March 21, 2011

Gratis

I woke up early this morning and gravitated, as I always do, toward the window.  Clear, crisp, sunny.  The waters of the Hudson, the great North River, incredibly still. A mosaic of blues savoring the calm, waiting for the next ferry or tug to interrupt the stillness.

(Brooklyn Bridge: Gotham Walking Tours)

A windless day; they're rare when you live in Tribeca.  So I race into the shower and out of the house before I lose the moment.  A cup of joe in my hand, and before I know it I'm racing down Chambers, and dodging the traffic plummeting down the West Side Highway.

I've got the urge to reach out and touch New York City history.  I get the proverbial itch often.  That's when I head for the Bridge - the Brooklyn Bridge.

The morning - early morning - is best; avoiding the crowds, I always tell the folks who walk Gotham with me, is paramount.  I cross the plaza off the intersection of Chambers and Centre and empty my pocket change into the outstretched hand of an old Russian woman camped out next to the wonderfully disheveled statue of Horace Greeley.  Greeley's opposite the old Tweed Courthouse now, having been moved, years ago, from his spot outside Park Row's old Tribune Building. 

(John Quincy Adams Ward's Horace Greeley: Gotham Walking Tours)

I see the old woman now and then.  "Babushka Lady"; rotund, weather-beaten, a red checkered scarf tied (a bit too tightly I always worry) into the folds of her double chin.  She acknowledges the gesture.  I nod silently in response.  And then I make my way on to the pedestrian path of the bridge.

It took a little bit of a public relations effort to convince us (we New Yorkers have always been a skeptical bunch), that Roebling's bridge wouldn't tumble beneath us.  Indeed, in the Spring of 1884, P.T. Barnum paraded a herd of twenty-one of his elephants, including the mighty "Jumbo," over the bridge in an effort to demonstrate that the bridge was safe.  It still is.  As solid as ever over one-hundred-and-twenty-five years after the fact.  The same beloved bridge that ushered so many of us to safety as those threatening grey plumes of smoke hovered overhead in September of 2001.

I savor the fact that there are precious few people walking the bridge at this early hour of the morning.  A quick (I hope) detour.  I politely tap a wandering tourist on her arm (the camera is the telltale sign), and suggest that walking on the bicycle path isn't such a good idea; the cyclists have claimed this piece of precious real estate and protect it zealously - very zealously.  She graciously accepts the advice, and asks if I'd be good enough to snap a quick photo.  I oblige.  And, as I always do, chuckle at the fact that I rarely cross the bridge without clicking a photo or two for a visitor.  "What's your favorite angle?" she asks.  That's an easy one.  I set her up in front of the Manhattan anchorage, the cables, suspenders and stays framing the picture, and snap away.  If I had a nickle for every tourist photo I've taken . . . .

The "nickle" part gets me thinking. In 1883, only weeks after the bridge had opened, it cost a mere nickle to ride a cable "bridge train" from one side of the span to the other; a penny if you preferred to walk over.

It's free now.  One of the best deals in town. 

I instinctively bury my hands into my coat pockets; the wind always whips a bit over the bridge.  My pockets are now devoid of any loose change (courtesy of Babushka Lady).  Nickles, dimes, quarters. All gone.  But I have no worries.  I am ... walking ... Gratis.

I revel in the solitude as I saunter over the bridge.

I breath in ... crisp air, the faintest taste of salt from the turbulence of the East River below.

I reminisce ... the pungent smell and sounds of the Fulton Fish Market, now long gone, the empty grey shed a silent witness to its storied past.

I run my hands over the roughness of the granite anchorages as I stroll past ... and walk in the steps of the laborers, like my father, and those long before him, who built this incredible City.

I am ... Gratis.

Lina
Gotham Walking Tours
www.walkingnyctours.com

Walk Gotham!

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