As It Was

August 1, 2011

Despite the presumed character of one in my profession, probably the only physical thing I collect (besides, at this point in my life, grey hairs) is stationary from hotels at which I’ve stayed. To whatever degree, I believe this is sufficient representational memory of a trip that is then, ideally, used for practical purposes and does not long impinge on the valuable New-York-Apartment space required for other things, say, oh, like, food and ironic t-shirts.

Of course, my true collector nature outs in the fact that I no longer pick up pens and pads from chain hotels — there is only so much Best Western scrap paper I need (and the pens are sub-par!). Regional or independent hotels are much preferred, and if they still have matchbooks, well, then, I have to be surreptitious in grabbing handfuls of them from the frontdesk.

I make a differentiation on collection of physical items here because the other thing I unashamedly admit to collecting is running across bridges. There is no memento, no photo, no selection of a commemorative key chain/bottle opener/thermometer. It is just the experience. I’ve always enjoyed bridges; something about the liminality of being on one, but also an appreciation of the ingenuity and know-how required to build such structures.

My home state of Oregon offered many rivers, creeks, and assorted ravines that utilized everything from one-lane, covered bridges to massive 8-lane, mile-long spans across gorges where I had to fight against the wind to make sure my fuel-efficient compact wasn’t pushed into swerving across the parallel lanes. New York offers a similar high frequency of bridges, what with the islands and the inlets and the spaces where the things with this thing we have happen that you would rather not (or really shouldn’t) know about.

For a time most of my running routes were park-bound, and I didn’t really get my first taste of NYC bridges until running the New York Marathon. A number of major (and minor) bridges are closed off to traffic to provide runners the transition points between boroughs, starting with the massive Verrazano arcing from Staten Island to the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, and ending with the more utilitarian seeming Madison Avenue Bridge planking across from The Bronx to Manhattan. Of course that less stellar impression of the last bridge may be a result of not really paying attention to one’s surroundings at that point in the race while focusing on trying to find the physical energy to keep lifting one’s legs and the mental energy to stop wondering how it is going to be possible to make it through another 6 miles. One of the more unique experiences is crossing the 59th Street Bridge, a mile through the lower deck — essentially an enclosed space — with no spectators around. This is about 15 miles into the race, the point when people are starting to realize what they’ve gotten themselves into, and the early chattering and peppy energy is gone. It’s just the echo of heavy breathing and the heavy patting of feet.

For whatever reason, I always had the sense that the marathon would be my only opportunity to be able to cross bridges like these (and that I would have no chance to cross most of the bridges in New York). In my mind, they had been repurposed for cars only (the same way one wouldn’t really go for a walk on a highway), or, because of heightened security, major structures like these would be off-limits to normal access, especially to some oddball like me.

Of late, however, I have been doing much more road running which, in order to accumulate miles, has taken me through little foot-travelled streets and, to my enjoyment, across multiple bridges that I had previously thought had no pedestrian pathway. Among my current favorites is the Manhattan Bridge. Though not particularly beautiful or inaccessible, what I love about it is the way I can see what was. Despite the desertedness, the retro-fitted cement pathway, the cyclone fencing, and the thick graffiti, being on the bridge still has the power to take you back. The viewpoint alcoves, the beaux arts steel work, the long slope up past the brick warehouses of DUMBO and down past the former temples and temple-like banks of Chinatown. This was a bridge, built when such average spans were a marvel, when not so many people drove, and when the idea of an evening promenade in one’s only fancy dress was a decent way to spend a night. The Brooklyn Bridge has preserved and marketed this kind of past. The Manhattan Bridge has hidden it under grime, subway tracks, and safety precautions (perhaps the only example where Brooklyn is considered classier than Manhattan). I’m sure there are old photos and films of the Manhattan Bridge when it was more vibrant, but to me, the the bridge itself is archive enough, a place where I can contemplate and imagine a past I never knew.

In these moments I feel lucky — lucky to live in this place where I can experience an entity like New York and the history it offers, but also lucky to have benefited from historical and archival materials. The reason I can imagine the past and view under the layers of grime is because I have been able to read novels, diaries, and letters and see drawings, photographs, or films from the past. The value of archival materials is not all in the reuse/remix/repurposing of content into MyCreation. There is also value in the internalization of the content, the ingestion and synthesization of information as a means of understanding and envisioning what was, and how what was informs or has resulted in what is. This process creates no flashyviralwebsensation, but it builds layers slowly and assuredly — layers in the individual and, therefore, layers in a society that maintains and engages with history and culture — that appreciates history and culture — and actively utilizes the bridges that lead back to what was and ahead to what will be.

—¬†Joshua Ranger