Story — From the November 2015 issue

Williamsburg Bridge

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To be absolutely certain I rode the F train from my relatively quiet Lower East Side neighborhood to 34th Street and set myself adrift in the crowds around Penn Station and Herald Square. Short subway ride uptown in dark tunnels beneath New York’s sidewalks, twenty-five, thirty minutes of daylight aboveground, among countless bodies hurtling ahead like trains underground, each one on its single-blind track.

Quick trip yesterday, so today I’m certain and determined, though not in any hurry. Why should I be? All the time in the world at my disposal. All mine the moment I let go. How much time do you believe you possess? Enough perhaps to spare a stranger a moment or two while he sits on the Williamsburg Bridge, beyond fences that patrol the pedestrian walkway, on an extreme edge where a long steel rail runs parallel to walkways, bikeways, highways, and train tracks supported by this enormous towering steel structure, sky above, East River below, this edge where the bridge starts and terminates in empty air.

I heard Sonny Rollins play his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge once and only once live one afternoon so many years ago I can’t recall the walkway’s color back then. Definitely not the pale red of my tongue when I wag it at myself each morning in the mirror, the walkway’s color today at the intersection of Delancey and Clinton Streets where I enter it by passing through monumental stone portals, then under a framework of steel girders that span the 118-foot width of the bridge and display steel letters announcing its name. Iron fences painted cotton-candy pink guard the walkway’s flanks, and just beyond their shoulder-high rails much taller barriers of heavy-gauge steel chicken wire bolted to sturdy steel posts guard the fences. Steel crossbeams, spaced four yards or so apart, form a kind of serial roof over the walkway, too high by about a foot for me to jump up and touch, even on my best days playing hoop. Faded crossties overhead could be rungs of a giant ladder once upon a time that slanted red up into the sky, but now the ladder lies flat, rungs separated by gaps of sky that seem to open wider as I walk beneath them, though if I lower my eyes and gaze ahead into the distance where the bridge’s far end should be, the walkway’s a tunnel, solid walls and ceiling converge, no gaps, no exit, a cul-de-sac.

Photographs by Benjamin Lowy

Photographs by Benjamin Lowy

Tenor-sax wail the color I remember from the afternoon, decades ago, I heard Sonny Rollins the first and only time live. Color deeper than midnight blue. Dark, scathing, grudging color of a colored soldier’s wound coloring dirty white bandages wrapped around his dark chest. It was a clear afternoon a sax turned darker than the night. Color of all time. Vanished time. No time. Color of deep-purple swirls I mixed from ovals of pure, perfect color in the paint box I found under the Christmas tree one morning when I was a kid. An unexpected color with a will of its own brewed by a horn’s laments, amens, witness. That’s what I remember, anyway. Color of disappointment, of ancient injuries and bruises and staying alive and dying and being born again all at once after I had completed about half the first lap of a back-and-forth hump over the Williamsburg Bridge.

Walking the bridge an old habit now. One I share with numerous other walkers whose eyes avoid mine as I avoid theirs, our minds perhaps on the people down below, people alive and dead on tennis courts, ball fields, running tracks, swings, slides, jungle gyms, benches, chairs, blankets, grass plots, gray paths alongside the East River. Not exactly breaking news, is it, that from up here human beings seem as tiny as ants. Too early this morning for most people or ants, but from this height, this perch beyond the walkway’s fences, this railing along the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge, I see a few large ants or little people sprinkled here and there. Me way up here, ants and people way down there all the same size. Same weight. Same fate.

So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.

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has recently completed The Louis Till File, a book-length narrative.

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