“One, two, three, four,” I utter as I count the number of people hitting me on the Brooklyn Bridge. Before you get too scared, I am on the pedestrian walkway, high above the roaring traffic below. These little brushes with my fellow walkers aren’t so damaging to me physically but perhaps emotionally. I often hear the words “wonderful” and “pleasant” used to describe the journey across the Brooklyn Bridge. And as I met a teen face to face on the Brooklyn Bridge, one of those who at a crowded mall at the holidays lets oncoming pedestrian traffic move for them, we collided somewhere over the East River.
What no one tells you about the Brooklyn Bridge is that it can literally drive you mad, something I imagine remains eerily connected to its rather dark history. A white line divides the two sides of the pedestrian platform, one side for bikers and one for those on foot. And those little sections are divided themselves with giant arrows pointing where you should be on your side, depending on if you are coming into Manhattan or leaving it. And below all of this commotion are cars, trucks and vans gliding on by at speeds I don’t want to know from up here.
I am not a rule breaker. I stay inside the lines of the coloring book like the best of them. However I have my limits. On the Brooklyn Bridge, you must fight for your right to stay alive. I can see that teen I will later collide with up ahead. The whole group of four has now spanned the entire walk lane, hording over both sides of traffic. They are even overflowing into the bike lines. As bikes come whizzing past, a tourist could very well go down in this moment and I hold my resolve. I won’t become a statistic on this bridge. And with a boom and a teenage hairy eyeball, I stay on my lane and my side, all to survive this bridge.
My struggles on the Brooklyn Bridge are truly minor compared to those who built the connector between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Over a hundred workers were paralyzed while working on the bedrock 44 feet below. At least two dozen died in fires, explosions and collapses while building the Brooklyn Bridge. Even the own bridge’s creator, John Augustus Roebling never got to see his design come to fruition. Roebling died in a freak accident days before construction began. His son Washington would take over until he too would experience caisson disease due to working on the bedrock. His wife Emily would help communicate Roebling’s vision. She would also be the first to ride over the bridge when it opened on May 24, 1883.
I guess I had visions of the Brooklyn Bridge being a somewhat romantic experience. Coming from one land to another via an 1883 construction has a certain ring to it. It is also mere poetry to traverse a landmark that would in essence change New York forever. And yet, I can’t enjoy it completely. With each passing step, there is another group that takes over the walkway and the bike path. Luckily for the bikers they have bells to ring to get these saunters to move. I need a bell to keep sane.
The constant brushes with tourists and locals are nothing new. Just after the Brooklyn Bridge’s opening, a stampede occurred, killing 12 and injuring 35 people. Apparently some believed the bridge was collapsing so mass hysteria took place. In an effort to put minds at ease and avoid future catastrophe, circus promoter P.T Barnum brought 21 elephants across the bridge to show its strength.
I reach the halfway point and I stop, putting aside my impatience to take in the moment I had envisioned. Another world is just a half mile away. I imagine what Emily Roebling thought of her journey across the water. So much loss went into building the first steel suspension bridge in the world. I hypothesize it was a bittersweet journey for Emily, just as my trip across walking on water was today.
By the time I make it to the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, I collapse on a few benches provided. These seem cleverly placed for those who just went insane on the Brooklyn Bridge journey. I can handle a one mile walk, but not when with each step I could be taken out by a teen or a biker.
If you want to survive the Brooklyn Bridge, I recommend staying inside the lines, making the walk at less busy times of the day and pulling to the side to marvel at the view of Lower Manhattan to keep you grounded. I also think being annoyed by the crowds while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is inextricably woven into its very design and construction. The struggles of those who gave their lives for a job or perhaps just to connect two worlds is felt with every near take down by a biker or brush with a teen on the wrong side of the line. Sometimes the passages we take to reach our destinations are not always how they are described. They are not always pretty, but at least they aren’t boring.
Have you ever crossed the Brooklyn Bridge? Did you find it to be a death trap or a pleasant stroll?