Hiawatha Gave Us Democracy, Columbus Gave Us Slavery

columbus stands on some indians

I tell myself I’ve been waiting to see if anyone else would show up when what I’m really doing is trying to grow some balls.  I should’ve made a poster.  It would be way easier to slap up a poster without being seen.  Easy to tear down, too, which is why I’ve gone for Plan B.

Plan B is why no one came with me.  Turns out my classmates are pussies, all talk and no action.

The cold stone has numbed my ass (again) so I stand up (again) and stomp my feet.  The sound echoes off the ledge overhanging the steps of City Hall.  I’m getting my blood moving but I’m also testing the waters, daring someone to hear me and wonder what all the noise is about.  I move back to the statue to the right of the stairs, one of two lions flanking the entrance.  An “homage” to the New York Public Library, because theft isn’t a nice word.  I don’t mind the lions.  They show how their culture cannibalizes itself, how they’re incapable of an original thought.

I heft the duffle bag I’ve hidden between the lion’s front legs and no, it hasn’t gone empty in the last half hour.  It’s a good thing it’s only October or I’d have frost bite by now.

I look across from City Wall at Hiawatha Circle, at the statue I do have a problem with.  The church opposite me blocks the view from anyone leaving downtown, giving me plenty of time to see headlights.  Other than that I’m screwed.  The view on either side is wide open, and City Hall is pushed too far off the sidewalk for any cover.  It might as well be a stage.

The main road is just one block over.  This is a college town so it’s only a semi-main road, and why anyone would get off it at this hour and come my way I have no idea, and no one has for two hours, so fuck it, it’s time.

I grab my bag, walk down the steps, across the sidewalk and the asphalt and the concrete, onto the pretty cobblestones, between the benches, over the knee-high chain (for show, because why would anyone cross it; I’m betting tomorrow they’ll start planning something more secure), and up into the giant bowl that forms the base of the statue.  Ever since the mayor announced plans to knock down Hiawatha’s monument, I’ve taken these steps in my mind many times.  Taking them now feels surreal.

I crouch behind the low wall which is the lip of the bowl.  My heart pounds in my throat.  I decide to do something simple first, just in case I can’t do everything right.  Or in case I get caught.  The police station is on that semi-main road, right around the other side of City Hall.

I pry the lid from a can of red spray paint.  The pop! echoes inside the bowl, then I fill the night with sound of rattling metal as I shake the can.  My footsteps only echoed around City Hall, trapped beneath the overhang.  This metal rattle bounces everywhere.  I should have planned better.  I imagine a dozen heads looking up at the sound, police at their desks, cab drivers napping in their cars, office workers chained to their desks.

I take a moment to breathe, then wrap my scarf around the spraycan to deaden the sound.  Shaking it vigorously for forty-five seconds to one minute, I wonder why I haven’t come down before, watched the police change shifts, see if City Hall has a night guard, any of the dozen things that are occurring to me now.  I put it off and put it off, smoking in discussion groups in cafes, giving impassioned speeches in living rooms and dorms, wasting time talking with people who never had any ideas better than mine.  Tomorrow, Hiawatha Circle will officially become Columbus Circle and it will be too late.

I’ve never spray-painted anything before.  The first line of my “M” is way too heavy.  It drips and runs toward the center of the bowl, which inclines slightly.  Maybe I should turn it into some kind of splatter to suggest blood.  I decide to make all the lines just as heavy.  When I’m done the word “MURDERER” screams from the white stone, dripping like a horror movie poster.  I cock my head.  Maybe I should have made it readable from the benches instead of from Columbus’s point of view.  Shit.

The rest of my graffiti is cleaner, the lettering a little smaller, all facing outward so people can read it right-side-up.  “GENOCIDE”, “BABY-KILLER”, “HITLER” (I briefly thought about writing “Himmler” because Columbus was never a head of state but I was afraid the reference was too obscure for most people), and another “MURDERER” for good measure.  I’ve turned the single word facing Columbus into an accusation.

I really wanted to write some of the more vivid passages of his diary from when he landed in the Caribbean, the parts that have burned themselves into my mind, made my pulse race, turned my stomach into a sick knot.  My first spray told me that too many words would be beyond me.  Keep the message simple, that’s my motto.

Even in the open air, the paint smell is powerful.  I look at the stone obelisk in the center of the bowl, at the jutting brass figures of animals around the base.  I jump on the back of a bear and lean into the obelisk, thankful for the slight grade.  Keep it simple, I remind myself.

 

1492 =

“DISCOVERY”

TAINO POP=

50,000,000

1493 =

C.C. GOVERNOR

 

I wrote too big so now I have to switch sides.  Looking at it, I’m a little disappointed.  Taino Pop sounds like a Manga character, but I wasn’t about to write population.  I hope C.C. is obvious enough.  Still, it’s too late to change anything.  There’s nothing now but to forge ahead.  Before I move I stand on tip toe and I’m just able to write a little numeral one over the words so that people know to start here.

As I’m carefully shuffling around the corner, I hear a car.  A sudden move might make me fall so I freeze, a dark silhouette against the light surface, the rough stone scraping my cheek.  I don’t see any headlights.  The car is passing some ways off.  As it speeds into the distance, I remember to breathe.  Still, I’m encouraged.  One car every two hours, neither of them passing my way.  I can work with that.

I step off the bear’s head and onto the outstretched wing of an eagle.  I’m ready for side two.

 

1496

TAINO = 3,000,000

1500

CC LEAVES

TAINO = 500,000

1514

TAINO = 20,000

 

My can is empty so I carefully climb down to get another.  My hands are spattered red to the wrist.  I dig through the cans looking for full ones, putting empties back into the duffle bag so I won’t get them confused.  When I find two full cans most of what I’ve brought is back in the bag.  I tuck one can into each coat pocket and climb up the third side, over a wolf.  My message is almost done so I write huge.

 

1542

TAINO = 200

1992

TAINO = EXTINCT

 

The story of Columbus’s occupation of the Caribbean simplified to the point where it doesn’t make any sense.  No one knows what a Taino is or who they were, unless their major is Caribbean History and their professor cares, and maybe not even then.  It doesn’t matter, I know what it means.  Hopefully whoever covers this will look it up.

Senseless or not, it’s done.  I hope I got the figures and the dates right.

I have one side left but I leave it clear so I can climb it without scuffing any words.  I look up and see the outline of Columbus, covered by a heavy tarp.  Big unveiling tomorrow.  To finish my little project, I have to remove that tarp tonight.  I’ve got to reach the top.

Before tonight, I’d pictured looping the rope around my waist and being pulled up by my friends.  Too bad.

I climb down from the wolf and grab my rope, fifty feet of nylon, my most expensive purchase.  I try various outcroppings on the bronze animals.  The bear stands sideways, nothing to catch on.  A beaver crouches lower on the obelisk but the lip of his tail isn’t deep enough.  The wolf is too smooth, like the bear, and the snakes beneath it are hopeless.  Is there a Snake Clan?  I don’t think so.  And any Eagle clan would have far from central New York.

Then again, I doubt Columbus himself actually killed babies, so maybe we’re both guilty of simplifying to get the message across.

I try the eagle’s wing but it’s too broad and the noose slips off.  The claw would work but it’s so narrow that I imagine it snapping or bending.  I have no idea how strong bronze is, whether that little claw will support my weight.  A turtle juts from the side, above a stag and a doe.  I consider the stag’s horns but they’re even thinner than the eagle’s claw.  Also, they’re pointing upward.

The Turtle, of course.  Both claws resting against the stone, buried to the shoulders, head jutting straight forward.  My clan, like our tota, everyone else in my family born to the clan of our matriarch.  I smile, feeling like God is smiling on my endeavor.

Looping the noose around the Turtle’s neck, I see a simple shell pattern on what’s visible of its back, not the pattern of the Americas.  So just a turtle, not the Turtle, after all.  I pull the noose tight.

I walk in a wide circle around the obelisk.  The point has been cut off so the statue can stand flat.  There’s maybe fifteen feet of flat stone between the animals and the bronze faces looking out from beneath Columbus’s feet.  One face for each side, creased, adorned with headdresses and feathers.  Indians, what they’ll call Native Americans at what they’ll call a ceremony.  Looking at it, rage pounds into my limbs.  Columbus, standing on top of Indians.  What the fuck were they thinking, when they tore Hiawatha down to put this up?  Did they think we wouldn’t notice?  That we wouldn’t care?  Or that there weren’t any of us left to protest?

Keeping the rope looped so there’s plenty of weight, I toss it high.  I’m aiming for the Indian face around the corner from the turtle, but the rope falls short.  I gather the loops together, wrap them back into a tight coil, and try the throw again.  This time it’s high enough, but the entire mess lands on top of the Indian’s head.

Shit.  I grab the end tied to the turtle’s head and pull, gently.  Thankfully, it doesn’t snag.  On my third try, I make it.  I step up on the lip of the bowl surrounding the statue.  With the rope snagged high, I circle the statue, looping the rope over the other three Indian heads as I pass.  The rope is wrapped tight around the statue’s narrow ankles.  I take a knife from my belt and cut two lengths of rope from the end.

There are few items I haven’t used yet which I slip into the pockets of my coat.  The cold has started my nose running.  Wiping snot on my sleeve, I think back to the vacation my family and I took through the Cascade range.  During that week of climbing, my father taught me to make a basket safety harness.  It takes a few tries but it’s pretty simple to do and I remember eventually.  It’s not really appropriate for what I’m doing here but I feel better once it’s in place.  The slight pressure around my waist, the comforting chafe where my crotch meets my legs, my jeans pulled into high-waters.  I’m sure I look ridiculous but I feel ready for action.

I climb onto the eagle’s wings and tie the loose end of the rope dangling from the statue to my basket harness.  I slowly lean back into it, and it takes my weight.  Cold air blows across my bare shins.  I sink little further than I’d like.  If I fall, I’ll likely hit the bronze animals.

More to the point, if I fall then I’ll upend myself and hit the bronze face first.  A basket safety harness doesn’t work without a spotter.  I know it but I don’t know any other way to secure myself, to feel even moderately safe climbing this thing.

I pull on a pair of weight lifting gloves I haven’t used since high school.  I stand to let the rope go slack, then I use it to climb.

Movies make it look easy.  My immediate thought is No.  No.  No way in hell.

Instead of the dull ache in my arms, I concentrate on the throbbing pain in my groin.  Getting going before the slack builds up, my balls get squished together by the bunched fabric of my jeans.  It’s a surprisingly nostalgic feeling.  I remember a dead tree halfway up the shallow side of Mount Bailor.  Climbing it with my brothers and sisters and cousins, draping ourselves like monkeys for pictures.

I can’t stop moving.  If I stop moving then I might see how much my arms are shaking.  I might feel how the ache in my muscles has become a burning.  My calves are hard lumps.  My feet shuffle up the side of the statue.

My cousins were more like siblings.

I flick sweat from my eyes.  The Indian heads are impossibly far.  I’m not going to make it.  I keep moving.

They were half Irish, three boys, Shane, Shawn, and Shannon.  It was like having five brothers instead of two.  Hide and Go Seek, Kick the Can, Kill the Carrier – what we called Smear the Queer if our parents weren’t around.

My movements are jerky.  I can’t feel my arms anymore.  Either that or they burn so much they’ve gotten numb.  My fingers feel weak.  I can’t even tell if I’m holding the rope, so I clench in my hands are rough knots before I trust a new grip.  I do this as quickly as I can.  My feet make their slow progress.  My calves are like jello.

Late at night, my two brothers, my three cousins, and I would link arms and walk up and down the streets of our neighborhood, singing, wa-alking down the stree-eet, walk-ing down the streeeeeeeeeet…  We called it a game.

I’m finally looking into the face of a bronze Indian as wide as my chest, just at the end of my toes.  I brace one arm by wrapping the rope around it, trying to keep it taut as I lean forward.  I look for a handhold.  None of the Indian’s features are deep enough for purchase.  My fingers hook into a claw, scrabbling up the Indian’s face and headdress.  I have to get my weight off my arms, now.  My fingers flare with pain.

Walk-ing down the stre-eet… walking down the streeeeeet.

I give up bracing one arm.  I manage one more grip, hoisting myself up.  I curse myself into another.  There’s just enough space on top of the Indian’s headdress for one foot.  I wedge it there and let the other foot dangle.  Adrenaline floods my body as I see myself doing this.  I am almost there.  I pull myself closer and closer to an upright position.  Soon I’m crouched over, wrapped around Columbus’s legs, first one arm and then the other.  My arms bless me for this momentary reprieve.  The top of the statue is narrow enough that I can reach another Indian head with my dangling foot.  Hoping to pull myself upright, I tug the tarp covering Columbus.  It feels loose.  Carefully keeping my weight forward, I hold on to the edge of Columbus’s knee length coat and haul myself into a standing position.

I whoop with relief and triumph.  I can’t stop myself.  The sound bounces back to me off the empty buildings.  I lean against the statue, cool relief against my sweating face.  I smell brass and plastic.  It’s stuffy under the trap, so I grab it to tug it free.  My fingers burn.  I look and see that I’m missing the fingernails from my first and second finger.  The skin beneath looks like a burn wound.  I switch hands and pull the tarp free, letting it fall.

Columbus stands ten feet tall above me.  His eyes stare into the distance, ever the explorer, ever the conqueror.  There’s something about his silhouette.  It’s lighter than it should be.

No, it’s the sky.  Is it lighter?

I reach into my pocket, hissing as the fabric brushes the naked spots where my nails used to be.  I remove a tube of five-minute epoxy and a pair of plastic groucho glasses that I’ve painted white so they’ll really stand out.  I figure the soft plastic will be a pain in the ass to remove, breaking off in little pieces.  Maybe you’d be able to see the ghost of it on TV.  Maybe they’d even delay the parade so they could fix it up.

Of course, reaching his face is a whole different matter.  If the statue was on the ground, no problem.  After that climb, I don’t know if I can manage it.

I put the glue and glasses at Columbus’s feet and take a silver spray can from my other pocket, the small kind you use for models.  I make a few half-hearted scribbles across his shoes, his knees, his great coat.  Maybe I’ve gotten cocky but I’ve stopped using the scarf when I shake the cans.  The echo is odd, lonely.  I carefully step onto the next Indian’s head, then the next, until I’m looking up at Columbus’s back.  Using the silver, I paint a huge swastika across his back.

Yes, the sky is definitely getting lighter.  Just a touch but noticeable after all this night; dawn is coming.  Got to get a move on, as my mom would say.  I make my way back around, look up at Columbus’s face.  One arm is bent, hand holding a looking glass which he presumably just got done looking through while thinking about what an awesome guy he is.  The other hand is at his waist, palm parallel to the ground, looking saintly.  If I I can put one foot on his outstretched hand, then pull myself up by his bent elbow, then I’ll be looking right into his face.

Leaning forward, I can just grab the crook of his elbow.  I lift my foot buy it’s too far away for me to reach.  I’ll just need to boost myself and stand on his bent elbow. I bend my knees a few times, preparing to boost with my legs while I pull with my arms.

My failure happens too fast for me to consider how to react.  When I try pulling myself up, my tired hands slip from the crook of Columbus’s elbow.  At the last second, I kick my feet forward, into the stature, trying to change my upward momentum into outward momentum, trying not to fall backwards.  There’s a second of free fall before I hit the statue with my chest and start to slide.  My feet tumble over the top of the obelisk.  There’s another sensation of free fall, then I’m standing with both feet on two of the Indian’s heads, inside their headdresses.

I gasp a few desperate breaths.  My knees buckle and I’m no longer clinging to Columbus’s coat, leaning my weight comfortably forward, I’m crouching at his feet, arms clutched around his ankles.  If I don’t loosen my grip then I’ll lose what little strength reaching the top has given me.  More to the point, if I don’t do something soon then they’ll find me here in the morning, to petrified to move.

I’m nauseous over what almost happened.  Adrenaline pounds through me, making my limbs shake.  If I’d had time to think I’d have fallen.  Maybe the basket harness would have worked, but I doubt it.  I would have toppled back and landed headfirst, smashing my fool skull.  I can’t stop shaking.  I force my panicked gasps to slow.  Just a game, like Walking Down the Street was a game because we wanted it to be, I’m just Climbing Up the Statue, that’s all, nothing to get worked up about.

Soon I’m taking actual breaths.  I keep them going, long and deep.  Eventually, I’m standing again, leaning into the statue.  Frustration and anger replace my fear.  All I’ve done is graffiti, vandalism.  For me, the glasses make it a political statement; Columbus the Clown.

Looking up, I consider his face.  If I had more time then I might be able to cajole myself into trying again, the same way that – given hours on the step of City Hall – I’d worked up the nerve to get started tonight in the first place.  Shit, that feels like weeks ago.  But now there’s no time.  I consider using the epoxy and the silver spray can to give Columbus a fake penis.  It would make the statue a joke, for sure, but it’d also reduce the whole business to a juvenile prank.  And it would probably snap right off.

Thinking, more time I can’t afford to lose.  Then one hand falls to the knife at my waist and inspiration strikes.  I pull out what remains of my red spray paint, one untouched can and two others that are mostly full.  I squirt of pile of epoxy, the clear tube and the blue tube, between Columbus’s feet.  Using an arm of the Groucho glasses, I mix the two together, the odd smell somewhere between gasoline and kitty litter, but really just plastic, the scent of manmade.  When I can’t see blue anymore, I coat the handle of my knife.  Later I’m sure I’ll miss it but right now it’s for the cause.  With the knife in place I empty my cans of red.

Between the epoxy and the paint fumes I’m feeling light-headed.  I’m dizzy when I climb down the rope but it makes me even more careful.  The rising sun is getting serious.  More cars have passed the next block.  Soon, newspaper vans will fill corner dispensers.  Police will change shifts.  Ambitious lawyers getting a jump on the day will begin to arrive.  I don’t care if I get caught now; I am satisfied with the work I’ve down.

With my one black spraycan I stand on top of the turtle’s back and deface the last side of the obelisk.

 

COLUMBUS

=

GENOCIDE

 

I free the rope and climb down.  I put everything in my duffle bag and walk away without looking back.  I’m dying to sit on one of the benches and admire my handiwork, but I’ve got to get some reporters here before the cleanup crew arrives.

My apartment is only blocks away.  By the time I get home I’m running.  I rip off my paint-stained clothes and toss them on the floor next to my duffle bag.  Ideally, I’d take a shower, clean my face, hands, hair.  As it is, I wash as best I can, change my clothes, and tuck my paint-flecked hair under a hat.  I’d planned on driving to the Onondaga reservation and making the call from a pay phone, but I don’t have the time.  Instead I opt for Shaw Dining Center.  I have no idea if they can trace the call of not, but if they do, then they’ll think it’s a student.  What the hell, we have sixteen thousand undergraduates alone.

Even though I didn’t bring it with me to Hiawatha Circle, somehow, the scrap of paper with the phone numbers written on it has splots of red paint.  It takes a few tries to get the fingers of my dumb hand, the left hand, to punch the right buttons.  While the phone rings, I wonder how long it will take for the fingernails of my good hand to grow back.

At the Herald-Journal, I ask for the editor.

“What is this regarding?”

“Regarding?”

“What are you calling in reference to?”

Oh.

“The 500th Anniversary Celebration tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir.”

There’s the hum of clicking connections, then a recorded voice tells me that Sheila Myers isn’t in right now but if I’d like information on an event, then I can call the Happenin’ Hotline  at 1-800-blah-blah-blah, that if I’d like to advertise an event, then I should call Robert Walsh at extension so-and-so, and that if I’m running an event that I believe is of community interest, then I should leave my name and number and a brief message and she’ll call me back A.S.A.P.  After the beep I tell Sheila Myers that my name is Ben Dover and I invite her out for a drink.  Because I’m exhausted and wired I can’t help giggling at my wit.  I hang up and call back, asking for the editor.

“What is this regarding?”

“The Columbus statue is a symbol of genocide.  It’s offensive to Indians.  Native Americans.  Whatever.”

“I see, sir.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  A few clicks later and a mechanical voice tells me that Peter Dooling isn’t in right now but if I’d like information on a cultural event then I should call Sheila Myers at extension so-and so, if I’m interested in assisting in the upcoming Haunt for Humanity I should contact the Salvation Army at 1-800-la-la-la, and that if I’d like to discuss something of specific relevance to people of color or ethnic minorities in the hope of illuminating that culture for the larger majority, I should leave my name, number, and a brief message and Peter will be happy to call me back as soon as he’s able.  After the beep, I tell Peter Dooling that my name is Rumpled Foreskin and he sounds like a clueless white guy and that I’d like to illuminate my foot up his ass.

I hang up and call back.  I ask for the editor, please.

“And what is this in regards, to sir?”  Her tone has gone from polite and plastic to hostile.  She still sounds like a robot, only a pissed off one.

“Vandalism.  The statue of Columbus has been defaced.”

There’s a pause.

“Hello?”

“Vandalized how, sir?”

“Uhh. . . spray paint.  The usual.  You know, vandalized.”

“Our editor-in-chief doesn’t usually arrive before six, sir.  I’d be happy to give you his voice mail-”

“No!”

“-or you can speak with Ronald Jennings, our assistant editor.”

“Fine.”

Ronald Jennings sounds like a black man.  I tell him he needs to get over to Hiawatha Circle.  I ramble about AIM in the seventies, baby-killing, the 1952 international treaty on Genocide, Dances with Wolves, and Red Man tobacco.  I hear him fumbling over the line.  I tell myself he’s fumbling for a pad and paper and not a cigarette or a coffee, or to dial the operator on another line to yell at her for letting crackpots through.

After I hang up, I call the New Times, and, for shits and giggles, the school newspaper.  At the first, I can only hope my tone is grave enough for someone to take me seriously; at the second number, all I get is voice mail.  I should’ve brought my own fucking camera.  I reach into my wallet and pull out my ace in the whole.

A few years back, I was the youngest artist to have a painting bought by the city.  A TV reporter interviewed me in City Hall, underneath the painting.  No points for originality, but the business card he gave me has his home phone on it.

He picks up after the first ring, not a trace of sleep in his voice.

“Get your fucking ass over to Hiawatha Circle, now.”  I make my voice menacing, low, almost a growl.  There’s a pause.  I think I hear crunching cereal, but it could be my imagination.  “Hello?”

“Who is this?”  He sounds bored.  I hate that, but I can’t think of a single thing to make him stop sounding that way

“You said if I ever thought of a story, I should give you a call.”  I’m too tired to realistically think of the consequences of saying this.  “Well, get to Hiawatha Circle first and you’ll have a story.”

“Hiawatha Circle?”

I hang up.  I go back home, take a shower, and sit down to watch the news.  My body feels like lead but my mind is a thundering train.

Nothing.  Hours of it.

When the Today Show comes on I get up, ready to switch the TV off and go to sleep.  Then the local station interrupts with breaking news.  Someone has seen fit to disrupt the 500th Anniversary celebration of Columbus discovering America.  Beautiful.  I double check that there’s a blank tape in my VCR and I hit “record.”

The newscaster’s face is grim, his voice laced with anger.  This is an Italian town; he shouldn’t be seeing this, not here.  The images are stark, masturbatory, bloody words on white stone.  When they pan up I have to smile.  My knife, glued to Columbus’s outstretched palm, the Indian heads, dripping red paint.  It looks like I imagined, Columbus standing on the heads of Indians he’s just beheaded.

Maybe tomorrow they’ll find out it’s me, but today I can’t stop laughing.

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