On Crossing the Great Bridge
In all the years that I’ve visited New York, I’ve completely overlooked what is likely its greatest landmark: the Brooklyn Bridge. Like so many others, I’ve always assumed that the most interesting sites in New York are in mid-town. So I’ve never felt the need to venture south of the Empire State Building, save for a tour of the Stock Exchange once. But it all changed last week.
I was in New York to officiate at a wedding. I had come a day early, in anticipation of crises and melt-downs; but none seemed in the offing. So, with time on my hands and a willingness to explore, I decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. And I’m glad I did.
I had avoided the Bridge because I thought it would take forever to cross. But I now know that a leisurely stroll can get you to the other side in twenty-five minutes or less. Then, like a true Manhattan snob, I had always assumed that there was nothing to see on the other side. I now know that is not the case. But all that is grist for a repeat crossing.
It was a very warm day, and maybe it seasoned the entire experience. It also brought out the tourists in droves. On the Bridge I heard German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and a host of other languages. In fact, visitors seemed to outnumber the natives, most of whom were probably at work. Altogether, there were strollers and runners and gawkers and bikers; and there were baby carriages and wheel chairs. In short, it was a real hodge-podge of people, representing New York and the ends of the earth.
I quickly realized that despite all the tourists, this really is a working bridge. For one thing, the bikers mean business. Some pedal by furiously, and it’s amazing that no one ever gets hurt. I was also surprised by the relative quiet. Tons of cars roar over the bridge, a few feet away from the pedestrians. But there is little or no honking, because they all share one common purpose: to get to the other side as quickly as possible. No motorists pause for the view, and there’s no need to make everyone’s life worse by honking.
Many things surprised me, but I very quickly noticed the absence of the long arm of the law. On the way over and back I didn’t see a single police officer. That’s unusual for New York. Maybe it was just too hot to be out that day. Or, better still, maybe it is too much trouble to climb up that bridge just to keep order. On the other hand, I’m sure they do care, as the signs everywhere warned that cameras were catching our every move. I never heard “the voice”, but I can just imagine a disembodied spirit yelling out: “Hey you! Yes you! Stop that right now!” And then the voice would return to its reading or coffee or sandwich in a comfortable control room in The Bronx. Or Bangalore.
With no law and order, people obey the lane markers when and if they feel like it. A big white line divides the bycycles from the pedestrians, and only people with a death-wish wander over into the bike lanes. All else is up for grabs. Despite clear directional markings painted every few feet, no one seems to pay the least attention. Either they can’t read the sign language, or they are taking advantage of the absence of law and order. Either way, it is paradise for rugged individualists. And it irritates the heck out of people like me, who like tidy neat lines of people.
The Bridge invites the use of your imagination. On the one hand, both shores teem with activity and vitality. The huge buildings that now block the horizons have dwarfed the Bridge for decades, but once upon a time the Bridge was the biggest thing in town. And if you squint and try to imagine an era when those buildings only had four or five floors, you can understand what a massive monument the Bridge must have been in its first years. No wonder it siezed the public imagination.
What did I learn during the walk? I learned that there are still plenty of dim-witted people who are willing to stand in the biking lane while someone takes their picture. I learned that there are very trusting souls up on that bridge, especially the three people I saw in wheel chairs. One can only hope that the friends who had pushed them across one way were still friends when it came time to push them back.
I also learned that there is entertainment to be had all along the Bridge. For one, there was the aspiring drama queen who screamed at her mother that she was now ten years old and was starving to death. She wanted off the Bridge, now. That led to a heated exchange, witnessed by many of us who thought this was far better than any street theater we had seen. I for one thought the mother had the chance to confer a measure of immortality on her ungrateful daughter. After all, lots of people have died on that Bridge, but none has ever died of starvation. This would be a first. Meanwhile, I was almost positive that the mom eyed greedily the hearse that was just then passing by not a few feet away. Was that a sign from God? But she resisted. What a saint.
I also realize that the American bias toward casual dress has maybe gone too far, at least in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge. I did see three guys in suit and tie, which seemed a little odd in the late-June heat. On the other hand, there were an awful lot of people on that Bridge who definitely should have considered wearing more clothing. I don’t say this out of prudery, but rather for aesthetic reasons. Americans are just not designed to dress that way any more. But I’m not going to climb up on that bridge and start a crusade about it — no matter how badly it hurts the eyes.
Like anywhere, if you stay alert you can catch the little incongruities that make life interesting. As you approach Brooklyn, for example, a massive building greets you, front and center. Someone had emblazoned “Read Watchtower” and “Jehovah’s Witness” on its walls, and you couldn’t miss it. I had expected to find lots of religion in Brooklyn, but not that one. I was also struck by the t-shirt headed toward Manhattan. “Follow me. Walk to the Quiet.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was going the wrong way. Besides that, no one was following her, and she needed the exercise anyway.
All in all, I should never have waited so long to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s free, at a time when prices for everything else in New York are sky high. It’s also good for you, unless you get hit by a bicycle. And it’s just flat-out beautiful up there, standing with the rest of humanity, caught between heaven and earth.
But I’m also glad I waited this long to cross the Bridge. Weeks ago I began reading David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge”, and for whatever reason I got bogged down in the later chapters. Now that I know how it ends, maybe I can put the book aside. And without spoiling the ending too much for you, I now know that they finally did finish the Brooklyn Bridge, and it still works pretty good.
+On June 24th Brother George Primus passed away. For much of his life in the monastery he worked in the tailor shop, but also volunteered in the orchard.
+On June 29th I officiated at the wedding of Emily Krump and Thomas Hart at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in New York. Emily is an ’08 alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, while her father Paul is a graduate of Saint John’s University and her mother Anne an alumna of Saint Ben’s. I have been friends with the family for ages, and it was an honor to be part of this moment.
+Last week monks, faculty and staff trooped to the University greenhouse to see a Queen Victoria Agave in flower. It was a big deal because they bloom only once and then die. Since this plant was fifty years old, we thought we owed the plant this visit. Botony student Cody Groen provided expert instruction for all who made the trip.
+”Stick House” still greets drivers entering onto the property of Saint John’s. Recently one photographer caught a dazzing display of the aurora borealis, with Stick House in the foreground. Much to our surprise, NBC aired the footage nationally. Click here to view the short video.
+Only a few weeks ago I went to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta. Then it was high and dry, though still very green. A few days ago flood waters overwhelmed Lourdes, for the second time in a year. Click here for a sampling of pictures of the devastation.