Thursday, October 1, 2009


North Tonawanda is like borscht: frequently cold and often sour.  It's also a city of bridges: within walking distance of the white house on Sweeney, there were two large train bridges; five bridges that carried automobiles (including the dual spans of the Twin Cities Memorial Highway, a grandly named boondoggle painted light avocado, a four lane road to nowhere); and an ancient rigid frame bridge -- too weak to support car traffic, too expensive to demolish -- bearing large signs warning "For Pedestrians Only!"  Add to that the four nearby Grand Island Toll Bridges, the great silver hump of the Robinson Street Extension, and the various road and rail bridges connecting industrial Tonawanda Island to the mainland, and our little enclave of church bells and paper mills was home to more than twenty bridges.

      I've been on all of them.

     I've stood at the center of the old bascule bridge, one foot in Tonawanda, one foot in good old N.T., and peered through the honeycombed steel deck to the grey-green canal water below.  "Bascule" means "to lift through use of counterweights"; in my little kid mind, Mr. Bascule was some old and venerable City Father, like John Sweeney or William Vandervoort or Colonel Payne, the Civil War hero.  Truman Lafleur, somehow related to my father, was the bridge operator.  He sat in a small white tower and on those rare occasions that a boat too tall for the bridge wanted canal access, he'd blow a warning horn and drop the traffic barriers, pull a few levers, and lift the bridge.  Once he let me into the tower.  I felt like I'd been admitted to Mount Olympus.

    I've inched across the railroad bridges, too, sneakered feet rabbit hopping from tie to tie, the open spaces showing nothing but stone abutment and water, water that was Way Far Down, and I shook and sweated and worried that my glasses would slide off my face and be lost in the Erie mire, convinced that nothing in Tonawanda was worth this fear, and convicted that I would never do this again.  My brothers crossed those bridges like they were sidewalks, fearless as Mohawk ironworkers setting rivets on a Manhattan skyscraper.  Fearless was never me.

Bridges are an interesting reflection of community.  Nothing in North Tonawanda matches the Golden Gate, which looks as if it rose one morning from the sea and planted itself on the Marin rocks, a work made without hands, a force of nature, or the Brooklyn, all graceful lines, a symmetry of stone and steel cable, venerable and elegant.  Our bridges were for getting across.  And if there were distinguishing features -- the bascule's tower, the enormous and never used counterweight on the train bridge -- they were anachronistic, quirky, and just a tad weird.  Like us.

Or they were unabashedly, proudly, triumphantly weird, full of crazy-eyed outrage, like the graffiti on the train bridge near the old Sperry Rand plant:

I don't know Dan Hunt, and I cannot vouch for his thievery, mendacity, or perversion.  What I do know is that someone has been a thief, liar + perv since I was in grade school, but it hasn't always been poor Dan.  The offender's name keeps getting scraped out and replaced: Dan Hunt is one of a long line of thieves, liars + pervs.

Bridges constantly remind you that you are apart, separated from the larger world, that without their connecting tie, you'd be lost, walking circles in your isolation, colder than you need to be, more sour than you ought to be, small, weak and alone.

Tomorrow, an update on the Family History bridges I'm building.

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