My Bridge
Steve Katz

Embedded in my gallery of visual nostalgia, like an unforgettable dance movement, is the shallow arc of the span of the George Washington Bridge before the lower roadway was added. It was a mile-long elegant convex gesture of engineering, yoking New Jersey and New York City. My youth never kept me from sitting with the old folks on the terrace at the west end of Jayhood Wright Park to gaze on this phenomenon of grace. It made me sing. It made each day precious. Life turned gross and full of dreary practicality when they built the lower roadway. They also threw up a high-rise to obstruct the view from the terrace. At that time, though we lived far from the Lower East Side, I could lie in bed in the morning and listen to the cry of the ragman. “High cash clothes, high cash clothes,” he chanted as he plied the streets of Washington Heights as if it were way downtown. And there was a knife sharpener who came by less frequently, but sometimes added to the music of my mornings. He rode his bicycle, pulling the carborundum wheel and implements behind. “Scissors sharpened. Knives sharper. Sharp here. Sharp here.” Housewives rushed to meet him with their cutlery in canvas bags. His wheel screeched as sparks and water droplets flew. Then there was Manny who pulled his horse-drawn cart up to the corner of Ft. Washington Avenue and 173rd, and sold vegetables and fruit. Manny was good to the horse, that always had his muzzle in a leather oat bag hung over his ears. My mother wouldn’t go near the beast, and didn’t want me to either. A horse had bitten her when she was a kid, and she lived in fear of them. I worked for Mr. Manny occasionally. He’d give me a penny a delivery to carry bags of vegetables and fruit to the old ladies in apartments around the neighborhood. They fearfully cracked the door and sniffed me out before they opened. Some would tip me, maybe a nickel. We were poor. I was nine. Any money was a lot of money.

Once they hung the lower roadway my childhood slowly coarsened. No cause and effect, except in my private economy. I could hardly look at the bridge anymore. It was dull and clumsy. It was first proof for me that in America commerce trumps beauty.

One day, when I stepped out of my building, a teenager riding a delivery bike, one of those grocery bikes with a big box on two wheels in front, called out, “Hey kid.” He gestured for me to come over. “Want to make a quarter real easy?” A quarter to me was a fortune. “Yeah. What?” “Just come with me. I’ll give you a quarter.” That was six maybe seven egg creams at the Russian’s candy store on Broadway and 173rd. It was two fistfuls of Clark bars. For the quarter I let him lead me into a big building on 173rd and Haven Avenue. The interior was a labyrinth of corridors and turns. I followed him past apartment after apartment till he stopped near the back of the building. Everything around me was beige.

“Okay, kid.” He handed me the quarter. I felt it to be sure it was real, and put it in my pocket. “Close your eyes,” he said.


“All you got to do is hold onto my finger. Close your eyes.”

It seemed very strange. Hold a finger for a quarter? Close my eyes? I was an honest kid. I had his quarter. I held his finger.

“Now I’ll give you another quarter. Keep your eyes closed.”

Four bits? Who was this guy? I had struck it rich, but something was weird. “Now grab my finger again.”

He guided my hand and laid his finger in it, except I knew this wasn’t his finger. It was hot and snaky. I’d never held a snake, but I was sure it felt like this. He moaned a little. I let go when we heard some voices in the hallway. And he sprinted out of there, leaving me alone. He never gave me the second quarter. He was back on his bike when I left the building. He shouted to a friend of his walking up the street, “This kid jerked me off for half a buck.” I wanted to tell him he never gave me the second quarter, but I kept my mouth shut. I was disappointed, humiliated, and ready to go to Broadway for an egg cream at the Russian’s. The experience was traumatic. I’d been exploited, my innocence stolen. But what city kid wants to hold on to innocence? This was a real experience. I learned something. I’m straight as a road in Nevada. I learned that you’ve got to be alert. The delivery boy still owes me two bits, and I’ll never get it. The real trauma was the loss of the beauty of the single-span George Washington Bridge.