Once More Over the Bridge: May 24, 2008

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07/01/2008

Brooklyn Bridge, 10002

Neighborhood: Multiple, On the Waterfront

I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge on my last day of classes. It was a beautiful day in May. I had walked over the bridge many mornings this year, dropping my daughter at her school in Brooklyn Heights and continuing to work. I teach the essay to first-year college students and it is a good opportunity to see the city I was born in through their eyes, as if for the first time.

In “Here is New York” E.B. White described three New Yorks: one for those who were born here, one for those who commute here, and one for those who moved here seeking something. I live in the first one and my students in the third. The third, he wrote, is the best: the city as “final destination.” I may give the city “continuity,” but they give it “passion.” I accept its idiosyncrasies as natural, but they see it with “fresh eyes.” Sometimes, though, walking over the bridge can make me feel like both kinds of New Yorkers at once.

To walk over the bridge is to pass faux lanterns, to glimpse rough waters underneath your feet, to follow the weaving path of bolts that look like they were hammered in by hand. On the other side is aspirational Manhattan: corporate headquarters greet you as you step onto concrete. Over the winter the walk was blustery and cold. Hands in pockets, I would hunch against the wind. The bridge fit into this setting: steel gray, pale stone, the water below dark and fierce. Its arches reach up to the sky like trees, but foreshadow the buildings to come. They form two narrow doorways to the city ahead, pointing upward and dangerously high and sharp. A metaphor.

I walked rain or shine. Once I walked across with my umbrella until I realized it wasn’t really raining at all. I noticed that the bridge’s beams were really a pinkish beige like sea shells and it was the water that looked like steel. I put away my umbrella and was overwhelmed with silvery sky, wide, open vistas of air and space. Mid-semester, slumped in their seats, my students were tired of unifying imagery and hot words and endings-that-brought-their-beginnings-to-a-new-place. I told them about walking over the bridge that morning and the awe of the open sky above. “Look up!” I told them. “Look for the big picture. Bring some blue sky into your writing.” I’ll say it again.

They do look. One student wrote that in his essays White used the passing of time in nature to illuminate the passing of generations. A dragonfly still hovers over the rowboat White shares with his son, and he had once shared with his father, in “Once More to the Lake,” so that “there had been no years.” Father and son fish together, but White is not sure who is holding the rod: which father? Which son? White’s city was before me, the same and different, old and new. Who is holding this pen?

Today, the bridge exceeds any lifespan. At 125 years, it is older than my students, older than me, older than White. There will be other students, other eyes. White had nature to show how change happens –to us, through us, despite us. We New Yorkers have a bridge: a mountain of stone rooted in earth and directing our eyes upward, a web of steel reaching backwards and forwards. Right now there is another solid blue, cloudless sky over the bridge. Go look.

 

Victoria Olsen teaches expository writing at New York University.

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