Turn of the Century on Bridge



53 Boerum pl, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

We had such great plans.

We wanted to kiss off the second millennium, and this goal directed our New Year’s Eve itinerary: a matinée of the “Rocky Horror” stage show (the icon for which, of course, is the juicy pair of lipsticked lips), dinner at Lips (a West Village drag-queen restaurant) and drag-queen extraordinaire Lypsinka’s late show with a midnight champagne toast. Dress up, pucker up, and – depending on how David mixed his liquors – maybe throw up. This was the plan. It was going to be fabulous.

Sigh. What was dreamed as the ultimate TRANS-ition from year to year became simply a drag when the snow started falling on December 30. David, my best friend, living in Denver, was due to fly in that day. For once, the bloody weather forecasts nailed it, and a foot of snow smothered the city. With all regional airports closed, David obviously didn’t make it, and was unable to stake claim to a seat on a New Year’s Eve flight. I was left hanging, with non-refundable tickets and a short list of local friends, the majority of whom were out of town or were beyond squeezing me into their plans at the 11th hour, literally.

Two options sprang up: go to the show anyway, or stay home. Option one: uh, no. I can handle a fair amount of public humiliation, but standing around alone at a drag show in New York on New Year’s Eve ain’t one of them. Option two: mildly pathetic, but no big deal. My partner was alone back home. So was David now. So was everyone in my building, it seemed. Other than a few choice, expensive events, New York City doesn’t seem to do New Year’s Eve; the Times Square cattle call must eclipse everyone’s ambition. But … ah, no. Who knows if I’ll be in New York City again for New Year’s Eve? Who knows where I’ll be next year, or the year after? So much is up in the air now, so much is riding on this existence here, so much depends on me NOT sitting on my ass at home. Michael Stipe: “The greatest sin is sitting on your ass.”

Thermals, scarf, hat, parka – wrap up, buck up, lock up. Dr. Phil, a wacky local history professor, is leading a late-night walking tour across the Brooklyn Bridge. Meet across from City Hall at 10:30. The subways are probably going to be packed … no, look, God, there’s no one. Three trains south, to the tip of Manhattan, the desolate downtown streets, two handsome college guys buying drugs at Broadway and Fulton, City Hall so white and brilliant it looks like the colonial mother ship set down upon this grey bed of skyscraper nails.

A group of us, about 85, huddled in the sub-freezing street and near-zero wind chill – a woman on a cell phone in a SoHo bar earlier looked up and told the bartender, “It’s 78 fucking degrees in Los Angeles!” – and followed Dr. Phil up Park Row and onto the bridge. He stopped every few hundred feet along the way for the Cliff Notes-Discovery Channel compendium of 1883 bridge facts – they never actually reached bedrock on the Brooklyn side, people were terrified to cross the thing until the builders rode Jumbo the elephant across the roadway – but soon our attentions were drifting and our feet were cold. We began chatting among ourselves about non-historical matters as we stamped our feet on the wooden walkway, wondering aloud what in God’s name we were doing out here.

“I’ve always wondered what kind of people would come out for this on a night like tonight,” said Jerry.

“Well, here we are, lunatics all,” I responded.

Jerry and I talked a lot out there on the bridge. He’s older, maybe pushing 60, small and neat with a salt-and-pepper push-broom moustache that literally swept his lower lip as he spoke. He lives north, up in the Peekskills, and he came down especially for this bridge tour. He had a modest but quick sense of humor, and he surprised me by joking with some trace of envy about the pungent marijuana smoke wafting up the walkway about fifteen minutes before midnight. Look at him, all goofy and old and alone out here. Look at me, all goofy and young. Lunatics all.

Our group was among maybe a thousand shivering out on the bridge, and possibly the only people there who spoke English as a first language. Everyone else seemed to be Russian or east European, and at several points an impromptu band strolled by – guitar, accordion, pipes and cymbals, young Russian men beautiful and slightly ragged, playing songs because that’s simply what they know to do at celebrations. They must have played “Auld Lang Syne” a dozen times this New Year’s Eve, but they made my night when they played my request, and just about the entire bridge sang along:

Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you Is worth savin’ Then you better start swimmin’ Or you’ll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin’.

The view from the bridge is probably the best in the city – Empire, Chrysler, World Trade, Manhattan Bridge (the D train sloughing back and forth like a string of pearls through a straw), East River (which, at night, looks more beautiful – you can’t see the turds and the radioactive sludge floating by), Whitman’s hills of Brooklyn, the inviting void of Staten Island, Miss Liberty ablaze in the harbor. Add to that the artistic beauty of the bridge, its lines and looming accomplishment, and one’s breath is stolen long before the post-blizzard gales grab after it. We kept track of the night’s crucial minutes via the giant clock – a basic electric digital clock, as you’d find outside any Midwestern bank, flashing between time and temperature – on the enormous red neon “Watchtower” sign on the Brooklyn side (yep, the Jehovah’s Witnesses – they own a good chunk of East River property, go figure). As 11:59 surrendered three of its most poignant digits, the bridge erupted in whoops ! and cries of “Happy New Year!” Horns blew, couples kissed, noisemakers made noise, my cell phone rang.

“Happy New Year,” my partner said, calling from back home, where he was waiting out a job before catching up to me here in the new year. He could hear the revelers behind me. “Where are you?”

“I’m on the Brooklyn Bridge,” I said. I noticed I was gripping the north rail, and my face was holding defiantly into the wind. Patches of still water below even looked like chunks of ice. “I’m the king of the world.”

Champagne bottles, which had been chilling in plow drifts, now fired their corks into the new millennium, and the bubbly spilled onto the snow (the only yellow snow actually worth eating, which several revelers did later). I had no champagne, only my pewter hip flask, the monogram nearly invisible behind the tarnish and the smooth surface dented from a decade of faithful service. I drank three toasts to the new age – to life, to life, l’chaim – and the sky exploded in all directions. Fireworks over Central Park. Fireworks over Staten Island, behind Miss Liberty. Fireworks over Brooklyn. Fireworks and smoke rising from Times Square, with the pops and cracks flashing between the buildings and electrifying the staid facades of steel and glass. The city looked like it was shorting out. The Y2K bug was perhaps finally wreaking its apocalypse. Any second now, surely, complete darkness.

But then, from a nearby rooftop, maybe 20 floors up, a lone roman candle – one person, a man, silhouetted against the city, alone on the top of the world. He stood ramrod straight, legs spread, and held his roman candle like the Olympic torch. The green and gold fireballs soared as high as they could before fizzling out and fading away.

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