Piss Christ? Piss Koran!
Part One: Dark Till Dawn
Mike Dolan came out of the subway, hit the sidewalk and set out down the west side of 6th Avenue with a purposeful stride. Midtown Manhattan never truly sleeps, particularly just before a Monday morning, but compared to what it would be like in a couple of hours, it was geared way down. No tourists yet, mostly delivery trucks and vans. All lanes were northbound, because it was 6th Avenue.
Mike was showered and clean shaven, every item on him and in his possession carefully considered. The white hard hat on his head was the real deal. He wore a gray polo shirt with the embroidered black-and-yellow logo of a crane manufacturer above the pocket. Both items were gifts from old friends. The black cargo-pocket work pants over his Red Wing construction boots were practically new. An iPhone in an armored carrier was clipped to the black nylon rigger’s belt on his right hip. A silver tape measure was next to a small black flashlight on his left. On his back was a compact but heavy pack, also black. In his right hand he carried a small black tool bag, and he held a folding aluminum clipboard case in his left. On the F-Train over from Queens, another early riser had gestured toward Mike’s hard hat, and asked him if the strike was over. Mike just mumbled something about safety inspectors never getting a day off.
After a career spent pounding bolts hanging the high steel, it felt strange for him to be wearing a white hard hat for his trip into Manhattan. The white hard hat and the crane-logo polo shirt were just a disguise for his mission. Like his father before him, Mike was a union man, from the time he got out of the Army, until he’d retired a few years earlier. The New York Ironworkers Local Union 461 had carried him all the way through his family-raising years. Now, the kids were gone, and his wife had passed away.
Mike had always worn a scuffed-to-hell red hard hat with an American flag sticker on the front. Shiny white hard hats were for management pukes way down in the trailers, and for inspectors and reporters and a few other random assholes who would occasionally make an appearance at nose-bleed height. Well, maybe they weren’t all assholes. Some of them were pretty cool, like the construction company honcho who had given him the white hard hat right off his head on the job site parking lot, and offered Mike a salaried position with his big and growing company. That was a line Mike Dolan couldn’t cross—he’d be a union man until the day he died—but it was a welcome gesture. And now that white hard hat was on his head.
After walking a few city blocks south from the subway entrance, the black edge of the forty-story BCA building became visible across the avenue. The BCA building was one of Mike’s two targets, but it was not his destination. The black granite tower was the national headquarters of the BCA television network, including the studios of BCA World News. Another block down 6th, and Mike passed in front of another impressive skyscraper, the fifty-story Grand Hotel. Cabs were waiting under the portico; it was the usual scene remembered from a thousand pre-dawn trips into the city. Hustlers, pimps and low-lifes of every stripe, who were just ending their nights, passed worker bees trudging the other way toward their daily grinds.
While he was approaching 53rd Street, Mike looked around and counted at least four cameras. It didn’t matter. He knew he’d been on film from the time he’d gotten onto the subway. If his mission succeeded, his identity would probably be out anyway. The guy on the F-Train who had asked him about the strike would be giving TV interviews by the twelve o’clock news. So what? It wouldn’t change anything.
Mike’s destination was just across 53rd Street. The southwest corner of the intersection was the home of the forty-five story Bank of Europe building. The corner of the building was set far enough back from the street corner so that in normal times, there was enough space around its main street entrance for a plaza with a big statue, a fountain, and benches extending most of the way down 53rd. But not now. Now this extra space was blocked off from the public as a temporary construction site. Orange plastic barricades were set up along the 53rd Street side of the bank building, leaving only a narrow space near the curb for pedestrians. Just behind the line of orange barricades was a fence made of temporary chain-link sections covered with green fabric.
The barriers were there to keep people away from a tower crane that was being assembled on the 53rd street side of the bank building. Something big and heavy needed to be lifted 600 feet up to the roof, and the way they were going to get it up there was with a temporary crane. But the tower—and the horizontal hammerhead crane on top of it—were only halfway up the side of the bank building. The strike had stopped all Manhattan construction jobs last week. At this temporary work site, there would be no union members walking a picket line. The crane job was just shut down, and it would be forgotten until the dispute was settled, probably in a week or less.
After crossing 53rd, Mike turned right and walked along the line of orange barricades and fencing halfway to 7th Avenue, where they made a ninety-degree left turn and terminated against the side of the building. The dark fabric covering the fencing cast a shadow from the nearest street light across the plastic barricades. There was nobody in sight, so Mike casually swung his legs over the low barricade and went prone, disappearing in the gap between the orange plastic and the fencing. The fabric was just hanging loose at the bottom, easily pushed out of the way. Mike’s black tool bag was already unzipped. Heavy-duty wire cutters clipped the temporary joint where the galvanized pipes of the last two fence sections were sloppily wired together. He only needed to push their bottoms apart to slip through, and he was inside.
Behind the fencing there was little need for security, because there was nothing small or light enough for a thief to steal. Whatever had to be lifted to the roof would not arrive until the tower crane was fully assembled and ready, and it was only halfway up. The tower grew twelve feet at a time by pushing the top section up with the enormous hydraulic pumps in the jack-up climber unit up near the top, and then sticking in another tower section that had just been lifted up by the crane.
Most of the barricaded space along 53rd street was taken up with the next half-dozen tower sections that would go up. Individually, they were giant yellow cubes made of four vertical load-bearing round pipes joined by a grid of horizontal and diagonal cross struts. Mike walked between these sections and the building, and went straight to the base of the tower. A steel hand ladder was welded to each section on the side nearest the building, which was twenty feet away. Crouching there the dark, Mike removed leather work gloves from his gym bag and put them on. The gym bag and his hinged aluminum clipboard went into his backpack, and when he slung it back on, this time he fastened the chest strap. His hard hat’s liner suspension was already tight enough for climbing.
Mike had been out of the game for few years, and he’d lost much of his old strength, but climbing was still second nature to him. He rested and caught his breath after he passed each section. At an easy pace, it took him less than half an hour to climb the twenty stories up to where the horizontal hammerhead crane formed a giant T across the tower. Until the strike was over, this was as high as it was going to get. The load jib, the 150-foot cantilevered-boom end of the hammerhead, rested parallel to the twentieth floor of the bank building, aiming east toward 6th Avenue. The shorter counterweight jib aimed the other way from the tower, back toward 7th.
The standard square tower sections within the climber unit ended below the horizontal crane, and transitioned into a succession of moving structural elements, hydraulic lines, steel cables, conduits, and welded pipes and beams. It was a little tricky climbing the grab-irons around the slewing-ring machinery that would eventually allow the crane to turn in circles above the building, but it was nothing that an old steel-monkey like Mike couldn’t navigate blindfolded in the dark. He wasn’t blindfolded, but it was dark. The yellow paint helped him to find his hand and foot holds, reflecting what light was available.
Mike climbed past the glass-enclosed cubicle where the crane operator would sit. He had great respect for his union brothers, the Operating Engineers, and the hammerhead crane operators were at the very top of that game. Or, as the Ironheads kidded them, they were the only OEs allowed up that high—but only if they were safely tucked inside their little steel boxes with the windows all around. But the truth was, the entire show, down on the street and up in the sky, all ran at the speed of the individual Tonka jockey at the top of the tower.
Once he was above the operator’s cab, Mike was finally at the level of the 150-foot horizontal jib, which was made of three primary load-bearing pipe sections. They were each about eight inches in diameter, with two on the bottom, and one on the top. These three main pipes were each about five feet apart from the other two, creating a stacked triangle that was held rigidly together by a succession of welded struts that were about five inches in diameter. The pair of pipes at the bottom supported the trolley that brought the lifting hook in and out. The single load-bearing pipe at the top was supported by stout guy-wires that extended back to the “cat” at the very top of the tower, and then down again to the counterweight jib at the opposite end of the crane. Like the vertical tower sections, the whole crane was painted bright yellow. It was clean, too, because it had only been up for a short time.
There were no lights burning inside of the twentieth-floor offices, so Mike decided to travel out the jib on the building side. On the odd chance that some janitor or early-bird spotted him, they’d think nothing of it, not after noting his white hard hat and work clothes. He put both boots on the bottom pipe nearest the building, and leaned inward to place his gloved hands on the single top pipe. It was an easy side-stepping shuffle, just maneuvering his legs over the connecting struts as he passed them.
If he slipped, it was 250 feet straight down to the street, but he was used to that view between his toes from decades as an Ironworker. He soon found the rhythm, sliding his right boot out, then bringing his left over, and doing the same with his gloved hands on the top pipe. Nothing to it. The Ironheads would often say easy money to one another in circumstances like that. They’d hook, shackle, bolt or pin something to something else, and get paid damn good money for it. The only catch was, it was usually hundreds of feet up in the air. And today, money had nothing to do with it.
At the end, 150 feet out from the tower, the two bottom pipes had a panel of expanded metal decking welded horizontally between them. This grating was stiffened with stout angle iron at each end, also welded to the two bottom load-bearing pipes. This provided a stable working platform for men making repairs and adjustments to the trolley machinery and other gear that lived near the end of the jib, but mainly underneath it, out of Mike’s way. He had spotted this grating from the street with his binoculars, and he had guessed that it would make him a secure roost where he would have an eagle’s-eye view of both of his targets.
The top pipe was neck-high to Mike when he was standing straight up on the grated deck. The end of the jib extended a little way beyond the northeast corner of the bank building, so that Mike could see up and down 6th Avenue, with Central Park to the north, and the Empire State Building to the south. The metal grate gave him five feet by five feet of secure footing, with the connecting struts making good hand holds all around. It felt just like back in the old days, but without his buddies hollering their usual Monday-morning banter from beam to beam. The greatest guys in the world, bar none, doing the best jobs in the world. He’d just aged out of it. It was a young man’s game, and Mike Dolan was no longer young. Sixty wasn’t old, but it was too old for Ironworkers.
Anybody in the corner offices of the Bank of Europe building was going to have much too close of a view of him, but he’d planned for that. He took off his pack, crouching on the deck, and removed an old Army poncho that had bungee cords attached to the grommets at its corners, all of it stowed in its own plastic bag to prevent snags. Mike secured the green poncho to pipes and struts on the side of the crane toward the building, but a little ways back from the grated platform at the end. Mike wanted to be able to see up and down 6th Avenue, but he didn’t want the NYPD aiming lenses or anything else at him from fifteen yards behind his right shoulder. His poncho lean-to shanty blocked that exposed angle from view.
He stared at the BCA building, his secondary target. It was less than a football field away on the other side of 6th Avenue. The black slab blocked half of his view toward the east, and reminded him of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 53rd Street ran along its base on the north side. Just a few degrees to the left and twice the distance away, on the other side of 53rd, was Mike’s primary target: the five-story Modern Art Museum. Both of his targets were in plain sight, and he had not been stopped or hassled even once, not counting the guy on the subway. Mike looked at his glowing digital watch: it was 5:17 in the morning, on Monday, the 22nd of August. He had less than an hour to wait before he made his first call.
Time to sit down, relax, and get ready. He removed the padded stadium seat cushion that had been in his pack against his back, and slid it under his butt. Expanded metal grating was painful to sit on, any old Ironhead knew that. Then he remembered his polo shirt and hard hat. His beef today had nothing to do with the construction trades, so he took off his brain bucket. He’d worn the crane company’s logo polo shirt just for a disguise, in case he was questioned on his way, so he pulled that off too, and wrapped it around the white hard hat.
Underneath, Mike was wearing a white t-shirt with a big American flag across the front. The gray polo had been streaked with grime where he’d brushed against greasy wire cables on his way around the slewing ring, but the white t-shirt was still spotless.
While it grew light, he took out his compact 8X20 Zeiss binoculars. Binos had often saved him a long trip out on the beams just to verify one critical detail or another. Since Mike had retired, he’d made it a habit to bring his binos along when he was in the city. He was always scanning the skylines, watching for moving cranes, and for his brother Ironworkers who built the city. That’s why he’d been carrying his binoculars last Friday, when he’d noticed the chance juxtaposition of the BCA building, the Modern Art Museum, and the half-erected tower crane across 6th Avenue from both of them. He’d been on this mission since that light bulb had switched on in his mind, and three days later, he was sitting on the end of the crane.
Even before full daylight, with his binos Mike could see that a line of police barricades were set up on the street in front of the glass front wall and doors of the Modern Art Museum. Police cars were already lined up in ranks on both sides of 53rd. There was even a horse trailer, for the mounted police, and a flatbed with more barricade sections. New York’s Finest had crowd control at street demonstrations down to a science, and understood the importance of getting to the scene well before the expected angry mobs.
At ten minutes before six o’clock Monday morning, Mike removed a pre-paid flip-phone from a zip-lock bag that contained a half dozen more. He entered the memorized number for the radio station office line of WNYR, New York Radio, FM 101.5, and 1070 on the AM dial. The number was also written in his notebook, but he didn’t need to look it up. The phone rang and rang, but it was finally picked up on about the twentieth ring.
“What?” asked a male voice.
“Is this the radio station? WNYR?”
“Yeah, it is, but this isn’t the call-in line. You’ll have to call back on the other number.”
“I need to speak to Jerry Conroy.”
“That’s why we have a call-in line, pal.”
“It’s urgent—tell him it’s a newsmaker. Tell him he’s got a big scoop, if he wants it.”
“Yeah, sure. Take a hike, pal.”
“Listen, pal, don’t blow this deal. This is the biggest scoop that Jerry ever had. If you hang up, I’ll call WABC and give them the story. Then, when this is all over, I’ll tell Jerry that you hung up on me.”
“Okay, that was pretty good. I’m listening. What do you got?”
“Jerry was talking about the Serrano exhibit last Friday. You know, ‘Piss Christ,’ and all that deal. It’s supposed to open in four hours at the Modern Art Museum. Only it’s not going to open. Tell Jerry that you have somebody on the horn who says that the Serrano exhibit is not going to open at ten. Just tell him that.”
Mike had selected Jerry Conroy because his four-hour talk radio program began a few minutes after six, and Mike had surmised that the radio host would already be somewhere around the station, preparing for his show. The Jerry Conroy Show on WNYR didn’t have top ratings, but they were decent, and its signal blanketed the New York metro area.
Conroy was younger than Mike, around fifty. According to the biography on his website, Conroy had been a Villanova graduate, a Marine Corps captain in Kuwait during Desert Storm, a sometimes lawyer and a sometimes politician, a commentator for BCA News, and finally, a talk radio host. Reading between the lines of what he had heard on his radio program, Mike deduced that Jerry Conroy was divorced, had grown kids somewhere, and was to one degree or another a lapsed Catholic like himself. And he had deduced that Conroy wasn’t afraid to take a drink, or to raise his voice, or to swing a fist.
And they were both Micks, there was that…
After a minute of watching the morning shadows shifting and lifting far down 53rd Street to the east, a familiar voice came out of Mike’s flip phone. “Conroy here. What about the Serrano exhibit? Make it quick, I’m in a hurry.”
“The Serrano exhibit is not going to open at ten.”
“And why is it not going to open at ten?”
“Because I’m going to stop it.”
A pause. “And just how are you going to stop it?”
“Jerry, do you know where the Modern Art Museum is? The MAM?” Mike pronounced it so that it rhymed with ham.
“Of course I do.”
“Then you know that the MAM is down the block and across the street from the BCA building, where you used to work. So here’s the deal, Jerry: if you still have any contacts at BCA, you’ll want to call them right now. Tell them to look out any window on the twentieth floor that faces west. The twentieth floor. Tell them to look at the yellow crane that’s set up on the north side of the Bank of Europe building. Ask them what they see on the end of the crane. I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re joking, right? This is a hoax, right?”
“No hoax, Jerry. I promise you, it’s no hoax. So if you want to get back on television, here’s your big chance.”
“Don’t go anywhere.”
As if he could. This time, Mike had to wait for almost four minutes before he heard Jerry’s voice again. By then, it was two minutes after six, nearly air time for the Jerry Conroy Show. Conroy said, “Are you out of your mind? What are you going to do, jump?”
“No, Jerry, I’m not going to jump. At least, not without help, and so far, I’m all by my lonesome. Now, here’s the situation. From where I’m sitting, I have a perfect view of the front of the MAM, and if the MAM opens up at ten for the Serrano exhibit, then I’m going to do something that will make everybody wish that they hadn’t.”
Pause. “You’re going to do what, exactly?”
“I’m going to stop the Serrano exhibit from opening, that’s what. Now, you tell your old friends at BCA that they have a head start, and for sure they have the best camera shot, but it won’t take long for the other networks to get crews up on the other buildings around here, like the Grand Hotel I’m looking at right across 53rd. So if BCA wants to scoop the competition, they’ll have to get moving. Just tell them that.”
“They won’t go for it. It’s against their policy to film jumpers.”
“Jerry, I already told you, I’m not a jumper, and yes, they will go for it. They’re not called media whores for nothing, right? You used to work there, didn’t you? So you tell them that there’s going to be a big news story right across 6th Avenue, and they’ll want to get a camera crew up on the twentieth floor ASAP. That is, if they want the scoop. Otherwise, I’m hanging up, and calling WABC. It’s all the same to me.”
“Okay, okay—just wait a minute.”
While he waited, Mike grabbed the smart phone from his belt and brought up BCA national news. The lead story at the top of the hour was a hurricane hitting Mexico. He set the iPhone on the grating, didn’t like the angle, then he placed the hard hat wrapped in the gray shirt just past his left knee, and leaned the iPhone against it. With the screen tilted just right, it was easy to watch, yet it would be invisible to the cameras across the avenue.
Mike had a stack of ball caps in his pack, and sunglasses. He didn’t want to make it too easy for the BCA cameramen (or anybody else) to read his face. 9-11 was embroidered in white across the front of his first cap, which was Navy blue, but the 11 was made to resemble the two World Trade Center towers. Below the 9-11, the cap said NEVER FORGET.
When Jerry came back on the line he said, “Just tell me that you’re not going to do anything crazy. You don’t have a gun, or a bomb, or anything like that, do you?”
“No gun, and no bomb, and I’m not going to jump. I promise, I really do. It’s nothing like that. But what I do have, Jerry, is a special weapon that will stop the Serrano exhibit from opening. Just let me know when BCA has a camera ready to roll, and we’re going to make news together.”
The radio host seemed distracted by then, half listening, carrying on multiple background conversations at once. Finally Conroy asked Mike, “Do you want to talk to somebody at BCA? Charlie Thorn is standing by to speak to you. I’m talking to his production team right now. They’re switching their lineup around because of you—the Serrano exhibit just moved to the top. You can call them, or they can call you. I have their numbers, if you want to call them. Or, I can patch you through, but the sound won’t be as good.”
“No, Jerry, I don’t want to talk to Charlie Thorn. I don’t want to talk to anybody at BCA. I just want to talk to you, so please, don’t hang up. And if I get disconnected, keep this line open, okay? I’ll call right back, but probably from another number.”
“Y-you don’t want to talk to Charlie Thorn?” Jerry Conroy sounded disbelieving, as if Mike had declined a private audience with the president, or the Pope.
“No, I don’t want to talk to Charlie Thorn. I just want to talk to you, Jerry.”
“All right, well, I’m here. What do you want to say?”
Mike Dolan knew that every word he spoke from that point on would be recorded for playback and careful study. “You know, Jerry, I’ve never called a talk show before, but I listen to yours a lot. And last week, on Friday, you asked why Christians never did anything about sacrilegious art, you know, when Muslims get so riled up by it. You were talking about the Serrano exhibit, and his ‘Piss Christ,’ and the ‘Dung Madonna,’ and all the other anti-religious art that the liberals seem to love so much. Then, it’s our sacred right to free expression, right? You asked why Christians just take it like sheep, when people get murdered over cartoons of Mohammed. And then everybody just goes on like that’s perfectly normal, like that’s just what everybody expects.
“You were talking about how we’re not allowed to say anything negative about Islam, not one single word, or bombs will explode, but anybody can say anything about Christians and the Jews, and we’re supposed to just turn the other cheek and suck it up. But the Muslims—oh, no! They’ll chop the heads off of little kids over a stupid cartoon of Mohammed, that’s what you said. They’ll chop the heads off of little kids. Well, that got me thinking, and one thing led to another, and, well…here I am.” Mike paused to clear his throat. “So here’s the deal, Jerry: if the Serrano exhibit opens at ten o’clock, then I’m going to create another art masterpiece on live television, right here. Performance art, or you might—”
Conroy cut in. “They say they have a camera rolling. Can you see it?”
“No, I can’t see it.” In the early light, the heavily-tinted west-facing windows of the black BCA tower were totally opaque, except where random offices were already open for business and lit inside, giving the side of the building the appearance of an enormous cross-word puzzle. The BCA news crew would want it dark inside the office they’d chosen for the camera work, to avoid reflections off their windows.
“Well, they can see you,” said Jerry. “Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”
“My name is Mike. Brooklyn Mike. You said the camera was rolling?”
“That’s what they tell me, but I’m not there.”
Mike removed a gray cylinder the size of a spray paint can from his pack. It had a hinged handle on the side, and a transverse pin like a hand grenade’s on top. There was just a lazy breeze wafting up 6th Avenue toward Central Park. He yanked the ring, let the handle fly, and scarlet smoke erupted and billowed furiously and streamed across the intersection over toward the Grand Hotel. He set the smoke grenade on the left side of the platform, downwind. Mike had wrapped it in gray duct tape, so that the telephoto lenses would not be able to determine its origins. Like a lot of stuff, it had come off a construction site. The smoke sputtered out in half a minute, the pink cloud disappearing up the avenue.
He kept an eye on his iPhone, and in a moment, the Mexican hurricane was replaced with BREAKING NEWS. Charlie Thorn came on as the BCA morning anchor, and then the screen changed, and Mike saw himself in tight close-up, framed by the three yellow pipe girders and connecting struts of the crane around him. From the end-on, it looked like he was sitting inside a floating pyramid made of yellow pipes. Red smoke curled away toward the north. Red smoke, yellow crane, a guy in a white t-shirt with an American flag, wearing a 9-11 ball cap on his head, and sunglasses over his eyes. Even on his smart phone screen, Mike could see that it was beautiful composition. BCA News had beaten their competition to the punch, so come what may, they owned the story, and they would never avert their treasured front-row camera gaze.
Mike turned his head downward, then counted the seconds until he saw the matching movement on his iPhone. He was on at least a ten-second network delay, so that they could cut away in case he unexpectedly blew himself up, or hanged himself, or jumped. Which, of course, he had absolutely no intention of doing.
To Mike, the red smoke was just eye candy, something irresistible for the BCA News producers and directors. On his smart phone, he could see that BCA had gone to a split screen, with a talking Charlie Thorn sharing space with the mystery lunatic perched on the end of a crane, straight across the avenue from their Manhattan corporate headquarters. Mike had a set of ear buds in case he decided to use them later, but for now, he didn’t care what Thorn was saying. He was just hijacking their network cameras for the video portion of his mission. The Jerry Conroy Show would provide the soundtrack. The BCA television and WNYR radio engineers could work out the synchronization between them. Everybody else could share their feeds.
Glancing down at his iPhone in order to be sure that he was still airing on BCA, Mike pulled a clear plastic two-liter bottle full of a pale amber liquid from his pack, and set it to his right side in front of his pack. To save space at the bottom of his pack, the juice bottle had been nested into a square one-gallon ice cream container. Mike set the translucent bucket on the grating between his knees. His legs were spread, and the soles of his work boots were pointed straight at his target audience. Then he withdrew a green hard-covered book from his pack, held it up quite steady for a few seconds, and then he set it into the empty ice cream bucket. An inch of it was still visible above the top edge of the plastic tub. Another glance down at his iPhone showed Mike that he was still live on BCA.
Then Mike pulled a spiral-bound notebook from his gym bag. He had bought the thickest black Sharpie marker that he could find, the kind with a wide, square tip. If they jammed his phones, if they took him off the radio, Mike wasn’t going to quit his mission. In that case, he would create visual text messages for the cameras. There would always be cameras. In fifteen minutes, there would be a dozen. In an hour, a hundred.
Back on his kitchen table in Brooklyn, Mike had already hand-printed a few messages. He opened the notebook toward the BCA building, and held it up with his left hand. Then, with his right hand, he raised the unlabeled bottle full of apple juice above the bucket, and the green book.
In block letters across both pages it read:
Editor’s Note: “Part Two: The First Hour” coming soon…