Construction


1. Back then, I was as a job counselor at a free training program for women who wanted to be construction workers. The women were convicts, college graduates, former addicts, former computer programmers. More than half were lesbians, which made for a lot of love connections but also a lot of fights between lovers wielding hammers and saws. Because I was young enough to be the child of many of our students, I dressed how I thought a serious New York City woman would dress. Boxy skirt suits with cream hose and low-heeled loafers. I must have looked even more like a kid in those middle-aged clothes.


Every staff member had an all-time favorite student. A star pipe-layer at the plumbers union, a wet-saw expert in Tile Setters Local 7. Mariposa Friedman was mine. Her feminine name clashed with her wide jaw, her brown crew cut, the muscles in her arms tattooed on their soft undersides with the twin skylines of Manhattan and Brooklyn. She was a former lawyer, about to become an electrician. Two nights a week, we’d order Chinese food to the office and eat while we talked feminism, sexism, racism, amperage.


2. I got a better job with the city, doling out federal dollars to training programs like the one where I’d worked before. I worked downtown, near where the World Trade Center was being rebuilt. For years, whenever I saw a woman on the construction site, it was a pretty sure bet I knew her. Sometimes women I didn’t remember would stop me and tell me how I changed their lives. But when I ran into Dahlia Greene on the street, I knew her right away. Dahlia was an ironworker, thin and dark and all muscle. The only woman who ever passed the strength test for Local 40. She and Mariposa had a little thing during training. It didn’t work out, but they stayed good friends.


I said, “Don’t you get dizzy?” and pointed at where the steel was rising from the deep foundation pit.


“Naw,” Dalia said, “You can’t think it about it like that.” She looked where I’d been pointing. “Up there, there’s no down here.”


Dalia asked me if I’d seen Mariposa on television. She was a union rep now, negotiating contracts in conference rooms again instead of splicing wires. A local news anchor had interviewed her for a piece about women in nontraditional careers and the clip had gone viral. “She’s always had a big head,” said Dahlia.


3. After our Chinese food dinners, Mariposa and I usually went around the corner to an Irish bar. She liked to make a big, quiet show of buying me Bud Lights with her saved-up money from being a lawyer. She played the jukebox, stretching out her skyline-tattooed arms to lean on the machine while she made her picks. Every time, some stranger, man or woman, would stop to talk to her, snared by the tattoos or maybe just her general ease in the world, in herself. I watched how she moved her hands when she talked to people. I thought how they would look cracking and peeling as she stripped wire in the January cold.


4. Dahlia called me at work and asked if I wanted to get a beer. We weren’t exactly friends, but I said okay. “You know, I used to hate you,” she said. “Mariposa said you were the smartest girl she ever met.” She winked at me. “Bet you’re not anymore.


I asked her about the union gossip I still kept up on, whether Fergus O’Farrell was going to jail for taking kick-backs. “Mariposa won’t get caught doing that shit,” Dahlia said. “She’ll do it, everybody does it, but she won’t get caught.”


5. I searched Mariposa’s name online. The top hit wasn’t the television interview. It was her city council election fundraising page. A picture of her with her family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was flanked by two more close-ups taken while she was making speeches. In each photo, she wore a tailored white shirt and suit jacket that covered her arms to the wrist. I clicked on links that opened videos of her speaking at labor conferences, awards ceremonies, political lunches. Her voice was deeper than I remembered, but her face was still young, boyishly pretty. One photo showed her with Dahlia and several other women I didn’t recognize, all in hard hats and baggy t-shirts. All except for Mariposa, who was in a black suit, a sleek piece of structural steel rising behind her.


6. At my job with the city, I had carved out an obscure but necessary expertise. I was financially secure and dating a Jewish divorcee who thought my Midwestern upbringing exotic. My apartment was a floor-through in Brooklyn in a decent neighborhood. A lot of nights, I changed into sneakers and walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge. I could see the river underneath me between the cracks in the boards, but I trusted the walkway to hold me. I trusted the thick cables and the coats of beige paint that protected the bridge steel from decay. I knew I could go on like this forever, that I had an unfortunate stamina that would let me work hard and unnoticed in the corners of Class B office space until it was too late to do anything else. I looked down again through the cracks at the boats flashing by, white and green under my feet. Bicyclists rang their bells furiously when I strayed for a second into their lane.


7. Mariposa won her election. To my surprise, Dahlia called me that night. “She said it was the patchwork of people in her life that made all the difference. Can you believe that shit?” Even more surprising, the next day I received an invitation to Mariposa’s victory party at the Brooklyn Marriott. I called Dahlia immediately and arranged to go together.


The party was in a windowless banquet room with a crystal chandelier. At first, we couldn’t locate Mariposa among the balloons and steam tables of overcooked salmon. But then we started to notice a general ripple in the crowd, a little clump that moved about every three minutes. Mariposa was surrounded, but when Dahlia and I approached, her eyes went straight for us and she made her way over. She seemed pleased to see us, the closest she could get to happy at a political function. We said congratulations and she shook our hands. Hers were still soft, or had become soft again.


“Dahlia keeps me honest these days,” Mariposa said.

“I keep you from forgetting. Gets easy to forget somebody has to build all this,” Dahlia said, swirling her finger to indicate the four walls.


“She thinks I’m still more lawyer than tradeswoman,” said Mariposa.


I asked Mariposa several questions about her campaign, the union. She answered enthusiastically and asked me nothing. Her eyes began to drift in the polite way of important people. She kept her pupils fixed on mine, but began to scan with her peripheral vision for someone else to speak to. I thought about how often her eyes were once fixed on me. How they never wandered or moved on. I had lost whatever once kept her attention. I had lost something important without knowing what it was.  

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