Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Life in Bridges

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Honorable Mention: Pulaski Skyway, Route 1-9, Newark, New Jersey

I've only been on this once (though you can see it from the Turnpike). It's a big black 1930s iron bridge near the Newark airport. I thought it was pretty nifty the one time I was on it. I must be due for another trip.

12. The Triboro, New York

Historically important, and makes you feel like you are in the heart of one of the real New Yorks. I don't think I was on it until I was around 30.

11. Verrazano-Narrows, New York

Similar to above. I usually only take this going north, to avoid the $13 toll. Anything that reminds me of the old days, before I was born.

10. The Hamilton Fish Bridge over the Hudson River, I-84 in New York.

I only go on this road every other year or so--maybe less than that now--as a change from routine. There is nothing special about this bridge except that it is very gloomy, especially in the dark, in winter, and during a snowstorm. I only ever feel impelled to go this way in winter, the whole length of which in New York is quite gloomy, and some of the gloominess even continues into Connecticut as far as Hartford. I find much of upstate New York--and this is not even very far upstate--to be gloomy compared with most of New England. Even at night.

I couldn't find any pictures of this bridge in the winter.

9. The Bridge to the Outer Banks (Rte 12?), North Carolina. 

My old family--not only my parents but my grandmother and my father's five younger siblings and various of their cousins and other friends--vacationed here for a week every August from 1976-1979, and again in 1981. I have not been back since. I think this area has been considerably altered and built up during the interval. This bridge carried one from the ramshackle rural North Carolina mainland instantly into the magical world of sand dunes and waving cattails and seashells and mini-golf courses and motorcourts and swimming pools and the potential for, if not adventures, at least drama or memorable stories. I still get this feeling once in a while in famous vacation spots--I felt it at Bar Harbor, which similarly features a bridge from a comparatively dreary mainland onto an island where everyone seems to be happier and better looking and has more purpose than than the run of people you find in life. One year we arrived at the island to ominous, albeit very striking and dramatic, dark skies and learned that a hurricane was on the way--apparently we did not have a working car radio at the time. It was right at the beginning of the trip. My parents fled to the dreary mainland in the pouring rain, backed up for hours along the bridge and the one road leading out. The rest of our group, being either young and adventurous or old and cantankerous, stayed behind to ride out the hurricane. Though there was a great fear on the part of some that the bridge would be taken out, apart from a couple of days of heavy rain the storm did little damage, and we had to slink back in once the danger was out of the way in mild disgrace at not having braved the storm, though being seven or eight years of age it is not as if I had had any say in the matter. But the cool people had all chosen to stay and party, and even at that young age I knew they would be all right.

8. George Washington Bridge, New York.

This is the New York bridge I've been over the most. I also walked across it once when I was depressed and failing, though obviously I kind of enjoyed it. I can't believe failing in New York, while a more decisive and public humiliation, is more fundamentally depressing than failing in some nothing place. I don't go over this bridge much anymore because there is always too much traffic, but if you come down the Palisades, at night especially, you see it in all its glory, and it signifies "New York" to the children.

7. Delaware River Bridge Between PA & NJ turnpikes

The bridge by which I usually enter my home state these days with all of the nostalgia and regret and bitter feelings that comes with that. The bridge itself is a pretty run of the mill green arched truss bridge. The ones further down the river that go directly into Philadelphia are more distinguished, but I never went on them much. My father, for reasons that were never fully explained to me, hated the Jersey shore and for that matter the entire state of New Jersey so much that we practically never went there. I went a couple of times to Wildwood or Sea Isle City with my grandparents, but on the whole I don't think I have been to the ocean in New Jersey more than five or six times in my life.

6. Piscataqua River Bridge, I-95 Maine-New Hampshire Border

Due to my largely positive associations with both of these states, this is a bridge where I feel pretty good going in either direction. With most of these there is at least one side where I feel a little deflated upon descending from the bridge, because I am leaving a place that holds excitement or meaning for me and coming into one that holds neither. But I feel pretty comfortable and familiar almost everywhere in both of these states.

5 & 4 Bay Bridge & Rte 450 Bridge, Annapolis

These rate where they are because when I was actually in school I never drove back and forth from Annapolis to anywhere else. I only started to use these bridges after my time there. Still, they have a drama and a poignancy about them. The Bay Bridge is one of those bridges that puts a psychological distance between you and the town when you go over it. Once you are in the flat farmland of the Eastern Shore, you know St John's College and its idiosyncracies and colonial mouldings and all those Greek books have vanished again into the mists they probably came from. The Severn Bridge, with the romantic view of the water and the city of Annapolis with its domes and cupolas and spires (the Naval Academy mainly) on the approach to it, I did go over on the day I first came to Annapolis to begin school. It was years before I came that way again though so I have never developed a consistent emotional response upon arriving this way.

I have read that the Bay Bridge is considered by many to be one of the scariest bridges in the world to drive across, and someone did drive over the side of it earlier this year (though she survived, swimming to one of the piers and hanging on there). I suppose it is a little scary, though I have gotten used to it. I took the Bay-Bridge Tunnel in Virginia for the first time last year, which is much longer, and found that a little anxiety-inducing due to that length, though the bridge itself is not as high up, or at least does not seem so. As I have written before, I have a greater, and probably irrational, faith in tunnels, bridges, etc, built in the 1930s, 40s and 50s compared to more recent constructions, especially if they are in some way 'marvels' or otherwise spectacular engineering feats. This is because my mind cannot comprehend new developments and advancements as having any relation or proportion to it. These new environments do not belong to me or have much to do with me, so therefore my instinct is that they are likely to kill me sooner rather than later.

3. George C Platt Bridge, Rte 291, South Philadelphia

I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) don't have a direct interchange. Coming from the south, you get off 95, take this bridge over the Schuykill, are greeted on the other side by oil refineries on your left as far as you can see and a giant car demolition/scrap metal lot on the right. Welcome to Philadelphia! (although I must admit the pollution and air of menace in this little section is much less striking today than it was in say 1979). There used to be a forlorn little newsstand/hog dog cart on the corner where you turn for the Schuylkill, as well as guys walking up and down the median selling flowers and soft pretzels, but I haven't seen any of this in years. It is a very fitting scene for entering/leaving the city. Particularly on the trip to Annapolis when you go the Eastern shore route, which is only two and a half hours, but you pass through 5 or 6 very sharp geographical and cultural gradations during that drive. This little stretch obviously is one of the major gateways you pass through.

2. Route 9 Bridge over the Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vermont

This is is the major bridge in my children's life, since this is the one we pass over when we go to our camp, which is about 2 miles beyond it, and thus means we are essentially there. This is an hour and a half trip mostly through (beautiful) woods and alongside rivers and lakes. The bridge is a significant landmark. This trip passes through about five subtly distinct geographical and social regions as well, once you get to know it. The new bridge was built about ten years ago, so I remember when the old bridge, which is rusting but has been kept up as a foot/bicycle bridge, was used by cars. Some of the twee, healthy-eating, marathon training, technologically adept, visibly educated (I say this to distinguish them from myself, as I appear to be invisibly educated, for social purposes) Brattleboro crowd has hung up a handmade banner which reads "Welcome to Our Bridge" on this old bridge, which annoys me, since A) I don't consider myself to be part of them, so I cannot collectively share anything with them, and B) I also consider it to be my bridge. Do any of them really think it can mean more to them than it does to me?

1. I-295 Bridge into Portland, Maine (South End)

This bridge has no distinguishing features--no trusses or arches of any kind--but at the time it represented a border between the romantic hopes and images I had about my life, and emptiness and despair. I should explain: when I went to high school in Portland I did not actually live in the city--I was able to go to school there because my father was a teacher and they let me attend, which sort of thing they don't do anymore because the taxpayer vigilantes are more alert to it. So having to go out of the borders of the city, where my life, or my best hope for my life was, was a kind of emotional death at the end of every day, and my return again in the morning a kind of rebirth. I don't deny looking back that it was very strange, but that was how I felt. I don't have quite the same response anymore going over this bridge, because almost everything from that time is gone now, and my connection to it, for whatever reason, does not seem to have been very deep. Also even the exit that I used to get off at and that descent from the road into the city, the buildings I saw every day, etc, has been altered, and is almost futuristic now, bears no resemblance to the old days. Still, I like to stop in if I am passing through the area. Sometimes it is possible to get something of the old feeling, if one is lucky.

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