the amazing technicolor bridge: aka the ballad of poncho and lefty

There are two reasons why a man does anything.
There’s a good reason, and then there’s the real reason.” 

– John Pierpont Morgan

 

by mike morgan

 

“All that trouble, just to get to Brooklyn.”
– Popular Vaudeville Line (used during the period of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge)

 

The good reason for answering the classified ad was pecuniary. Lefty needed work and income. The real reason for maintaining the job once he had procured it, to this day still eludes him. Perhaps the enormity of the task, the sheer magnitude of what he was expected to accomplish, challenged him to seize the moment. Maybe he was intrigued by the covertness of the whole operation and the secrecy that he was sworn to by the powerful Brooklyn muck-a-muck in the oak-panelled office in Borough Hall. Indeed, the idea that he would become a byline in the history of one of civil engineering’s most soaring structures, tweaked his ego. Whatever the explanation was, he was in it now, up to his armpits…and all because of perusing the “Situations Vacant” column in the Daily News.

It was a small ad tucked between two “Taxi Drivers Wanted – Must Be Able To Speak English” classifieds. It read as follows:

OUTDOOR PAINTER REQUIRED.
STEADY WORK. NON UNION.
APPLY OFFICE OF THE BROOKLYN
BOROUGH PRESIDENT –
ATTENTION: HOWARD COLEMAN.

Earlier that year, Brooklyn had seceeded from New York City. Of course, this created all sorts of chaos, dirty pool and potential civil war scenarios. It was into this maelstrom, that Lefty naively entered. “The Manhattanites want to claim the bridge as their own,” Howard Coleman told him. “There will be many battles to fight in this war. Yours will be one that I intend to win. The job is to paint the Brooklyn Bridge. You will receive all the supplies you need. But you have to do it one your own. Once the New Yorkers see a renovation team up on the girders, they’ll counter with their own conniving scheme. You’ll start on the Brooklyn end, paint the East River side all the way to Manhattan, and then tackle the Hudson section back to Brooklyn. By the time you finish, it’ll need another coat of paint. This is a job for life. Brooklyn Bridge will always be yellow.”

Yellow was the Borough President’s favorite color. He was swept into office on a Yellow Party ticket. No one ever really understood the significance of the BP’s yellow fetish, seeing that “yellow” used in political or military patois denotes cowardice. Some say that Mr. Coleman intended to ally Brooklyn with Florida and make it become the Northern Sunshine State. Others suggested that he had to pay dues to his corporate and political sponsors, Coleman’s English Mustard, Tropicana and the NYNEX Yellow Pages. Few ventured to voice the truth, namely that Howard Coleman was certifiably bats. Lefty responded with a Yellow Power salute. The deal was sealed with the secret Yellow handshake. Lefty got the job.

What neither the Borough President nor Lefty knew was that exact same plot was being hatched across the river, in the Mayor of New York City’s office. “New York City Bridge will be blue for the next thousand years,” the Mayor prattled on in true Adolf fashion to his advisors and to Lefty’s decorative opponent. The Mayor’s infatuation with the color blue was no secret. It was the uniform hue of his armed bodyguard (the New York City Police Department) and the nickname of his pet multi-national corporation, IBM. “If you succeed in turning the bridge blue,” the Mayor told the painter, “I might just name an airport after you.” The painter smiled. The idea appealed to him…Poncho International Airport.

Seven days into the job, Lefty met his first jumper. “The Dow Jones dropped 650 points today and I intend to plummet with it,” the distraught man mumbled to Lefty.

Lefty was no slouch. He knew he was flirting with fame and fortune, so he had honed up on the history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and its aftermath. “Many have died here,” Lefty told the disgruntled stockbroker. “Over 2,500 men worked inside the Brooklyn caisson, the large pressurised chamber that was sunk into the water. The caisson was the size of 4 tennis courts. The air inside the caisson stayed at 90 degrees or more, and the laborers were bathed in a mire of perspiration and mud. Three shifts a day, six days a week, they toiled. Conditions were so dangerous that workers quit at a rate of 100 a week, and management was forced to increase the daily wage from $2 to $2.25. A hacking cough was common among those on the job, and many would spit black for the rest of their probably short, undernourished lives. Put that in your Dow Jones and smoke it.”

“Besides,” Lefty continued, beginning to enjoy the company and his role as social worker, “the Brooklyn Eagle Newspaper edition of October 19, 1877 ran a grisly editorial lauding this bridge as the only place for the truly artistic suicide. Usual forms of suicide were considered vulgar and condemned for their despicable lack of originality. The ferries below would guarantee an audience.” Lefty, by now an afficiando of Brooklyn Bridge trivia, quoted directly from the macabre essay. “Let us imagine a man addicted to hanging and think of the unique picture which early passengers would behold should they turn up their eyes in the ghostly dawn and see a man hanging by his neck fifty feet from the water’s edge. A little ingenuity would enable him to affix one end of his rope so that he could not be cut down for hours and could osscilate before the eyes of an admiring though horror stricken crowd of thousands.” Lefty conclude his speech by saying that “even poison, shooting or stabbing would have some style, if done from this Great Bridge.”

Lefty’s barrage had a sobering effect on the would be suicide artist. He sat down and introduced himself as Al Rosenberg, Bear Stearns underwriter. Lefty responded and offered Al a cheese sandwich. “You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve been up here,” Al said. “Back in ’87, I spent most of the autumn in this very spot, but I never had the guts to do it. And when the Berings Bank went belly up after that asshole plundered all their bonds and disappeared into the Asian jungle, the Japanese blamed me. Can you imagine, a bank that financed the Napoleonic wars being undone by an avaricious lender. Makes you realize how fragile things are. The whole damn thing’s built on quicksand. But in all my years of coming up here to contemplate the final jump, I’ve never met anybody else. What the hell are you doing, Lefty?”

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

“Well if I could hazard a guess, I’d say you were painting the Brooklyn Bridge yellow.”

“That’s what you think!”

“Look, I used to be in the secret service. I can keep a secret. Besides, I owe you my life. I was going to do it this time…I really was.”

“I can understand how it might appear that I am painting the Brooklyn Bridge yellow. But just because you see me up here with a paint brush and a can of yellow paint, doesn’t mean that you need to suspend belief in all of your senses. It might just be an undercoat.”

“Are you, or are you not painting the Brooklyn Bridge yellow?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Well, you better get your signals straight, ‘cos there’s a guy on the other end doing exactly what you’re doing but with blue paint instead.”

“They’re on the offensive,” Lefty told Howard Coleman at their designated meeting in the underground Yellow Lodge.

“Shit on that wily blue bastard across the river,” Coleman ranted when he heard the news. “This is what we’ll do. Switch to red paint, that’ll throw ’em off. Maybe there’ll swap colors in order to confuse us. When the enemy is thoroughly bamboozled, we’ll go back to yellow. And watch out for that creep Rosenberg. My intelligence department tells me that he is an informant for Big Blue.” Howard Coleman was infamous for his conspiracy theories, including the notion that the term “Yellow Peril” was a communist plot designed to focus attention away from the Red Menace.

“Red! What’s that old fart Coleman up to?” steamed the Mayor. “We go green,” he barked at Poncho.

Thus begun a period that historians would later refer to as the Brooklyn Bridge Chameleon Era. Lefty went lilac, Poncho responded with tangerine. Lefty countered with acid green, Poncho retaliated with puce. Opticians in both Brooklyn and Manhattan were besieged by worried citizens claiming to be suffering from color-blindness. The bridge was such a dazzling sight that it became the third man-made structure to be seen from the space shuttle, along with the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kill Garbage Landfill in Staten Island.

“My wife is cheating on me,” Al Rosenberg confided to Lefty.

“Al, I’ve known you for eleven years now. You’re up here at least once a week…usually with your knickers in a knot over the demise of some capitalist market somewhere in the empire, and you’ve yet to make the big leap. Why should I believe you this time?”

“I’m all confused,” Al said. “I think it’s sorted out…I just don’t know. I was in Hong Kong for 3 months. I sent my wife a telegram. It said `Plane landing at Poncho at 11:30 a.m on March 30.’ I walked into the house and there was my wife, in bed with a total stranger, and he was all over her. I freaked out. I ran up the street and went to see the Rabbi. The Rabbi calmed me down. He made me a cup of tea and told me to sit tight. He said he’d go and visit my wife and not to worry. `There’s an explanation for everything,’ he claimed. The Rabbi was gone for about an hour and I was climbing the walls. He finally returned and in a very comforting voice told me that it was all sorted out. `I told you there’s an explanation for everything,’ he said. `It’s quite simple. She didn’t get the telegram.’ I just can’t believe after 20 years of what I considered to be a happy marriage, that my entire personal life almost went down the toilet.”

“Let me tell you about the world’s most extraordinary toilet,” Lefty said to Al. “Inside the caisson, the pneumatic water closet consisted of a wooden box with a lid and a large iron pipe that passed up through the timber roof. The box was kept half full with water, and whenever its contents were to be discharged, a valve was opened and the pressure from within the caisson would blast everything overhead in the form of a fine mist. Imagine that, human feces transformed into vapor. Pity we can’t do that to politicians. The toilet turned out to be one of Roebling’s more ingenious inventions, since foul odors certainly had their home in the Brooklyn caisson,” Lefty concluded.

Al went home that night and made love to his wife, who couldn’t understand why, after coitus, her husband found it necessary to explain the inner workings of a pneumatic crapper on the bed of the East river over 100 years ago.

Lefty was back to yellow. Poncho stayed with blue. Everything seemed normal. But the inevitable was about to occur. Poncho & Lefty were on a collision course. One morning, as Lefty was clambering up the girder he intended to paint that day, he found that Poncho had beaten him to it. They looked each other up and down Clint Eastwood fashion, fingering their respective paint brushes like six-gun fighters on the streets of Tombstone.

“I feel like I know you,” Lefty said.

“Companero! Soul Brother,” Poncho responded.

They hugged each other and proceeded to swap war stories.

“I’ve had it with that crazy old goat Coleman,” said Lefty. “He’s gone stark raving bonkers. D’ya know that he banned St. Patrick’s Day in Brooklyn because he called too much green an affront to all yellow abiding citizens.”

“What about the fucking Mayor!” Poncho retorted. “He’s given the muggers in blue (the New York City Police Department) permission to shoot any hot dog vendors that serve yellow mustard. He’s got his lab boys working on a blue dye mustard. All yellow taxis are now blue. He recently raided Chinatown and deported every Chinese restaraunt worker found serving yellow rice. Meanwhile you and I are up here every day, turning this beautiful bridge into a panoramic nightmare to appease the gigantic egos of these two lunatics. They ought to give ’em both enemas and bury ’em in a couple of shoe boxes.”

“The pisser is,” said Lefty, “I don’t even like yellow.”

“Jesus, all I ever see is blue. My wife recently left me because I painted her blue by mistake. And now, everybody makes bad airport jokes around me.”

“What’s your favorite color?” Lefty asked Poncho.

“Johnny Cash black.”

“Me too.”

They shook on it. “You know, I’ve also had it up the bunghole with that whining pisspot Al Rosenberg,” Poncho said. “That spineless sack of shit can’t even commit suicide properly. I once manacled his arm to the bridge, and chained his leg to an anvil, and he still weaseled his way out of it.”

Lefty was surpised that Poncho knew Al. After all, Al was his pet project. He’d amassed enough experience working on Al’s neurotic psyche to seriously consider becoming a shrink. “Traitor,” thought Lefty, as he imagined Al imparting all of Lefty’s pearls of wisdom on an unsuspecting Poncho. “Talk about working both sides of the bridge,” Lefty said to Poncho. As they climbed down the bridge that day, both Lefty and Poncho smeared a huge glob of axle grease on Al’s favorite perch.

That night, Lefty and Poncho stopped by the hardware store to order 20,000 gallons of Matte Black. “Put it on Mr. Coleman’s yellow card,” Lefty insisted.

“Have you heard,” said the man behind the counter. “A fella jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge late this afternoon.”


Originally published:
Issue Sixteen
December 2001

 

 

(Source: “The Great Bridge” by David McCullough. Images from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.)

 


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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