In the midst of a ubiquitous despair (X and I debate the distinction between being desperate and despairing; I incline to the view that they are not identical; X disagrees…) I must remember now the events leading up the our night journey- the extraordinarily elaborate preparations, the reconnaissance, the acquisition of materials, the tactical inventions, the fabrication, the rehearsals, the subterfuge, the execution- I must try to remember the details before dissolute memory wanders from the stage.
On our equinoxtical and solsticial journeys into the tunnels over the years, we’ve gathered a great deal of first hand experience about the extensive but relatively untrammeled margin of land lying between the river and the two cemeteries to the west. In the course of things we’ve learned where the access points are, how to navigate into and out of the two tunnels that subduct the landscape, where the railroad bridges go, how often the trains pass by, and how infrequently others visit the area. Passing each time below the immense billboards that stand guard over the Expressway, we’ve often looked up at the cylindrical towers and at the rungs of the ladders leading to the scaffolds behind the signs and wondered whether it would ever be possible to get up there. We knew when the lights were turned off and we knew how difficult it was to access the area by patrol car, so some investigation seemed possible, but there never seemed to be a good enough reason to take this speculation further, so the towers and their messages remained on the periphery of our observational world. We sensed that one day, however, this knowledge might be put to use.
George Bush ran for a second term. The intellectual, moral, political, economic, diplomatic, environmental, and behavioral crassness of the man, his indifference to truth, his smarmy unctuous facility with manipulation, and the likelihood that the race would be close- these suggested to us that dangerous times were upon us and that daring actions might now be required. And so we began to seriously entertain the idea that we might use our occult knowledge of the landscape to execute an outrageously dramatic gesture, that we might indeed now need to be able to find a way to climb to the top of the billboard towers. We thought about the idea of rigging some kind of immense message, a declaration contra Bush that might enter the ideosphere with the facility of an advertisement and the charge of agitprop. This aspiration seemed somewhat on the edge of imaginable action- it seemed both possible and grandiose, but we were motivated to ignore our doubts by alacrity of the political situation. It seemed to be a time for risky daring, dramatic gestures. This pennant, waved before the rush hour throng, might serve to proclaim the subversive ubiquity of a progressive sentiment and give heart and hope to those on our side. It was worth thinking about.
Questions abounded. How big did this need to be? How would we support it? What was the structural configuration of the backstop like? How might we get up the bloody thing without bringing ladders or other easily visible equipment? (Of note, too, was our inclination to be totally non-destructive in our efforts. There were to be no permanent disfigurations of the billboard, no subversions of the safety structures, no actions that might be construed as sabotage in the legal sense. We might be guilty, at best, of “mischievous occlusion.”) All of this could only be determined with a site visit. Our first effort involved hoisting a long dead tree branch with a pulley fastened to the end and dropping a rope with a small counterweight over the first rung of the permanent ladder. We attached some strong climbing rope to this and pulled up a portable fire escape ladder to the thirty foot height of this first rung, securing the apparatus to the tower itself with several winds of rope. Climbing this proved to be a nightmare. The ladder in this first effort was supported from one point only, the apex of a triangular attachment rope, and each side of the ladder would yield to our weight when we stepped on the rungs so that climbing it was much a case of three feet up and four feet back. The effort was excruciating, frightening, and exhausting and I arrived at the foot of the permanent ladder in a state of complete enervation. But the height, the sound of the traffic, and the legal ambiguity of the effort compelled me to continue going up and I soon arrived at the platform, about ninety feet up, behind the billboard itself. It had the familiar smell of structural steel that has weathered, the smell of suspension bridges, submarines, construction cranes-the smell of the invisible infrastructure that lurks behind the facilitations of society. T. soon followed. We measured the size of the board, made some quick observations about options for attachment, and descended. This was much more physically demanding than we had imagined.
Discussions ensued about materials. We needed something that would register on a 48 ft. x 15 ft. backdrop, that would not be overbearingly heavy, and that could be compressed into some manageable size. It seemed that the most cost effective strategy would be to buy several large painter’s tarps and to stitch these together. Research revealed that you could buy 15’ x 12’ tarps at Lowe’s. I bought several pairs of these at different retail outlets, discreetly paying cash for them, as I did for everything, and we made up a first dummy. I also bought some detachable grommets we could use to tie onto the material. My space was inadequate, so with the kind assistance of an artist who lent us his studio for the duration, we found ourselves driving across the Badlands of Northern Philadelphia in the midnight hours, creeping into a gated parking lot in the midst of a dark and forbiddingly poor neighborood, taking the lift to the third floor and working for three or four hours at a time, with a kind of gleeful insouciance, to fabricate the business.
We designed the text on a computer and projected this onto the hanging tarps (these had been sewn together) with a video projector. This was T’s idea and it proved very helpful because we could adjust the design to fit the material without too much ado. We traced the outlines of the letters with pastel, then laid the whole business on the floor and painted it by hand: NOVEMBER 2 with a defiantly slashed “W” surrounded by a red circle. By the end of the time of our efforts we had learned to be able to sketch the entire thing out in one hour and to paint it in two.
The next problem was to figure out how to fold, furl, and transport the banners. The packages would be too heavy to carry up on our ascent, so we’d have to haul them up by rope. We talked about methods of unrolling them from the top using weights, ropes, and long rods of bamboo as rotational cores , but we were wary of the banners becoming tangled, of the difficulties in hauling up the long cylindrical tubes that would be required, etc. and decided that we needed to be able to bring them up in a package, by rope, and to lower them, very quickly and simply, from the top. We would have to pleat the huge banner into a one foot wide strip and to roll it up. Experimentation taught us how to use two three foot 1 x 3’s to do this very handily. The next step was to practice throwing the affair off of T’s roof and to see how it would hang. How many support ropes would we need? How much lateral tension would be required? How much time would it take to make the appropriate adjustments?
We determined that it was far faster and less troublesome to drape the material with its top edge lying on the top forward edge of the support surface, rather than attempting to suspend the business in the middle of the billboard. That way little lateral force would be needed to keep it hanging tautly. Five ropes would be needed on top and bottom. A new element had been added to one of the two boards- an immense head which protruded from the top edge- and we would have to move one of the flags over to the side to avoid structural confusion. We practiced rolling and unfurling the dummy and organized it so we could unroll it on what we had observed to be the one foot wide platform at the top of the tower.
Simultaneously we refined our ascension system. I knew of a bamboo grove over on the other side of the river from frequent bicycle trips, so B and I drove over there one Sunday, cut down a 30 ft. specimen, stripped it of its side branches, and deposited it near the project site. Several nights later we tried a second ascent, using this bamboo pole to raise the pulley – still difficult but possible- and using a sturdier, less dynamic rope to anchor the ladder to one of the higher rungs, without a triangular intervention, so there was now a line of support. We also found a way to tie off the bottom of the portable ladder so there was less sidewards sway. This proved much easier to climb- a vast improvement. A third subsequent trip to the top confirmed our measurements as well as the need to bring a coat hangar to snag the lower supporting ropes through a narrow slot at the bottom of the billboard.
We needed a third team member, someone to keep a lookout for state police on the Expressway and for local police on the service road. I interviewed a number of people and settled on another artist who had had previous experience with such actions. He was quite savvy about the legal and evidentiary dimensions of the business, so we followed his advice and researched escape routes and I secured legal representation in case we were arrested.
I was terrified of the potential effort involved in climbing the beast again, so I worked out on a semi-regular basis at the gym, practicing chin-ups, rope pulls, standing leg assists, etc. in the faint hope that my muscle tone would be more adequate to the occasion.
I began to feel no little dread about the whole business. The risks were considerable. T wanted to wear a safety harness and two were, indeed, lent to us for the occasion, but it seemed risky to take too much time clippling and unclipping the carabiniers and I preferred to believe we could go up more quickly and successfully unassisted. (A rock-climbing friend made the third ascent with me and confirmed my feeling that the exposure was quite daunting. He thought it helpful that we were going up at night; a daytime ascent might be psychologically overwhelming.) I checked out professional rigging equipment, but it was too expensive and too tricky- we’d have to go up naked and use the harnesses only at the top. The lawyer I consulted acknowledged that a militant DA might salivate at the idea of pressing a felony case. He thought it unlikely, but this new risk was equally inhibiting. The State Police patrolled the highway and the heightened terror alerts would not incline authorities to charitable assumptions. There was, perhaps, the risk, in the extreme, of getting shot. I began to question the motives behind the whole proposition. Was this a case of ego getting out of hand? Or was this simply the reckless indulgence of a 57 year old man pretending he was still 19? So much work had gone into researching, planning, and implementing the project, however, that such questions were moot. A momentum had been generated by the simple patient commitment of our actions and an inevitability arose from that momentum. One knows that one has already chosen and that the only remaining decision is to recognize the fact of the choice.
It was Halloween. T and I had practiced rigging the apparatus from his roof in the afternoon; I had then canvassed a bit for Kerry; the trick-or-treaters had come and gone; and the street had passed from a convivial cacophany to an autumnal quiescence. The night was now warm and clear. T and C arrived and we drank coffee and packed our bags. I carried the ladder, the pulley, latex gloves, several lengths of small rope, two walkie-talkies, a flashlight, a coat hangar, and a roll of gaffer tape. I had inked the lawyer’s phone number on my arm and brought a blank check in case bail money was needed. T carried the anchoring ropes and the harnesses. Two garbage bags enclosed the pleated and rolled tarps with their message. We drove down the hill and parked in the lot on the river. There was nobody in attendance, but we parked, nevertheless, in the shadows.
I had entertained the idea of dropping off the tarps earlier in the day, but energy and time had conspired against this and I thought it better to be exposed only once in crossing the river. The lights were all on, making it easier to see where we were going, and giving us considerable assistance in locating a plethora of dead trees and branches lying below the expressway that had been washed up by the last flood. We used these to create a dense impenetrable thicket in order to block the service road leading to the railroad track that serviced the billboards. We wanted to delay any patrol cars that might call to investigate and to give ourselves a few extra minutes to climb up the trestle of the railroad bridge in the distance and to spirit ourselves back across the river. My theory, too, was that internal bureaucracy of the billboard company would prevent information about our sign from getting to the appropriate repair crew with any speed and that our gentle sabotage might delay them as well. With any luck the banner would stay up for the day before elections.
We made our way to the tower, picking up the bamboo rod which I had hidden in the reeds on an earlier visit. I attached the small pulley to the end of the rod, snaked a thin line of cord through it, and held up the assemblage- a 30 ft. fishing rod- to try to meet the tower. This was a ticklish business- the least inaccuracy in control or momentum and the whole thing would begin to vibrate. Of note, too, was that several serious electrical lines ran above our heads and fed power to the tower through cables that were only inches away from this ladder. These had to be avoided at all costs. I had to try several times to get the counterweight to slide behind the second rung on the ladder, but we snagged it at last and lowered the weight to the ground. We attached a second, heavier line to this and pulled it back over the ladder, tying this in turn to the collapsible ladder that I had removed from my knapsack. We pulled this up until it registered securely against the iron ladder and then we began wrapping the rope around the tower, using a knot we had discovered that put tension on the anchor line from two opposing directions, and then securing the rope to the transformer at the base of the tower with what we hoped would be a good slip knot.
We began to cloak ourselves. I had bought a dark, high necked zippered sweater and a woolen hat from REI. Black pants and dark shoes. On our last visit I had discovered that latex gloves not only seemed to offer some protection from forensic pursuit, but also vastly ameliorated the friction of my grip on the iron rungs of the ladder. But the gloves I had just bought were white and seemed too luminous, so in the hour before the estimated extinction of the lights, in the time before our destined ascent, we found ourselves idly making playful camouflage patterns on our gloves with a ball point pen, our hands looking like nothing so much as something from an old Disney cartoon.
Suddenly, a bright light and a strong sound entered the picture. We fell to the ground, hiding behind the tower while a small Conrail train sped past. From past experience we knew that these came every hour or so and that we’d have to make our ascent out of sight of any of these crews. So this most recent incursion was actually a good sign- we had an hour to play with.
The stars were out and a half moon hung directly overhead. A moonless night would have been preferred, but this was still provident inasmuch as we wouldn’t be backlit from any direction. The night was still warm, so we need not fear any condensation on the metal that might increase the risk of slippage. Time passed.
At 2 AM the lights went out. Our equipment was ready; we were well rehearsed and it was now time to go up. I tackled the rope ladder with some trepidation, but it all proved relievedly easy to climb now. I worked my way up with some considerable speed and skill. Occasionally the lights from passing cars would half highlight me against the tower, so I’d freeze and let them pass, but there was surprisingly little traffic and the ascent was remarkably smooth and unruffled. I arrived at the first level and signalled for T to follow. You could see all of the city to the east and south, the dark terrain to the west of us, and the highway below but there would be little time for reflection. C would be positioning himself up on one of the railroad signalling towers so he could keep an eye on traffic and on the terrain below the expressway, but first he’d load the bags on the rope we’d lowered and wait until we had secured them above. This was a bit of a tug- the bags weighted about 25 lb. each and the lift took considerable careful exertion- but the stage passed without hitch and C. retired to his vantage.
We carried the bags up to the second level of the support structure. These have quite a bit of give in them. We had been alarmed to discover that you could become a bit nauseous if you walked to the edge of the cantilever- the sway was considerable- so we tried to move slowly and carefully. Our measurements had been impeccable. Each banner was precisely the width of the narrow grated platform that lay behind the top of each billboard, and we were able to unroll these to their complete length without incident. I had been anxious about getting front and back confused, so we had marked each banner appropriately, and I had was concerned that the method of attachment be both simple and foolproof, imagining the sequence of moves over and over before the ascent, so we had provided six feet of line for each of the five grommets at the top and bottom of the tarp and these were now unrolled. I measured the total distance from the front edge of the billboard to the grate and transferred these measurements to each of the securing lines, tying knots in them at the appropriate distances. We then tied each of these off to the grating with a taut-line hitch that would permit later adjustment. We were ready to lower the business.
We waited. C signalled that a patrol car had just passed; groups of trucks approached and retreated, and then there was a brief breeze and then it was quiet. It was time. We fed the leading edge of the tarp over the top edge and then down the front of the billboard – the weight of the material itself being sufficient to pull it down cleanly. The pleating worked perfectly- the whole thing unfurling itself from its cylindrical cocoon and walking down the front of the billboard in a seamless, swift maneuver that left us slightly breathless. The top lines held perfectly- a little adjustment here and there- and then we darted down the ladder and poked our coat hangars through a narrow slot at the base of the billboard, snagging the bottom lines with great facility and pulling them in to be tied off as well.
We dropped the second banner. There was a bit more wind and we had to try to do this several times, but the air relented and the lines were secured. A quick check of the area and we darted down the ladder. We unwrapped our lines, bound up our ropes, the ladder, hid the bamboo pole, and wandered up the railroad tracks to look at our handiwork.
The moon was beaming high to the west. Venus and Jupiter were rising, in tandem, in the east and it was now 4 in the morning and the sign was magnificent. A totally flawless professional execution. Our banner had been positioned next to a sexy woman in a cowboy hat with such graphic conviction that she appeared to be uttering our message. The work looked almost credible. I could not believe that we had pulled it off.
The next morning, after three hours of sleep, we pack ourselves into the car and head towards the Expressway. It’s magnificent. Traffic is at a crawl and both banners are in plain view. I head home in a state of great excitement and satisfaction. The city is electric with anticipation of the election. We’ve been canvassing and have found far greater support for Kerry than we had imagined and begin to hope that the usurper might be dethroned. Around 11AM I gather my camera equipment together, hop on my bike and head down the hill to further document the work.
It isn’t there. I wander around, seeking vantage points from which the billboards might be seen without my having to revisit the location itself. It is just not there. Contrary to my suppositions, the bureaucrats responsible for maintenance of these things had acted with alarming speed and dispatch, sending a repair crew within hours. Subsequent investigation revealed that all traces of our work had been removed. Despite their history of leaving the many remnants of earlier billboards in various states of disposed decay at the feet of the towers, they had spirited our two signs away for a prompt and ignominious disposal.
And thus doth impy Fortune mock the aspirations of the Righteous Man.