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Empire Allergies

by David Colosi

You want the real story?

Q.

Well, at 95, my memory can be a little fuzzy. I can’t promise I’ll get all the details right.

Q.

All right then. What I usually do when I tell people the story about how I built the Empire State Building by sneezing, I start at age six. That’s when I became allergic to life. By age nine my forearms looked like the two stalks of an East Village junkie. At eleven I consistently slept with a particle mask that trapped the smell of iron on my breath without ever picking up a trace of blood. By fifteen my allergies were called everything from a “pain in the ass,’ to a “sonofafuckingshitassfuck,’ a “psychological placebo for apathy,’ a “common ailment suffered by 82.8% of humankind,’ a “date-breaker,’ a “multiple personality,’–one named Blatz who shaved the family long-hair, once ate a suppository to reduce bronchial swelling, and went as far as double-stick taping the top surface of every dust collecting object in my bedroom–a “character builder,’ “the death of me,’ “Mr. Tweed’s little way of reminding you not to take air for granted’…

Q.

Mr. Tweed? My eighty-five-year-old, at the time, now deceased, great aunt had this imaginary radio talk show host who resembled, in her mind alone, God. Then there was “agitator for a soul high on the devil’s want list,’ “another day,’ and, of course, the “self-rechargeable alarm clock.’ It wasn’t until eighteen that I added “valuable job asset.’

Q.

Cat hair, dust, pollen, tomatoes, oil, just about everything. When I tried picking my nose with a nail, steel joined the list. Something in the alloy didn’t agree with something in my upper sinuses and caused those Ten Pennies to shoot out faster and with a force more powerful than the repeated beating of a master carpenter. That’s how I got the job.

Q.

Same way everyone else does. Well, not exactly the same. During my interview at Starrett Brothers and Eken, Inc. they asked to see my experience. No job foreman was going to take a kid’s word for it, regardless of his resume. “Prove yourself a man,’ was the trade motto in those days and probably still is today. So I came prepared. I said to Mr. Starrett and the others in the room, with my nose runny and eyes itching, “Hold these pieces of 2x4s together, lean back, and don’t move.’ Kerplunk. The soft wood squeezed together tighter than he was holding–Mr. Starrett that is–his eyes open. He ran his finger over the head and asked if I could do screws. I told him I hadn’t mastered the twisting motion required to sink a screw, but I’d give it a shot. So I did, and he said it was as good as a man with a Milwaukee Hole Shooter.

Q.

From the ground up, like any other construction project. The Empire State was no exception. Well, see now, that’s not exactly true either. It was going to be the tallest building in the world, and we had very little time to build it. In those days you had to tear down buildings fast and put them up fast. The Waldorf-Astoria came down in no time and Empire went up–if I remember right–ahead of schedule in about a year and forty-five days.

Q.

I don’t deserve any more credit than any of the other sky boys. We all did the work. But the advantage I had over the other guys was that I could go to the higher elevations without tools dangling from my waist. All I needed was a pouch full of the proper hardware. And some tissues. But I’d be a crazy old fool if I tried to get you to believe the Empire State Building was built with nails and screws. Actually, if all the materials were delivered in one day, it would have required a train fifty-seven miles long–its engine in New York City and its caboose in Bridgeport, Connecticut: Ten million bricks, 200,000 cubic feet of Indiana limestone, 6,500 windows, 1,172 miles of rubber covered wire cables for the elevators, 75 miles of main water pipe, 50 miles of radiator pipe, 730 tons of aluminum and stainless steel, 400 fire hose connections, 60,000 pairs of office telephones, 380 miles of electrical wires and the list does go on and on. A fella named Teddy James went and wrote it all out once. You could ask him. But I’m sure today there is one of those websites for it. So, yeah, I did have to carry up some pretty big bolts that I had to shoot through I-beams as well as attach the nuts. Whether the holes needed to be predrilled or not depended on the thickness of the steel. All braggadocio aside, my accuracy improved by the day. If the hole was no smaller than the size of the bolt, I could get it in on the first shot. Snot on the thread made a smoother fit, not to mention a better seal. The nuts were a little tougher: besides having to hang my head upside-down to get the right angle to sneeze so that the nut would attach to the bottom of the bolt–and riskier, too–I needed to twist my neck to get the threads to catch. I won’t go as far as to say I snugged them every time, but I will say I saved my co-workers from–in more ways than one–dropping their nuts.

Q.

Both, but really neither. There was this foreman who would say that each bolt was worth $10,000. If you dropped one without the catchall below and it hit a pedestrian, they–or more likely their relatives–would have gotten the money. For financial reasons, just as much as safety, they put a lot of thought into it.

Q.

No one died that way. And from the crew? Not too many. They used to say, back then, for any building that one person died per floor, but it wasn’t the case at all. I think only about five or so guys died during construction, and just about all of their accidents could have happened on the first floor of any building. I think a guy got hit by a truck cutting wood in the street; another turned the wrong way into a blast area; and, yeah, well, I guess there was this one guy who stepped off of a scaffolding; another guy, he stuck his head in the elevator shaft to see where the elevator was and it turned out it was coming down above him–stupid stuff really, carelessness; and I think another guy was hit by a hoist. That’s all I remember. Unfortunate but not a bad record for an over five-thousand-man job.

Q.

I got really good at it. So good that from just about any position I could shoot a nail, screw, bolt, rivet–anything with steel in it that would fit up my nose–into the place it needed to go. And if I put the right spin on it I could get it into places most hand tools aren’t built for. As you can see my nose isn’t grossly oversized. Maybe a little wrinkled, a little red at the tip from the comforts of old age–the Southern Comforts, if you know what I mean. Actually, when I was in my prime it was on the cover of GQ. Well that’s what we call it today, back then it was called Apparel Arts. The caption read, “Boys want it; Girls want to kiss it.’

Q.

That’s right. You’re no fool. Of course every bolt used to assemble the Empire State Building couldn’t fit up my nose. I’m no gigantic gorilla. I would place the larger hardware in my mouth and seal my nostrils so no air could escape. Even your Sunday sneezer knows the force of a sneeze is most powerful through the mouth. Try sneezing with your mouth closed. It makes a snotty mess, not to mention the pain in the head. But a snotty mess comes in handy, too. “There’s a tool for every job,’ I always say.

Q.

We got on pretty well. Just because I didn’t wear a tool belt didn’t mean I wasn’t like the rest of the guys. I could hold my own. I’d do a thing like, they’d show off their strength by holding two pieces of steel in place, I’d wait until their strain was obvious, pretend to fumble for a bolt or something; then I’d make a ding in the metal–stick it in one shot–and it would ring over their groans and make the metal vibrate so their hands couldn’t hold it any more. As if they needed to anyway. And if anyone pulled the rookie routine on me, trying to impress me with something they’d been doing for twenty years that I wouldn’t want to do anyway, I’d nail his shoe to the floor preceding the nail with a blob of mucus that would seal it better than PL-200. We’d be sixty-feet in the air and these hormone monkeys would stop everything to yell down to a beautiful woman walking by, “You goin’ my way, baby?’ “Up here you mean?’ I’d say. “You’re not going to impress a lady catcalling from up here, squawking like a seagull waving your hairy plume around. You’ve got to get down to her level, treat her like a human, give her something she can respond to.’ They’d ask, “Like wadda ya mean?’ and I’d tell them to write their name and phone number on a piece of paper: NY-15337, or some such number, is how we wrote them in those days. Then, like cupid, I’d attach it to a nail and pierce her gently in the purse. Most of them chickened out when I made the possibility real. “I’m a married man,’ they’d say. “But there ain’t nuddin’ wrong wid loogin’.’ From fifty feet up. Right. “Then keep right on loogin,’’ I’d say and threaten to “piewce deir libs shud wid a scwew.’ I made some friends, too. After a few weeks on the job most people respected me whether they liked me or not. When we were working on the lower levels, we’d take our lunch breaks on the corner of 34th St. and 5th Ave. and I’d do tricks for pedestrians. I could put earrings in already pierced ears or I’d pierce them right there. If a young lady had a tear in her blouse I could weave a pin in so gently that it would never scratch her skin. Young boys tried to impress me by throwing their gum at a stop sign and saying, “Betchew can’t hit that!’ Then I’d pull out a 3/8 x 1/4-inch bolt–smallest I could find–a washer and a nut, and fire them one by one: the head of the bolt would stick into the gum, the washer fitting over the threads, and the nut screwing on driving the bolt further into the gum. This was from across the street you realize, through passing cars, pedestrians and scaffolding poles. Then a kid would stick a bolt up his nose and fake a sneeze, looking like a total idiot, and the bolt would drop from his nose by gravity alone. He would ouch-rub his nose wondering what the hell went wrong. “Don’t try this at home,’ I’d say. I felt like Robin Hood, stealing everyone’s best talents by showing them up.

Q.

Yeah. I guess you’ve seen Lewis’ pictures. It all changed, of course, when we got to the higher elevations. We’d eat our lunch right on the I-beams because it would take too long to go down and up again. By the time we’d return with our sandwiches our lunch break would be over. Eating and walking on I-beams forty stories up was dangerous, as you can imagine. But it was especially dangerous for me. I’d always harnessed myself in for what I called a “tool shot.’ But for lunch I took my straps off. An involuntary and spontaneous sneeze could really do a job on me teetering as I already was on a narrow piece of metal.

Q.

No, it wasn’t all glamorous. Not in the least. I got some nasty infections that earned me an active file at the workman’s compensation board. They brought some checks to my door in the weeks I was out. But considering the speed they worked over there, and in the insurance company, and the relative newness of the program at the time, and the percentage I got of my normal pay–not to mention all the other guys who weren’t getting any work or money at the time–I would have rather been working. While I was away my co-workers complained about having to do everything by hand. I told them that’s how people did it in the old days. Like when the Chrysler building went up. It only went up the year before, you see. But, no, the infections weren’t the only things. Every night I blew black gunk out of my nose. My headaches put a migraine to shame. What made it worse would be the day my housemates took in a stray cat or when pollen had blown through my windows. The last thing I needed when I got home from a twelve-hour day working eighty-odd stories in the sky, carrying around chunks of steel, was to come home and have an allergy attack. It’s not that it would be a waste of strength or that I’d use up potential sneezes. I had plenty to go around. It’s just that after a day of work a guy likes to rest. There’s nothing worse than bringing your work home. I empathize with people today who work on office computers all day and then come home to their personal computer. It’s gotta be torture. Or someone who sells electronics, the last thing they want is to rush home and watch TV or listen to the radio. I’m just kidding, but you get the idea. But then I guess some of the guys I worked with did construction all day and then went home and fixed up their houses all night.

Q.

Yeah, but, considering. What I had to complain about was nothing. Matter of fact, most people envied me because I was the only person they ever knew who had found a productive use for his allergies. While they suffered, I produced. There was no end to my allergic reactions and actions. Doctors said allergies were an incurable condition. “Allergies,’ they’d say. “Everyone’s got ‘em. All you can do is make yourself feel better when they act up. There’s no getting rid of them.’ Good thing, too. We’d only gotten as high as the forty-third floor. We had fifty-nine to go to make it the tallest building in the world, not to mention the mooring mast cap the architect had designed for the top–which, I should add, even then most of us doubted it would work. And what do you know? We were right. Some twenty years later they decide to add that snazzy antenna to the top as a competitive move to try to make it the tallest building in the world for another twenty years.

Q.

Not ready to go there yet? No. It wasn’t so hard for me. Like I said: What did I have to complain about? But it was horrible, the absolute worst, for other guys. You’ve seen Chaplin’s Modern Times? It’s no joke. But for me, during and since the Empire State job, I’ve never had to look for work, especially in the spring. I was one of the lucky ones. I could work 24/7 in pollen season if my body held up. Like an accountant, for a couple of months I worked like crazy. Then the rest of the year I could relax. But I really couldn’t. You have to remember–did I forget to mention?–this was the Great Depression, 1930. No one from my generation, to this day, including myself, can say “no’ to work. The word isn’t in our vocabulary. The Empire State was one of the only jobs in town. Besides, rent wasn’t cheap either, so I did as much as I could. I’m glad those days are over. Rents are still high. But there’s plenty of work today. The well never runs dry for me.

Q.

Yeah I still work. Much as I can at my age. I’m working right now, aren’t I? Today, like back then when things started to get back to normal, I prefer to work in the spring because it’s less work to produce the sneeze. In the off-season back then I had to rely mostly on the steel. From late March to early June I could get a lot more done in a shorter period of time. Pollen and ragweed season reinforced my job security. But who am I kidding? There was always indoor work: dust, animal dander, mold, the list goes on.

Q.

Cut to the chase, huh? An old man’s rambling exceeds your word limit? Well, this is how the whole thing ended. When they found out later in 1950 that Empire needed a little bit more height to make double sure that it remained the tallest building in the world–the Chrysler Building was its only competition then–and when they realized the mooring mast wasn’t going to work, they wanted to stick an antenna up for radio and TV broadcasting. TV was just catching on then: Where would we be today if they hadn’t put that thing up there? The antenna was supposed to max the building out to 1245 ft. So my foreman from the original job, back in 1931, tracks me down and wants to get me to the top of Empire again. For old time’s sake, he says, he wants me to go all the way up and make the final attachment on the snazzy antenna jobby. So I say “Yes’ only if I can do it my way. And he says “Of course.’ So when the day comes, I’ve got it all planned out. I take a pouch full of hardware, and like King Kong, (who needs an elevator?) I’m going to make a show of it. I climb window-frame by window-frame to the top. I could see people on the inside clapping for me the whole way. Ol’ Al Smith passed in 1944–rest his soul–so he’s not there to see it this time around. But everyone else in the city who’s interested, and I mean everybody, is out for the grand reopening. They’re all watching me climb higher. My only fear is sneezing while I’m climbing. Not just because I might fall, but I could break a window. I could hear the crowd cheering below knowing that when I got to the top Al Smith’s two kids, who were grown by then, would cut the ribbon. They mucked it up in ’31 and Al had to rip the thing with his bare hands. So they got a second chance just like me. But I had something in store for them, for everyone. My job was to put a cap over the light on top of the antenna and to flip the switch to start the red light to blinking. It was supposed to keep airplanes from crashing into it.

Q.

Only once. In 1945. A B-52 bomber emerged from the fog and smashed into the 78th and 79th floor. But they wanted to make sure it would never happen again, you see, especially being a little bit taller and with electricity running through it. So anyways, this light on top is the only one they couldn’t flip from Washington DC. So they asked me to do it. Ol’ Herbie Hoover flipped the lights on back in 1931. Even though he was no longer president in 1951, he was still in Washington at the time because Truman and, later, Eisenhower both kept him reorganizing the Executive branch or some such political swap meet. But he didn’t get a second chance. He wouldn’t, nor would any president, turn any lights on that day. That was my job. Since it was the tallest building in the world, of course they called “Sneezy the Sky Boy’ to cap off the eighth wonder of the world. I was honored.

Q.

Hold up, you’re getting ahead of me. I have to tell this thing my way–Ol’ Blue Eyes wouldn’t have it any other way. So, I had it worked out how I’d do it. First I’d put the red plastic cap in my mouth: it wouldn’t fit in my nose. Then I’d plug my nose with the two stainless steel caps that fit inside my nostrils but were attached to an elastic head brace that would keep them from shooting out. They also sealed my nose to apply all the force of the sneeze to my mouth so I could get the height I needed and the power to put the cap on and get it screwed down.

Q.

I knew you’d ask, so I dusted it off. It’s much easier to show you than to describe it with words. Go ahead. Put it on. I cleaned it. And I haven’t used it since. I designed the nostril caps and set the elastic pressure according to my estimation of that day’s wind conditions in the higher altitude. Window washers wash from bottom to top up there because the wind blows up, and, depending on the wind, I’ve heard it’s possible for jumpers to fly upwards or horizontally, but not always straight down. Some suicides, I’ve heard, survived because the winds threw them back on the building. So I had taken these conditions into consideration as well. When I finally got there and got set up then I would sneeze and the cap would tighten on properly. Then I’d put a steel ball bearing in my right nostril ‘cause I’m right-handed so naturally my right nostril is strongest. Since I couldn’t stand on the very point, I would have to shoot from approximately ten feet below. That’s what they told me at least. Once I got up there I would know for sure. Then I’d sneeze, hit the switch with the ball-bearing, and the red light would start to blinking. The Smith kids down below would then cut the ribbon. At least that’s how it was supposed to go, but that’s not X-Actly how my show was to end.

Q.

I’m getting to that. But first I had to climb over the “suicide fence’–that’s what we called it anyway–on the 86th floor observation deck in order to get to the next sixteen floors that led to the antenna. They built that to keep people from jumping, but it’s been modified several times. Just being up that high makes suicide cross everybody’s mind. There were sixteen attempts before 1975 alone. The first one ever, a woman, I think her name was Irma Eberhardt, was in 1935. Then in 1947 there were a rash of jumpers, and that’s when they installed it–a seven-foot high stainless steel fence laced by diamond-shaped mesh topped with sickles curving inward. It’s much easier to climb it from the outside in than from the inside out. I guess not too many people were going my way.

Q.

When I say everybody, I do mean everybody. But you didn’t have to worry about me. I’m here to tell, aren’t I? My motives were the opposite. See, I was climbing the suicide fence in reverse. So when I made it to the top I plugged my nostrils with the stainless steel caps. The wind was blowing hard. Really hard. I could barely hold on. Then you know what happened next? Something totally unexpected. Take a guess. You want to take a guess? Go ahead. Try something. Anything. What do you think could happen up there? No. That’s totally ridiculous. Why would you think something like that? You want to know what happened? Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing happened. I couldn’t explain it. No scratchy roof of the mouth, no itchy eyes, not even a tickle. Doctors never told me anything about this–higher altitudes reduce allergic reactions. I had never experienced this in all my years building Empire. But this was the first time I had been up this high, you see. Maybe I had always been just before the threshold, just a few feet below without even knowing it.

Q.

It felt great. You can’t imagine. Maybe you can. Do you have allergies? Well then you can’t because you’ve never experienced anything like this. Loratadine? We didn’t have that stuff back then, but I still bet you it’s not the same. Nowhere near the same. I took the plugs out of my nose and breathed. I had never breathed so easily before. My sinuses felt like they were gone, emptied out like two wind tunnels, twisters playing out new stunts. I remember thinking this must be what it feels like to not have allergies. I would have given it all up then and there, retired from construction work all together and just sat there. And what do you think I did? Want to take another guess? I just hang there and breathe. I breathe. And I breathe. I’m full of air for maybe the first time. So I breathe.

Q.

What’s the rush? Just try it for a minute.

Q.

Not bad, right? The sensation was worth a million but more was riding on the present. If I didn’t belt out the cause of a Gesundheit in Germany, it would be like I had never even worked on the building. Not to mention I wouldn’t get my paycheck. I wasn’t ready to put in for early retirement that day. Dead or not, Al Smith wouldn’t have approved. Not then, not now. So what did I do? I took a tip I learned from my Sky Boy buddies: Dropped your tool? Do it old school. Broadcast helicopters whizzed around me and made me really feel like King Kong. I could see why he tried to swat them away. They pollute the air along with the peace and quiet. They come closer to me because they don’t know what I’m doing. I’m breathing, and I’m climbing, too. I’m just supposed to sneeze from the base of the point, not stand with my feet squished up against either side shimmying my way up, holding on with one hand and turning the cap on with the other. The broadcasters in the helicopters were telling the world, “He’s screwing on the red cap. Can you believe it? He’s doing the job by hand like anybody from The Nut Toppers Club could!’ If I had a mic I would have said, “Ain’t too late to volunteer.’ But it was too late. The helicopters got closer. I could smell the steel of their oil soaked propellers, the exhaust from their spewing tailpipes. My clean air act was getting polluted by the second. I could see the ribbon below with a person, who looked the size of Al Smith’s son, probably King Kong himself, standing next to it waiting for the light to go on so he could make the cut.

Q.

Oh, you’ve been up there so you know. That’s exactly why I brought binoculars and aimed them at the reflective glass on the building just across the street. So can I get on with it, or do you have any more questions? I took the X-Acto razor blade out from my upper left jacket chest pocket with my right hand, holding on to the antenna L-bracket with my left and put it in my right nostril. I felt the roof of my mouth getting itchy. The helicopters were then hovering right over me. I could hear someone trying to scream something at me. But the noise of the machine was too loud. My head was so filled with pressure from the gas fumes, the smell of the helicopter’s steel, the touch of the steel blade inside my nostril, I felt like I might faint and fall 1245 ft. and cut the ribbon with my backbone instead. I tightened my grip on the antenna tip and sneezed with all of my accuracy at the red, white and blue ribbon in my sights below. And the blade released. I had exactly six minutes until the blade reached the ribbon because I’d calculated the height of the building and the rate at which objects fall and taken into consideration the wind conditions and knew exactly when to flip the switch that would turn on the red light, just enough time before my razor blade sliced the ribbon and just before Al Smith’s kids would get their oversized scissors near it. After my sneeze I could hear someone in the helicopter yelling into a megaphone for me to “Grab the rope!’ But I had fifteen seconds left. I turned to shoo the rope ladder from hitting my back. The adrenalin almost made me fall. Eight seconds. I sneezed again, an empty sneeze, just from the sheer thrill of it. Five seconds. I couldn’t see the razor blade but I knew where it was X-Acto! I flipped the switch with my hand, with my bare hand, and the red light came on. I didn’t even bother to look down to see who cut the ribbon first, me, Mary and Arthur, or maybe the ghost of Al Smith himself. Instead I gave one of those leaps I had so often done in my youth before my allergies were too severe. I gripped the rope ladder, and with my feet on the bottom rung and my body in a hunch, I beat my chest like King Kong and flew away. I’d accomplished what I had set out to. Unfortunately, King Kong hadn’t. But to this day I know there is something that only we shared. We had both known the pleasure, no matter for how short a period of time, of breathing easily in the fresh air of our youth–allergy free.

Q.

Huh? Of course there is, just at the base of the bulb, on what would be the south side.