Joe Diabo’s Farewell is an Andy Duncan novelette that provides a fascinating look at the long-gone New York City profession of sky-walker.
“Don’t they build there all the time?” you might ask. And,
“yes,” I’d say back, New York is a hell, filled with never-ending construction.
One day they may have 3D print technology to make all the buildings with, but presently we still need workers to skirt that high flung razor, and do it on starvation wages as is tradition. The unions and Scabby keep some workers safe, but as I discovered when curious about modern construction practices, that number only equates to 25% of NYC workers.
Meaning most workers clinging to safety lines dangling over honking traffic, building phallic symbols for the next generation to gawk at, do so with no one looking out for their well-being.
So, after reading Duncan’s Joe Diabo’s Farewell [JDF] it’s easy to question why some deserve protection while others suffer without it. At its core, JDF covers, along with this, my primary question, racism, and novelty.
My biggest takeaway here is on Joe Diabo and his big farewell.Construction sucks. I’ve done general labor on construction sites. They wouldn’t trust me to do anything but pick up trash and carry heavy things, but let me tell you, even that job was straight dangerous as hell and hard as hell and basically may be given out from hell for all I know. The best thing about jobs like that is not working jobs like that.
Oh and, there be spoilers on the novelette ahead!
The perspective of the story is from a Lenape construction worker. He is not Joe though, Joe dies plummeting from up high.
I was drawn to this story because of my own work with Lenape history and culture. I am a New Yorker and this is Lenape land. They lived here longer than any other group of people, but their history is all but hidden.
Sure, places may carry vestiges of Lenape words but few if any deeds.If you look really hard, you can see their works in a few random places, like the butterfly farm at The Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Arboretum. There, they have a nature walk that passes by reconstructed Lenape lodges.
I think the intention was for the construction to be a village, but it made me think of what one family would call a home.
If looking for some Lenape culture in the city, Shorakkopoch has his rock up in the Inwood neighborhood and in East Midtown is this statue.
Both commemorate the “deal” between the Lenape and the Dutch. Not a good day for the Lenape, but a real good day for the Dutch and an even better day for the English later on.
The Lenape were seasonally mobile and constantly traveling to new locations, hunting and gathering. They had permanent settlements, but my idea is they migrated often. So places to attach their history are few and far between. It also creates a mystery as to why they became known as the workers who could handle going up high. They worked at the very top of buildings like the Chrysler and the Empire State Building.
And they were the nonunion workers thrown to the wind, so to speak.
Duncan’s Lenape aren’t dealing with the fantastical like my historical fantasies do, but I count this story as speculative fiction because it recreates history and deals with its own level of the fantastical. There’s a conversation with a ghost, which can be debated whether real or not and to fail to recall its characters do the impossible in helping construct buildings hundreds of meters into the sky over 80 years ago when gas-powered engines within their infancy still, would be foolish. The Lenape of New Jersey are famous for their high up metal work. Heat, hard concentration, intensive labor with death inches away all day long. These workers walked thin beams while making the New York skyline soar.
All without out OSHA.
JDF follows the aftermath of an on-the-job accident. It’s grim that the characters are forced to accept and move on, even as Joe Diabo, the best of them, the last stop on a train of men that drives rivets down into cold unyielding steel, succumbs to the very job they are asked to continue.
All the characters, but especially the narrator who ends up taking on Joe’s burden, seem to be waiting for an unseen disaster to claim them as they are forced higher and higher for a check that would be worth far less value than a human life. There is a magic in this. Joe Diabo took a job someone died to give up, maybe even got to watch the man he replaced on the rivet gun go.
Then he died, known as the best. And so goes the reputation of the position, that all riveters know they are killing themselves by doing the job. When Joe Diabo dies, the effect is his colleagues are forced to get on without him. The narrator, knowing he is next in line to assume the doomed position, attempts to find another to survive.
He finds a job playing a pretend version of what modern society views as his people. Dressed like a generic dime store Indian he escorts famous people across stage at a movie theater.
Think movie coming attractions but with living breathing people.
The people playing natives around him aren’t members of his tribe but men willing to do anything for a buck, men with no honor or place. Because of Joe, the narrator knows he has a place, as the engine of the train that drives rivets into skyscrapers. Regardless of whether this defines his end it’s a sight better option than pretending to be a fake Indian being chased by fake cowboys. So in the end, he’s there with his tribe, his family, and after a blessing from a ghostly visit from the departed Joe Diabo, he picks up the cursed hammer and begins riveting.
Maybe he rivets still, but most likely he riveted until it’s was his turn to fall into oblivion, a fate Joe Diabo promises him will eventually happen to everyone in some way. A fate the narrator accepts because it was better than the alternative.