Several years ago, on a very rainy autumn Sunday, my friend C. called. “Tomorrow traffic begins on the Zakim Bridge,” he announced. “Today, the bridge is open all afternoon for pedestrian crossings. Will you join me in this walk?”
My friend has a propensity for metaphor; he is a poet. The bridge is one of the great metaphors of American literature, a symbol that looks both ways: as a sign of optimism and faith in science and engineering, but also one of darkness, the waters below alluring poets and common folk alike to take the plunge if not physically then at least metaphorically.
The Leonard Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge is part of the Big Dig Project, whose tentacles reshaped the entire downtown of Boston; it re-routed the Central Artery (I-93) into a 3.5 tunnel, extended I-90 to Logan Airport, and replaced the Central Artery with the beautiful Rose Kennedy Greenway. It was also fraught with trouble from the very beginning, spawning innumerable obstacles, extensions of deadlines, and problems of financial mismanagement.
But on that Sunday, my friend’s invitation seemed to eclipse the irritations and frustrations which we, Bostonians, had suffered for years as we waited for the conclusion of the Big Dig and the deliverance of our city from the horrible downtown congestion.
And so we went, equipped with trench coats and umbrellas, wondering how many people would be crazy enough–like us–to walk across the bridge in such foul weather. The picture which presented itself to us at the entrance of the bridge was not what we expected: Hundreds of colorful umbrellas glistening under the pouring rain; families with children in strollers; street musicians; old and young–all were there, their animated conversation and laughter hanging in the wet air. And if my friend had had any trepidations about crossing bridges, they all seemed to evaporate that afternoon.
The walk itself took about an hour, as we stopped, wiped the water off our hands and continued on, stood for a while at the railings looking down at the roiling waters below, talked to fellow pedestrians, and then continued. Then, when we had finished with the walk, we headed to one of the back streets of the North End for coffee and pastry.
The rain was unrelenting and heartless; the sky was colorless; the waters under our feet were strangely turbulent. But that walk across a structure which was meant for traffic, for cars and trucks and SUVs and convertibles was also a minor transgression, as though we were children doing something we were not supposed to do. You can walk the Brooklyn Bridge, but this one, this Zakim Bridge had no pedestrian intentions. Its purpose was to transport and connect.
The Zakim Bridge is a daunting structure across the Charles River. Today, and for the first time, I drove across it. And as I did so, in the stifling heat and humidity of our interminable summer, I could not help but remember that beautiful rainy day of hundreds of umbrellas of innocence, made small by the huge structure, before the bridge had assumed its real function, before it stood there omnipresent and imposing, its white cables symbols of endurance and power.
What is it about bridges that makes them such special things? There is the metaphor and poetry, the symbolism and its meanings, to be sure. There is the terror some people feel about crossing a bridge, the anxiety, the visceral fear.
Bridges are also of human creation, their unintended sense of disproportion cast on us all–the pedestrian, the driver, the observer are all diminished in its shadow. Bridges are the roads of passage and connection, but they tell us other things as well: whether we are walking across them, or observing them from a distance, or driving in their lanes, we carry with us our mundane troubles and joys, our everyday preoccupations and concerns, our need for surprise but also predictability. We carry our excitement and our fear in equal measure.
My dear uncle, Vahé Oshagan, who has since passed away, himself also a poet, was getting ready for a high risk surgery some years ago; he had a weak heart and high levels of cholesterol. The day before he was to go under the knife, he asked his wife for a favor, a sort of final wish, just in case he did not make it back. He wanted to go across the Golden Gate Bridge one last time. She agreed. He did so, after having a big, hearty meal of fried eggs, bacon, and strong Arabic coffee. He survived the operation.
We do. Most of us.