The legendary Broadway Bridge faced us Urban Mountaineers as the perfect challenge. Lefty Lebbowitz and I had for more than a decade sought out the most magnificent vantages the city had to offer, from the Cloisters' Palisades to the near-impregnable Hilton Hotel rooftop. This obsessive need to "get high" had entwined the best of our comrades, from Homeslice Genel to Bazooka Jerm Pollet. But to climb a city bridge? Every sober consideration railed against it: it is illegal, unnecessary, extremely dangerous, totally absurd. We knew from the outset that we would have to conquer her in broad daylight in order to keep a photographic record, and that we would therefore be in full view of two different boroughs and their respective police forces.
Why the Broadway Bridge? It had sheltered me in my youth, carried us both to high school in Riverdale and was nestled in the heart of my favorite neighborhood, Marble Hill. It would afford a blood-stirring view of old Speuten Duyval, famous juncture of the Harlem and Hudson rivers, with her fissured rock and triplet whirlpools.
But why climb at all? Why risk life and the pleasures of home for the dizzying perils of the sky? Why seek to conquer this great bridge? It is a question mountaineers have been asked for centuries by earthbound souls, and the answer has remained ever the same: because it's there.
We arrived at mid-afternoon, carrying only a camera. We had brought no equipment for this climb, nor would any have been of use. We had dressed as unobtrusively as possible, abandoning our suits for the style of the street, but in arriving we instantly realized that no camouflage could conceal us. The structure of the bridge is skeletal, offering almost no cover. Any pedestrian walking by, any driver at his wheel would see us merely by looking up. We trusted they wouldn't look up. We were counting on it.
The most physically dangerous part of the climb is at the base. The towers of the bridge can only be reached from a discrete point on the sidewalk, some tenth of the way across, where the lip of an access stairway hangs low enough to be jumped at and grabbed, one man at a time. I went first. Hanging from the landing, I was now obliged to place my feet tenuously on the narrow railing of the bridge, beyond which lay a three story drop into the shallows. I took a direct approach onto the landing of the staircase. Lefty took a more serpentine route, and I watched, impotent to help him, as he contorted his body and gained a foothold on the upper railing. Already I had the old feeling in the darkest part of my gut: I knew goddamned well we weren't risking our freedom and our lives just for the sake of yet another view of New York City. There was something in the act itself that compelled us upward, a suicidal madness, a primitive will to self-destruction twisting us beyond the pale of manhood. This recognition had come to late, as always. We would ride out this beast of a plan or be crushed beneath our own weight.
Now on the second tier of the bridge, we craned our necks to survey the structure. No delay could be entertained, with subway trains passing by and cars cruising just below. We were partially exposed already, but every rung would make us more so. I started the climb, brashly if quickly. Before we were quite two stories up, I was disappointed to suddely see that we had crapped out.
"Construction workers!" I shouted down to Lefty. "Three of them! On the other tower!"
There they were, perhaps a hundred yards away, facing us. Three hard-hats enjoying a late lunch in the afternoon sun. They were perched on a girder, feet dangling. What clerkish maintenance had brought them up there, today of all days, to repair the very bridge we had chosen?
"You want to come back another time?" Lefty shouted up to me. "I think we're going to get busted, a hundred percent!"
My eyes narrowed as I stared across at the workmen. They were wrapped u pin conversation and their sandwiches. Their eyes were turned earthward. We could abort then, and be safely on our way, and then those bastards would have won.
"Fuck 'em!" I yelled down to Lefty. "They're not going to see us! They won't look up! Let's keep climbing!"
"We're going to get arrested!" Lefty grumbled, knowing there was no use talking sense to me now.
The Broadway Bridge is low-slung as New York City bridges go. Its towers stretch high into the atmosphere, but its bowels hang no more than thirty feet above the Harlem river. It's illegal to block a federal waterway, so the bridge is designed to clear itself when a tall ship passes through. Instead of splitting itself down the middle like a draw bridge, however, the Broadway uses its Paul Bunyon-like machinery lift its span directly up the towers' rails, flat and parallel to the water below. If you could elude the cops and stay there on the bridge's sidewalk when a tall barge was steaming by, you'd soon find yourself twenty stories in the air.
It was among the support beams of this awesome machinery that Lefty and I now found ourselves climbing. A tall grouping of cables provided only limited cover. The higher we got, the more difficult it became to hold onto the corroded rundles; they became increasingly encrusted with bird droppings. This layer of filth crumbled in our grips, and made the ascent as hazardous as it was disgusting.
When we had climbed as far as we could, we rested. We were now safely hidden within the upper structure of the tower, where the huge apparatus was housed.
It was no time for easy contemplation. We knew that we had, likely as not, been spotted already. The familiar wail of a siren in the distance took on a chilling significance. Lefty and I knew that our city didn't look kindly on the audacity of Urban Mountaineering. We knew from painful experience.
In 1998, Lefty, I and our trusty Cup Brother Jerm had been enjoying the view during another daylight raid, this time on the roof of Grand Central Station. Then, as now, we had been counting on the famous apathy of our fellow New Yorkers. It had been a mistake.
The alarm had been sounded. Four screaming fire trucks were pulling onto the curb below as three brave plainclothes cops stepped out onto the Grand Central roof to apprehend us. When they got us inside we were amazed to discover that some two dozen uniformed police had come along to respond to the emergency.
Youth and sound legal counsel had gotten us off then. This time, Lefty and I knew, we were adults and recidivists. There's no such thing as clemency when you're pinched twice for the same crime. For a few heartbeats the threat of capture now loomed so terrible as to banish from our minds all other subjects, including the effects on the human body of a two hundred foot drop onto subway tracks.
We kept silent for a moment, there in the attic of the city, bracing ourselves against the wind that rose up from the water. I clung to the girders and eased myself forward to the edge of the concrete flooring to look down at the river, the train tracks and the northernmost tip of Manhattan Island. Of course, I saw none of this, but saw instead the limits of my existence. One small step forward now take me out of the housing of these ancient, slumbering machines, out of the sights and smells and sounds of the profane world into a sacred space, an invisible circle, empty but for death itself.
I looked at Lefty, and he nodded to me. We were in a church of sorts, whose walls wer the whole of the horizon, whose aisle was the long, lazy curve of the river, whose congregation was the greatest and most diverse people on the face of the earth, the people of Manhattan and the Bronx.