Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is like an expedition to Mount Everest with skyscrapers subbing for distant peaks. Daunting, draining and possibly dangerous. You carry what you need and let go of what you don’t. Why are you going to Brooklyn? Why, oh why would you ever leave Manhattan? Over time, a bridge becomes a psychological barrier. When I lived in Carolina Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina, I heard a woman talk about going “OTB.” I asked what that meant. She said, you know, “Over the Bridge.” She said she didn’t plan on going OTB that weekend because everything she needed was right there. A Food Lion. Two drug stores. A McDonalds and a Hardees. That’s about it. Really? That’s all you need? (The Snow’s Cut Bridge is a small affair that joins “Pleasure Island” (Home to tiny beach towns Carolina Beach, Fort Fisher and Kure Beach) to Wilmington. A crevice was cut to make what once was Federal Point Peninsula into an island. That let boats go further down the waterway, connecting water traffic from the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the island with the Cape Fear River on the west side.) But here’s the point: Not going OTB on a lazy summer weekend on an island may be fine. Sometimes you want to go OTB in a big way. Enter the Brooklyn Bridge.
I noticed a group of people sitting on a bench as I walked the first hundred feet of the bridge a few days ago. I recognized this bench immediately. Base Camp. At this heady altitude, anything is possible. If you are smart, you have just bought a bottle of water for one dollar from a street vendor. They hover helpfully at the pedestrian entrance to the bridge, hoping to hydrate you or sell you beautiful scenic pictures of the bridge that you could never hope to take yourself in a million years so don’t even try, though you have to try, and I understand that, but the light will not be right and people will get in your way without even meaning to, but they will. Forget the picture. Back to the bottled water. Just about midway through the 1.1. mile journey you will start to wish you had bought water if you didn’t. I went dry on this particular trip and regretted it. The water bottle is like the canisters of oxygen you need to reach the summit at Everest. Necessary. Good. Life-giving.
At a scenic half-way point, all you will want to do is stop and take pictures of everything on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is OK to stop. You should stop and point and click away. The Statue of Liberty is one side. On the other side lies The Manhattan Bridge, which is getting a lot of love lately in movies and television commercials. Parts of the Brooklyn Bridge have been draped in canvas for more than a year as it undergoes various repairs, helping people appreciate the always-before-underwhelming beauty of the Manhattan Bridge. Take a picture from the Brooklyn Bridge of the Manhattan Bridge. It’s OK. The Brooklyn Bridge has a big heart and is not jealous a bit.
There’s something about crossing a bridge, and in particular crossing this landmark icon of a bridge. It’s not just the beautiful design of the Brooklyn Bridge. You feel like you’re inside an artwork. The support lines make a spider web from the tower on either side. There’s a feeling of being somewhere important and doing something momentous. Maybe you will be different on the other side. Some fundamentally better you awaits on crossing over into that new land. Who knows what you will be like? More exciting. A little dangerous. It’s hard to say.
Just to your left lies the equivalent of Mt. Everest’s Zone Of Death. This is a place on Everest where you could die. Other hikers will see your body. It will give them pause as they push on to the summit, but they are so close. And you are dead. What can be done about you? Not so much, really. And so they press on. And you are frozen in place until someone has the time and energy to tote you down the mountain like excess baggage and send you on to your final destination like a lost letter.
The Brooklyn’s Bridge’s Zone of Death is the Bike Path. Cyclists come screaming down a side of the bridge at top speed without regard for human life. Having cycled the bridge once, I know that the gradual slope you encounter on one side of the bridge and the gradual decline you feel on the other side are only gradual for pedestrians. Cyclists toil uphill for half a mile. They find sweet release on the other side and want to fly down it like little children. Because of their noiseless stealth and deceptive speed, I refer to these big city cyclists as Silent Assassins. Crazed Chinese food delivery person on a bike going an absurd speed down a narrow alley. Bike messenger in heavy Midtown Traffic. Tourist on a rented Citi Bike on a busy sidewalk. All bad. Potentially hazardous. But nowhere in New York is the Silent Assassin more dangerous than the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Zone of Death on the Brooklyn Bridge is marked clearly. People who speak no English recognize the symbol for bicycle. Yet English speakers and non-English speakers alike continue to stray into this lane. When you walk more than two abreast across the bridge, anyone passing you in either direction is forced into the Bike Path. I did not come here to get a concussion or worse because someone thought an informal game of Red Rover in the walking lane would be fun, I think to myself as I slip carefully past cheerful families hogging the width of the pedestrian path.
On your right as you near Brooklyn, you will see the Watchtower. The first time I noticed this slender structure with its red analog clock I thought, “Wow, this is like a superhero headquarters. “The Watchtower.” The Justice League is looking out for us in this Watchtower. That sort of thing. But the Watchtower is anything but a superhero hangout. It’s simply a tower the Jehova Witness own. Remember this scene from your life? The doorbell rings. It’s the door you never use. No one who comes to the house ever comes to that door. Oh. Hide. Don’t answer it. It’s Jehova Witness. Just let the doorbell ring. Or if you must answer it, don’t let them in. This is hard because you hate to be impolite. But if you let them in, you will have a hard time getting them out. Act like you have some pressing engagement. I was just leaving. You stick out your hand and take what they give you. What are they giving you? Their signature brochure. The Watchtower.
When I crossed the bridge a few days ago, a man with wild dreadlocks dangling down the sides of his face and a faraway look in his eyes came shambling towards me telling everyone and no one, “Return from where you came.” The oddly worded syntax struck me as religious in nature. But did the penniless shaman simply mean Manhattan? Or something deeper than that. Go back. Go back to the roots. Your people. Your land. The place you left behind.
So, I did. The next day, I wrote about my high school years on the advent of a 30 year high school reunion I didn’t attend back in Salisbury, North Carolina and what high school meant to me and how I mostly experienced it from someplace deep and still and alone in my head. Sure I would not be accepted, I rejected almost everyone as a preemptive strike. Talking about it, I connected with some people online in a way I never had in person during those years. And I realized I had created that place in my own mind, shutting people out or not reaching out in a meaningful way, giving up on them in essence. Reaching out and back through three decades online, I felt like I had returned from where I came. Virtually. I unlocked my frozen images of classmates and allowed them to grow and mature in my mind the way they had been all that time in reality. It sounds too easy to believe I could go back without returning in person. Maybe an online homecoming is just a good strong step in the right direction. But it’s at least that.
I found a bridge back to the place I came from. Made my peace with classmates and high school. Now I can finally cross over. I’ve been on the bridge for a long time, not knowing I was there. A little stuck. Finally, I can cross. Letting go of the past and embracing it at once. I am not a new person. Exactly the same as I ever was. Only with friends I didn’t realize I had and a lot more love in my heart.
We all need to be forgiven, understood and accepted. Granted amnesty and peace. Full pardons have been issued. Reconciliations made. Clean beginnings are possible. Go with peace.