Brooklyn Bridge at night

Yes I did. I once sold the Brooklyn Bridge. Made about twelve hundred bucks on the deal. I know that doesn’t sound like a whole lot for the first and what is still the most beautiful major suspension bridge in the world, but it was split three ways, you see. It’s like this:

For about two and a half years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s I had a job as a bridge oiler for the Department of Transportation. Seems there’s lots to oil and grease on bridges; expansion joints, roller bearings, the main cable anchorages and plenty of other places. On the very top of these bridges where the giant cables pierce the towers of the bridge, they pass through a vat of fish oil as they slide back and forth, maybe six inches this way and six that way depending on the heat or cold. The bridges do move, you know. They expand and contract with the weather and also twist and sway in the wind.

Not that you’d notice the movement on these massive structures, it’s pretty much imperceptible. You would notice immediately if they didn’t move and sway and expand and contract, though. They’d snap apart and fall into the river with you and your car. That’s never a good thing. Ask the good people in Minnesota who had a bridge fall into the Mississippi recently. Hence the importance of a well-oiled bridge.

Anyway, on my particular crew were myself and two other men. We were assigned to the East River Bridges, The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensborough. We’d spend a week on each bridge, covering the four of them every month and then starting over, greasing, oiling and trying to avoid falling into the East River. The want-ad for the job specified you had to have no fear of heights. I never gave it much thought one way or the next so I said no and got the job. Lucky for me it turned out to be true, the heights didn’t bother me.

I really liked the job, climbing all over these giant bridges in all kinds of weather, getting a birds-eye view of New York City from a distinctly odd-ball perspective. What I didn’t like about the job was the fact that three of the four bridges I worked on were falling apart. You had to step gingerly in a lot of places since much of the steel was rusted right through. There were places where you’d grab what seemed like a sturdy beam and it would crumble in your hand like a fistful of potato chips. Other places you saw a giant upright steel girder all painted and solid looking except when you poked your finger in a rust spot it went right through it. Disconcerting, to say the least.

When I first got the job the Physical Engineer that was our boss gave me a blueprint showing a hatchway that led to a catwalk. The catwalk led to some roller bearings high above the streets on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge. I found the hatch alright, but when I lifted it the whole thing came off in my hand. I peered down to where the catwalk was supposed to be and saw only a half dozen rusty supports that used to hold the catwalk. There was no evidence of any ladder down to the catwalk either. So much for that assignment. I reported this to the engineer and asked him when we could expect it to be replaced. He laughed and crossed that job off our work schedule.

It seems the Agency for which we toiled put a low priority on bridge repairs and maintenance. I soon found out they put a similarly low priority on worker safety. We had a hard time scrounging up grease guns, oil sprayers, fittings and grease and oil itself, the lubricants these behemoths desperately need to stay limber and useful. We oilers were not unique. The steel workers were constantly short of rivets and steel beams to repair these steel structures. The electricians and plumbers and all the bridge workers were similarly equipment-challenged.

I stopped wondering why they made me, the new guy, the safety officer for my section when I found out there was literally no safety equipment. Department regulations mandated hard hats, safety harnesses, walky-talkies, special gloves to grip the slick steel, goggles and orange day-glow vests. Of these items we got the orange vests, period. A few guys who were there for years had some old safety harnesses in their lockers, as good a place as any for something that is worn out and useless. So you had to be careful out there, very careful indeed. It’s a long way down to the river, or worse, the streets.

At least it was that way for three out of every four weeks. The Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensborough bridges were accidents waiting to happen, crumbling wrecks that carried thousand of cars, cars, buses, trucks and subway trains every day. Sometimes in a high wind when traffic was heavy and a train or two was rumbling over the bridge you felt the whole thing shudder and shake like a drunk after a stiff belt of red eye and you just hoped and prayed this wasn’t the day when the damned thing hit the river with you hanging over the side.

Since I worked on these structures the city has had to almost completely rebuild three of the four East River Bridges, spending billions in the process, and none too soon if you ask me. A different agency is in charge of them now. At the time I‘m referring to, The Department of Transportation was a cesspool of corruption and the head guy, Donald Manes wound up killing himself to avoid the indictments and convictions that found many of his cronies. The reason there was no grease or steel or rivets or safety harnesses was that the guys in charge of the agency were stealing all the dough, far beyond the limits of decency. Okay, I understand you’re a bigshot and there’s big money everywhere and the temptation to skim some off is great. But these guys put my skinny butt in danger, no big loss some might think. But they also put thousands and thousands of commuters in the very real danger of taking an unplanned dip in the river.

Well, that’s all water under the bridge now. Our crew was eliminated by the agency before the grease hit the fan but I’m assuming the new agency in charge has hired oilers and supplied the steel workers with extra steel and rivets and maybe a harness or two. And kept up on the painting of the bridges, I would hope, which is never finished, by the way. Never. The surest way to make these bad boys last forever is to keep them painted and lubricated, otherwise the salt air from our ocean breezes rusts the steel and corrodes the slip joints and then the structure can’t move freely and it warps and cracks. I’m a close-up witness to that. I drive over these things all the time and some of my tax dough was part of the many billions that went in to rebuilding them, so I hope they’ve learned their lesson.

The fourth East River Bridge (or rather, the first one) is one they did not have to rebuild. It was built so well in the first place that it didn’t rust and fall into disrepair, corrupt overseers or not. The guy who designed it, John Roebling, had to satisfy a whole world of skeptics before the thing was built. Don’t forget, this bridge opened in 1883 and the work on it commenced in the 1870’s, a time when there were no giant cranes or dredging machines or power tools or bulldozers or any of the modern equipment we now take for granted on our big building projects. When the Bridge was finished it was the tallest structure in North America.

It was a huge undertaking for the technology of the day, a radical adventure that Mr. Roebling had to make happen or there wouldn’t be another large suspension bridge built for a very long time. So he over-designed it, building in a safety factor of something like 34 to 1. That means the bridge he designed was thirty four times stronger than it had to be. The spider-web cables woven from the main cables to the deck of the bridge that add so much to its beauty are actually unnecessary. They were supposed to stabilize it from lateral sway but if you notice, no other great bridge of its kind has them. Window dressing to keep the top-hat guys from City Hall happy.

So my week a month on the Brooklyn Bridge was one of relative safety. The fittings and roller bearings and catwalks were all still intact and functioning just fine and the extra hard steel used in the construction of the bridge has stood the test of time. The only thing that has had to be replaced regularly are the wooden planks on the fabled walkway that still spans the center of the bridge and where one of the best views of Manhattan’s breathtaking skyline can be enjoyed any time of the day or night. It is still the most beautiful bridge in the world to me.

On that walkway my sister-in-law Tina and brother-in-law Paul were married at sunrise one beautiful summer morning. They had only two witnesses, a preacher and a Russian accordion player squeezing out gypsy music at the orange dawn. How romantic is that? I took many a lunch hour stroll on that broad promenade meeting people from all over the world, all of them instantly in love with what I came to refer to in my mind as “My Bridge.” I knew every nook and cranny of her but my favorite spot was the wooden bench-lined walkway. It was directly beneath that walkway where I sold the Bridge.

About 20 feet below the walkway is a catwalk for workers also running the entire length of the bridge. You’ve probably driven by it a thousand times. It divides the two roadways and is strung with heavy, thick electric cables beside the walkway, artfully draped like the bridge cables themselves, but only in twelve foot spans between supports. My fellow crewmen and I, who I’ll call Joe and Walter since those are their names, never gave much thought to the cables or what they might be for. That is until one day Joe noticed that one of them had been cut and about a couple of hundred yard section of it was missing.

That was odd. Who would do such a thing? Our guess was the electricians. Nobody else would cut a three-inch thick electric cable and expect to survive. We guessed that one of them figured out the cable was no longer in use. We also knew there was no work order outstanding to remove the dead cable, since in our fairly small world everybody sort of knew what everyone else was up to. We double-checked since all the current work orders were posted on a bulletin board back at the shop. Sure enough, no such work order existed. What to do, what to do…

To the hacksaws, men! It was Joe’s idea. He collected and sold scrap metal as a sideline and informed us that copper was at an all-time high just then. So for about an hour a day for that week we cut four-foot lengths of copper cable, enough to fill the trunks of all three of our cars. Every day on the way home we stopped at a scrap metal yard and sold the day’s take, hundred of bucks per haul. We didn’t think of it as stealing, only as beating the electricians to the punch. They had already removed the lion’s share of the half-mile long cable since we discovered that it was completely gone from the opposite side of the bridge from where we were working.

We didn’t worry about the bosses either since we had exactly no direct supervision. As long as the bridge was oiled when they came to inspect our work every couple of months or so, we were pretty much left to our own devices. We oiled everything we were supposed to, especially on the Brooklyn Bridge where your life was in not as much danger as on the other three.

As for myself, my love affair with the bridge motivated me to take extra good care of her, whereas my work on the other three bridges was done as a sort of grudging duty to try to keep the parts that still worked from rusting like the rest of the structures. It was always a relief to drive off those bridges at the end of the day, hoping that the damned things wouldn’t collapse on your watch or you wouldn’t fall through some flimsy catwalk into the river tomorrow. When they laid us all off it was a drag to lose a good-paying job but somewhat of a relief not to be playing Russian Roulette for a living.

But the Brooklyn Bridge I missed, without a doubt. I’ll never forget eating my lunch on one of the four traveling platforms that glide noiselessly beneath the bridge, suspended on rollers and run by a silent electric motor. It was like being in a blimp far above the East River. We’d roll one out to the center of the bridge beneath the roadways and watch the harbor traffic, or the comings and goings on Governor’s Island, at the time a Coast Guard base. It was a surreal experience, the only sound being the slight whizzing of cars above you. New York harbor is breathtakingly beautiful, and busier than you might think if you study it for a while, but the doings on waterways are a stately business, almost slow-motion and graceful. And from far above it on our narrow steel perch it was a mesmerizing show, one I’ll never forget.

Every time I drive over that bridge or see her from a distance in all her glory I think of that. And I’ll never forget that once I sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

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