Anybody Out There Afraid of Bridges?
You don’t forget your first time.
It was just over a year ago. I was driving to New York to visit my youngest brother, lost in thought and listening to Newark’s WBGO, the kind of radio station Philadelphia should have, a soulful-jazz-bluesy station that’s not afraid to stretch the definition of any one particular genre for the sake of the overall sound. [SIGNUP]
(Speaking of WBGO, you definitely ought to check out Felix Hernandez, who was born and raised in Philly—you can tell from the songs he plays. He spins from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, wbgo.org.)
But I so digress.
I’ve been a driver for a long time and I like to think of myself as a relatively smooth operator behind the wheel. I don’t make sudden moves. Little upsets me. On trips of any length, I stay in the flow of traffic, lay off the cell phone, mentally sort through life’s priorities big and small and listen to my tunes. I like the solitude.
I was in my typical la-la driving zone as I approached the Verrazano Bridge—which, as you probably know, is a really big double-decker bridge that connects a couple of the boroughs. In fact, I later learned, it’s the eighth-largest suspension bridge in the world and was NYC’s last great public works projects overseen by Robert Moses. It opened in 1964.
The Verrazano, though no Golden Gate, is quite the wonder. I’d been over it a whole bunch of times before and just kind of took it for granted, like you do a lot of things about New York, like H&H Bagels and knock-off purses for cheap.
I was about a quarter of the way across the Verrazano when I first noticed something starting to happen—a slight anxious feeling, followed by a quickening heartbeat, perspiration. Okay, what’s this? By the time I was halfway across, I was in a full-metal jacket fight for sanity—gulping for air, rolling the windows down, then back up, blasting the radio, then turning it off, arms ramrod straight on the wheel, eyes straight ahead, focused on sheer survival.
Then, just seconds after getting to the other side and through the E-ZPass Lane, it was over as quickly as it started. A few miles later, I was back in my la-la driving zone, with a funny story to tell my brother about what happened to me on the ride. The laughs, I knew, would run deep and long about this one.
But much as I tried to shrug it off as a weird synapse of unknown origin—did I eat enough before I left?—there was already a nagging question I couldn’t shake: Would it happen again?
What’s important to note is that I’m not a phobic type—no fear of flying, or heights, or tunnels or elevators. Not claustrophobic, no fear of crowds, or even, best I can tell, any gratuitous fear of dying. Being Irish and from a big family, I always felt genetically and culturally apart from the phobic crowd. My mother’s reaction to every challenge or misfortune—from getting cut from the basketball team to being dropped by a girlfriend to having to give a speech in front of the class—was always the same: up and over, bub.
Which made this Verrazano weirdness and the cases that followed—because, yes, it did happen again, and again—all the more puzzling.
I’ve tried to understand this terribly tiresome bridge phobia. I’ve talked to friends, many of whom are writers, an occupation that may well lead the league in imagined dread. I heard stories about all the garden-variety phobias—fear of flying and public speaking being the most common. But I also heard one or two that were truly out there.
One writer friend who lives in New York told me he had to stop taking the subway for fear that he was going to shout an ethnic or racial slur in a crowded subway car. He told how he would sit with his head down, break out in a cold sweat and literally have to bite his tongue until it bled to keep from shouting something so hideously nasty that it would no doubt have led to a public pummeling. “It’s the fear of doing the worst possible thing you could do in that situation,” he told me, kind of stating the obvious. “I was pretty sure it wouldn’t really happen but I couldn’t take the chance. So I take cabs.”
I’ve read a good bit about the fear of bridges in the past year or so and have learned that it’s not all that unusual. It even has a name—gephyrophobia. Typically, experts say, it emanates from fear of enclosure, or the fear of heights, or about being in an accident or losing control of the car.
Well, okay, thanks, but I could have figured all that out on my own pretty easily, and besides none of those fears rings particularly true to me.
“You don’t have a fear of bridges,” another writer friend told me, a guy who himself has more phobias than Carl Greene has troubles. “You’re afraid of your reaction to crossing one. The worst thing you can do is give into it.”
I wouldn’t. And I don’t. I’ve been to the Shore a few times this summer and have made it safely back and forth across the Walt Whitman each time. A little sweaty for the experience, maybe, but still. (The Ben Franklin looms a little more fearsome for no reason that seems rational. But then rational is hardly the right word to describe any of this.)
There’s a short story by John Cheever called “The Angel of the Bridge.” It’s about a guy who’s so afraid of bridges he fears he’ll end up in a psychiatric ward of a county hospital, screaming that the bridges, “all the bridges in the world,” are falling down.
One night, just as he’s about to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, he panics and pulls over. A young girl, a hitchhiker, jumps into the car. The girl is a folksinger, and to prove it she sings him a pretty song. He begins to drive across the bridge.
“She sang me across a bridge that seemed to be an astonishingly sensible, durable, and even beautiful construction designed by intelligent men to simplify my travels, and the water of the Hudson below us was charming and tranquil. It all came back—blue-sky courage, the high spirits of lustiness, an ecstatic sereneness.”
I’ve been reading that particular passage a lot of late and something about the “blue-sky courage” makes me want to head for a bridge, feel the “ecstatic sereneness” and test out my new Cheever attitude.
Having somebody sing to me as I cross would be nice too, but I’m trying to be reasonable here.
I’ll soon have my test. It’s just about time to visit my brother again in New York. The Verrazano awaits. I could avoid it. But I won’t.
Up and over, bub.
Tim Whitaker (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.