Stairway to Heaven

by John Blasing

 

“Dad why is that bridge always standing up?” I can still remember my trips to IGA – as East Side Marketplace was once known – when growing up and seeing that metal behemoth rising in the distance in all its glory like a stairway to heaven. I always waited to see it lowered, but my dream would never be realized – every visit to IGA inevitably resulted in seeing it in its raised state as it always was, stuck in a different time. To the Department of Transportation, it is The Seekonk River drawbridge S.S. K-315. Colloquially, we all know it as the “standing bridge”. Anyone who has lived on the East Side of Providence can recognize its lonely silhouette rising in a single testament to the gods over the Seekonk River, separating East Providence from the East Side.

As a resident of the East Side from birth, I felt it my civic duty to visit this enigmatic landmark of a bygone era, after my four years of study at the university outside of Providence in the American West and Colorado. My friend – a fellow East Sider – wanted to accompany me on my first trip to the bridge. I’ll call him Dean in testament to Jack Kerouac, as he can’t seem to do anything without adding an illegal component to it (after all, I just wanted to take pictures of the view on my Nikon. He wanted to spray paint).

I walked from my house on Benefit Street on a late winter afternoon with the shadows growing longer, meeting him – literally step for step – on the corner of Ives and Power after he procured the tools of his artistic mayhem from Utrecht, now stored safely in his North Face. With the moon rising in the twilight sky over the East Side, I knew it was a picturesque moment. We walked down the last block of Power Street, crossing Gano Street into a parking lot passing empty baseball fields that brought back Little League memories of getting to third base, when it had no other connotations. Now covered with snow, those fields seemed lost in the years of my memory.

We walked past the dugouts covered with graffiti and headed over a small hill onto a surface made muddy by the recent thaw. We chose our steps carefully, not wanting to get muddied. I felt like Indiana Jones in the temple scene of The Last Crusade, choosing my steps carefully lest I fail to, “choose wisely”, and thus sink deeper into the muck.

Once we came over the ridge and reached the railroad tracks, Dean said it simply.

“Ah! The bridge.” I looked ahead following the straight lines of the railway tracks, seeing the industrial masterpiece rising before my eyes toward the heavens. I snapped a picture, and we headed down the tracks toward our destiny. I thought of what this bridge is – perfectly preserved in our modern era, symbolizing the time when things were built to last. I looked into the future, for a fleeting moment. ‘So this is what it will look like,’ I thought, ‘What the end of the American Empire – if it ever is to come – will look like. Monuments to the prosperous past – the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. – will stay suspended in mid-air, in lonely desuetude – forever left to the elements’. During my summers in Turkey as a child I had traveled through the ruins of the Roman and Ottoman empires enough to realize that even the greatest of empires must eventually fall. My favorite saying came to mind – “all good things must end”.

We came to the end of the land and reached the portion of the railroad tracks that stood over water. Beneath us, between the wooden trusses of the railway, I could see a man and a woman on the shore and heard the sound of a chain. I heard it and looked down. I couldn’t see any animal beneath us, and realizing it was not a leash I immediately looked up ahead of me again. I don’t want to be the one that knows too much. Dean took the lead, and prudently walked above an iron support beam where the wooden trusses were nailed with strong bolts to the metal beneath it. “Lets not walk on the wood directly – it may not be stable.” He told me logically. I agreed – after all it had snowed a lot recently – not to mention the exposure these beams had seen since the bridge’s 1908 construction. We continued across the bridge, our feet following one another in single file, between the wood on the right and the iron of the railway on the left. As we continued over the water the wind picked up, we eventually started walking hunched down, our hands on the ground in the reversed phases of evolution – from walking upright to walking on all fours, as if the wind would blow us over. My gloveless left hand clutched the iron bar of the railway, while my equally exposed right hand moved along the decaying wood, avoiding splinters. We continued in this manner across the bridge, with Dean occasionally issuing a warning, “This wood is unstable,” or, “don’t step on this beam.” We continued, both equally afraid of heights, even if our fear was slightly unfounded – the gaps between the trusses were not wide enough for us to fall through.

We made it to the relative safety of the separation of the bridge, and our reward was a view of the art gallery that is the Seekonk River Bridge. Colorful graffiti adorned the rusted iron of the raised portion of the bridge ahead of us, created by modern-day Picassos and Pollocks. It was beautiful, as only the daring of urban artistry can be. Spray paint covered even the portions of the bridge which were not near any trusses-obviously made my mortals much braver than I. Dean urged me to crawl under the raised portion of the bridge in order to see the opposite shore more clearly. I declined – he may be one to confront risks head on – I am not one to sit comfortably beneath who knows how many tons of metal that could crash on my head without warning. He respected my choice and set down the black backpack which he had carried, un-zippering the second compartment and taking out a neon-green canister of paint. I sat on the tresses, looking at the land of the East Side, the safety of my home, which I had left in this endeavor to adventure. Beneath my New Balance shoes, I could see the cold grey water flowing. I felt shivers in my spine, suspended as I was on a bridge that was now a century old above the frigid abyss. I buttoned the back pocket of my J Crew khakis. I didn’t want to lose my wallet! My mind moved to my right pocket – my keys. My hand trembled as I reached in, not wanting to make a sudden move and lose them forever. I felt the outside of my thigh slowly, patiently, softly, like a lover. I grasped the keys sure-handedly. I slowly pulled my hand out, and reached across the bridge to my friend.

“Take these,” I said, “put them in your bag – I don’t want to lose them.”

“You won’t drop them, but OK.” He said, reaching his hand out to meet mine. We completed the exchange as he dropped them into the North Face’s front pocket. I then realized my Blackberry was still in my left pocket. ‘Oh well, its fine,” I thought. ‘Numbers can be replaced – a home can’t. Plus, I don’t want to act any more nervous than I already am.’ The irony of my fear of heights came to mind. How many times have I walked down a sidewalk no more wide than these railway trusses and not faltered – how many times have I sat down without losing something from my pockets? Yet here, suspended in mid-air, I was suddenly, irrationally, startled. I slid my camera from my breast pocket and grasped it with all my strength.

As Dean worked on his infinite canvas that is the bridge, I snapped pictures of my neighborhood from a lonely view. The sun had set over the East Side, as the moon was rising behind me over East Providence. It was the perfect moment of one ending coinciding with another beginning, the delicate transition of day to night, dark taking the place of light. I sat there, the wind blowing through my hair and taking it all in. It was windier over the middle of the river. It was a cool mid-winter wind, but it was also comforting. Maybe it was the knowledge that we would soon make our way back across the bridge and back onto solid ground that comforted me, I have no idea. Dean soon finished up his work, and we promised to come back soon, hopefully with some ladies. He packed up his materials.

“You want to lead?” I ventured. “Sure, why not?” He said. Slipping the black backpack on, he headed on in front. We continued as we had come, on all fours this time in the correct path of evolution, rising more confidently as we approached the shore. We stopped for a moment in the middle of the bridge, and took pictures against the backdrop of the raised drawbridge and East Providence behind us. After this brief stop, we continued toward the shore. I concentrated on not falling, hands grasping cold metal and soft, splintery wood, occasionally hearing the crack of decaying wood beneath my feet. I heard voices. Ahead of me Dean was speaking to a fellow bridge visitor.

“What?” I called out into the twilight. “Nothing,” was the reply. I heard him laugh. I looked up as I continued on all fours to see a man calmly walking as any one would down fifth avenue or the along the banks of the Thames even, in measured steps, across the wooden railway tresses. “I’m taking some pictures,” he said calmly. I had reached the end and jumped up in joy at being back on solid ground, like a man emerging from the waters. Dean and I felt foolish at our fear watching the stranger walk on in calm solitude toward the “art gallery” in the dusk, but we didn’t care. We had done it. How we did it couldn’t matter – it was the fact that we had done it.

We continued through the overgrowth down the tracks in the snow. It was deeper here – the sun couldn’t penetrate through nature. It had become dark, and we could no longer see clearly. We shielded our eyes from the vines, weeds, branches poking at our legs, bodies, faces. We waited apprehensively for a bum to accost us. It never happened. Eventually we reached the iron doors of the East Side Railway tunnel, long ago sealed off. The end of the road, we felt dejectedly. If only I could follow the railroad tracks forever, in to the future!

We walked up the slippery hill. I grasped the stone walls of the tunnel to my right, as Dean pushed me from behind (his snow boots had better traction than my New Balances). We got to the top – only to be confronted by a chain link fence. So close, yet so far I thought. Yet just before desperation could set in, we saw that only ten feet to our left was a parking lot. Yes! The parking lot of my physical therapist! It was all coming full circle.

And we emerged onto Gano Street, two of us, from the depths of history into modern-day civilization! We high-fived a triumphant high-five to celebrate our conquest. We must have looked demented coming out of the bush, but we didn’t care. We walked up Charlesfield street, away from the traffic of Gano. Dean was going to his girlfriend’s house, I was going home. We high-fived again, at the corner of Charlesfield and Brook, and he walked off. I walked in the opposite direction towards Benefit, contemplating my day in urban decay in my city, my home, my neighborhood, the East Side of Providence.

 

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