A GROWING CONCERN
To the Editors:
Those of us on the statue were quite troubled by the front-page editorial printed in your newspaper two days ago entitled ‘Everyone Leave Manhattan, Let The Statue Fall Down On Its Own.’ That being said, we freely admit that the article did make some very legitimate criticisms of our architectural project. Yes, there remains the lingering question of structural stability, or, as you say, “the constant threat of imminent collapse.” And your concluding paragraphs concerning the “indefensibly crude visual aspects” were met with much sympathy among us construction workers. I heard one fellow say aloud, “Yep, the shoe fits on that one. They are indefensible.”
These are just some of the places where we could not see more eyeball to eyeball with your editorial staff.
However, is mass exodus really the answer? Would it truly be beneficial for “all parties involved” if every living soul on the statue perished by falling to their death when the foundation inevitably crumbles? Are us construction workers actually “brainwashed serfs beyond the pale of redemption?”
These are hot button issues, and perhaps your readership has only heard half of the story. Perhaps they have only heard the opinions of government officials offering soundbites and newspaper journalists such as yourselves. Perhaps they don’t know the feelings and experiences of those of us on the statue.
For starters, “brainwashed serf” is not a phrase I would apply to myself, nor do I believe it fits any of the colleagues on whose behalf I am writing. Is Holly Martin, our lead electrician, a “brainwashed serf?” What about Russell Morrison, the acclaimed tradesman who is accomplished in the field of plumbing installation and who owns a timeshare on Fire Island? Holly and Russell are only two of the nearly one hundred hardworking Americans your editorial is condemning to certain death.
I remember a time when kinder words followed us around. “Hero,” for one. “Patriots,” for starters. A brief recounting of our time on the statue might help us all to understand where exactly things went wrong. We have faith that many of your concerns are the results of miscommunication.
We broke ground nearly ten years ago, and, despite what your newspaper claims, we had no idea that the second foot would end up where it did. Let’s just put that one to bed right now. The current and terrifying location of the second foot was not a part of our initial designs. In retrospect, would we have built both feet on the ample construction site provided, rather than just the one? Yes. Absolutely. That was the most logical place for the second foot to go. You might even say it is our biggest regret that we did not. However, the emotional atmosphere among New Yorkers must be taken into account when judging our architectural decisions at the time.
Everyone wanted a really big statue. That’s a fact. We had all been made aware of the terrible potential of buildings. After the attacks people demonstrated through the poll that, overwhelmingly, they craved the human form. Maybe the thought of a giant marble face hovering over the roofs of skyscrapers, keeping an eye on things, protecting the skies itself from unwanted visitors, provided feelings of comfort. Maybe there was an idea back then that it was the people—not the fallen towers—who deserved remembrance. Regardless, placing both feet on the construction site cut the potential height of our statue in half. It would have topped out at fifteen stories, maximum. How could that compete with even average buildings? No, New Yorkers wanted something much bigger.
So an adoring public looked on as a single, sandaled heel and five perky toes grew out of the rubble. We built the ankle, the calf muscle, the tip of a shinbone, and began in on the fringes, and then the flapping cloth, of an archaic robe. The plan was to construct a totally neutral human being. We swallowed the body in a baggy robe to avoid gender confusion. There would be no indicator of any nationality or proclivity. A memorial to all. And boy the city loved the leg! It curved in an athletic way that seemed pleasing to everyone, and its grey skin seemed an extension of the tar-covered streets and sidewalks, the skyscrapers that disappeared into the smog and the train tunnels pulsing below. It seemed an extension of the city itself.
Goodwill thrived as the construction crew broke into two groups, half of us continuing up past the hips and the stomach and the well-formed and ambiguous pectorals. The rest worked their way down the second leg. Thigh construction met immediate difficulty, though, as the weight of the jutting femur caused hairline fractures to form along the arch of the first foot. The plan, as you know, was to bend the second leg so that the second foot rested gently against the first knee in what is called a “flamingo standing position,” but this design was quickly scraped as more and more cracks appeared. For the sake of structural stability, we built the second leg straight down, with only a slight bend in the knee, so that the nether side of the sandal was finished off several meters above the roof of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital on Vessey Street.
No one on the construction crew wants to “stomp on” St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. How can such a vile though even cross decent minds? Admittedly, the statue does sway on windy days—a difficulty made worse by more recent and critical deterioration—which causes an up-and-down swinging motion. But stomp? Besides, we have heard that the unfortunate children of St. Jude love the foot, that they rush to the windows to watch its perambulations. We have heard that it is a source of great entertainment and fun.
Support for the statue remained high in spite of the controversial second foot. Citizens felt a particularly strong need to see it completed. It was not until we reached the face that the real trouble began. None among us understood why its features so enraged the people of New York and why their ire was so immediately upon us. Maybe it is because we were on the statue most of the day and could not see the face from a distance. That’s possible. But even so, from my vantage, I would not have described the chin as “receding to the point of nonexistence and yet begging for a smack.”
We asked the city for suggestions of improvement and man oh man did the letters start rolling in. One woman wrote saying that the anonymity of the face was its main defect. People didn’t like that the features of the face resembled no one in particular, she said. It looked vague, like a plaster mold that has had its refined contents scalped out. She recommended that we redesign the face in the likeness of her husband, who had died when the towers fell. We got a lot of letters like that. New Yorkers who had seen the attack from their homes in Brooklyn and Queens sent self-portraits, claiming their role as witnesses made them perfect symbols for memorial. We got similar head shots from shop owners and street vendors whose stores were forced to close after the attacks; from Dry Cleaners who claimed to have pressed one thousand soot covered suits on the 12th of September; from fireman, alive and dead; from a Saudi taxi driver who, in the days after the attacks, was beaten by a drunk patron; from the mayor; from the comptroller; from street sweepers; and letters from Guantanamo prisoners smuggled to us on toilet paper. They wanted to drape a bag over the statue's head.
Everyone looked up hoping to see themselves, their own loss. Everyone thought they symbolized the individual loss that encapsulated the collective. Maybe this is why a memorial to more than one person cannot take the human form, why most are sharp rectangles, exact grids of headstones. Shapes that find no correlate on the body. Common grief cannot drown in the shape of any one man.
And so, in our frustration to please the city, we completed one final redesign: we chiseled a long nose, full lips, feathered the folds of a beard and turban. We dug out the eyes and formed craterous rims of scar tissue around the sockets. Dead Osama Bin Laden, we declared to the city. If you can’t agree on a memorial, have a trophy instead.
Our pulley systems were severed in the ensuing riots and the first foot suffered severe damage.
I guess that about brings us up to speed.
As I write, the unfortunate children of St. Jude are being wheeled out of the hospital and loaded into a long line of emergency vehicles. We watch from our scaffolds. I suppose they are watching us as well, from their gurneys. The evacuation has begun. Supplies are low here. Deep splinters climb the first leg. I don’t think we can hold out much longer. The threat of collapse is indeed imminent.
We thought the city would love to see their enemy dead while on their way to and from work. We thought they’d look up and say things like, “got ‘em” or “pow!” with one eye closed and a hand stretched into a gun. In retrospect, we understand how Osama Bin Laden—thirty-five stories tall, with both eyeballs shot out, and clomping remorselessly close to a Children’s Hospital could be viewed as “crude.” Even frightening. In that way, your editorial was enlightening.
So really, when you think about it, this is all a lesson in perspective. We’ve been on the statue for so long that our desires no longer coincide with those of the city. But may we be so bold as to suggest that some of your anger may stem from a disappointment totally unrelated to the statue? Perhaps when you look up you think our labor is an unworthy prize for all that has gone on in the past decade. But that is hardly our fault. We didn’t make any of those things happen. We’ve been on the statue the whole time.
The Constructionists of Ground Zero
P.S. We’ve gathered that the plan is to build a pair of towers once we are destroyed. Two hollow bones where the movers and shakers of this city can glide up and down through elevator shafts. That’s fine. Maybe it’s a good thing to return to the basic elements—greed, pathological optimism—and go on as life was before. But may I suggest that you plant sunflowers in a window box on one of the lower floors? My wife Ashley loves them and I know that she would love to see them when she walks by. She lives in Manhattan. I have not seen her for a very long time. I doubt she would even recognize me and all that I have become up here, but I hope that she is well.
Brendan Steffen holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Mississippi. His work is forthcoming in Word Riot and LENT Mag.