work each day they would look up and up. And then they would build some more.

Sometimes they’d stop for a pint or two before riding the subways home. They’d talk about sports and politics and, of course, the work. There was always the work. It would take a good long time to finish this one.

Every day, year after year, Mike wrote on his pipes. Thousands of people rode the subways to this site and they muscled these towers upward and Mike drew his arrows and wrote his initials and the dates that marked the passing of a man’s years.

And one day they were done. They finished and Mike drew his last arrow on the highest pipe in the city of New York. It was beneath a ceiling but Mike knew that it was there, and that it would always be there, and that was good enough for him. They finished and moved on and they grew old together, as good partners will.

Winters came and went and so did the brutally humid summers of New York and Mike and his partner worked through some impossible situations under punishing conditions and they always got the job done. They piped between wires and ducts and beams and dealt with live steam lines and deadlines, and they complained only to each other. No matter what the challenge, they got the job done, and they built this city.

One day, a man named Phillipe Petit climbed up on the roof of one of the towers and shot a line over to the other tower. He stretched the line taut and then spent a good part of that day strolling back and forth with a long balance pole. In the streets, the people craned their necks to watch. The police arrested him when he finally came off the high wire and then they posed for photos with that funny little man.

Owen J. Quinn got up onto the roof with a parachute one day and captured everyone’s imagination as well. He was arrested in the street and then he posed for his photos with the cops. Everyone was smiling because this was New York City, and absolutely anything can happen here.

And then one day George Willig climbed up the outside of the tower like a human fly and the cops spent the day with him, dangling there from window-washer’s rigs, chatting it up and trying to talk him into stopping this nuttiness. And the day rolled on and they got to know each other pretty well. They arrested him up there on the top and then they all posed for pictures. And everyone smiled because this was New York City.

The towers took on a magical quality as these things happened, and later, a mythical strength when those people tried to blow it up. No one ever knew what to expect next. This was New York and anything can happen. And Mike watched it all on the TV and he grew quiet. He had done good work.

And then the kids finished college and his knees gave out and Mike knew that it was time to pack it in. He and his wife Mary moved to a small house in Florida and he took it easy for a change. And when Mike would see New York City on the TV he would smile and remember what he had done there. He had built an American cathedral that would stand forever.

Mary found him in his chair one hot afternoon. She had gone out for groceries and when she returned he was gone. The last thing she had said to him was, “Do you need anything?” and he had smiled and shaken his head. “No, I’m fine,” he had said. “I’m fine.”

They laid him to rest in the Borough of Queens where you can see the buildings of New York City standing tall just across the East River. His old partner came with flowers the other day. He looked across the river to the scar in the cityscape where a working man had once signed his initials on pipes, and left wax arrows that tried to reach all the way to heaven. And he cried.

I wrote that story nearly 20 years ago. It still gets me teary-eyed. If you liked it, please share it. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have more stories to tell you in the weeks to come, and I appreciate you so much for listening. Thanks.

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