Suspension: A Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park
Walk Taken: August 26, 2011
Directions: To access the bridge from the Brooklyn side, You can take the A and C to High Street, the 2 and 3 to Clark Street, or the 2, 3, 4, N, or R to Borough Hall. This page has helpful instructions for walking from various subways.
I don’t have much in the way of an introduction to this piece, except to say that the the bridge really is beautiful and its history really is fascinating. Also, construction equipment on the bridge really was secured prior to the forecasted arrival of Hurricane Irene, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm.
First Stop—Rush Hour
Take the A /C Subway line to the High Street stop. Exit the station at Cadman Plaza East. When you exit, double back away from the bridge, so that the street is on your left, until you come to a cross walk. Cross to the pedestrian entrance and turn left to begin walking across the bridge.
Ric’s blood was rushing. It had been for a week now, partly because fall was arriving and New York was rousing itself from its summer siesta to greet it, partly because there’d been pressure at work to get ahead of schedule in case the hurricane swirling up the coast, due to hit t sometime Saturday, shut down transit into the next work week, and mostly because he had to think about all this while playing host to his Spanish cousin Araceli, who wanted only to wander around the city at Midwestern-grandma-in-Time-Square pace and drink a lot of cheap wine, and this would have been fine, except she seemed to think that as her host, he should do it too.
For example, now she was insisting that he walk her across the Brooklyn Bridge on his way to work that Friday morning. Even after she refused to wake up before 7:30, to leave before she’d brewed and sipped her espresso, and to run fast enough to make the train that paused, doors-open, as they entered the station.
So here they were, crossing the street onto the pedestrian walkway at 8:45 Friday morning, giving them exactly 30 minutes to cross the damn thing if he wanted to catch the train down to Wall Street and make it into the office to start his boss’s coffee brewing before he arrived at 9:25 sharp. And his cousin was taking out that ridiculously expensive camera her parents bought her, even though she was, at twenty-nine, five years older than he was and had spent the past three months camped out in some square in Barcelona with a bunch of other unemployed, anarchist hippies protesting the government for not giving them jobs. Even worse, she’d used her parents’ camera to photograph the protests for some communal blog.
“What are you doing with your camera?” he asked. “You can’t even see anything from here.” It was true—the iconic double-arch of the bridge was around the corner and out of sight. It looked to Ric as if he were stepping onto a highway.
“Ya,” she said. “I’m just getting ready! You said we’re in such a rush!”
Ari didn’t look anything like the typical Spanish beauty. (When she’d met him and his work buddies for happy hour the night before, he had seen the disappointment in his male colleagues as they refused to lean in to her two-cheek kiss.) She was short and lumpy, with gray-brown hair cut tight around her ears and two permanent wrinkles already branching from her eyes. The skin of her face was rough and yellowish from too many un-sunscreened summers at the family flat in Malaga, and her every sentence began with a glottal stop, followed by a stream of barely consonanted words crescendoeing up and away.
And that was good, thought Ric. Her plainness warded off the glamour that might have swarmed about her if she’d been sleek and tan with large black curls. He could see her for who she was—a woman clinging to youth’s ideals even as youth worked its best to shake her off. He had made the right choice to join Hessler & Brandt’s communications department; he had grown up.
“I don’t see what you’re so worried about anyway,” Ari went on. “Don’t you work for your father?”
Second Stop—Between Sea and Sky
“I don’t work for my father!” he speed-walked ahead, glad they were fighting because if there was one thing Ari would speed up for, it was an argument.
“It’s your father’s company, isn’t it?” She didn’t have his long legs, and her head bobbled up and down as she jerked herself forward with short, swift strides.
“My father works in accounting; he told me about an opening in communications. Which I applied for to the head of the communications department, who chose me. She wouldn’t have hired me if I weren’t qualified.”
“Lots of people are qualified. The question is—would they have looked at your resume if your father hadn’t pointed it out?”
And Ric knew the answer. The answer was no. He’d sent out enough resumes in the year since graduation to know that much.
But what business did Ari have quoting his inner voice in a bad mood? “It doesn’t matter,” he snapped at his cousin. “They looked at my resume and they hired me.”
“And that’s why you work twice as hard as everyone there and freak out about coming in five minutes late, because you don’t doubt for a second that you deserve to be there.”
It wasn’t fair; his cousin was a master at sarcasm in English, whereas he still hadn’t figured out how to be sarcastic in Spanish. Whenever he tried, Ari just asked him why he was speaking with such an American accent. It was true that there was something flat and staccato about sarcasm that seemed to him at odds with the flow of Spanish, but then why was his cousin so damn good at it?
“You’re just saying all this because I work for a ‘corporation.’ If I worked this hard for a non-profit…”
“Shuuuush!” The hush was all “u” when she said it, giving it a tone more of wonder than command. He was going to tell her not to “shuuush” him when he was making a point, but suddenly her warm, chubby hand was pressed against his mouth and her other hand was pointing up.
He followed the point of her short, wide index, and saw that wonder was, in fact, appropriate. The brick archway of the bridge was rising above them as they stood at the border between concrete path and wooden walkway. The suspension cables crisscrossed over the sky between the gothic arches, forming black-outlined diamonds of blue that reminded him of a church window. A large, off-white canvas was tied up to the sides of the walkway like a mainsail furled along a boom. They stepped over the line from concrete to wood in silence, and there was something about standing on unpolished wood, suspended between sea and sky, that made him feel as if he had entered a separate, almost sacred, space—somewhere between a ship and a cathedral.
“¡Es increíble!” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed, surprised to mean it, “it is.”
Third Stop—An Adult Under Thirty
His feet slowed their forward march. Speed was impossible anyway. On the center of the bridge, the pedestrian lane was closed off as workers in orange vests moved past lifting sheets of corrugated tin, and everyone—Brooklyn-and-Manhattan-bound tourists, commuters dragging their bikes behind them—was forced to squeeze past each other on the same strip of wood. Somehow, he didn’t mind. It was as if someone had laid a large sponge against his shoulders and sucked the rush out.
His father had left Catholicism behind when he’d left Franco’s Spain back in 1968 for University and Freedom in the United States, but by the time Ric had been old enough for trans-Atlantic flights, Franco had been dead twenty years, so there had been no reason not to obey Abuela’s summons back for Christmas. Sitting through his first Mass, uncomfortable in the starch of his suit and bored by the drowsy tones of a language he could not understand, six-year-old Ric had reached into his mother’s purse for his Gameboy. But mid-reach, his hand could go no further. It squirmed and strained, and then held still. The hand that had stopped it was nothing but soft skin sagging over trembling bone; it should not have impeded his young hand’s foreward movement, but it had.
“Aquí no!” his grandmother whispered harshly in his ear. But it wasn’t her command of “Not here,” that made him sit back and listen; it was the unexplainable, even miraculous, strength of her grip. Even today, atheist that he was, he found himself turning off his cell phone if he happened into a church for any reason, and it was the same now. It felt sacrilegious somehow to check his phone for the time, or to speed around his fellow travelers.
Why? Wasn’t this bridge, which twenty-seven people had died to build, as much a tribute to work, to capitalist work, as the job he had to get to? Weren’t the construction workers who moved beside him, securing construction equipment against the pending hurricane, proof of the importance of rolling up sleeves and getting jobs done.
As if on cue, Ari then decided to do the one thing that annoyed him the most about her. She jerked up to the first worker she could find who looked remotely Mediterranean or Latino and asked him, in Spanish, what he was doing.
And the man gave her the answer he had always feared and hoped she would receive for her constant Spanish profiling. He turned around, looked her right in the eye, and said, “My family’s lived here for 200 years. I don’t speak any foreign language so young.” It was funny, because he was speaking in perfect Latin. Ric knew, he’d minored in classics in undergrad, following a love affair begun when his abuela gave him no choice but to listen in Mass.
But he was so joyfully surprised at the answer that he made a mistake just as grave as his cousin’s—“Then why are you working here?” he blurted out, also in Latin, but that didn’t stop him from immediately sucking his lips between his teeth and staring at his shoes.
‘My cousin’s very sorry,” Ari cut in, in English now. “He hates offending people.”
But the worker just shrugged. He was a head shorter than Ric, with chin-length black hair and a lean, young face that seemed too small for his broad shoulders and thick arms.
He answered, in English this time, “Don’t worry, I don’t offend easily. Just like playing with people’s expectations.”
Ari hardly gave his answer time to sit. All it had done was to confirm her suspicion that offense was something, like the infallibility of markets, that you only believed in if you spent too much time in the United States. “My cousin just wants to know, you see, because he minored in Classics, and now he’s working a job he won’t admit he hates.”
“Well, that’s not my story. I started building things when I was a kid; made myself a tree house, and pretty soon the parents on the block were paying me to build them for my friends, too. I did home repairs to make spending money in high school. Then I got out of college as the recession hit and all of the esoteric publications I might have worked for were only taking unpaid interns. So, I thought, I’ve always liked building things, and things will always need to be built.”
Ric looked up, “Wait, you graduated in 2009?”
“So did I. I spent two years interning in the communications departments of various nonprofits before giving up and going to work for my Dad’s investment firm.”
“Man, that’s rough. You should think about a trade, really. Right now, we’re getting all this equipment secured before the hurricane, it feels like we’re doing something really necessary.”
“It’s not necessary, Ed,” a tall black man in an orange vest shouted out as he passed. “Come to Jamaica sometime; I’ll show you a real hurricane—none of this category-one bullshit.”
“I’m from SoCal,” he yelled back. “We don’t do weather.”
The man snorted, “So why don’t you go back?” But he smiled afterwards, to make it clear he liked having SoCal boy around.
“Ed” turned back to them and shrugged. “Anyway,” he said, without malice, “It feels more necessary than investment banking.”
Ari had a rare expression on her face. Her lips were pressed shut and her eyes seemed to lean over her nose. It was the expression she used when she heard something she thought was really worth listening to. Only when she was sure he had finished speaking did she blink and relax her mouth to speak. “Congratulations,” she said, holding out her hand. “You’re the first adult under thirty I’ve met.” There was no sarcasm in her voice.
Ed shrugged again. “You should talk to my girlfriend about that,” he said. “She seems to believe no grown man is allowed to own an X-box.” But he accepted Ari’s handshake. He was standing with his back to the water, which stretched beyond him, past Staten Island, to the place where its blue disappeared into the blue of the sky. But he was looking up towards midtown, and Ric followed his gaze. A slate cloud sagged over the city, and the buildings seemed huddled around the Empire State Building as if its point could pierce through to the light. Ric knew the cloud had nothing to do with the hurricane—in fact, the hurricane was coming from the now-clear South—but there was something ominous about Manhattan’s darkness, something Ric feared to enter.
“Anyway, salvate!” Ed bid them farewell in Latin., then turned back to join his partners in their work. Literally, he had wished good health, but the word was only an accent away from the Spanish for “Save yourself!”
“Come on,” Ari said. “Don’t you have to go?” And Ric realized that he was standing still, staring at the city and trying to understand why it filled him with dread.
Fourth Stop—Back on the Highway
There was a real disappointment in walking through the second pair of arches, off the wooden planks, and back onto the concrete of the walk towards City Hall. It was the end of the vacation, the exit from the fair.
“So that’s adulthood,” Ric finally said, to distract himself from the heaviness resettling on his shoulders. “Getting paid to do something necessary?”
“Getting paid to do something necessary that you love,” Ari said after a moment’s thought
And Ric nodded. That was what was magic in the bridge. It was clearly necessary—millions of commuters, of friends and families separated by the East River—had made it so. And it was beautiful enough that he could believe its builders had loved it. Hadn’t Ari read to him from her guidebook how its designer had died from Tetanus after his foot was crushed on site, how his son had taken over until he was crippled by the bends while digging the foundations underwater, and then how his wife had stepped up to relay his instructions to the crew. Two generations had given themselves to the bridge, nurtured it like child and grandchild.
The green, metallic sheen of the signs announcing the entrances to FDR Drive and Park Row appeared on the horizon. Unless they turned to look back, there was no sign of the bridge. Once again, they might have been walking on a highway.
“When we get to the park,” he said, “I want to show you something.”
“You won’t be late?” Ari asked.
“This is worth it!” He tried to sound joyfully reckless. Ari squinted at him in concern.
“If you think there’s time,” she said.
Last Stop—The Fountain
Continue walking until you get to the entrance to City Hall Park. Cross the street towards the park and turn left. Walk along the park gate past the City Hall entrance and turn into the next opening in the gate. Walk straight into the park and then take your first left towards a fountain surrounded by four lampposts.
It was not as spectacular as he remembered it. But then, he and his boyfriend had discovered it at dusk. He had been surprised by the live flame in the four lampposts that surrounded the fountain, by the way its reflection flickered in the white-blue jets of water and the night-blue pool beneath. It had been the Friday gay marriage was legalized, and, high on one victory, Cam had suggested they try for another and camp out near City Hall with the group protesting Bloomberg’s budget cuts. Cam had studied to be a teacher, and he desperately needed the new-teacher hiring freeze to end so he could go back to his school in Queens and prove to kids like him that there was a way out and it did get better. At the time, Ric was waiting on a city grant to turn his museum internship into a paying job. They had believed that they could fight and win it all, eternal love and necessary work—adulthood. The unexpected beauty of that fountain had seemed like a promise.
“The future is yours!” cried the flames.
“You will not disappoint yourselves,” the water reassured.
Of course that wasn’t what happened. The hiring freeze did not end and the grant did not come through. Cam had gotten a teaching job in Mississippi and Ric had sent his resume to his father’s firm. Those two decisions had split them apart for good. The fountain appeared sheepish in the daylight. It shot no jets of water from its center, and Ric had to squint to see the vibration of the flames inside their dusty glass covers.
“Ric?” Ari said gently. He was not used to hearing the tremble of a question in her voice.
“I know it’s not much now; we’ll have to come back at night, so you can see. It’s a perfect harmony of fire and water.”
“Ric, it’s 9:30,” she said.
“I thought you didn’t approve of my job?”
Ari sighed. “I don’t think you approve of your job. But it’s not my place really…”
Ric’s phone rang. He lifted it from his pocket. His boss’s name flashed across the screen.
So this was it. He stared at the fountain, willing the sky to darken to, the water to shoot up, and the flames to burn brighter than the dust containing them. He could do it. His boss would fire him, and he could go back to the moment before he had disappointed himself.
“Ric, are you going to answer?” Her voice was soft.
He held his phone in front of his face. What would happen if he threw it into the water?
Suddenly, he felt it pulled up and out of his hand.
“Yes,” Ari answered. “This is his cousin. We went to buy a flashlight, you know, because the hurricane’s coming this weekend, and our friend said the hardware stores were running out. Yes, we got the last one! But the line’s longer than we planned for. He’ll be there by 10, definitely. Oh, we can pick up some batteries for you, but he’s paying now.—we’ll have to get back in line. Ok, he’ll be there by 10:15 then. Great, bye!” She finished the call. “It’s going to be all right,” she said to him.
Ric felt the hot weight of the phone slide back into his hand.