Story — From the November 2015 issue

Williamsburg Bridge

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Many years passed before I figured out it had to be Sonny Rollins I heard one afternoon. Do you know who I mean? Theodore Walter Rollins, born September 7, 1930, New York City, emerges early Fifties “most brash and creative young tenor player.” Flees to Chicago to escape perils of N.Y.C. jazz scene, reemerges 1955 in N.Y.C. with Clifford Brown, Max Roach group — “caustic, often humorous style of melodic invention . . . command of everything from arcane ballads to calypso.” Nicknamed “Newk” for resemblance to Don Newcombe, star Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher. Produces string of great albums (1956–58). Withdraws again, no public performances (1959–61), practices on the Williamsburg Bridge “to get myself together” after “too much, too soon.” Brushes up on craft and returns with album, The Bridge. Another sabbatical, Japan, India (1969) — more time “to get myself together . . . I think it’s a good thing for anybody to do.” Returns (1971) to perform publicly, etc., etc. All this information I quote available at Sonny Rollins website; cocaine addiction, ten months he did at Rikers for armed robbery not in website bio.

Once I decided it had to have been Sonny Rollins playing, my passion for his music escalated, as did my intimacy with the Williamsburg Bridge. Recently, trying to discover where it ranks among New York bridges in terms of its attractiveness to jumpers, I came across alexreisner.com and a story about a suicide in progress on the Williamsburg Bridge that Mr. Reisner claimed to have witnessed. Numerous black-and-white photos illustrate his piece. In some pictures a young colored man wears neatly cropped dreads, pale skin, pale undershorts, a bemused expression, light mustache, shadow of beard, his hands curled around a rail running along the outermost edge of the bridge where he sits. Water ripples behind, below, to frame him. His gaze downcast, engaged elsewhere, a place no one else on the planet can see. No people there, no time there where his eyes have drifted, settled. His features regular, handsome in a stiff, plain, old-fashioned way. Some mother’s mixed son, mixed-up son.

If I could twist around, shift my weight without losing balance, rotate my head, and glance over my left shoulder, I’d see superimposed silhouettes of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges downriver, grand cascades of steel cables draped from their towers, and over there, if I stay steady and focused, I could pick out the tip of the Statue of Liberty jutting just above the Brooklyn Bridge, Lady Liberty posed like sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winners’ stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, her torch a black-gloved fist rammed into the sky: We’re number one. Up yours.

Dawns on me that I’ll miss the next Olympics, next March Madness, next Super Bowl. Dawns on me that I won’t regret missing them. A blessing. Free at last. Not up here because I didn’t win a gold medal. Not up here to sell shoes or politics. Nor because my mom’s French. Not here because of my color or lack of color. My coloring pale like the young colored man in website photos who sat, I believe, precisely on the spot where I’m sitting. Color not the reason I’m here or the reason you are where you are, wherever you happen to be, whatever your color. Ain’t about color. Speed what it’s about. Color just a gleam in the beholder’s eye. Now you see it, now you don’t.

On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.

Gender not the reason I’m here either. A crying shame in this advanced day and age that plenty of people would tag my posture as effeminate. Truth is, with my upper body tilted slightly backward, weight poised on my rear end, arms thrust out to either side for balance, I must press my thighs together to maintain stability, keep my feet spread apart so they serve as bobbing anchors.

HA059__06680-1Try it sometime. Someplace high and dangerous, ideally. You’ll get the point. Point being of course any position you assume up here unsafe. Like choice of a language, gender, color, etc. A person’s forced to choose, forced to suffer the consequences. Like choosing which clothes to wear on the Williamsburg Bridge or not wear. I’ve chosen to keep my undershorts on. I want to be remembered as a swimmer, not some naked nut. Swimmer who has decided to swim away with dignity intact in homely but perfectly respectable boxers.

Just about naked also because I don’t wish to be mistaken for a terrorist. No intent to harm a living soul. No traffic accidents, boat accidents caused by my falling body, heavier and heavier, they say, as it descends. No concealed weapons, no dynamite strapped around my bare belly. I’ve taken pains to situate myself on the bridge’s outermost edge to maximize the chance I hit nothing but water.

And contrary to what you might be thinking, loneliness has not driven me to the edge. I’m far from lonely. In addition to my undershorts I have pain, grief, plenty of regrets, and prospects of a dismal future to keep me company, and when not entertained sufficiently by those companions I look down below. Whole shitty world’s at my feet. My chilly toes wiggle like antennae, chilly thighs squeeze together not because of fear or loneliness but like my mother’s hands when they form a steeple, and you might think she’s about to pray, but then she chants: This is the church / Here’s the steeple, a game Mom taught me in ancient days. I can’t stop a grin spreading across my face even now, today, when she starts the rhyme, steeples her pale long elegant fingers. I’m a sucker every time.

Yes, Mom, one could say I drink a lot, Mom, and drink perhaps part of the problem, but not why I’m up here. Drink a bad habit, I admit. Like hiring a blind person to point out what my eyes miss. But drink simpatico, an old old cut buddy — I gape at his antics, the damage he causes, stunned by the ordinary when it shows itself through his eyes. Only that, Mom. Nothing evil, nothing extreme, nothing more or less than the ordinary showing itself as a gift. The ordinary revealed when I’m drinking. You must know what I mean. I’m the hunter who wants to shoot it, wants to be eaten.

French my dead mother’s mother tongue and occasionally I think in French. If another person appeared next to me sitting on the steel rail where I sit and the sudden person asked, What do you mean mother’s tongue? What do you mean thinking in French? I would have to answer: To tell the truth, I don’t know. Carefully speak the words aloud in English, those exact words repeated twice to keep track of language, of where I am, to keep track of myself. Desperate to explain before we tumble off the edge. Desperate to translate a language one and only one person in the universe speaks, has ever spoken.

What words will I be saying to myself the instant I slip or pitch backward into the abyss? Will French words or Chinese or Yoruba make a difference? Will I return from the East River with a new language in my head, start up the universe again with new words, or do I leave it all behind, everything behind forever, the way thoughts leave me behind? East River behind me, below me. River showing off today. Chilly ripples scintillate under cold, intermittent sunshine. Water colors differently depending on point of view, light, wind, cosmic dissonance. Water shows all colors, no color, any color from impenetrable oily sludge to purest glimmer. Water a medium like white space yet white-space empty — thin ice, a blank page words sprint across until they vanish. White space disguises itself as spray, as froth, as bubbles, as a big white splash when I fall backward and land in the East River, my ass-backward swan dive, swan song greeted by white applause, a bouquet of white flames while deep down below, white space swallows, burps, closes blacker than night.

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

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