A Life Built From Iron
May 22, 1933 – October 2, 2013
San Francisco Local 377 Ironworkers Union
Most of you who are reading this know me from my movie reviews here on CounterPunch. You know I love movies. I love to go to them, to think about them, and to write about them. What you probably don’t know is that I have loved movies since I was a little girl, and that my love of movies began with my dad.
I haven’t been writing much on movies these last few months because I’ve been spending much time taking care of my dad and his failing body. This past week, on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, my dad left us. This loving and special man, my dad and my daughter’s grandfather died and left us both a beautiful legacy that we will never forget. This man who showed me how to use power tools, who exposed me to film and instilled in me a love a cinema, this tolerant man, this man with an enormous body and an enormous heart left us at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning when his organs failed him. After years of struggling to stay alive, his body finally gave up. It was time to go.
When my dad died, he left a devoted granddaughter, my daughter Skylar, who loves him more than anything in the world, and he left me, his daughter, who was and always will be so proud of the man I called Dad. Besides leaving a hole in our lives and hearts, my dad left another hole behind. We lost one the remaining heroes from the gradually dying working class that is being erased from America’s economic landscape.
My dad was a native San Franciscan. Born in 1933, he grew up with a single mom, and he spent his childhood raising his younger siblings. For fun, he went to movies in the Mission District. My dad never actually called it going to “the movies”. He called it “going to the show.” It was cheap when he was a kid, a nickel a ticket, and he went to every movie that played.
As an adult, my dad worked for San Francisco Local 377 Ironworkers Union until he retired in 1988. His love of going to “the show” never stopped. He brought me to the movies nearly every weekend when I was a kid, and often more than once. He’d take me to kids movies (whatever the newest Disney release was or musical comedy), but he also brought me to whatever “grown-up” movie he and my mom were seeing. Since I was born in 1962, this means that I was exposed to one of the greatest eras of American cinema even though I was just a kid. By the time I was eight years old, I had seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Dirty Dozen, Wait Until Dark, In The Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Funny Girl, Planet of the Apes, True Grit, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alice’s Restaurant, The Wild Bunch and dozens of other movies. The list of movies I watched with my dad grew and grew as I got older. It would be impossible for me to list them all, since we went to every movie possible, and to this day I still like to go to every movie possible.
During my dad’s retired years, I would watch classic movies with him and my daughter Skylar. She was my dad’s pride and joy. Skylar loves classic black and white movies. Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks are her favorite directors, and, like me, she’s particularly fond of film noirs. My dad always remembered every single movie he saw when he was younger, no matter how long ago it was or how obscure the film was. From Double Indemnity to The Big Sleep to Witness for the Prosecution (three of Skylar’s favorites), my dad could always name the actors and the directors and remember if the movies won any Oscars. My dad loved John Wayne and World War II movies. We recently watched The Searchers together and talked about how conflicted John Wayne’s character is in that movie.
When I started writing my regular feature on director profiles for CounterPunch magazine, my dad was in the hospital and rehab centers. I’d bring him the magazine, and he proudly read each issue cover to cover. He always read my movie reviews, though he’d often say, “I don’t understand why you think so hard about movies and how you find all this stuff in them. Don’t you just want to enjoy the show?” But at the same time, he beamed with pride.
At home, when I was a kid, I’d curl up on my dad’s lap and watch movies with him on television. I was particularly fond of monster movies, and he’d watch them all with me – everything from giant spiders, to colonies of killer aunts, Godzilla and Frankenstein. During the scary parts, I’d bury my face in my dad’s humongous chest.
My dad was a huge man. Six foot six inches tall and weighing in at just under three hundred pounds, his body was like an enormous sofa. I could climb on top of it and we’d stay up late watching movies until I fell asleep. My daughter did the same thing when she was born. She always said, “Papa is like a big comfy chair.” He certainly had the body for his job pulling iron. By the time my daughter got to know my dad, his body was a broken tired thing with two replaced shoulders, two replaced hips, and two crushed knees. But his heart was as big as the city he helped build, and he always had room for my kiddo on his lap.
Two vehicles were parked in the driveway when I was growing up – a ’69 Chevy Impala Station Wagon and my dad’s work truck with the name “C.E. Toland & Son” printed on the side. The truck was loaded with the tools of my dad’s trade. Welding tanks, large steel tool boxes, ladders, and hoses to things I didn’t even know the name of. He rose before dawn to drive that truck to work, and when he came home, the truck became the embodiment of his labor. The squeak of the door closing after a long hard day of work was like the creaking of his body slowly being broken down over time.
On the weekends, we’d all pile into the Impala and head to the movies. My dad would crack the tab on a can of beer, light up a cigarette and hit the gas. My mom sat next to him while my two brothers and I tossed back and forth in the back seat. The Giants game played on the a.m. radio as we listened to Juan Marichal or Willie Mays hit a home run.
Being raised by this man who worked so hard all his life to take care of his family – his younger brother and sisters and then me and my brothers – taught me so much. He gave me so many gifts that were directly related to his class and his labor. Yes he taught me to love movies like nothing else on the planet, but he also taught me that I could do anything I wanted. He never treated me differently because I was a girl, but instead took pride in teaching me to be independent, to be strong, and most of all, to not take any shit.
When I was a kid, everything about my dad embodied the labor he performed to take care of his family: his hard hat, his work boots, his steel lunchbox and Thermos, his woodworking workshop in the garage, and his work truck. He spent weekends in the garage working on things for the house. The loud mechanical whine of the table saw was the soundtrack for our household. My dad built desks and beds. Nightstands and bookshelves. Sometimes I’d stand by his side and build something of my own – a table for my dolls or a box for my collection of random stuff. My dad never did things for me, but he showed me how to do them myself. He showed me how to saw, hammer, and weld. By the time I was seven years old, I was using electric saws and power drills. He taught me that I could do things myself and didn’t need to depend on others to do them for me.
I passed that legacy to my daughter who started helping me build furniture at the age of two. When my daughter learned her grandpa died, she was devastated. I told her that every time she picks up a hammer or a screwdriver, she is feeling Papa inside her. She said, “And you too?” I said, “Yes, all three of us together.” My dad’s old work toolbox sits on the floor of my art studio. It’s the same one that used to ride with him in his work truck. My daughter and I use my dad’s tools all the time – drill bits, a level, a Phillip’s head screwdriver, a measuring tape that snaps so neatly and cleanly into its metal casing. I reminded my daughter of the time she fixed the bent pink fender on her beach cruiser with my dad’s toolbox, how she used pliers and screwdriver to get the job done. Skylar’s tears turned to pride.
My dad may not have won the Nobel Prize for anything, but because of him, I figured out how to fix my own shower, how to build my kid’s bike, and how to remodel my entire house on my own. Because of my dad, I have passed down an important legacy to my daughter. And because of my dad’s labor, the San Francisco skyline is the shape it is.
My dad may have retired from his job in 1988, but he was always a union man. He was a firm believer in supporting American labor unions. He only bought union built cars and shopped at union grocery stores. In his retirement, he frequently called the union and talked to them. I’d go visit him, and he’d say, “I called the shop the other day.” His entire identity was built on his ironworker job. He spent his whole life performing the labor of his work, and he spent his later years in life managing the pain that labor caused his body. I wrote to the union when my dad died, and they called him “Brother.”
The union looked after my dad. They gave him a good working wage, and he could care well for his family. One of the many misconceptions that people have is that blue collar somehow means “poor.” Not by a long shot if you’re lucky enough to have a union job like my dad did. He provided well for us. He filled the refrigerator with $100 in groceries each week. He bought me new school clothes from the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs each year. He lovingly assembled a Christmas village under our artificial tree every holiday season. He set up a train that ran in circles around a mirror ice pond. He picked up the tiny houses in his enormous hands and gently placed colored lights inside them. After the Christmas tree was decorated, my dad would put Louis Armstrong on the record player because Louis Armstrong was my favorite. I’d climb on top of my dad’s enormous size 14 feet, wrap my arms around his tree stump legs, and we’d dance around the room as Louis played Hello Dolly. Every Christmas morning, I woke to a tree loaded with gifts. I swore I heard Santa on the rooftop, but I know really I just heard my dad slipping the gifts next to the train as it did its circuit under the twinkling lights.
In the summer, we only ever went to two places for vacation. Once a year, my dad took me to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for my birthday where we’d ride the Giant Dipper together. We’d climb into the little rickety rollercoaster car. I’d squish up against my dad’s enormous chest. His thick and powerful arm circled around my small body as I threw my arms up in the air and screamed. On other weekends during the summer, my dad took us to our place at Lake Berryessa. He and my uncle built it themselves. They built a platform on stilts hooked up to a small beat-up trailer. They welded a BBQ out of a metal drum. At Lake Berryessay, my dad taught me how to fish and to waterski. Sure, our boat was an old fixer-upper, but my dad knew how to fix it up. I’ll always remember the time I watched him lift the entire motorboat off the ground with his bare hands. My dad looked like the strongest man in the world.
When my dad retired, he received a hefty pension from the union, and the union took good care of him as his health deteriorated. This past May, my dad turned eighty years old while he was in a rehab facility after a series of small strokes and heart attacks. The union sent him a pin for 50 years of service, and it was my dad’s most prized possession. He was so proud of that pin when he got it. Every time I’d visit him, he’d ask, “Did you see the pin the union sent?” and show it to me again.
We were watching a football game on TV, and the union pin was on his bedside table. A commercial came on that showed ironworkers working on buildings. My dad scoffed. “Look at them all strapped up and tied to the beams for crying out loud.” I said, “Didn’t you wear safety belts dad?” He laughed and said, “Hell, we didn’t even wear hardhats when I first started.”
My dad picked up his union pin and turned it over in his big hand. He said, “Not many left my age in the union.” Today, there is one less.
When Skylar was nine years old, we were flipping through a magazine and stumbled across a picture of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. I was surprised at the intensity of emotion that the photo inspired. I showed it to my daughter and said, “Look. It’s the Transamerica Building. It’s a very famous building in San Francisco. Papa helped build it. ”
“Then why isn’t Papa very famous too?” Skylar asked. “Papa should be famous if he helped build it.”
That was a good and reasonable question. If you look at many significant buildings in San Francisco that were built between 1955 and 1990, you are most likely looking at results of my dad’s labor. He woke up at the crack of dawn Monday – Friday, drove into the city and hung iron to build buildings. At first he did structural ironwork and spent his days pulling rebar and walking the maze of girders that overlook the city. At the end of his career, my dad did ornamental ironwork, like constructing the big iron ball in the Hyatt Regency lobby, or installing the curving railings in Embarcadero Center, or the fancy railing work in St. Mary’s Cathedral on Gough, the church that hosted the memorial service for Mayor Moscone after he and Harvey Milk were assassinated by Dan White. My dad’s labor was inside the church during that service.
When I was eight years old, I had my tonsils out in Mary’s Help Hospital in Daly City. Every time a nurse or doctor came in, I piped up and said, “My dad helped build this hospital!” Because he did, and I was exceptionally proud of that fact.
The mark of my dad’s labor can be seen all over San Francisco even if no one sees him when they grab the railing at Embarcadero Center as they head up the stairs to Banana Republic or when they kneel down to pray at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
When I was in my thirties, I was Executive Director of a non-profit organization that required me to attend board meetings at One Maritime Plaza, the building in San Francisco with the large X’s on the outside. I’d head up to the 19th floor and shake the hands of CEO’s, law firm partners, company presidents and political officials who didn’t have a clue who built the building they were standing in. But I knew. It was my dad. In fact, my dad told me the reason they built the X’s on the outside of the building was so it wouldn’t collapse during an earthquake.
When the World Trade Center was struck by airplanes on September 11, 2001, my dad knew the buildings would collapse before they actually collapsed. He told me all the reasons for their structural failure. It took the government months of meetings and teams of experts to determine the facts that took dad less than five minutes to figure out.
Without the computers it couldn’t have been done, but without the ironworkers it never would have been done.
–Gil Garcetti, IRON
In his book Iron, Gil Garcetti documented the ironworkers who worked on Disney Concert Hall. When I read his book, I was overwhelmed with an enormous sense of pride and identification. When I think of how my dad looked when I was growing up, I see his hardhat, his work boots, his truck. I see a tired man full of grit and sweat.
During the last years of his life, I would spend time with my dad watching movies on his big TV. He sat on automated easy chair, and his entire body was a broken thing. He was a man who literally busted his body “hanging iron” to take care of his family and to build a city that millions of people enjoy. While the buildings my dad built stand strong and sturdy, he died living in a body destroyed by his labor.
When I looked at my dad and the crumbled infrastructure of his body that once towered so strong and powerful, his body was like the hidden legacy of the San Francisco landscape. I remembered by dad studying a blueprint and figuring out how to make it work in iron. I saw him standing on a single beam of iron 40 stories above the ground. I saw a brave, strong, and smart man. I saw the San Francisco skyline and the towering visions of iron that are my dad’s legacy.
As you talk to the ironworkers, these people are fiercely independent. They are strong. They are smart. They work incredibly hard. Every one of them, if they are fortunate enough to retire as an ironworker, will walk away with injuries more severe than a professional football player will.
– Gil Carcetti, IRON
A few years ago, my dad’s union paid for him to get an electric wheelchair scooter so he could get around. Once he installed the lift on his car, the very first thing we did was go to the movies together with my daughter. My dad had read the Hunger Games books and gave them to Skylar. She and I both read them, and the three of us went to The Hunger Games on opening night. It was quite the undertaking, getting my dad’s chair out to the car, getting my dad into the car, driving to the theater, and getting my dad all set up. But we did it. We made it to the movies together – my dad and his two favorite girls – me and my daughter.
On the drive home, I said, “It’s unfair that Katniss is always being criticized for being unfeeling. She was born in hard times and is doing what she needs to do to survive.” My dad said, “No one ever taught her how to love. That’s all.” I thought, “Well dad, you taught me how to survive and how to love, so I’m pretty lucky.” I’m also glad that the union got my dad that chair so we could go to the movies together one last time.
We are reaching the point now where there are some photographs that are, I don’t know, 180 years old. These people, these men and one woman, produced something that, God willing, will persist for centuries, and there are very few things of which that could be said.
– Scott Simon, photographer, IRON
I remember when they completely wiped out whole neighborhoods in Beijing to build the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Olympics. All this attention had gone into designing this incredible building without recognizing the impact it would have on real people – those who lost their homes which were razed for the project and those whose bodies were destroyed in the building of the project. In the trailer for the documentary Bird’s Nest – Herzog & De Meuron in China, Herzog said (about being an architect): “In a very strange way, we do not always know what we do.” Indeed, architects of this nature do not always know what they do because they are designing buildings in theory not reality. When it comes down to making their dreams into actual structures to be occupied by humans, it’s people like my dad who do the job and break their bodies pulling tons of steel. You won’t find the architects standing by the ironworker’s bedside when his hips and shoulders are being replaced, nor will they help move heirlooms when whole families are being relocated to rural housing projects. The real human impact of such architectural projects is rarely drawn into the blueprint.
When contemplating such projects as the Bird’s Nest, truthfully I find myself occupying two sides. On the one hand, amazing architecture never ceases to blow the part of my mind that revels in creative accomplishment. Architecture is a mesmerizing, stunning, and profoundly beautiful monument to the wonders of human creativity. But then from my knowing my dad and my family, I also know the cost of such projects. Taken to an extreme, we only need to remember how the Great Pyramids were built. Yet, I also know that my dad marveled at the monuments of his labor. He was a proud man, even when his job broke his body. He was proud to know that while he sat in pain on his recliner chair watching 49ers games on his large screen TV that the buildings in the background were the fruits of his labor.
At one point in the documentary, the narrator references “the yellow-hatted construction workers.” I remember thinking, “Wait a minute. Those ‘yellow-hatted construction workers’ are real people. They’re ironworkers. That’s my dad!” If the Bird’s Nest was being built in San Francisco 20 years ago, my dad would have been one of the men pulling the 44,000 tons of steel it took to erect the building.
Projects like the Beijing Stadium always remind me of the complexities of urban renewal projects and of my dad’s years of labor. Toward the end of his career as an ironworker, San Francisco razed a large section of its South of Market neighborhood to build what is known today as Yerba Buena Gardens. This “renewed” area include a shopping mall, a Center for the Arts and the new SFMOMA. What it does not include are the thousands of native San Franciscan residents who were uprooted from their underclass homes for the sake of redevelopment.
Interestingly, Yerba Buena Gardens was the very last project my dad worked on as an ironworker. This redevelopment project literally broke his will and his body and forced him into early retirement. I remember my dad complaining about how architectural designs had become increasingly more impossible. Their ideas were ridiculous. They didn’t take into consideration what it takes practically to build the structures or the appropriate materials required to realize the buildings. My dad said the demands were unreasonable and impossible, the supplies inadequate and the expectations absurd given that they weren’t given plans that could reasonably be executed, adequate funding, or proper materials to execute the plans. Welcome to late-Capitalism and how it killed my dad’s last days on the job.
While these post-modern monuments look beautiful on paper, for the guys in the “yellow hats”, guys like my dad, they are nightmare. Two-thirds of the way through the completion of Yerba Buena Gardens, my dad’s shoulders gave out completely. His arms became non-functional from years and years of hauling iron. He was forced into early retirement (two years short of his retirement age) and had to get both shoulders replaced. During the shoulder replacement surgery, my acquired a rare form of hepatitis that caused an auto-immune deficiency disorder. He spent the remaining years of his life battling this debilitating illness while the rest of his body has deteriorated from a lifetime of extreme manual labor.
His skin was blanketed with bloody lesions and cancerous growths from spending his life working under the fog-filtered San Francisco sun. His entire body had collapsed on itself, yet he still remained a proud man for the work he had done. I sometimes would get books on new architecture, and we’d look through them together. Usually, my dad would look in curious amazement at the buildings they’re erecting today in places like Dubai, but then he’d scoff at how ludicrous and impractical they are. When my dad died, his body was like the collapsing remains of the buildings that were razed to build Yerba Buena Gardens. An emblem of a lost era of labor and class. Yet my dad died a proud and happy man.
A couple of years ago I visited San Francisco with a friend. The most important thing I wanted to show him was the giant sphere my dad helped construct in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. It’s a kind of “mini Bird’s Nest.” I remember very well when my dad was working on this project. He would come home from work, take his boots off, crack open a beer, and lay the blueprints on the table. He’d point out what he was working on and pull out photos of the “work in progress.” When the project was complete, my dad was one proud man. And I was and continue to be one proud daughter.
Photo: Mark Hahn.
If you walk into the Hyatt Regency today, you’ll find tourists stopping to pose in front of the sculpture to have their photos taken. My dad is in those photos. In fact, he is in any picture you see of the San Francisco Skyline. My friend took this photo of me, above, and I gave it to my dad. He took the photo in his hands and smiled huge. It is a picture of me, his daughter, standing in the city he helped build but a city he would never see again in his life after he moved to Tucson, Arizona in 2000. The photo is hanging above the desk in his office right now as my dad’s ashes are on their way to the San Francisco Bay.
My dad was the second generation born in San Francisco, and I was the third. My family literally helped build that city, but none of us can afford to live in it. Yet, it will always be our home. My dad lived for two things – seeing my daughter and watching the 49ers play. The Niners won the last game they played when he was alive. The last words he spoke to me were, “Take care of my granddaughter.” And I am doing just that. We also will make sure that the 49ers are on TV when they play whether we watch the game or not.
My dad died two days ago, and I’m thinking about my daughter’s question about why her grandpa isn’t famous if the buildings he built are. But then she and I just looked at photos of buildings my dad worked on, and we saw my dad inside them. Maybe we can’t afford to live in the city our family built, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t built into the city with pride.
Last night, I went to the movies so I could remember going to movies with my dad. Tonight, I’m going to fix some things around the house with his toolbox. Thanks to my dad, I will always be most comfortable in the movie theater or with a power drill in my hand. I love my dad, and I’m proud of everything he has done. I’m proud to be the daughter of an ironworker from San Francisco Local 377. My dad died a loving and generous man who was the best grandfather any child could hope for. He taught me to stand tall, be strong, and be proud of his blue collar while also encouraging me to reach for higher places and do anything I want to do. He never doubted my abilities, and he took great pride in all my accomplishments, including the movie reviews I have written for CounterPunch. My dad taught me to love movies, and he made damn sure I knew how to wield any Sears Craftsman tool on the planet. Next time you’re at the movies, think of me and my dad. Next time you’re in San Francisco or see a photo of its skyline, look for my dad.
I love you Dad. When I get to where you are, we’ll go to the movies together and share a bucket of popcorn.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.